Self-published e-books? The horror, the horror!

kindle-2-carrieBack at the start of this year, Jonathan Galassi wrote an awesome editorial for the New York Times about the value that a publishing house actually provides for a book and an author—those ineffable quality enhancers that make a book cost more than its printing, paper, and binding. Editing. Marketing. Publicity. Design. Attention to detail. Vision.

Galassi’s piece is the perfect counter to those who suggest publishers are going the way of the T-rex, that authors need only throw their manuscripts onto the Kindle. Seventy percent royalty rates! these people crow. Take that, Legacy Publishers! My audience will not be bound by the old paradigms! And then they—I don’t know, twirl the ends of their moustaches while they count their doubloons.

But is Amazon’s self-publication plan truly the first death knell for traditional publishers? One writer friend who has worn an THE END IS COMING sandwich board for the past thirty years sees it as— Well, here’s what he wrote:

The big six are irrelevant long-term, even medium-term. Why would I sell my book to them so they could place it in some projected Apple e-book store? Amazon is offering a 70% royalty. Can the Big 6 plus Apple offer that? No. Because the downward price pressure will squeeze out any superfluous element in the supply chain. And that’s the publishers.

But I’ve borne witness to the fruits of self-publication, and I can testify to you all that it is no threat to books from publishers. It’s the opposite in fact, and some kind of spectacular ugly. An anecdote [that Will Entrekin astutely points out below isn’t entirely salient]:

Long ago, when I was desperately poor and pretty much willing to whore my talents out to anyone, I worked for the idiotically named iUniverse, a print-on-demand vanity press. Among its investors were the Author’s Guild and B&N, so it had the appearance of legitimacy; some titles even got distribution to B&N stores. But it was a vanity press, and even the appearance of legitimacy could not disguise the fact that 99.9% of its list was nearly unreadable dreck.

But the people who ran the outfit wanted to create a filter, something to offer the illusion to potential authors (and readers!) that there were some quality controls in place. This is, I’d argue, the issue and where traditional publishers come in: Quality control, and giving an imprimatur of some base quality to a book.

That’s where I came in.

To help potential readers sort through the hundreds of yahoos who published their books through iUniverse, there was something called Editor’s Choice. Or Editor’s Seal. Or Editor’s Paycheck. I don’t recall what the program was called, as I never saw a manuscript or finished book after my review of 100 pages.

I was paid some amount of money—seems super miniscule in memory, but maybe it was fifty dollars? seventy-five dollars?—to read 100 pages and fill out a form providing possible revision direction, and “approving” the manuscript. A couple lines of tepid praise along the lines of “The reader is aware of the author’s painstaking labor every step of the way.” Or whatever. You get the idea.

Only the most egregiously incomprehensible books were rejected, and those were almost more work to reject, because the iUniverse reps would come back to you and say, Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure you’re not just being snobby? Because they were more interested in taking that author’s money than they were in putting out quality books. Just about everyone who paid the extra fee for the Editor’s Stain of Disdain got approved, because that’s what the customer paid for, and these were vanity publications, make no doubt.

The customer in any self-publishing venture is always going to be the author, not the reader. But publishers are there for the rea— Well, no, publishers are there for themselves, clearly, but also for readers. Editors don’t work their jobs to get rich, they do it because they love making good books. And that is not only what makes the books we buy things of quality, it’s also what drives up the cost and eats into author’s potential royalties.

Of course, I could be wrong. (It happens often, I’m told.) Has anyone downloaded any Amazon original titles? Were the books worthwhile? Or did you long to get back those lost hours of your life?

  1. You’re right about the vast majority of self-published books, but on the other hand, maybe also the vast amount of books published by corporate publishers? Sturgeon’s law and everything.

    I think the most salient point of your anecdote concerning iUniverse is the opening phrase: “Long ago.” I’m not sure how far back you’re going, but do-it-yourself options for authors have come a very long way in a relatively short amount of time.

    When I went to USC, I workshopped a lot of stories and essays only to realize, at the end of certain courses, there didn’t seem to be anywhere to go with them. There were generally a few high-ranked but meagerly staffed publications who cared more about name than story, and then a lot of smaller so-called “literary” magazines who paid for content in copies of the magazine. Or, worse, e-zines who paid in “attention.”

