Archives for category: Self publishing

May not be your cup of tea (nor mine) but fan fiction is wildly popular. So popular that Vice’s Motherboard tells us that users crashed one of the main sites, Archive of our own recently. (Link via Kathy Sandler’s Technology • Innovation • Publishing.) Apparently fan-fic has been becoming more and more popular all through 2020. Will this end up being one of these lockdown trends which turn into a permanent feature of our lives? Like maybe remote working, Zoom meetings, grocery deliveries and mask-wearing?

What Kristine Kathryn Rusch writes is all pretty sensible, but at an early corner in this outing she almost drives over the edge and reveals her built-in anti-traditional-publishing bias.

To be fair it is difficult to say much about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing sales. Not all “traditional” publishers report sales to the traditional information-gathering sources, and all anyone has to go on with self-publishing sales tends to be anecdote. Amazon, the biggest retailer remains mum. We all assume (on the basis of anecdote) that the large majority of sales of self-published books is in ebook format. This has always been the case, and it makes sense — it’s obviously easier for self publishers to supply their product in digital form only thus avoiding having to mail out physical objects from a large inventory stored in their spare bedroom. Their customers seem fine with this, and we all think it great that this kind of service exists. We all, I think, assume that total unit sales by self publishers are larger than traditional publishing sales. However beyond the possibility of trolling for new authors, I believe that the traditional book publishing industry pretty much ignores self publishing. It’s really a totally different business. It is interesting, as Ms Rausch points out, that Bertelsmann is including some guesstimate about self-publishing sales in order to make their Simon & Schuster takeover look less of a monopolistic threat.

Ms Rusch’s assertion that the traditional publishing industry “did everything it could to destroy the ebook format” is patent nonsense. A person might think that publishers’ actions are wrong, even stupid, but they would just be “wrong, even stupid” if they concluded from that that there is some sort of conspiracy to stamp out ebooks or even to stunt their growth. Book publishing may not be a business to attract the top financial talents, but we do tend to know that selling another copy of one of our books in any format whatsoever is a “good thing”. If people want an ebook we are delighted to sell them an ebook (on terms which we determine, of course). If people want a hardback; ditto; paperback; again ditto. Ebooks are not the wondrous panacea to the traditional publisher that they represent for self publishers. For us they represent just another format.

In my recent post about ebook downloads from libraries I warned about over-interpretation of the data; a trap Ms Rausch fails to avoid. It does seem likely that our coronavirus experiences will bring about some significant changes in our business environment. Remote working looks like a likely candidate, and there’s a danger that the independent bookstore might also fall victim. The way a trade book is published has changed: less of a day one bump, more of a sustained roll out. If bookstores become less common this trend might become permanent. But any big change from print to ebook format seems unlikely to me. It is true I used to have a colleague who only wanted to own paperback books, regarding hardbacks as cumbersome. (He also expressed a preference for cylindrical food.) I offered myself up as a Jack Sprat partner: happy to have all the hardbacks. Although he was a publisher in an executive position nobody however thought of this preference as a policy to “destroy the hardback format”. I can’t imagine that in twenty years we won’t still have hardbacks, and paperbacks, and ebooks, and audiobooks, and no doubt some format we haven’t dreamed up yet.

Jane Freedman provides this infographic setting out the advantages and disadvantages of choosing one route to book publication over another.  Her advice is straightforward and reasonable. She’s even prepared to be a bit spikey: “Authors may not have the experience to know what quality help looks like or what it takes to produce a quality book”: doubtless driven by years of experience helping authors who think they know best.

Click to enlarge, or if you still can’t read it go to her website to download a PDF version.

The Passive Voice has a piece on the subject of paid reviews. It is extremely frustrating for self publishers to find themselves unable to get their books reviewed in the mainstream media (it’s frustrating for regular publishers too). As a result many self publishers consider paying for reviews. Is this a good investment?

Well it does cost quite a lot. I’ve heard up to $575. The Passive Voice quotes $399 for Publishers Weekly and $425 for Kirkus. There are quite a lot of places where you can buy a review. Publishers Weekly published an article about the pricing at various services a couple of years ago. However the Passive Voice post focusses mainly on the quality/qualifications of the reviewers you’ll get if you pay for a review. This is all well and good, but there’s larger issue: the issue of what might be the value of having a review published at all.

