Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Self-publishing Analog

Whenever I blog about the execrable self-publishing scene, of course self-publishers get upset. They see themselves as revolutionaries and brilliant capitalists instead of what they are. And they always avoid the point that this sad and ridiculous scene is harmful, because they're either making some money at it, or think that they soon will be making some money. I've made this comparison before, but it holds true: they're like Amway salesmen. YOU, TOO CAN MAKE MONEY AND BE A SUCCESS!

Since it all began a few years ago I've been worried about what this consolidation of publishing into the hands of one (or two) outfits is doing to the ability of writers to make a living from their work. I was trying to figure if I'd seen anything like this in the past. And I kept coming to the conclusion that this was just a brand-new situation brought upon us by the blazing speed of digital progress and the machinations of a couple of corporations (Apple and Amazon).

But I've been around the publishing industry a fairly long time and I couldn't stop going over what I'd witnessed in the past and what I'm witnessing now.

And I finally came up with a parallel.

Back in the 1980s the comic book industry went through something similar to what is going on with the ebook/POD self-publishing gimmick. It was the explosion of self-published black and white comics. The industry was almost overnight inundated with thousands of titles--almost every bit of it hideous crap (just like 99.999999% of self-published novels). Anyone who could put a pen to paper and scribble a figure was "writing" and "illustrating" their own comic books. And they were shipping off the crap to one of a number of low-cost printers and soliciting sales through the catalogs of the dozen or so direct-sale distributors who were then competing for market shares.

And the single thing that had started this flood of shit was the direct-sale market. This was the point of attack on comic book publishing and retailing by these rabid packs of losers and wannabe comic book creators. Each of them was trying to duplicate the success of TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES; or they were slapping tits on covers and doing their best to ape the more successful "bad girl" comics. Dealers were trying to figure out how to order this crap, and customers were sampling it all, and it was a mess.

I knew some of these idiots and shysters during this period. I'd meet them at shows, at conventions, visiting my shops. One of them found himself running a company that was generating several million dollars in sales each year. I would talk to guys who had no talent whatsoever at creating comics but who were paying cash for new cars or Harley Davidson motorcycles. All based on the huge amounts of money they were making publishing poorly rendered comic books. Comic books that all--by and large--sucked dirty, unwashed chimp ass. Just like almost every self-published novel today.

Unfortunately (for them) all of these characters are one and all broke now. The guy whose company was making millions? Bankrupt. The guy who paid cash for his car? Working in an office as a clerk. The kid who bought that new Harley with cash money? He's unemployed--worked for a brief time at Marvel, last I heard, but not any more.

The thing is, the market shook itself out. The shit sank out of sight. Those guys who were making six figures are gone away, thankfully. People still self-publish their shitty little black and white comics, but mainly no one pays any attention. Every once in a while one breaks out. But the days of  self-published crap filling the catalogs is over. And there's only one distributor now, anyway.

I reckon there might be a new crop of idiots epublishing shitty comics as they did in the old days. But what I think (and hope) is that the day of the self-published shyster/moron will eventually end. It took a few years, but that caliber of scum bled out of the comic book industry. I'm hoping the same holds true with these other schmucks self-publishing their "novels". I hope to see these jerks who quit their jobs because they were making "thousands" back in the offices and loading docks and stock rooms that spat them out. Because, damn it, their work sucks ass. I don't begrudge a man a living, but as a reader I can't stomach another year of seeing ads for the latest self-published pile of shit.


Griffin Hayes said...

Interesting analogy. I have another one for you. Your post sounds like the same kind of rage filled diatribe you hear from bigots after they've had one drink too many. "Those damn immigrants are stealing our jobs!" Or "America's owned by the (Jews/Blacks/Commies...you fill in the blank). It sounds an awful lot like you're trying to blame someone else for your own lack of success and that message comes through loud and clear. Technology changes and with it so does the marketplace. There are countless examples (whale oil vs kerosene/trains vs stage coach) to name but a few. But trains are still around. When the pieces get shaken up, it's just a question of everyone finding their place again. Of course there are lots of bad self-published books out there and there are also thousands of great self-published authors who are finally making a living writing great novels. If that weren't the case, then agents and publishers wouldn't be combing through self-published material in search of 'the next best thing.' I'd much rather read about how difficult you're finding it to compete in this new world rather than read about how ALL self-published authors are crap. By all means you're entitled to your opinion, but just keep in mind, those who don't adapt go extinct.

HemlockMan said...

It's funny how a confounding and opposing view is considered "rage filled diatribe". Oh, well. I guess I do feel some amount of rage--toward the self-published crap I bought when I got my Kindle.

There are a some good self-published books. There almost HAS to be considering the sheer number of self-published novels. Only I'm not going to see any of them because I've already read too many crappy ones. Twenty times burnt...and no more.