    So I went to Lulu. I was an editor, had classmates who were editors, had done design. Put together a collection that was received fairly positively, ended up the first e-book on the iPhone, and got a decent amount of sales and a heck of a lot of downloads.

    It can be useful for those who know how to use it. Which I’m sure you’ll account for by noting you said 99.9% are dreck, so .1% is not, and that .1% is the exception. And I won’t argue with you, there (save to note Sturgeon’s law as above), but I will ask: doesn’t that make your job easier? How many queries and manuscripts do you have in your slushpile? How many authors who have been waiting a month or more for a rejection (I mean, you must reject more than 90% of the queries you receive, no? Most agents seem to)?

    What if all those authors, many of whom have written dreck and many of whom don’t know what they’re doing, even at a query level, decided to self-publish instead? Then your queries would decrease substantially so you could give more consideration to those you have. You might miss a few books, but you could see what had been published successfully already, at a self-level, and see about taking it to the next level (I’ve never met a self-published author who didn’t hope to ultimately sell his or her manuscript to a traditional publishing company. Well. Besides me, but that’s because it’s a collection, and I’m not publishing my novels myself).

    I disagree with you when you note “the customer in any self-publishing venture is going to be author, not the reader.” The vast majority of authors who self-publish want to reach readers. Also, I look at editors who buy books by, say, Hillary Duff or a Sarah and wonder how much it really is about how much they love making good books.

    As for the questions you end with, my book is on the Kindle for a couple bucks, but the real experience is at Lulu, where it’s a free download. It’s a DRM-free PDF, and a lot of people have written to me to say they’ve loved it and ask after novels, and one of my former professors now uses it in the classroom to show USC students what they can now do with their stories, and it’s on display in USC’s MFA department offices, so I’d say it was worthwhile. I may be biased, of course, but then again ain’t we all?


  2. Will: Great response. And I find I agree with most everything you say. So there. Clearly this deserves more serious thought. Hmm.

    I do feel that the dreck will soon enough overpower the good stuff, and that the big feat will then be to be found in the pile of self-published stuff. Easy enough for a Stephen King, maybe, but harder for most anyone else.

    I’m curious how you did that at Lulu, how you rose above the noise. You could teach a seminar on that.

    Oh, and

    —Hilary Duff books and the like are a different sort of publishing and have little to nothing to do with the publication of books by non-celebrities.

    —I think you’re reading this post as my complaining about people self-publishing their bad books (and hence that whole “wouldn’t that make it easier for you” line of reasoning you follow), but I don’t much care about that. It’s more that without any controls at all, the level of lousiness will rise, and Sturgeon’s Law will no longer apply.


  3. Well, your second post holds the real reason that big publishers should be concerned:

    I do feel that the dreck will soon enough overpower the good stuff, and that the big feat will then be to be found in the pile of self-published stuff. Easy enough for a Stephen King, maybe, but harder for most anyone else.

    The publisher / distributor / bookstore setup kept bad writing on the slush pile. As the ebook market takes off, however, and as more and more book purchases move online, that system falls apart.

    If there is no way to stop anyone who wants from publishing an ebook, and if no ebook ever goes out of print or leaves the online marketplace ever, simple math says that Big 6 content will be drowned in an ever-increasing ocean of small press and independently-published content. Authors will be pretty much forced to market one customer at a time, being table space at Barnes and Noble won’t guarantee an audience any more. And once authors are building their own readership, the royalty rates they currently receive will no longer be appropriate.

    It’s actually a little amusing that the Galassi piece doesn’t mention the most important value-add the big publishers brought to the table: a stranglehold on shelf space at bookstores. It’s possible he doesn’t mention that because, since the topic is ebooks, even mentioning bookstore access highlights the fact that Galassi’s access to ebook stores is no better than mine.


