Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
June 2012

Self-Publishing the Smart Way

You are probably hearing a lot of the same things I have been hearing in the last couple of years. The traditional publishing model is dead. New York no longer has a strangle hold on what will be published. Put your book out as an ebook and the readers will come. It's a variation on the theme that we in the science fiction field have been hearing for years, that paper books are soon to be dead, that the world is ending, that the apocalypse is near, stock up your guns and your emergency food, and hold onto your house. Or some variation thereof. Well, there is a tiny bit of truth in all that handwringing. Let me try to get at it for you.

"Traditional publishing" (a term which I use with some dislike, as it has been coined by those who are supposedly doing "independent publishing" which is actually self-publishing in a new guise) is not dead. The end.

OK, fine, I will continue. People are still reading paper books. People may always read paper books, but even if they won't be in a thousand years, they will be for the foreseeable future. When movies came in, books weren't suddenly of no more interest to the reading public. In fact, I believe that if you track readers in America, the advent of movies only increased the number of readers, though it probably had to do with general wealth and leisure time rather than anything else. Movies did not kill radio, either. Both radio and books are their own independent art forms and they remain popular, viable business options. Did they change with the popularity of movies? Yes, they did. Radio tended to do far less fiction, radio plays. Radio became instead, the place for news, talk shows, and cheap access to popular music.

Writers are going to continue to write novels as they always have. There may be some changes. One that I envision is more books being written day by day, so that readers can read a chapter a day and keep up with the hottest book around. This is based mostly on the way in which books were read in Charles Dickens' time, in periodicals. In that time, I think you will also see if you do a little research that there was an enormous problem with piracy. Our current world copyright laws were developed after that time period. But we Americans were some of the worst thieves of copyrighted material of anyone anywhere. As soon as Dickens' books were available in periodical form, American newspapers happily printed them without remunerating the author a cent. Remember that when you think about other countries who do not have the same copyright laws that we do now. America was a poor country and we did not feel that we needed to abide by British laws. It was American to take what we wanted.

I love ebooks. I read about 2/3 of all my books on an ebook reader of one kind or another. I like the one on my smart phone the best, because I can read in the middle of the night without waking my spouse, when I am suffering one of my frequent bouts of insomnia. I also read on my computer on occasion, if I want a larger screen. We have several other kinds of ebooks in the house that we share. Ebooks do, however, make piracy a lot easier. Any author who wants to go crazy can go on-line and see how many copies of their books were downloaded for free that day. Whether or not this is different from a library is, I suppose, a matter of some debate. There are certainly some models of marketing which suggest that giving away something for free can increase sales over the long term. I don't much like people taking my books for free, but I don't lose a lot of sleep over it, either.

My biggest concern over ebooks is the message that is being sent to aspiring authors that now they can skip the entire process of learning the craft of writing, getting rejected over a period of years, and then at last writing a book that is worth being paid for. I feel that they are also missing out on the back and forth honing process that happens when working with a very fine editor over a year or more of revision. Not only have errors (typos, name changes, time continuity issues and the like) been caught and corrected by a copyeditor, but I have never published a novel which I was not glad to have had a chance to work on with an editor. My books are simply better than they would have been otherwise. Once in a while a kind critic will say something about my writing like it is sparse and lyrical. This makes me laugh because actually, my tendency as a writer is to be bloated, rather obvious, and to hit my readers over the head with everything that I think they need to know. It is my editor who encourages me to cut here and there (and everywhere) and to let my work be more subtle. There are perhaps some kernels of lyricism in my writing, but I am pretty sure no one would be able to find them without the editorial process.

The temptation with the advent of self-published ebooks (which, I assure you, can be put up in minutes and do not require any level of technical expertise -- I have done it without any help at all) is to skip the painful process of revision. The result is not something which will help most authors in the rest of their career. I find this sad as I find any wasted talent sad. It is, of course, your choice. If you are absolutely certain that your book is ready to read, then no one will stop you. There are no literary quality police who will arrest you for the improper use of the subjective case in a pronoun, nor for having too many passive verbs, or for ending a sentence with a preposition. Will you get readers? I suspect not.

Yes, I know there is Amanda Hocking. There is 50 Shades of Grey. There are a handful of books published as ebooks first and which have gone on to sell thousands, even hundreds of thousands of copies, and which traditional NY publishing houses have gone on to acquire and publish, making even more money for the author. What you need to understand as an author is that this is like the lottery. People win the lottery, and that is the lie. Because they are the exception to the rule.

Any mathematician can explain to you simply how the chance of winning the lottery can be calculated by the number of people who buy tickets divided by the number of payouts -- often one. It is very small. The way to calculate the value of such a chance is also a fairly simple equation. Needless to say, it is less than the cost of the stamp it would take you to mail in your Publishers' Sweepstakes entry form. It is certainly less than your lottery ticket price. This is why lotteries are a huge way for the government to make money. Because they are making the money and you (and everyone else) is losing it. In the end, it seems a silly choice for the government to make, since most of the people who buy lottery tickets are likely to be the uneducated, who will end up needing far more money in return to help them survive until they spend their social security check on more lottery tickets.

