Archives for category: Self publishing

We just visited Bermuda — a small, crowded archipelago “island” a couple of hours by air from the eastern USA. All the houses have to have white roofs, and rain water is collected in cisterns because there is no room on the tiny islands for rivers and lakes.

Bermuda was originally just an uninhabited place where sailors would get shipwrecked. Although on the map it looks like a long S, it is in fact the southern half of an atoll representing the caldera of an ancient volcano, and has to its north a similar long curved “island” — this one however submerged below the surface of the se. These submerged reefs are there to surprise incautious mariners and wreck their vessels. The ones who ended up staying were the survivors of the Sea Venture a supply ship headed for Jamestown which went down in a hurricane in 1609. From the wreckage they built a couple of boats and went on to Jamestown: the Virginia Company took on the administration of this new place. Bermuda is now the oldest and most populous British colony.

We talked with the local bookseller, who allowed as how they felt neither one nor the other when it came to territorial rights — USA or UK and Commonwealth, but were currently favoring the UK with more orders because the exchange rate was so good. Every now and then a publisher may wake up to the issue, and regretfully say they can no longer supply this or that book into what is obviously a British Commonwealth market. Little market tests are constantly going on as the booksellers can observe this book selling better in its UK cover or that one selling out in its American edition. They pointed to a number of local self-published titles, and reported that one of the more successful among those authors was actually a Bermuda printer himself, and so was making his books locally as well as selling them thus.

The first printer in Bermuda was Joseph Stockdale who arrived in Bermuda in 1783 with the impressive title of King’s Printer. He had, obviously, to bring all his type, machinery, and paper with him, and on 17 January 1784 published the first issue of the Bermuda Gazette and Weekly Advertiser. He edited, published and printed this newspaper for twenty years, aided by his three daughters. He also organized a postal service for the island, making deliveries once a week. After his death the newspaper was carried on by his daughters, and the spouse of one (he was eventually exiled for excessively critical editorials). The Bermuda Gazette and Weekly Advertiser eventually petered out around 1831 in the face of competition from new arrivals.

It looks likely that in The Tempest Shakespeare is describing an island based on Bermuda. In Act 1 Ariel tells how Prospero called on him “to fetch dew / From the still-vex’d Bermoothes”. Timing might be considered a bit tight though: the play was first publicly performed on 1 November 1611 (no doubt privately before that), but William Strachey’s letter describing the place was written in 1610 and didn’t reach London till September of that year. Strachey, a native of Saffron Walden, was on the Sea Venture when she was wrecked on Bermuda, and wrote an eyewitness account, A true reportory of the wracke and redemption of Sir Thomas Gates Knight; vpon, and from the Ilands of the Bermudas: his comming to Virginia, and the estate of that Colonie then, and after, vnder the gouernment of the Lord La Warre, Iuly 15. 1610, which was eventually published in 1625 in Purchas His Pilgrimes (incidentally, one of the sources for Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Kahn).

For those struggling with the question of how to publish their brilliant book, here is a chart aiming to help you reach a decision from Jane Friedman’s blog. (Link via Technology • Innovation • Publishing.) Click on the infographic to make it a bit larger.

Writing in Publishers Weekly (password protected I’m afraid) Bill Kasdorf admits,  “I recently complimented Brendan Quinn, the managing director of the IPTC, the technical standards organization for the global news media, about the excellent job he had done in writing a blog that he ran by me for review. It was engagingly written, informative, well organized, and spot-on with regard to the content. His response: ‘Don’t compliment me. ChatGPT wrote that. I just added some formatting and links, and a bit of extra information that I forgot to put in the prompt.’”

Two examples, from the Publishers Weekly article, of AI-generated art resulting from searching for “a robot author writing a book on a computer” on OpenAI’s DALL-E 2. (Are authors really such cigar aficionados?)