  4. Great topic Michael and one that fascinates me. I’ve written a couple of picture books and had one reviewed by Alice Pope of Writer’s Digest. She liked it, but said it couldn’t be published. Too soft. It was a bedtime story with a dream sequence. Must be a million of them out there. I know she’s right and I have no intention of sending it to a editor/agent. But I am looking at doing a ipad app. Why not? I have a relative who is a published illustrator and a friend who can write code. We’ll divide profits (if any) so there is little risk – only our time. And just because a publisher would not invest thousands to publish doesn’t mean parents wouldn’t spend $2.99 on a decent little story if done right. I’ve seen plenty of published picture book dreck – heck, I’ve bought ’em. I have a middle grade and YA ms I’m working on that I would never self publish for all the reasons you list. But, I think, pbs are perfect for ebooks. Animation is one reason. Check out itunes for “Lula’s Brew,” a self published app by a published author. Also, look at this if you haven’t seen it – from Penguin.


  5. I guess Medusa thought a shower would take care of it. More than a bad hair day, huh. B


  6. It’s sort of hard to look at traditional publishing as a monolith. Some houses really do a lot with books; others, not so much. That said, there generally is a very high bar to getting published professionally and it tends to be people who haven’t hurdled that bar who are most likely to say the majority of published books are junk.

    I shudder to think of a day when self-publishing is the only or best option remaining. A good editor (and a good editorial agent) can make a huge difference in the overall quality of a book and how it is presented.

    I’ve been writing professionally for about 20 years and learn new things every time I work with an editor. Maybe at some point in my career I’ll know it all, but I sort of doubt it. People working together on problems solve them better and faster than people working alone. Writing is fundamentally a solo practice, but authors need feedback from others–preferably professionals–to make sure what they’re doing is working. (Even you, Michael Grant.)

    I’m all for embracing new technologies and leaping into new markets. But yeesh. Let’s stop pretending publishers don’t do important work, or that a not-good-enough book is suddenly a good thing because it’s only a $2.99 app.


  7. LOVE the Carrie and her Kindle photo!


  8. What’s going on with ebooks vs. traditional publishing — it mimmicks a lot of the hand-wringing that’s gone on in journalism in the last 10 years. All the folks who felt they’d been shut out by what they called the “traditional, mainstream” press — they’re they ones touting change and predicting the demise of what they believe are archaic journalistic dinosaurs and the way they “filter” our news unnecessarily. But that’s what revolutionaries do. They foment revolution.

    Lots of partisan websites sprang up, claiming to get straight to the source, the truth, and so on, and at first, they were putting out raw info and lots of rumors. People were soon swimming in information without context. Anyone depending on getting reliable information — for fear of making fool of themselves otherwise — discovered that the reporting process, with all its editing and vetting, was not to be dispensed with lightly. This is exactly what publishing houses bring to the table and ever shall it be, in some form or another.

    Ebooks will rise and the number of self-published titles will increase but in the end, the stamp of approval that the Big 6 bring will mean just as much as it ever did. Just like “New York Times Bestseller” will continue to mean an awful lot. Thems that are on the outs always need someone who’s on the in. If only to have something to rail against. What we’ll end up with is a literary caste system. But I think we kind of have that already.


  9. @ Ben Woodard’s “I think, pbs are perfect for ebooks.”

    I disagree for the following reasons: 1) Most e-readers only support text. Your platform will be limited. 2) Young children are so tactile that every picture book is essentially a “touch and feel” book. My boys (ages 2 and 4) frequently “read” pbs by themselves, turning pages, tracing words, and sometimes even coloring the pages. If they tear a page, I can tape it. If they drop the ipad down the stairs… 3) There are already several websites with free e-pbs. What you haven’t heard of them?! Oh, that’s because no one wants to cuddle up with a computer for bedtime stories. Well, the bigger problem is that the books on them aren’t that great.

    As a side note, am I the only one unimpressed by this dream of turning picture books into video games? We already have hand-held devices with moving pictures. So far they haven’t replaced picture books.


  10. First, I will out myself as the writer with the sandwich board.

    Yes, the vast bulk of self-pubbed e-books will be crap. Absolute crap. Unreadable. But that’s not the point. Price is the point.

