Thursday, February 10, 2011

The e-pub cud

I've been chewing this cud for too long. It's about time I spit it out.

I be chewin' it.
E-publishing, at this juncture in time, is an enormous temptation. Imagine: the labour and toil I invest in every piece of writing can be fulfilled in the design of an e-book cover, the cursory examination of several vendor protocols, the creation of certain accounts, and the acceptance of a few e-agreements (usually denoted by check-boxes). And then I can sit back and make money.

Suffice to say I have thought seriously about e-publishing on several occasions and each time backed away. I won't wax eloquent on these subjects; I will merely begin ticking off both my caveats re: e-publishing, and the delicious, alluring scents that pull me thither regardless.

The money: Both a pro and a con. If I get my stories out as e-books, I will start ringing the till. However. Short stories, from what I've observed, sell for 99 cents, and with a 70% royalty rate, that's 70 cents or so for the author at each sale. If I sell a short story to even the lamest, dumbest, most illiterate token-paying magazine, I'll probably get five bucks for it. That's the equivalent of selling a single short story seven times to e-readers who could be reading Clarkesworld or Strange Horizons for free. On top of that, e-publishing doesn't get me the same

Exposure. If I publish with, again, the lamest, dumbest, most illiterate token-paying magazine, the fact that they are willing to pay me five bucks to use that story for something means they've probably got a readership of more than seven people. That's not only the value of my e-pub right there; that's someone else doing the promotional work. This, for me, is the big fish. I've always felt suspicious of professionals like Dean Wesley Smith and Joe Konrath claiming that the e-reader revolution equalizes the market and makes self-publishing viable; they were already pros. They had publishing houses pushing their work. And I've still never read anything by either of them. So in what kind of stead does that leave the vast majority of us, the vast majority of those who will self-publish, Those-Without-A-Name?

Despite these caveats, I actually suspect that both Dean and Joe and all the other folks are right. The basically zero-overhead business of e-publishing is an opportunity for Any Writer to become A Writer. It's like the difference between the Vikings and the Saxons: the Saxons, bound to their oaths of fealty, fight where their lord pleases. The Vikings ride around in boats and take what they want. In the world of e-publishing there is freedom, there is a fortune, and I suspect there is a future if Any Writer plays his or her cards right (a big "if," mind you). And, eventually, I'll probably jump on the bandwagon.

But alas, alack, there are two more things:

I think the bottleneck is going to remain publicity, which is really hard for a single person, who also must write, to do really well when they also have a day job (like me, and probably like most). That, in my opinion, is more than enough reason to remain focused on "professional" publishing. Magazines and book publishers can help you make a name; and then you, a scurrilous knave, can ditch your book deal and capitalize on your brand electronically.

Second: when I start e-publishing, there's going to be some serious self-editing. It's easy to say "don't worry about it" when you're rattling off stories and sending them to editors who are likely to dump them in the recycling rather than read them. But when you make an e-book, it's out there. And I, for one, know that I've written - and read - a lot of stories that I wouldn't mind passing to an editor, but that I would absolutely refuse to publish myself. This shouldn't sound odd: if a middleman wants to pay me, that's great. But if I'm working directly with customers, that means I'm the middleman. And, in the words of John Joseph Adams:
"I'm going to pass on it. It didn't quite work for me, I'm afraid."
Regardless of the fact that I turn them into Submission Bombs every day and hurl them at professional editors, a lot of my stories don't quite work for me. Self-editing is just as important to the self-publishing process as all the other components: "Send us your best," as the 'zines love to say.

The final word: I'll e-pub... eventually. And, more than likely, I'll mostly confine myself to self-publishing novels (once I've, y'know, written some), again due expressly to the fact I can't imagine an enormous market for short speculative fiction when you can read several great, professional 'zines online for free.



  1. Many good points here, and some that I've thought about myself. I don't have any desire to e-pub--or at least self e-pub--right now, but I have no doubt that, considering the growing market in that area and the early stage of my career, I too will do it eventually. But right now I don't even have the desire to research that part of the market enough to know what's what. I'll just wait a while longer and see what happens.

  2. Yeah, there's definitely a significant investment of time required also. I can barely find all the time I need to write, so I suppose that's another barrier. Although I actually did design a cover for a story the other day, and I've already done all the reading for Smashwords, at least... so, I'm halfway there. Sort of... more or less.

  3. Hi Ben,

    There's a lot here, and most all of it has been addressed other places.

    With money -- it's not about how much you make with one check, it's how much you make over the long hall.

    With exposure -- well, Amanda Hocking didn't have any exposure and she's the Stephen King of indie publishing.

    With getting a name through trad publishing then ditching it in order to capitalize via ebooks -- you should really read this piece by Kristine Kathryn Rusch about how NY publishing is going to start tying all IP's up so they'll never be reverted back to the writer:

    I don't understand what you mean by self-editing. You're a writer, not an editor. You write. You put it out. Let the readers decide if they want to buy your work or not. You doing the same thing as your are when submitting, but instead of sending it to one editor who is looking to buy a story for his/her particular magazine, you are offering it to millions of editors who may buy it because they want to read it.

    Finally, the time investment -- just read Dean Wesley Smith's newest post on time:

  4. Jeff,

    I definitely agree with... well, basically all of that. I'm still hung up on a few things, again namely publicity, especially since e-reading is still only some 10% of the market, short stories are available for free, and the market is now awash in young bucks. You can POD a novel, of course, and that might up the number of potential buyers, but I don't have any novels to sell yet. This means that, right now, today, I think it is more advantageous NOT to self-publish. I can build a name with editors and with the public in the traditional way until I see what I consider to be an opportune moment; I already know HOW to e-publish, more or less. I could be up and running in a weekend.

    Regarding editing. Readers are NOT editors. They are consumers. So let's say I e-pub all thirty of my short stories tomorrow. If some reader buys one of the bad ones, they may not return to me as a customer; they'll think, "the last thing I read by the God-guy was God-awful." Conversely, Sheila Williams at Asimov's has many times rejected my work, some of it awful, and yet she personally suggests I send more - presumably because she thinks I might eventually put out something her consumers will come back for. That's a different sort of situation. The editor needs something and has few choices; the reader needs something and has many choices.

    That's all I'm really saying. There's good reason, in my opinion, to take objective stock of what to self-publish, because it affects your brand. There are stories that I would shudder to promote without the help of others because I personally think they're awful. Granted: I've been massively wrong with those assumptions. I've been complimented on writing I thought was crap. But I still think I have to try.

  5. "Magazines and book publishers can help you make a name; and then you, a scurrilous knave, can ditch your book deal and capitalize on your brand electronically." This sounds like a logical course of action and one I plan to follow - should the eReader fad continue to grow in popularity.

    The JJA quote had me smiling; I've lost count of how many of those I've received!

  6. "the last thing I read by the God-guy was God-awful." : You should put that blurb in the front matter of everything you write. That'll move paper.

    I don't (yet) have enough data on ePub' to be able to make a fair assessment or give recommendations, but so far there've been no negatives and I work harder.