Maybe in the ultimate scheme of things it doesn’t matter all that much whether a text is written by a human or actually done by software, unless of course you’re the author being diddled out of your royalties. The real problem comes with faking. “A university professor recently reported that of all the essays submitted for a recent assignment, the one that was easily the best paper in the class turned out to have been written by ChatGPT.” How are you to judge whether the person making outrageous claims in this video news item really said what they clearly can be seen saying, or whether they were just deepfaked using DALL-E2 or some such software? How’s a publisher to know that this manuscript by “Stephen King” is by the real Stephen King not by some machine writing à la King? How’s a book-buyer to be sure that this Stephen King book is being offered online by Mr King’s regular publisher, Scribner, and not by some unscrupulous knock-off-shop? Until you get it, having paid first, you’ve really got no way of judging whether there’s anything there at all.

Well obviously all of that sort of thing is unacceptable, and cannot be allowed to happen. An arms race is on. “What is being developed is basically a ‘certificate of authenticity’, tamper-proof or tamper-evident metadata that can confirm who created a media asset, who altered it over time, how it was altered, and whether the entity providing it is legitimate.” The Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity (C2PA) is developing technical standards for such a certificate of authenticity. The Content Authenticity Initiative and Project Origin are a couple of the initiatives at work. The focus of these efforts is online and the nearest they get to book publishing is the involvement of The New York Times in both of them. Mr Kasdorf is encouraged by the rapidity with which these responses have evolved. Clearly the book world needs to get involved. That old-fashioned confidence (dating from a month or two ago!) that machines would never be able to fool us cannot survive exposure to the evidence. This may be an existential threat to the profession of author, and by extension to publishing. The way to protect against this is to come up with reliable methods of authentication, so that Mr King’s readers (and his publisher of course) can be sure Mr King actually wrote this, and that the buyers can be sure that the publisher offering them the book (because you can be confident they’d never want to offer you ersatz Kingiana) is really Scribner. Surely this can be achieved. If as a by-product it enables us to get rid of spam mail and phone calls, that’ll be a massive benefit to humankind.

It is obviously crazy that one ChatGPT-using author should have garnered death threats among the other rewards for his book-generating efforts. Of course online threats are cheap and so easy to send, if harder to deliver on, but still Ammaar Reshi is guilty of nothing more than generating an illustrated children’s book for his friend’s newborn — and, it’s true, offering it for sale on Amazon. ChatGPT gave him the text, and Midjourney came up with the pictures. The story is at BuzzFeed, (link via TechnologyInnovationPublishing).

One of Midjourney’s illustrations for Alice and Sparkle by Amman Reshi (Author), ChatGPT (Author) and Midjourney (Illustrator).

You can buy the book for $9.01 at Amazon, who have a “Look inside” link for you. The book looks perfectly respectable. ChatGPT and Midjourney are shown as fellow authors! So what’s the status of this publication? Is it copyrightable? By whom? Does it matter? No deception is being practiced. Mr Reshi is surely at least a co-author — he came up with the prompts which made the software programs come up with the results you can see. Does this mean that he of all the co-authors is the one who can claim copyright?

Hard to know what to think about all this: it’s all too new and unprecedented. Educators are already wrestling with the issue. I can remember the arguments over electronic calculators: we’ve accepted them now, and we’ll no doubt accept ChatGPT’s role in essay writing eventually. It’s nothing more, in a way, that an extension of the vocabulary prompts we are already subjected to. (Be sure to switch off Auto-correct when it’s got ChatGPT behind it!) I can’t see anything wrong with the idea of Mr Reshi’s creating and publishing this book. Surely a fairly presented AI-generated novel can be just as entertaining as many another novel. When we move to factual and instructional materials things get a little murkier. ChatGPT is apparently perfectly happy to present you with totally convincing arguments that something untrue is real — all it’s doing is delivering up to you a version of the material it has been trained upon. Google’s embarrassing error about the photographing of planets was obviously so convincing that it never occurred to them to check it. We are going to need to learn how to cope with this. Framing your prompts “properly” is an important starting point; checking the truth of its assertions is also vital. But we all know that much carefree content generation, true or false, lies ahead of us.

I was just inveighing the other day about the dangers of the over-interpretation of data. And two days later plop in my in-box here’s another classic example. Based upon the characteristics of one (as yet unfinished) book, Mike Shatzkin “proves” to us that trade publishing is over and done with, claiming that “it looks like it has become very difficult, bordering on impossible, for a commercial entity to make money consistently publishing new titles.”