    There’s a lot of crap food in the average Costco, a lot less crap in the small corner grocery store. Where do I buy most of my groceries? Costco. Why? Because the price differential is so great it justifies slogging past the huge bags of frozen shrimp, and the scary trays of giant cupcakes and the 10 year supply of Sun Chips in order to find the incredibly cheap blueberries.

    I won’t spend what it costs to get blueberries unless I’m getting them at Costco. At $5 for a giant container I love ’em. At $3.99 for what amounts to a single serving? Not so much. So my blueberry consumption increases 1000%.

    Price is the thing. That’s why the corner grocery gave way to the supermarket and the supermarket is giving way to Costco.

    Now, let’s take it from the POV of the writer who in our example is the blueberry farmer. Do you think the blueberry farmer prefers selling his berries to the corner grocer or to Costco?

    The answer is Costco. Either way the farmer gets the same price for his berries and he sells a whole lot more via Costco. The farmer has no interest in the corner grocery’s profits and expenses, he just wants to sell a bunch of berries.

    But you know what’s even better for the farmer? Selling his berries at a roadside stand where he gets to charge what Costco charges and keep their profit margin, their shipping costs, their warehousing costs and etc… for himself.

    To translate this to books, the Legacy Publisher/Barnes and Noble route is the corner grocery. Amazon self-pubbing is Costco. The farmer’s market is direct-to-reader self-pubbing.

    One other thing on blueberries and books. The freshest berries are at the farmer’s market. But the next best is Costco. Why? Because they sell so many so quickly that their berries are fresher. The worst deal for both the farmer and the consumer is the corner grocery where they charge $3.99 for a handful of berries that may have sat there for two weeks.

    I have a middle reader series coming out soon. Everyone involved in the process knows we should be rolling out two a year rather than one. The readers would much prefer it. But we have a hard time doing it because of the peculiar needs of the distribution network. When a distribution system — a middle-man — gets between a willing buyer and a willing seller, the distribution network is eventually forced to change or disappear.

    Here is all that is standing between the current system and a self-pupped system: a single Dan Brown or Stephen King or Stephanie Meyer. Sooner or later one of the Big Boys will get tired of taking a slice when they could have the whole pie. Once that happens other Bigs will follow, the revenue stream they provide to legacy publishers will dry up, and we’ll have a paradigm shift that will leave legacy publishers high and dry.

    The other route is also possible: a self-pubbed break-out. All it will take is a for a very few self-pubbed writers to hit a million units sold — whatever the price point — and there will be an author stampede.

    Legacy publishers should be falling all over themselves to create the enhanced book of the future, leveraging their manpower and resources. Are they doing that? Some are, most aren’t. Most will try to cost-cut their way forward and try to strong-arm the market into buying e-books at absurdly inflated prices. It won’t work.


  11. One other way to look at this:

    Let’s say a writer has an idea for a book and he thinks he’d like to make $100,000 for that book. That $100k is the same for him if it comes from a publisher or from readers directly.

    Let’s further stipulate that he gets a 10% royalty from the publisher. The publisher wants to sell the books for $20. The writer therefore earns $2 per book. It takes 50,000 books sold to pay the author that 100k he wants.

    The cost to the consumer of 50,000 books is 1 million dollars. It takes a million to pay our writer his 100k. (Granted the reality is more complicated, but this is the schematic.)

    On the other hand, the writer could make his book available on Amazon for, let’s say, $5. Of that the writer takes home $3.50. So in order to earn his desired 100k the writer needs to sell 29,000 units, round numbers.

    In this model it costs the reading public just $150,000 to pay the writer $100,000.

    Now, someone would need to explain to me why the readers would want to give up a million bucks rather than $150k. Explain how in a capitalist system it will ever make sense to pay a dollar rather than 15 cents.


  12. Michael, the issue isn’t whether the reading public wants to pay the $150,000 to pay the writer his $100,000 grand. The issue is whether the reader will even know the book is out there, will even be able to hear about it and find it in the big pile of refuse that will be most self-published ebooks.

    Thing is, a Stephen King or Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer are no longer comparable. They are already a brand (thanks to the long-term efforts of so-called legacy publishers). They can yak in a bag and it will be news for their fans. They’d have no problem.