Publishers Weekly and Kirkus may well be the leaders in the business of paid review publication, but our writer fails to make the distinction required in analyzing this business. Publishing reviews is a service: a service to a publication’s readers and to the authors and publishers of the books reviewed. But publishing paid reviews is a business. If Publishers Weekly can get $400 from a self-published author to arrange for and publish a review of that author’s book, who are we to say they are wrong to do so? But a paid review, even one by a qualified reviewer who’s actually read your book, carries a different message from a review in The New York Times Book Review, say. We are all conditioned to cynicism by log-rolling on Amazon.

The Passive Guy (PG), as the writer of The Passive Voice likes to refer to himself, wonders what discount traditional publishers get from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus for their pre-publication reviews of their books. The answer is 100%. No regular publisher pays any journal any sum for the publication of a review. There are two sections of reviews in PW: Book Life Reviews where authors purchase the reviews, and their regular review section where reviewing is carried out in the normal (unpaid) way. Reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus tend to have scant detectable effect on the sales of books.

In fact the sales boost from any book review (and advertisement) is something which the public is inclined to exaggerate in the most extravagant way. Only the most enthusiastic review by the most prominent reviewer in the most important publication will generate detectable sales activity. (A radio review on National Public Radio can move the dial too.) Books sell for a whole variety of reasons — and we’re not really certain what they are — recommendation by a friend; luck or serendipity; a topic you need/want to know more about; an author whose other books you’ve enjoyed; eye-catching appearance catches your eye; it’s there and you just want to buy something and get out of the store. Reviews are probably less important than any of these reasons. In the academic world reviews can be more significant — obviously if Professor X thinks it’s good, maybe you should look at it. Maybe we could propose a theorem: “The more non-fiction-ish a book is the more pronounced will be the effect of a good review”. Popular non-fiction books like Barack Obama’s forthcoming A Promised Land don’t need reviews to move them out of the warehouse. A good review of The Uptake and Storage of Noradrenaline in a prestigious journal might double the sale (which of course will be comparatively tiny anyway). Any publisher would regard spending $400 to have review published in PW or Kirkus as nothing but a quick way to throw away $400. Maybe some librarians may glance at these reviews, but mostly they are getting their information elsewhere, like for instance Library Journal (in its unpaid review section).

Now of course, what I’ve just said must be open to exception. It would be interesting to hear from authors who have seen a sales pick-up from reviews they’ve paid for. I have to believe that there may well be one or two. PG notes “some indie authors who are upset by one or more of the questionable activities described above [in his piece] say they will continue to use the Kirkus and PW services because they believe the blurbs [by which I believe he means reviews] still help sell enough books to more than justify the costs.” But this isn’t real evidence of value. Just because some authors keep on doing it doesn’t mean it’s a good plan. Frankly I don’t really see how you could ever measure the effect of a paid review. You can’t do an AB test: it’s impossible to publish the book twice, once with a PW review and once without one. Maybe the sales you made would have been made anyway even if you’d kept the $400 in your pocket: correlation is not causation.

There is of course some mathematics available to help a self publisher in deciding whether or not to pay for reviews. You know how much you make on every sale of your book: let’s say it’s $5. If you think you will sell 81 extra copies by paying $400 for a review then go ahead. How you’ll ever know whether these 81 extra sales did indeed result from the review seems utterly opaque to me, but there are clearly quite a lot of authors who think the investment is worthwhile. I say caveat emptor: as The Passive Voice warns, you’ve no idea ahead of time whether the reviewer’s going to be any good, or indeed the review.

See also Sock puppetry and Reviews sell books don’t they? 

I’ve often wondered whether my reuse of photos (and some text quotes) in this blog really represents copyright infringement. I suspect that it often does, but I salve my conscience by saying to myself that my reuse isn’t likely to affect the market for anyone else’s material, and that I’m not making any money from this anyway. (Any ads you may see when you visit this blog are placed by WordPress, the site host, not me.) If anyone were to object to my reuse of an item of theirs I would just have to take the image down and apologize, and hope that this would be enough. Not that this is really any adequate response — if the copyright owner can demonstrate damage, then I could be in trouble. Again I comfort myself with the thought that the exclusive audience for this blog really cannot be seen as causing much harm to the copyright owner. Also, if someone were to reuse some of my material I would not regard myself as being harmed. To some extent we regard stuff that has been publicly posted in blogs and on social media as being offered up for public use. Still, that’s not how the law looks at it. Just because I find it in a Google search where everybody can see it doesn’t mean it’s not copyrighted material. Maybe I could manage mount a fair use defense, on the basis of criticism and review, but I’d have to pay the lawyer, since matters of judgement like that are unfortunately matters of judgement, which tend to have to be sorted out by a judge.