Have the leaders of our industry taken leave of their senses? If you can’t make money off books, why would you try to take over Simon & Schuster? So that you’ll be able to make even bigger losses? Book publishing’s actually doing pretty well these days. 2021 was a banner sales year, and 2022 looks set to have just missed equalling it. There are problems on the supply side, leading to narrowing margins as price increases on books are agonized over. Sure we can’t expect the pandemic book boom to continue, but it’s not yet a crisis, is it?

Mr Shatzkin starts his post with a very clear history of the recent past of the book publishing game: the sort of thing you’d want to give to anyone thinking of getting into publishing. All he says is absolutely true, and nicely put. He jumps the rails when he starts to consider a book by Ed Rogoff, a business studies professor. A few years ago Professor Rogoff self-published a book, Bankable Business Plans for Non-Profits (Amazon says it was in 2021) which he wanted available so his students could have access to the teaching material in it. Mr Shatzkin is beguiled into hailing this as a new ability for authors, presaging the end of commercial publishing. When I was a school in the nineteen-fifties we were taught from a couple of “self-published” books, one by the German teacher who was still there, and one by an ex-headmaster. I dare say lots of students over the centuries have thus been taught: nothing new there, and certainly no death knell for publishing companies. Sure, it’s easier now to self publish a book than it was back just after WWII, but just because it can be done doesn’t mean everyone will do it. As Mr Shatkin admits “putting a book out through a publisher is now a choice, not the only way to accomplish the task.” Professor Rogoff may self-publish Scary Diagnoses; Professor Rogoff may not: I doubt whether Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster or any other publishing house will notice the difference.

Getting the manuscripts and turning them into books was always the fun part. Persuading people to buy them is tough.

Chris McVeigh at @4fifty1 has a rant, entitled This is not a love song. He quotes a publishing marketing director who “was frustrated because she felt like she was consistently letting down the authors under her care. The sheer relentless weight of books coming through the pipeline had all but overwhelmed her and her staff some time ago — and from where she was standing things were only getting worse. We just don’t have the time to do anything properly, we’re just ticking boxes.”

But unfortunately boxes do need to be ticked: it may be boring but messages need to be sent to the relevant mailing lists, influencers need to be alerted, and review copies need to be sent to appropriate review media. These publications will insist on wanting to make up their own minds about whether or not they’ll send the book on to someone who might actually read it and review it. It’s a lot about horses and water and drinking — you can do all sorts of social media stuff but you can’t reach down the wires and force the punters to buy. At the end of the day, all a publisher can really do is let people know that this book exists, ensure it’s out there in places where they might find it, and keep their fingers crossed. I suspect most readers are fairly adept at discounting publishers’ claims of excellence: what makes the book sell is something else. Where the idea comes from that this is a book I need to buy varies wildly, but is summed up as “word-of-mouth”. You hear about the book, and having heard about it you think it sounds like something you might buy. Eventually maybe it ends up as something you have bought.

This Publishing Perspectives piece asks whether we can replicate “word-of-mouth” by using the Internet. “Every marketing expert loves — and wants — business through word-of-mouth, but nobody has figured out the perfect way to automate and digitalize this vital tool.” Well, of course, if you run a business aimed at automating “word-of-mouth” clearly you’ll think of it as a tool. However I fear word-of-mouth is not a “tool” representing a means to an end — it is the end itself. What marketing aims to create is word-of-mouth. The assumption, and the probability, is that that talk will indeed translate into sales — but what the publisher’s marketers are trying to gin up is not directly the sale, but the awareness which will provoke people out there into thinking “I might should buy that book”. Clearly, I guess, the more eyeballs you can hit with the fact, the more effective the distribution of that fact may be.

Mike Shatzkin claims Open Road’s automated online marketing operation is unique. OK, maybe it is unique, but is it working? Hard to tell from the outside — probably from the inside too when all’s said and done. We don’t see Open Road at the top of bestseller lists all the time, but how can we judge whether Open Road books are not in fact selling better than they would have done without this digital marketing help? They probably are, but not even Open Road can know for certain. These are not scientific experiments which can be rerun: so we just stumble along and tick all those boxes.