    But hows does the reader find the quality goods? Until some system is in place to publicize and market these books, those readers won’t find them. And seventy percent of nothing is the same as ten percent of nothing. (Though what that is, I don’t know.)


  13. Yes, Hannah! You are so right!

    PBs are immune because they are there to keep and manipulate for the youngest. They own them, treasure them, personalize them, flip thru them, color on them, change the words to fit them if they so desire, go back to specific pages to connect (easily and by themselves), reread, and chant sounds. And they are immediate and warm. And little kids love the physical product because it is theirs to have and hold.

    The cold, virtual doesn’t cut it.


  14. Sadly, this is where Publish America plunks their lot of “authors” and they, buy verture of name, be it Amazon, Barnes and Noble or, in Canada, Chapters, think it must be the real deal.
    I would love to see an end to all this, but these venues, B&N, Chapters seem to not worry that they have sold out to IUniverse and it’s all about the odd order that comes in for a “self published” book (where the author has been lead to believe they are truly published, not printed) and, hey, it’s a couple of dollars and it’s a couple of dollars we didn’t have yesterday so great!
    There is no conscience left in the publishing game, at least when it comes to the sellers I guess.


  15. Costco is cheap because products are carefully edited. Costco drives a hard bargain and will only carry what it can sell in huge quantities. This is why you can find the blueberries there (sometimes).

    Using M. Grant’s analogy, if Amazon isn’t editing–narrowing the selection–it’s going to be really hard to find the good stuff. Unlike selling in Costco, where the barrier is high, there is no barrier to entry in selling at Amazon.

    Yes, Amazon can make recommendations based on what’s popular and what you’ve bought before. But there still isn’t a lot of workable screen real estate. There are what, maybe 20 books on screen? Even fewer on your Kindle?

    What’s more, if a customer tries enough crappy $3.99 books, then even that price will seem too high. Especially when the super geniuses decide that they’ll give away books that contain advertising inside.

    Publishing is a hard business. Anything creative is. But it’s not going to get easier without publishers. You can chase the dollars wherever you think they’re going to go. I like to place my bets with talent, and a lot of that works in those NY publishing houses.


  16. Michael:

    How does the reader find quality goods? The same way they do now: by browsing, by listening to friends, by following reviews and social networks, by being exposed to advertising.

    Publishers don’t sell books to readers, they sell books to bookstores. Publishers are cutting marketing and publicity budgets, they pour their diminished resources into a few high performers and ignore most of their own list. We both know that for 90% of books there is no significant marketing or publicity.

    A free market looks for efficiencies. A market that goes writer-agent-publisher-printer-shipper-warehouser-retailer-reader is simply not as efficient — and can never possibly be — as efficient as a market that goes writer-etailer-reader, or writer-reader. Supply Chain A cannot compete on price with Supply Chain B.

    Supply Chain B is going to lower the price of e-books drastically and to a point where there will be no profit left to support the inefficiencies of the old supply chain.


    Sometimes it seems like writers suffer from Stockholm Syndrome.

    Why would we defend a system that elevates Stephanie Meyer to godhood and crushes some talented young wanna-be under foot?

    Why should we love a system that keeps even most published books off the shelves at B&N and Target and Wal-Mart? And then puts a countdown clock on those who do make it onto the shelves so that they have a few weeks to make it or they disappear forever?

    What is so wonderful about a system that keeps even published books out of publication? I have a back list of 150 books. How many are available to the average reader? Half a dozen. How many could easily be available in digital? All 150.

    You’re defending a system that rewards mediocrities, crushes writers who may have talent but who lack a thick skin and brutish persistance, throws thousands of books into the memory hole never to be read again, and forces all of us to chase bestseller status so that it’s not publish-or-perish it’s besteller-list-or-perish.

    Digital would allow us to write for a niche audience, to wait for a book to catch on, to make bold guesses about the marketplace rather than succumbing to Big Publishing’s eternal rearview mirror sensibilities. You want to write a weekly or monthly or quarterly series? Well, you can’t. Not under the current system. But you can in digital. You want to write for a specific minority? You can’t now, but you’ll be able to in digital.