And you can't judge them based on the reviews, because so many of the books have rave five-star reviews written by the author's families or friends or fellow self-published loser writers. And you can't generally trust the BAD reviews either, since they often seem to have been written by morons who are ALSO self-published authors, (or who have some kind of political/philosophical bone to pick with the writer).

If any agents want to comb through the slime and (in the words of the late Karl Wagner) find the "onyx in a maggot pile" then I'll be happy for the author and might be inclined to read such work.

Self-publishing as adaptation. Yeah, that's what all the self-publishers keep telling me. Considering the source, you'll excuse me if I have my doubts. But to give the devil his due, the cat is definitely out of the bag, so you might be right.

Stay tuned. I might eventually turn to self-publishing again. But great humping Jove, I hope not.

Griffin Hayes said...

Thanks for your response. There was a lot of emotion in your post, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I can't argue that most self-published authors lack the discipline to hold back from hitting the 'publish' button until everything is just right. And for some/many of them, things will never be just right. Can't argue there.

The reason I used the train example is because even though trains represent older technology, they've by no means disappeared. I agree with you that crappy books need to go away. But we both know that even if self-publishing stopped today, there would still be a fair amount of crap coming down the assembly line from mainstream sources.

Some self-pubbers long for the demise of mainstream publishing, but as I'm trying to point out, I believe/hope there will be room for both.

HemlockMan said...

Well, time will tell. I mainly wish the majority--about 99.99% of the self-published writers--would stop it. Generally, there's a good reason a writer can't sell his novel to a reputable traditional publisher:

it's not any good.

Yes, there are exceptions to every rule. But by and large I have found that if material is good, it will find a home without an author having to self-publish. And so many books are being given away for free that some of my professional author acquaintances and friends can't sell their self-published work when they do choose to go that route.

Like I said, I'm hoping it will all shake out.

Robert said...

Do you really honestly believe the only reason a writer can't sell a novel to major publishers is because "it's not any good"?

There are a slew of very good novels that get rejected from major publishers every year, whether it's because of the novels aren't viewed as "marketable" or the authors' previous novels didn't sell well or maybe the publisher already has a similar book coming out that year. The reasons can go on and on.

Years ago a senior editor at Doubleday called my agent saying how much she LOVED my one thriller, but ... she just didn't think it was right for Doubleday. An editor at Tor was very close to buying another one of my novels, but eventually decided to pass. It happens all the time, to many various writers. The books aren't at all bad -- in fact, they're quite good -- but the timing is just off.

Before, the unsold novels were set aside to possibly come back to later when those writers had book deals. Now, writers have the option of making them available themselves digitally, and reach the same amount of readers they can if they went through traditional means.

But, as I always say, just because you can doesn't necessarily mean you should. So yes, any and all writers CAN self-publish, but should they? Some, certainly. Others, absolutely not.

T Ludlow said...

You've hit a nail on the head when you say that most self-pubbed works are, how shall we put it, 'not very good at all' and that the review system is open to abuse, but good writers still get discovered.

I personally buy eBooks (from any source) only if I can read the first few pages through the 'Look Inside' resource. Bad grammar, poor spelling, or pacing, or general incompetence generally shine through very quickly. But it's wrong to say that only failed authors self-pub; many good authors who could get a traditional publishing deal don't bother to try now because the traditional deal is so bad.

Dan Harris said...

Hi there -

I've not read your blog before, so apologies if you've already addressed this question somewhere. You say "if material is good, it will find a home without an author having to self-publish".

I'm just wondering why you believe an author, with a novel good enough to get a traditional publishing deal, should choose that over self-publishing? It seems to me like the only benefit might be seeing physical copies of your book in bookstores. And finance wise, if it's good enough to attract a $10K advance, surely it's good enough to sell 5K copies at $2.99 with $2 royalties, for the same income?


Christinekling said...

Once upon a time I sounded a lot like you. I was published by Ballantine, and I was so certain that my work was better than all that self-published crap out there. I don't think I ever went quite as arrogantly far as you do to convince myself that I was superior, but it was close.
Then, I submitted my 5th book to my editor and after 4 months he had not even had the courtesy to read it, so I decided I was tired of being treated like shit by a huge corporation. I withdrew the book from consideration and set about self-publishing.
What I want above all is to be read and to make a living at this, and now I am doing much better at both. I get tons of positive reader interaction via emails and social networks and my books - including the titles I got the rights back to - are selling waaaay better than they ever did in the hands of Random House.
I suggest you shouldn't knock self-publishing if you haven't ever tried it. Give it a shot. Put out a short story or a novella on your own. Then you might have the credentials to say whether you think self-publishing is a worthwhile affair or not.
Having been "anointed" by Tor or some other big NY publisher doesn't necessarily make you better than many self-published authors out there. In my opinion, it just makes you less well paid.
Christine Kling

HemlockMan said...