Enough of my soap box on lottery tickets. Publishing an ebook is like buying a lottery ticket. The chances of success are minuscule. They may or may not have anything to do with the quality of the book you write. You may not spend much money on this lottery ticket if you count it in dollars and cents, but you will pay in the time you spend writing your book and throwing it away. A traditional publisher who buys your book will be invested in helping it succeed. They may not, in fact, be able to earn back your advance in sales, but you will not be alone in trying to sell it. Your book won't be one of the three million ebooks that went up last month for sale. There are so many ebooks now that readers have a lot more difficulty figuring out how to find what they want than buying it. How will you stand out?

As annoying as I sometimes find self-published authors who end up at school book fairs, sf/f conventions or in bookstore, I also feel a measure of pity for them. I have had one man come up to me at a book signing we were both at. He went around to all the authors there, asking them how they got bookstores to stock their books. He had published with a vanity press that claimed to be a traditional publisher. They promised to use his money to publicize the book, to get it reviewed in all the best magazines, and to ensure its place on the shelf at Barnes and Noble. They did not carry through on any of these promises, in fact had no power to do so, and the man was left with a box of books he could only hand sell, one by one, to people he met in person. He had no idea that he had been conned and I was not happy to tell him. He was so sure that the rest of the authors in the room had paid the same money and somehow ended up with a better deal. The first thing any author needs to remember is that the money flows to you, the creator. If the money isn't going to flow to you, then you are being conned or cheated or just plain lied to -- possibly by someone well-meaning, most likely not.

I've had other situations where I listen to self-published authors give me advice on how to sell more books at a book signing. They claim that wearing a costume, hounding the customers in the store who are looking for other books, and offering free prizes or standing at the door to greet each person who enters are the way to success. I suppose that they do sell some books, sometimes to those who want to stop being hounded and have no intention of reading it, but do they sell books when they are not there? I hope that my books sell because of the quality, and not because I insist on meeting every customer. I am not saying that you do not need to take any part in the marketing of your book. Talking to bookstore owners and employees can be a good use of your time. Doing book signings is a time-honored way of making yourself more noticed. But I don't believe that you need to become a used car salesman with balloons, promised deals that turn out to have catches, and free hot dogs. Again, the money should flow to you.

I have been attacked by self-published authors for expressing these views. I have been attacked personally by self-published authors who claim that I am greedy and in it for the money, that NY publishing houses publish crap, and that real authors should be spending their time "with the children," and not sitting in an office all day writing on a computer alone. My guess is that most of these self-published authors will find that, in fact, books are not a great way to make a living, that it is too much work to hock their own work, and they will give up and find some better use of their time, perhaps selling used cars.

Still, there is a part of me that feels a little sorry for people who must have lived with some rejection before they decided that NY publishing houses publish crap. I am also a little sorry that they did not decide to meet rejection letters with the determination to do better. They seemed also not to be able to see what it is about their self-published books that make them of a lesser quality than those traditionally published. And when they tell me that I am just lucky, I shake my head and think about the twenty novels I wrote before I got published, after spending eight years getting a PhD in literature, and writing another dozen juvenile novels, along with countless short stories. I worked hard to get published. I don't consider myself to be spectacularly talented as a writer to begin with, anymore than I consider myself to be talented as a triathlete. But I work damned hard and I am really annoyed when people assume I was somehow handed my success on a silver platter. I wasn't. I was rejected and am still rejected plenty. I daresay I collect more rejections in a year still than most people.

Still, there are certainly times when self-publishing makes sense. I have self-published a number of books. For instance, I've made books for my parents' 50th wedding anniversary with stories from all their children. I self-published The Princess and the Horse, the fourth book in my series, after I parted ways with my publisher and felt that readers of the series deserved to be able to read the final book. I've self-published two theses and a dissertation. My daughter's first grade class self-published books they worked on for several weeks to give as gifts to their parents. In each of these cases, I self-published because I knew the audience was small. I did not expect to make money from the process. I did all the work myself and I accept that the product is inferior compared to traditionally published books.

There are people who have self-published superb books for different reason. David Farland self-published In the Company of Angels, a wonderful historical novel for the LDS market. He knew his market. He paid for good cover art. He wrote a great book that was edited well. He didn't think any of the other publishers would do as good a job as he did. I've read some very good ebooks through recommendations from friends, all self-published. Some of these authors have tried to publish traditionally and have decided that an ebook would get them some publicity. They pay for editors and get good cover art. They make an investment in promoting themselves. I respect many of these people, though not all of them. (I still believe that children should not be publishing books in the adult world and that parents who push them to do so are exploiting them.)

If you truly want to be self-published, do it with your eyes open. Don't be fooled by people who promise more than they can possibly deliver. Do not expect to make a lot of money by self-publishing. Expect to do a lot of your own promotion. Make sure that your product is of the highest quality. The less self-published authors attack those who are traditionally published, the less I suspect there will be the backlash that can follow in a never-ending cycle of anger and disgust.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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