Here, from copyright laws.com are 6 essential tips for legally using images. (Linked to via The Digital Reader.) Obviously if you are writing for publication you need to exercise caution. If I were to extract from this blog a collection of pieces for a non-free ebook on let’s say book binding, I’d either have to drop all the images I had reused in the blog, or obtain permission from the copyright owner — because, however over-optimistic it might seem, such a book would be designed to make money: and the originators of the images would deserve their share.

If the thought comes into your mind “Do I need to ask for permission to include this in my book?” then chances are you probably do. I don’t think it would enter anyone’s head that permission might be needed for “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote”, whereas the thought might/should come up when writing “April is the cruelest month”. If these were the only Eliotian words you were using you’d probably get away with it, though the function of the words in your piece needs to be taken into consideration. If you are quoting just these five words in the context of a character of your’s complaining that they are just plain wrong since lilac clearly doesn’t flower till May that’d be a different story from your using it as say a chapter title.

The trouble with advice in this area is that there’s no hard and fast rule. It’d be nice if we could say “Quoting three lines of a poem is fair use: quoting four requires permission.” But we can’t. At a trivial level, three lines from “Paradise Lost” obviously represent a different portion of the total than three lines from “When I consider how my light is spent”. When in doubt: ask. Don’t however if the author in question is indeed John Milton.

A while back Jane Freedman provided a sample letter accompanied by a whole lot of practical guidance. You can’t do better than follow her advice.

I suspect (hope) that in time we will arrive at a position where linking to, quoting from, or duplicating a portion of an online source is regarded differently by the law than the same lifting from a book or other printed source. But at the moment the law doesn’t make any such convenient (for me) distinction between blogs and books. Fingers crossed.

See also Permissions for images.

Feel like writing a novel this afternoon? Just get hold of a self-published ebook, copy it, change the names and a few details like place-names, and Bob’s your uncle, you’re done: apparently it’s just about as easy as that. The Atlantic has a piece on Stealing Books in the Age of Self-Publishing, which shows us how widespread this problem is.

Of course one of the benefits touted by the gang of enthusiastic self-publishing boosters (which seems to share membership with the gang of traditional publishing haters) is the ability to bypass those awful gatekeepers, the traditional publishers who batten incubus- or is it succubus-like onto the innocent writer and suck out their life’s blood or worse. Of course plagiarism has occasionally been a problem with traditionally published books, but there is a sort of established legal procedure for dealing with it. Among the duties you assume as a self-published author, along with receipt of all the income from sales, is the cost of defending your work against robbers. And these robbers have figured out it’s really easy to steal your stuff.

Now I’m not saying that you ought to get your book published by a traditional publisher (if you can get through that gate). I believe self publishing is an excellent way to go. I just think it’s maybe a bit naive to think, if the self-publishing route is what you chose, that everything will be just like it would have been if you had gone the other way. After all, you’ve accepted that your book is unlikely to appear in a bookshop or in a library, haven’t you? If you are proud of what you wrote, and have managed to sell quite a lot of copies, how much does it really hurt you if someone comes along and recycles your material to make a bunch of other money? Imitation is the sincerest from of flattery after all! If however you self-published your book in order to make a fortune, well, caveat emptor. Do Steven King or James Patterson do self publishing? Could they make more money that way? I wonder why they don’t. There are some hassles you’d just rather not have, and chasing plagiarists may be one of them. So I say, let it go, and move on. Easy to say, you may object, to which I have to respond yes it is, just about as easy to say as making money by plagiarizing your book.

Piracy is just plagiarism without the hassle of changing anything. Just steal the damn thing and sell it on as is. It’s all profit and no cost. The Passive Voice links to an article from Forbes, and manages to gather a few incoherent comments. It’s amazing how almost any music you might want to hear is now available free of charge somewhere apparently legit. In some cases the creators may be receiving some tiny payment though some sort of blanket deal, though it’s hard to know for sure. Every time you listen you become accustomed to listening for free. Why would you imagine that paying might be a good idea? Book publishers certainly don’t consider free access a good idea and work to prevent such an idea gaining any currency. For the “knowledge wants to be free” crowd this just shows how grasping and wicked publishers are.

See also Omegaverse and other fantasies.

