THE WORD ON THE .NET

Writer T. James' Exploration of Words, on the Internet.

Self-Publication: The Floodgates Aren’t Open Yet—But They Will Be, Soon.

Since I self-published my first eBook in March this year there has been around 200,000 books added to Amazon’s Kindle eBook store; that’s over 65,000 new titles per month. If my guess is correct, then this may only be the start and the floodgates have yet to open.

It was a recent email from a writer friend of mine that started me thinking:

The translation: to “pull a McHugh” refers to self-publishing your novel—the stunt recently (and successfully) pulled by a mutual friend of ours. This is the million-dollar question on so many writer’s lips: “Do I continue to submit my manuscripts to agents and the traditional publishers despite many rejections, or do I end the waiting and self-publish?” I’ve been party to several exchanges like this in the past year, and if they are happening in my little corner of the internet you can bet they are happening in almost every corner.

The impact could be huge. Many writers have been trying to break into the world of traditional publishing for years with little or no success but, being writers, they’ve never stopped writing. Some refusals are because the stuff churned out is guff, but there is plenty of high quality work that has yet to see daylight because it was deemed a likely commercial flop by increasingly cautious agents and traditional publishers. As these disenchanted writers watch their peers taking the self-publishing plunge I wonder how many will be able to resist the temptation—and let readers decide what they like.

Some writers are already concerned that their work will be swept away in the flood of new titles, and from what I can see the situation is only going to get worse. Publishing houses are releasing their back catalogues—decades of A-list authors’ past titles. There will soon be no such thing as ‘out-of-print’. Between the indies and the establishment the battle of the back catalogues has already started.

The numbers of new authors is also set to increase. The blessing, and the curse, of self-publishing is that it is so easy. The internet, blogging and social networking have opened the doors wider to individual self-expression than at any time in history. Finding a voice via the written word is now commonly accepted as normal, and the leap from scribbling to publication has never been smaller. For many, simply the idea of becoming an author will be enough to make them dive in. For others it may take more of a push. The current socio-economic climate has seen hundreds of thousands of articulate individuals becoming unemployed. Most have an adequate to excellent command of language and access to the internet and a computer—the minimum requirements for self-publication—and with the high profile stories in the media of writers who have made millions self-publishing, ‘having a go’ at writing your own book will be irresistible to some.

For readers, this means a bonanza of choice—writing is now as open as all other art forms, and the variation in quality, creativity and price will only grow. For writers, it will make it increasingly more difficult to get their work noticed, but the only other alternative may be to leave their manuscripts languishing on their computer’s hard-drive. The dam burst is getting closer and there is nothing that readers, writers, publishers, or agents can do except ride the wave, or sink.

So, what do you think? How do you go about finding the gems you want to read amongst the over one million titles that are already available? Do you welcome the opening of the floodgates and rejoice in the choice, or do you bemoan the pummelling all the flotsam, jetsam and dross will give quality writing? If you are a writer, are you going to continue pursuing the traditional routes or are you going to take the plunge? How are you going to make sure you stand out? Please feel free to scribble a comment below…

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18 Comments

  1. It’s a changing world of publishing, for sure. I haven’t ruled it out for myself since self-publishing is losing some of the stigma once associated with it. As for the flood-gates, I believe in survival of the fittest. Book networking sites like Goodreads help readers find the true gems. These sites will become even more important as more books get self-published.

    • It’s taking some time, but I agree – the stigma of self-publishing is shifting, slowly. In terms of the present market, there are a proportion of indie eBooks that have higher production values than some of the output from the traditional publishing houses. Given the budgets and staff teams available to the big six, and the prices that are often charged, I don’t see how this is excusable. It seems in the rush to get the back catalogue out, presentation isn’t always considered important.

      You make a good point about book review sites – they provide a quick look at what’s available which is useful for busy readers. Sites like Goodreads have the advantage for writers that it isn’t just one reviewer’s opinion that lauds or damns a book, and they give writers another way of gaining exposure and a following…

  2. Ummm… I’m wondering who coined the phrase ‘pulled a McHugh’? :-)

    I wouldn’t have said I was successful, not at the moment. Hopefully one day. Going it alone is hard work and on some days incredibly depressing.

    The trick appears to be: get an excellent cover, have good people support it and hope like hell that it catches on. I have 2 of those and maybe a little of the 3rd.
    If you ever want to discuss it with me, I’m always available to people who almost make me into an internet Meme. :-)

    • Presumably, the originator of the phrase “pulled a McHugh” was your wife? ;-)

      Successful is a relative term, and Crimes Against Magic has been in double figures in the Amazon rankings – so it’s not doing badly…

      Your selection of the cover artist: http://www.eamonart.com/ was a good one as his style is a great fit for the genre of the book – so good advice. As for finding good people, I confess to polishing my halo daily, but only because it needs it.