    Right now publishing is owned lock, stock and barrel by huge multinational corporations that we used to decry as soulless and indifferent when they took over all the smaller publishers. Now writers are defending Mr. Murdoch and the rest and shaking with fear at the prospect of controlling their own business and future. I don’t get it.

    What is so wonderful about the way things work now?


    • Michael, it would help if your example of such a system working were more closely analogous. CostCo and blueberries? Not really the same as something like art. Seriously: I know what blueberries taste like and that is a constant no matter where I go. Furthermore, I don’t need CostCo or the farmer on the roadside to promote blueberries to me so that I know they’ll be delivering to me some sort of new taste similar to something I already know and love.

      The market as is is horribly inefficient. Digital will allow writers to directly access their readers. This is a good thing. No one is arguing otherwise. But nor are you pointing to some successful analog that makes people say, Oh, sure, great books will get themselves known just by people reading them and talking about them. That hasn’t worked before now, even when publishers have gotten behind great books (examples of this abound, but here’s a recent one I was attached to: SKULDUGGERY PLEASANT, which has been repackaged twice already and will be repackaged again no doubt); why will it suddenly work because the publishers are no longer part of the equation?


  17. My, my. Such doom and gloom. It certainly couldn’t cross anyone’s mind that publishers and newly freed authors could work together or that self-publishing may allow an author with a following to sit at that elegant table that has been so restricted by industry authoritative figures.

    While it may comfort some to say most e-books and self-published ventures are dreck, these experiences are not universal. Several writers have managed to snag bigger deals once their self-published efforts have a large group of folks crowing about them.

    And although publishing houses, agents and editors are very revered, they also been responsible for a litany of bad popular fiction I was forced to sell to the public as a bookseller (equipped with mandatory sales pitches for said works to increase their sale volume.) I’ve been party to selling “legitimate” literature so terrible that I still have flashbacks.

    There are no winners on either side; they both have their arms deep into the muck of lies, confusion and misdirection.

    I’d think that instead of thinking the sky is falling, we could use the new paradigm to create a better, stronger publishing world that nourishes writers, publishing houses and agents alike.

    In the meantime, I’ll go back into my corner and keep writing.


  18. Michael:

    We aren’t in the business of art. If we were in the business of art I’d still be waiting tables. Remember that we got our break writing crap for Harlequin and ghostwriting Sweet Valley Twins. I’ve done some good work, so has Katherine, but I don’t know anyone who would claim Sweet Valley was art.

    If we were in the business of producing art the shelves at B&N wouldn’t be stuffed full of copy-cat vampire books.

    In economic terms we produce a commodity. Like soybeans or steel. Does some of it rise to the level of art? Absolutely. Do NewsCorp shareholders or Disney or Hachette shareholders give a damn whether it’s art? Not even a little.

    Which is why any B-level celebrity can “break into” kid’s books tomorrow and suck up all the marketing and publicity money in the process. And why we clone bestsellers. It’s also why there’s almost no such thing as a small publisher anymore: because they all thought they were in the business of art and they ended up being absorbed by companies that knew it was all about profit.

    Give any editor at a major publisher the choice to publish either a) the next Karen Hesse book or b) the next Stephanie Meyer book and which book gets published? You and I both know which the editor would like to publish, but we also know which book they would buy.

    Editors often do sincerely care about the art. But the business of publishing requires them to subordinate that interest to the need for profit. So whether they intend to or not, even the most idealistic editor bends to the profit motive — or ends up being tossed out of a window onto 6th Avenue.

    Given a business dominated by large conglomerates, and given that the retail end is dominated by companies that necessarily cater to the broad middle of the market, given the tight margins and limited shelf space and the ever-present demand for profit, we have an industry that simply disappears vast quantities of art in order to make room on shelves for profitable commodities.

    The wonderful thing about digital is that there are no shelves. An infinity of books can be available forever. No tick tock. Nothing tossed down the trash chute because it wasn’t immediately profitable. Nothing erased because it slipped outside of a defined market segment.