Here David Gaughran gives the self-publisher advice on how to do email marketing. At the coalface too, from Inside Higher Education, Joanne W. Golann lets us know what an author can do to publicize their own academic book. I am always tempted to insist that there’s a platonic perfect number out there which represents the sales number of any given book. In most cases in academic publishing this is a fairly low number and letting millions more know about is almost a waste of time. No amount of TikTok activity and word-of-mouthing is going to provoke anyone to buy Leucocyte Typing VII I fear — unless they were going to buy it anyway. Still getting the word out to fifty more buyers for such a book is a more rewarding feeling than trying to alert millions.

It may not be publishing’s biggest problem, but it’s certainly one of the top ones — and one we could ourselves cure, if only we had the will. We insist on being willing to take back books we have “sold”, giving full credit for them. What this means is that you never really know what the sales of a book are: they may all be out there in bookshops — but nobody knows how many, and when, they’ll start turning up at the warehouse with a request for a refund. But we are apparently hooked on returns. Returns are crazy. Returns of POD books are crazier. And returns of ebooks are beyond crazy.

NPR has a story about authors protesting Amazon’s returns policy on ebooks, which allows you seven days to cancel a purchase made in error. Now of course seven days is more than enough to read almost any book, so if you are a ruthless reading addict, you can avoid ever paying for a book. If the book’s too long, I wonder if, having bought it “in error” one week, you can buy the same book “in error” a week or so later after having gotten credit for the first purchase — and so on until you’ve managed to finish the tome, when you finally return it for the ultimate credit. That this should be an option is nuts. Obviously Amazon, maniacally customer-friendly, want to encourage you to buy that pair of shoes, confident in the knowledge that if they don’t fit, you can return them for full credit, no questions asked. This quite rational policy just gets extended to all products, and bingo, books are priceless.

With ebooks of course there’s no physical object being swapped back and forth — all the reader is getting is access to a file, then giving up that access when their money is refunded. So the publisher isn’t losing anything more than the tiny electronic cost of doing these transactions. The author though, having gotten a royalty credited to their account when the ebook was first “sold”, has to watch that royalty being clawed back from their account.* This looks a lot more like losing something real! Of course both parties have immediately lost another potential customer. Assuming there’s a finite number of people who might ever buy a particular book, if lots of them are able to read it for free, that represents significant damage to the ultimate earnings of author and publisher.

I think it’s obvious that seven days is far too long to allow a customer to decide to return a product for credit. Maybe if it’s a pair of pants it’s understandable that they need to be delivered and tried on before you know whether they fit or not. I do know people who have bought an item of clothing, worn it to a party, and then returned it for credit the next day. Even this, although utterly immoral, is not quite as ludicrous as “buying” an ebook, reading it, and rerunning it for full credit.


* OK, OK; there can’t be many authors who have real-time access to their royalty statement.

The Passive Voice explains recent changes in the Copyright registration procedures covering digital-only publications. As tells us “Section 407 of the Copyright Act generally requires the owner of the copyright in a work published in the United States to deposit two copies with the Copyright Office for use by the Library of Congress. The Register of Copyrights is authorized to exempt certain classes of works from this mandatory deposit requirement. In a 2010 interim rule, the Office codified its longstanding practice of exempting all electronic works that are not available in a physical format.” [There were a few exceptions.]

In 2020 they decided that books published only in a digital version would become subject to a deposit requirement, in electronic form, when © is registered. (None of this refers to what we normally think of as e-books, where the digital version is in effect no more than a different format of a print book — the deposit in these cases will have taken place when © in the original printed book was filed.) The Passive Voice speculates that this acceptance of digital deposit might indicate a recognition by The Library of Congress that they can’t store everything in physical form, and that they may want to move more generally to e-deposit. If there’s anything to this, it will no doubt be a long drawn out process. The new reg isn’t substituting a digital copy for a hard copy: it’s introducing a digital copy deposit requirement.

For those who feel compelled to get their news from the horse’s mouth, here’s a link to the Federal Register of 12 November 2020 in which the rule is set forth.

See also Copyright registration.