      As for being a meme – whatever happened to ‘trend’, or ‘concept’, or ‘idea’? Meme sounds a little too much like, “Me me! Everyone look at me, me!” You don’t want to be one of those. Anyway, my word for the day is curmudgeon – ‘cos that’s what I’ve decided to be. ‘Meme’? Huh.

  3. Le sigh – I haven’t decided which route I’m going to take yet. There’s a huge fear-factor involved with the self-pub because everything rests on the author, and if it flops (again, statistics, you are not my friend) then ack. At the same time – it’s a chance I might not get otherwise if I keep plugging at the trad route. Only so many times you can slap a wet fish against a brick wall and still expect it to fall over…

    • Hi, Krista. I feel for the dampness of your fish, and the hardness of your wall. It isn’t an easy decision and both routes have their pros and cons, but having read some of your writing I know that you at least have a decent start point – some good stories to tell.

      I hope you make the right decision for you. As for the fear factor, the worst that can happen is that no one reads what you write and, apart from the time it takes to write and potential money invested in editing and cover design, there isn’t much to lose over not publishing. Be brave, young padawan, and may the force be with you. ;-)

    • I felt the same way. It’s difficult to decide what’s best for you and your story. If you need to chat about it, then I’m always available.

    • Hi Krista –

      I try to look at it simply from a practical perspective.

      Only a very small minority of traditionally published writers will receive real marketing provided by the publisher. The very typical author experience is the following:

      * modest advance (but also factor in agent commissions and self-employment taxes from this)
      * promoting your own book
      * your book will not remain on shelves very long. It’s often about 60 days, and then it becomes online only. This is because of the decreasing shelf space while new titles are continuously being released and are competing for space or pushing out the previously-released titles

      Again, for a very small percentage of writers, none of the above is a problem. For the typical author, those are some limitations.

      Unless one is confident that one has a potential runaway bestseller and will gain a 6-figure advance and all the accompanying marketing money plus longevity on physical bookshelves, it’s probably a good idea to consider the self-pub side of the same coin:

      * you have to promote your own book (no different than a typical traditionally published author’s experience)
      * your book will be mainly online-only. Although you can often place your book with local bookstores for periods of 60-90 days on a consignment basis. People also often have their books placed in drugstores, etc. I put one of mine at a barber shop and sold 5 copies in a week. For the physical copies, of course you’re doing CreateSpace or maybe LightningSource as trade paperbacks. Author cost of these usually falls around the $5 mark, so it’s possible to sell them at a competitive $10 and make a decent percentage

      Traditional publishing touts what I consider to be mostly “ideal” advantages that do not apply to the typical book. Ideal advantages apply to a very small percentage of books. This would be marketing especially. Typical “marketing” for most authors is along the lines of the publisher offering review copies to the dwindling reviewer pool who are deluged with hundreds of such offers each week or month and choose only a few.

      Traditional publishing also touts their role in separating the wheat from the chaff. Statistically, this makes no sense. Only a small percentage of traditionally published books are profitable. The majority break even or lose money. This is simply realism. Books that are written well can lose money. Books with clumsy prose and paper-thin characters and weak plots can become bestsellers. Popular appeal is ethereal and unpredictable, and agents and publishers all attempt to guess what might work. Marketing can help a bit to create visibility and sometimes fulfill promise. But flops happen just like unexpected successes. It’s unrealistic to believe that every book – let alone the majority of books – in a store like Barnes & Noble represent the epitome of whatever we subjectively believe “quality” to be. There are a lot of books that get published that are quite terrible.

      Editing has been declining for decades, with acceleration after the conglomeration of the industry and reductions of editing ranks. Bestsellers pretty much always contain a few typos, and ditto for non-bestsellers. I do think the role of editing is also idealistically over-sold as a defense of traditional publishing. First – realistically, editing didn’t make “Fifty Shades” the runaway success it’s been. It won’t make Stephen King sell better, and so on. Many books could benefit from better developed characters, or avoiding cliches and deus ex machina events, refined dialogue, etc. These kinds of things are not much addressed in most cases, and again, it doesn’t matter. Appeal will always trump a few inherent weaknesses in prose. That’s not saying editing isn’t needed. It’s just oversold by implying that all (or even the majority) of traditionally published books are carefully honed and refined in the craft of writing. Again, pick up any random book on a shelf in Barnes & Noble and easily disprove that. Books always have run a gamut – and that’s perfectly fine. Because subjectivity is important.