    Is this new environment still very hard for new writers hoping to make a living? Of course. It’s always been hard and it will stay that way. But with digital a writer doesn’t need to write for Uncle Rupert’s shareholders, or for the sensibilities of Brown MFA’s, or for some ill-defined middle-of-the-road audience. Writers will be able to experiment more, to take more risks, try to find an audience for books that may not fit within the rigid frame of the current business model. Isn’t that how you get art?


  19. If you don’t like Michael’s blueberry example, let’s try another. I’m a storyteller for a group called Spellbinders. We go into elementary schools and tell, not read, stories to the kids. They love it. Most have never heard anyone tell stories in this manner. We act them out, use different voices, and sometimes make it up as we go. Storytelling is probably the oldest form of communication used by humans. But it is a lost art. Why? Blame it on a fellow named Gutenberg. He changed everything. Now do I think Steve Jobs is the next Gutenberg? No, not a chance. The ipad won’t change everything, but it will have an impact on communication. How much of an impact? We don’t know, but the ipad is the beginning. The first moveable type printing machine, say. What will it be in five years? Obviously unbreakable, Hannah.

    Now I agree with Hannah and ae to the extend that I would not want to use a ipad to read. I cherish books. I love the texture, the smell, the sound of a page turning. Pixels won’t do it for me. But I’m an old guy – I didn’t see tv until I was ten. My grandkids are different. They’ve grown up in a digital world. My wife, a former book store owner, and I have books everywhere and when the kids come to our house, they read – printed books. But they want tv, video games, movies and pbskids. Now they like books, but not the way my wife and I devour them. I believe all kids will take to the ipad like xboxes and gameboys. Hopefully, they will read on it, not just play games.

    Michael Grant is right. There will be well-written niche books available for the ipad that will sell. And sooner or later a digital only story will sell millions. Any agent, author, or editor that doesn’t recognize that possibility is ostrichizing (sic) themself. Penguin gets it and Nathen Bransford appears to. What Dylan sang will always be true. The times, they are a-changin.


  20. ::sigh::

    Michael: Again, I’ll ask for an analogy that actually works better than your blueberries one. All blueberries are roughly the same; books are not. Which is why it may be hard to sift through the coming tidal wave of self-published books to find the winners.

    My invoking the—for you, clearly a hot button—term “art” was merely to indicate that books are a different sort of commodity than blueberries. You and I both know that it wasn’t an attempt to take some sort of higher ground. You of all people know that I’m not wrapping myself in that sort of banner.

    So all your fuming about Meyer over Hesse is kind of beside the point. (And the answer, of course, is that the editor would publish both, but would pay vastly different sums. It’s not so ruthlessly one-or-the-other, though suggesting so makes erecting rhetorical strawmen in a discussion a lot simpler.)

    Ben, no one here is contesting that digital books are the wave of the future. No one. They’re here to stay, and I for one can’t wait to have a decent reader. (Something other than the Kindle.) Nor is anyone contesting that there will be blockbuster digital books. (The moment Stephen Patterson Stephenie James King Meyer whomever decides to forego a traditional publisher, that hurdle will be crossed.)

    The (admittedly muddled) point was that self-publishing doesn’t yet equal publishing, that self-publishing ebooks does not equal the death knell of traditional publishers. If anything, it will make starkly clear what traditional publishers have to offer as a kind of quality control.


    • Or rather, Michael, I’ll expand upon your blueberries analogy to show just how wonky it is:

      Instead of just one roadside seller of blueberries, you have thousands, all clustered together. And while the blueberries mostly look the same from the outside (they’re in little green plastic crates of what-have-you; a gibberingly enthusiastic salesperson showing you the testimonials from others who have sampled his blueberries and declared them “T0ts dlx, dude!”), you know from past experience that some—maybe even most—will be sour, bad, lousy. And hell, there are ten thousand vendors just on this little patch of land. How to know which ones have the real goods?

      Well, also along the road are established vendors whose names are known because they vend more than just blueberries. And they have hired experts (questionable experts, true, but experts nonetheless) to wade into that morass of blueberry salesmen to sample them all and determine which are actually good. And you pay a little more for that expertise, because it saves you time and, over the long haul, money: you spend a little more up front, true, but it means you can just park, buy your crate of berries, and get the hell out of there.