The term vanity press appears to have originated in the USA, though the reality is older and more widespread. It means, of course, a “publishing” company that in return for a fee will take your manuscript and turn it into a book. This of course doesn’t constitute what we normally think of as publishing, but there are always lots of people with enough money to spend it on all sorts of services. Efforts at making sales would be made but realistically getting rid of the books was down to the authors themselves. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s earliest reference to the business is from 1922 in Business of Writing: “Numerous devices are employed by the ‘vanity publisher’ to lead the innocent author on toward becoming famous in his own eyes and those of his friends“. This is kind of how we viewed vanity presses towards the end of the twentieth century, when they still existed: as machines designed to separate fools from their money.* Now that it’s become so much easier to get your book published, vanity presses have had to mutate in order to survive, and have followed their prey into the more open waters of the online world.

Hybrid is the label under which these actors, (some good, some bad) now conduct their publishing services business. Jane Freidman hosts on her site a piece about bad actors in the “industry”. The piece is linked to by The Passive Voice, where you can find quite sensible commentary on it focussed on their expertise in contracts. The Passive Voice tells us that they “checked out SheWrites Press [a hybrid publisher founded by the author of the piece, Brooke Warner] and quickly discovered that they offer one package for $8,500.” This fee doesn’t include the costs of manufacturing, so we are talking about a fairly expensive service.

Ms Warner analyses as foundational to the hybrid industry the action of the “Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA), who released its Hybrid Publisher Criteria in early 2018. It offers nine criteria for the industry and authors alike to use as a measurement of a hybrid publisher’s integrity. The problem is that human beings run companies, and human beings fudge the rules, and in the aftermath of making public those criteria, I talked to more than a few heads of ‘hybrid publishers’ who said to me with all sincerity, Yes, we’re hybrid; we meet all but two of the criteria.”

The IBPA criteria for identifying as a hybrid publisher are:

  • Define a mission and vision for its publishing program.
  • Vet submissions.
  • Publish under its own imprint(s) and ISBNs.
  • Publish to industry standards
  • Ensure editorial, design, and production quality.
  • Pursue and manage a range of publishing rights.
  • Provide distribution services.
  • Demonstrate respectable sales.
  • Pay authors a higher-than-standard royalty.

Ms Warner’s grumble that “human being fudge the rules” may sound good but is pretty meaningless. Surely one of the last things anyone running a company would bother to do is check to see to what extent they were behaving identically to other companies who might adhere to a completely arbitrary definition cooked up by an organization whose interest in the business cannot be concealed. The urge to fit everything into an analytical category afflicts the commentariat not business owners. For me it’s all just one big messy continuum. I guess “hybrid publishing” corresponds to the third group on Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s list of five divisions of publishing, but so what? Hybrid as a name strikes me as too wishy-washy to signify anything very precise. Vanity publishing, although a bit insulting as a term, did at least have the virtue of getting at the salient issue: you author, seeking the satisfactions of authorship although unable to interest a traditional publisher, will have to pay for the privilege. That there should have evolved a group of companies interested in collecting fees from authors without providing a full service should come as a surprise to nobody. Vetting submissions must in many cases amount to no more than vetting the author’s credit-worthiness. What “industry standards”? We’ve always published a schlock book: what’s your problem? Pursue a range of rights? Sure, we’ll write a letter. Respectable sales? If you write a boring book, how are we meant to sell more than half a dozen? The beauty of higher royalty rates is that if there are no sales, the rate is academic.

In the UK authors’ unions are banding together to call for reform of pay-to-play deals by hybrid publishers, many of which apparently end up with authors losing their investment. Here’s the Society of Authors piece on it.

At the heart of their campaign is the practice of the hybrid publisher quietly acquiring the rights in the work as part and parcel of their publishing fee. Caveat emptor. Remember even the most unpromising looking vanity project may one day become a hot property. I fear that the problem with this sort of reform effort is the whack-a-mole phenomenon. Where there’s a profit, there’s a way.

See also Self published or privately printed.


* I dare say I should allow that vanity publishing did occasionally, even often, provide a valuable service to people who lacked access to the printing press and wanted to make some personal, minority interest writing available. Psychic benefits may also have ensued. Just because the exchange of money is involved, does not mean that one of the parties must be bent on deception! Vanity publishing shades into commission publishing without visible separation.

Well of course Kristine Kathryn Rusch has every right to write whatever she wants. And, while, parfit gentil knight that I am, I am always reluctant to enter the ad hominem lists, so too do I.