      What I do think is that traditionally published books contain far fewer typos and outright grammar errors than self-published ones. And that the quality range is tighter for traditional. But it’s still quite a range. And again, that’s wonderful because audiences have very subjective tastes and that means there is something for everyone.

  4. I really admire the fact that you guys are at the stage where you can be thinking, “do I self publish or not?” before getting caught up in whether to make the decision or not, take a moment to be super proud of where you are all at!

    • Thanks Annah, that’s really generous of you, but when I start to get ‘proud’ I’ve only got to read another author’s writing or look at another’s book sales. I still have a way to go before I feel proud, but I do love the feeling of satisfaction that comes from having something completed and ‘out-there’ – that’s something about the creative process that I missed for years, but now I’ve found it, I’m hooked. :-)

  5. I’m going to try the traditional route, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll pull a McHugh. I love the sound of that new expression!

    Dumping Inner Demons into a storage box, the graveyard of lost hopes and dreams, doesn’t seem like an option.

    It’s going to be a rough ride until things settle down. We’ve been hit with that old oriental curse: May you live in interesting times.

    • I would also love to pull a McHugh. As an ex-scientist there are certain things I would like to know – and finding out Steve’s tensile strength, elasticity and breaking strain could lead to some valuable discoveries. ;-)

      As for Inner Demons – anything you’ve put that much work into is at least worth getting critically beta read, and if the feedback is good, then shared with readers. Good luck with whichever route you decide to take.

      Interesting Times? That’s beyond a doubt.

  6. I dunno, so many indie pubbed books are rubbish, as well as many trads…so what to do? Trust editors to turn your novel into something better (or worse) or trust your instincts as a writer?

    I’ll have to get back to you on that.

    • You’ll need your instincts either way. Finding the right editor for your work requires artistic and people savvy. The same instincts will tell you when your work is ready to self-publish if you go that route.

      Fortunately, having interviewed you and read some of your work, I judge your instincts to be sharp. You too must use the Force – be the page.

  7. To be honest I hate to say it but finding a gem in the self published market is, to paraphrase Louis L’amour a bit like mining for gold, you have to go through a ton of dirt to find the good stuff.

    Books like Steve’s are few and far between and whilst I claim that I don’t read self published titles I do read the odd one from friends on the OWG as I know the quality I can expect.

    Thats the key thing for me, I hate books that haven’t had the time in them that readers deserve such as solid editing alongside making sure that the inconsistancies are fixed.

    All the best for all who enter this arena and do remember that occassionally publishers will pick up a title from this market when it has a proven background.

    • A valid point, Gareth. Self-published authors owe it to their readers and themselves to do their utmost to create the best end product they can.

      Personal mileage can vary so much in reading. My wife downloaded several samples onto her new Kindle this week. The first two traditionally published eBooks she tried she passed on because they were, “badly written.” She’s just downloaded the fourth book in a series by an indie author (she is out and her Kindle is with her, so I can’t tell you who). The quality divide is becoming more blurred, and increasingly subjective, all the time…

  8. It sure is a fun time to be a novice swimmer! I’ve already had a stab at stating my position on self publishing in general on my blog, so I won’t go overboard. It’s a highly complicated and controversial issue.

    As a reader, I value the quality control of a publishing industry. But it’s also true that they make negative judgment calls on good writing based on other criteria that don’t mean much to me, so who are they to decide?

    As a writer, I’m still toying with the idea. I’ve published with an e-publisher who has pretty much released my work in books I could have produced myself. But they did all the cover art, sorted out distribution and everything else and all I’ve had to do is shout about it and collect my little royalty payments. There is something attractive in that.

    That said, I am actually planning to self publish, in print, an anthology of short stories. I’ve chose the route because I’m aiming at a specific market. But, since I will be organising it on behalf of other writers, perhaps it should be publish rather than self-publish. Hmm, now my head is starting to hurt.

    I think I am still going to pursue the traditional route until I have a good reason not to, because I refuse to be one of those contributing to the flotsam.

    • Hi Chrissey,

      Thanks for dropping by. Wow, you don’t do things by half… Let me get this right, you’ve been published with an indie publisher, and you’re planning to publish the writing of others, but you’re going to traditionally publish more of your work at a later date? There’s no doubt there is plenty of options in today’s literary marketplace. Good luck with all your ventures. :-)

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