We now have to understand the term independent, or indie publisher slightly differently from what we used to mean by it. The term no longer means just an independently-owned publishing company (i.e. one of those “traditional” book publishing companies not owned by a conglomerate) it’s now also a self-publishing operation, usually, but not necessarily, publishing books by writers other than the owner of the imprint. The picture is complicated a bit by the unambiguous existence near the front of our collective mind of the independent bookstore. In publishing we might cope with this distinction by trying to reserve “indie” for the self-publishing end of the spectrum, and saying “independent” when we are talking about those mid-sized and small publishing companies which are not owned by someone else, but I fear that that horse has already bolted, and we have to keep adding the word “traditional” to publishing when what we mean is a non-self-publishing type of publisher. Thus we have to say something clumsy like an “independent traditional publishing company”, leaving “indie publisher” to mean the supersized self-publishing operation. Henceforth this shall be my practice in this blog.

This nomenclatural collision leads me to reflect on why it is we continue to make the distinction between indie and normal/traditional publishing. I’m not sure I understand in what way Ms Wild, whose indie publishing operation is described in this New York Times article from 2016, is really different from Penguin Random House. Well, of course I know how it’s different — it’s smaller — but in functional terms both operations have to take care of the same things. Is what Ms Wild is doing really any different from what say Bennet Cerf and Donald Klopfer were up to at Random House in 1925? Sure she’s a writer, and I guess that’s perhaps an important distinction, although lots of writers have been involved in publishing, think Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, T. S. Eliot, etc. Since it has now become so much easier for writers to get published — nobody has to wait for some stuffy publisher to agree to facilitate this passage — inevitably some of them will exhibit an entrepreneurial side and ettle to “publish” not just to write, and will accordingly make the decision to self-publish. Ms Wild is obviously smack bang in this group, and has been wildly successful.

On the other hand I do think of the self-publishing business as a different business than traditional publishing. Self-published books are not usually available in bookstores; indeed the entire business model is dependent upon, and owes its existence to, the internet. In a way these sorts of nomenclatural problems are not really real-world problems. If we need to be precise we can always add a few words to make it clear what it is we are actually talking about. Self publishing is a wonderful development. That it can from time to time bud a small publishing company is also wonderful. Let’s just get on with it.

Mike Shatzkin lists five basic things a publisher must do. If you are considering going down the indie route, perhaps you should consider whether you are ready to provide these functions to your authors, or come up with a rationale as to why these steps are unnecessary. Not to be outdone in the busy-work department The Scholarly Kitchen‘s Rick Anderson weighs in with 96 things publisher do. No wonder we always felt far too busy in those independent traditional publishing offices.

The Passive Voice has a wise and sensible post about keeping alert while signing with an agent. Beware: individuals die; organizations (tend to) survive. Literary agents are individuals, and as he suggests, it’s probably the skills of that individual which motivated you to sign with the agency (which may of course in any case be a one-person operation). Unless there’s a cancellation policy specified in the contract, the “agency” will continue to represent you even after the agent you liked has moved on to another company or world.

Click on the Agency link just above the title of the PV post to access a range of advice about agents. The law is the Passive Guy’s area of expertise — not forecasting the future of book publishing. If you are thinking of signing with an agent or publisher you should read this and some of his other advice first.

Mike Shatzkin lists for us the five essential steps to publishing a book.

1. Creating the content, which requires domain knowledge (the world of the content) and, of course, the ability to discern good and effective writing and presentation. And a knowledge of the content world implies a sense of any particular project’s uniqueness and timeliness.

2. “Packaging” the content in a form that is reproducible. That means different things for print and for digital. And it is more complicated for books that are illustrated or annotated with charts or graphs.

3. “Marketing”, or making potential readers aware of the book. This takes in what we used to think of as publicity and advertising, which in the “old days” largely centered around book reviews and the sections in newspapers that carried them, but which is now much more about search engine optimization and social network marketing.

4. Connecting with the avenues of distribution: reaching the sources of printed books their customers might use — bookstores, other retailers, or online merchants for consumers and wholesalers or distributors for those intermediaries, print and e. You have to sell to them and serve them: persuade them to carry or list the book and then deliver, bill, and collect so they can.

5. Selling rights where you can’t sell books. Because many books, no matter their origin, have the potential to gain additional revenue and exposure through licensing for other languages or placing chunks of the book’s content in other venues (what was very simply “serialization” in the all-print days), rights sales and management is another activity that a book publisher has to cover.