I’ve got nothing against self publishing, and can’t even see why anyone would. Just let them do their thing and “we” can do ours. Our thing may even involve making a bit of money off self published authors who’ve grown tired of their indie publishing business routines. Ms Rusch’s recent Business Musings piece, which kicks off as a celebration of Brandon Sanderson’s Kickstarter success, goes on to tell us yet again how stupid traditional publishers are, and how the only way to win at publishing is to take classes offered by Ms Rusch and her husband. This may, for all I know, be excellent advice. You’re not going to find out much about traditional publishing though — but who needs to know that old stuff?.

Sanderson raised a whole lot of money on his Kickstarter campaign: 185,341 backers pledged $41,754,153 to receive his four books plus mystery goodies. Ms Rusch believes that “no matter what the trad pub folk want to believe, this is a game-changer”. As, I suppose, one of the “trad pub folk” myself, do I find myself believing that this is a “game-changer”? I’m not sure I do. Sure, Kickstarter has never had as successful a campaign, and is a relatively new venue for bookselling, but lining up subscribers to your books is something which has been going on for centuries. Clearly other authors are already trying the same approach, and maybe lots of them will succeed. But wasn’t Substack meant to be the game changer too? Well of course at a sort of idiot level nobody could deny that the book publishing game has indeed changed over the past fifty years, and will keep on changing even more.

One of Ms Rusch’s more startling paragraphs reads “A quick search of the publishing category on Kickstarter, sorted for active campaigns, showed me book projects that have funded and brought in (so far) anywhere from $50,000 to $500. The bulk of these are in the $10,000 category per novel . . . which is, roughly, what any new writer can expect from traditional publishing these days”. Any new writer can expect a $10,000 advance? Maybe I do need to sign up for a class!

“People who are trained in traditional publishing think that the sales up front, like a Kickstarter, are the only sales.” Well, Noooh. Who do you think invented the term backlist? She goes on, digging in ever deeper, “But in indie publishing, sales can continue for years“. Really; amazing. And I guess we’ve been wasting all that unsold inventory after a year — why did nobody tell us before that there were people out there who might buy an older book? Isn’t it wonderful that we dummies in traditional publishing have self publishers to teach us our business?

Now I know we trad pub folk are slow off the mark, but is it utterly impossible for a traditionally published book to be promoted through a Kickstarter campaign sort of along Sandersonian lines? I don’t know, and don’t plan to research whether Kickstarter refuses to deal with anyone other than an individual, or some such thing, but I would bet that some smart trad pub guy was working out how to get this done. The only difference in a self publisher’s sales efforts and a traditional publisher’s, is that the self publisher is dealing with books they themselves wrote, therefore however prolific they may be, a fairly manageable and coherent list. The traditional publisher deals with books by hundreds of different authors, and we have discovered that directing our efforts into the channel of greatest potential tends to yield the greatest benefit. Could we wring an extra couple of hundred sales out of this or that book: maybe, but maybe not. You have to balance the effort against the potential reward, and this means some old books won’t be being pushed. When the author is the one pushing, there’s no debate. Push we will: and from time to time the results will prove astonishing. Which is great. But which doesn’t mean traditional publishers don’t know what they are doing. And especially doesn’t mean that trad pub folk are out to get authors.

LitHub tells us that 50% of the films nominated for this year’s Oscars are based on books. (You have to do a bit of clicking at their post to get to the book on which the movie’s based and LitHub‘s suggestions for further reading.)

Films nominated for Best Picture which are adapted from library originals are:

  • Drive my Car: Haruki Murakami’s story of the same title (published in his 2014 collection, Men Without Women)
  • Dune: Frank Herbert’s novel of the same title
  • Nightmare Alley: William Gresham’s novel of the same title
  • The Power of the Dog: Thomas Savage’s novel of the same title
  • West Side Story: well, I guess, based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

This book adaptation is a bit of a phenomenon nowadays as streaming companies in particular are gobbling up rights to books and book series. Everyone seems to be looking for material Just this week the New York Book Forum conducted a discussion of this topic, “Watch the show, Grab the book”, which you can see at YouTube.