I apologize for delays in replying to comments. Sorry! I stay pretty busy between my regular job as a laborer and my evening job as a writer. Sometimes I forget to check the comments section of my blog!

Robert: Well, in the total scheme of things, I reckon some good books go unsold. There are always horror stories of perfectly fine novels that never got an offer for one reason or another. I had so many near-misses on books and comic scripts with editors at outfits from Warner Books (gone!) to Signet to DC and Marvel Comics, etc. Perfectly good material that editors ended up passing on rather than accepting. Good books do go begging from time to time.

Also, as I've already said--there HAVE to be good novels from self-published authors just based on the pure volume of self-published material. I just can't go through it to find the good stuff. My Kindle was loaded with self-published novels that I paid good money for that were so bad I wanted to burn the damned Kindle.

As I've stated in my blog before, I self-published one book---and then looked at the books by the very authors who had convinced me to take the plunge and was utterly horrified at how awful their novels were. Pure crap. Crap that was apparently selling, but crap nonetheless. I immediately unpublished my novel. Took it right the hell out of there. Off of Kindle, Smashwords, etc. I didn't want to be associated with self-publishing if that was the kind of thing the scene was producing.

T Ludlow: Yeah, I suppose I could find some good material by reading the samples. These days I rely on suggestions from folk whose opinions matter to me.

Dan Harris: I would rather sell a novel for a decent advance to a traditional publisher than self-publish. For a lot of reasons. By the time you'd paid to do layouts, produced PDF versions, have the book professionally proofread, and advertised it, you're into some serious money. And you're still not assured of being able to make any profit, or even make your initial investment back. Also, traditional publishers are actually pretty good at finding an audience for a book. They're better at it than I would be.

Christine: Well, I did kind of try self-publishing. I had one of my novels that had come close to being published at several traditional houses that I had professionally proofed, laid out, produced cover graphics, etc. And I even went so far as to publish it. All this before I had bothered to look at what was being self-published. Frankly, I was horrified at what I was reading (I could mention some of those best-selling self-published authors, but what's the point?). Frankly, I was so horrified that I didn't want to be associated with them, or the self-publishing scene, and I immediately unpublished my novel. I even tried to scrub the paperback version off the Internet, but apparently you can't do that. Subsequently, I got an offer for a limited edition hardback of the book, so maybe it'll see print again.

John Barlow said...

Hi, I'm a self-published author. I'm doing it to see if this might be a route to take for the future. I know a lot of other authors are thinking along the same lines.

Ten years ago my first published story won the Plimton/Discovery Prize in the Paris Review; I then had two books out with Harper Collins, then a book with Farrar Straus and Giroux.

I don't think that's the track record of a shitty, talentless writer. Neither do I think that I am especially unusual as self-published author.

Lots of crap out there? Sure. But whereas comics deteriorate and disappear, and ebook is forever, and if more and more writers put out good stuff, those books will stick around.

Best wishes, John Barlow

Griffin Hayes said...

Hi James,

I think I understand your reservations about self-publishing. Up front costs you may never recoup, no help with advertising and rubbing elbows with hordes of bad writers.

I'd like to address each of those.

The Cost:
You can get a really nice eBook cover done for as little as $50. And I don't mean, good for a self published book. I mean a really nice quality cover.

The formatting aspect for eBooks is something you can easily do on your own using programs like Calibre (and I'm sure there are other programs that are even better). I stink at the technical stuff and I managed it without a problem.

Proofreading is probably the most expensive (roughly about $200 which at the end of the day shouldn't break the bank, I hope).

So you can release an eBook (even with hired help) for as little as $250. Hardly a crushing start up cost.

If your current publisher is doing any advertising for you it certainly isn't showing in the sales ranks I've seen. Unless they happen to sell a ton of your work via their website or in stores. The top ranked book of yours I saw on Amazon was 50,000 in the Kindle store. I don't bring that up as a slight, but it makes me wonder what kind of advertising advantage you have over us SP authors (I'm thinking none). A fellow author I know is selling well over 100 books a day at $3.99 with zero advertising (zombie fiction).

Being Near Crappy Writers:
Your most popular book on Amazon I could find was your zombie novel.
And it seems to suffer all of the harsh criticisms you've leveled on SP authors. The top review warns of typos and stereotypical characters and as I mentioned before the sales rank isn't very high. Again, I'm not trying to be a jerk, but I wonder if you've considered self-publishing for some of these very reasons. If I had a publisher and my book still had enough typos that readers were upset, I'd be pissed.

I know you could even get a much nicer cover if you hired your own designer. Then once your eBook sales permit, you throw a couple of bucks into a paperback version and away you go. In fact, priced at $2.99 and with its current cover, for a moment I assumed that novel was self-published.

Anyway, certainly not trying to turn you to 'the dark side,' or be critical because at the end of the day all we all want to sell books that readers enjoy.

Griffin Hayes