      Am I reading your analogy correctly? Is that a fair extension of it? Or should we just kill this one now and move on to one that might be more useful?

      (Also, to anyone reading this who knows neither of us Michaels, we are friends. He hates me, but I’m his biggest fan. We just enjoy the fencing and raillery.)


  21. I agree Michael. Nobody said digital books aren’t the wave of the future and likewise nobody said self publishing would kill off traditional publishers. My point, poorly made, was that readable books that could not, or would not, be published by traditional media may be published electronically. Marketing and promotion will decide if they sell.

    Great discussion. Thanks to everybody.


  22. Man, I love it when you guys go at it about self-publishing. This is the best rally yet!

    Is it done?


  23. Wonderful post. One minor quibble with the framing narrative. While I would agree that much of what’s self published smells of “Atlanta Nights” (though not as cheeky and wonderful!) but one cannot end the conversation there.

    Access is an important element of the conversation, which is often absent. When you look at the way in which the publishing industry ignores large segments of the population – namely folks from marginalized and/or underrepresented communities – what exactly do you propose they do in order to have their voices even considered enough to be quickly dismissed.

    Even browsing your own staff/author roster, not one visible person of color. This is not an attack, but a challenge to consider thinking about ALL the folks not in the room before reflecting on the cheestasticness of self(ish) publishing. (a point I eagerly concede!)

    Let’s not paint all folks who view it as a viable option with the same brush.

    Note: the only thing I’ve ever self published was a ‘zine about Mother Jefferson. It was staunchly in the 99% club!


  24. i am taking tutorial about self-publishing because it is also a good way of making money.””‘


  25. self-publishing is always good but it may require some initial capital and labor to run it.’*:


  26. When the subject came up last week, I asked a good friend of mine what his thoughts on the matter were. His response was that, as an aspiring writer, he wouldn’t want to publish something that had not passed through that final rite of passage: the stamp of approval from a publisher. It’s certainly not that he lacks confidence—his stance is informed by the countless authors that bemoan their first works, the ones that they produced when they were young, idealistic and inexperienced. Of course, these works were actually approved by some editor at some point in time. Where does that leave the self-publisher?


  27. LOL@ Michael Grant!

    You said, “Remember that we got our break writing crap for Harlequin and ghostwriting Sweet Valley Twins.”

    Ha ha! Too funny! I like what you said about Meyer being raised to godhood. What always astonishes me is when publishing people come to posts like these and always hurl the same insults about self-published work, calling it slush & dreck, and say “Oh the horrors”.

    But they published Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer. You want to talk about horror + dreck. And Michael, the book was 900 pages of it for $40. A reviewer on amazon said “Meyer’s editor need to be tarred & feathered along side her” I wasn’t paraphrasing either, that was the quote.

    And then there’s Snooki and (hat guy named The Situation from Jersey Shores who both got book deals. Don’t get me wrong! The books made great toilet paper- a little rough but still. Just kidding.

    Anyway, I digress. Publishers: bottom line: Stop ripping writers off with this laughable 25% ebook royalty mess.Excuse me, I meant 14.9% after they split it with the agents (and you don’t work with unagented writers, right). Stop side-stepping the royalty issue by yelling “dreck”! Stop going on & on about editing and covers (because we know you use stock covers from iStockphoto(dot)com for a buck so get off it). Stop making everything you do seem so expensive, too.

    I read a quote from a publisher who said for ebooks, the html coding to format the books needed to be outsourced and adds to justifying their high royalty take. Bwahahahah! Any thirteen year old kid knows html coding these days! Kids are designing video games that rival Grand Theft Auto in looks. I think they can code one of your stupid books (if shown an example of desired format by the perspective author). And they’ll take little or nothing.

    Yeah, your editing skills are excellent! Are they worthy of the lion’s share royalties you consume? Nah.No way in hell. Stop over-valuing yourselves. Please! Your editing skills are worth 30%, not a nickel more.

    P.S. One more thing. What’s up with publishing the pedophilia (twilight:Eclipse & Breaking Dawn)??o.0. “Oh the horrors”.


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