This is quoted directly from Mr Shatzkin’s post One big change in book publishing is that it does not require you to have much of an organization to play anymore.

It is true enough that pretty much anyone can be a publisher now. If you include all the self publishers who have blossomed over the past couple of decades — and why would you not? — the number of publishers must be in the millions. Somehow people have managed to translate this fact into a tale of doom and gloom forecasting the end of the traditional book publishing company. It is of course exactly the opposite. The ease of setting up as a publisher doesn’t demand that the publishing company which gets set up be a one-person operation. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. I insist that little publishing companies will continue to be formed as publishing people find their courage, or lose their jobs, or insist on their own point of view. As Mr Shatzkin reminds us, almost all of the functions he lists can be done by freelance labor. But I cannot remember a time when publishing companies did not all use freelance labor. Different publishers will freelance out different jobs, but just because they don’t have a warehouse, or a design department, or a sales force, or whatever, this or that publisher does not cease to be a publisher. The capital requirements for establishing a publishing house have shrunk. Does anyone really think that means publishing will cease to exist?

No doubt this piece, Self-publishing in 2017, from Publishers Weekly infuriated the indie-booster crowd. What makes that mouthpiece of the traditional publishing industry think it has any right to talk about us super-virtuous, totally un-self-interested indie authors? Such condescension! I rather agree that PW probably shouldn’t be trying to cover self publishing. It’s just a different business, and much too hard to get your arms around to allow of any sensible general coverage. PW does appear to have moved on; they now have a site, BookLife, devoted to helping self publishers. They even offer “free reviews”. Traditional publishers are fully cognizant of the existence of self publishing. Some keep their eyes open for individual publications in that area, but by and large the influence of the one business on the other is negligible. They coexist.

But the 2017 article actually seems to be fairly even-handed, pointing out that times were likely to be hard for self publishers, just as they looked like they would be for traditional publishers. (Sales for traditional publishers in 2017 turned out to be not that bad: they were just a bit down. Who knows what self publishing sales may have been?) At any time, this book or that book from one or the other strand of publishing may become a big seller, but overall sales are likely to remain fairly close to “normal” annual totals. Surely we cannot imagine that there’s likely to be a sudden increase in the percentage of the population interested in reading books. We work in a fairly mature business: expansion is liable to be pretty much limited to demographic growth. Still we can’t stop trying. Joel Friedlander is quoted as saying “Authors are starting to understand that the world of book publishing is much bigger than e-books and print on demand,” predicting that self-published authors will be exploring other formats beyond ebook and print. The fact that this seems to amount to audio isn’t amazing: one can see an individual author funding an audio book, while a movie might be beyond reach even of the biggest of the big five.

My sneaking suspicion is that the apparent fragmentation of the book publishing industry is pretty much played out. We have three different bits of it, and the divisions look like they may become permanent.

  1. There’s the self-published individual author
  2. Theres’s the indie publisher, gathering together and providing resources for several self-published authors, and then
  3. There’s the traditional publishing industry — which of course itself can be broken down into many different categories by size, organization, format and specialization.

None of this should be taken as disparaging the sensitive souls who cheer on the self-publishing community. It is great that anyone can self-publish a book (I’ve done it myself, and I know half-a-dozen ex-colleagues and friends who have also done so via the print-only route) and I wish every success to those who do it. There are however inevitably certain problems with the fact that anyone and everyone can publish — notably the resultant vast selection of material available and the difficulty of discovering and judging which bits you might actually like. This doesn’t have to mean that self-published material is worse than traditional published, just that the tools for making the judgement are not fully developed, and may actually be beyond man’s devising.

I would foresee a world in which category 1. above, self-publishing by individual authors, would end up being subdivided into

  1. Materials published almost as a pre-publication proof: bread thrown on the waters in the hope of hooking a traditional publisher
  2. Some genre fictions, though one could imagine say romance publishing ending up dominated by the indie publishing model — if it isn’t already
  3. Fan fiction, minority fiction or non-fiction — almost by definition community audiences which know where to find what they want
  4. Books published by authors who have built large social media followings
  5. Self-published materials directed at members of a club or society
  6. Family histories, photo albums etc., by intention private.

I wonder if the rate of self publishing might begin to slow down as all the pent-up projects have been brought out in a surge at the beginning. This is hard to judge as there really aren’t reliable industry statistics, but wouldn’t it be similar to what we saw with ebooks? After all the backlist had been dealt with sales stabilized — yes, yes, I know you can interpret these numbers in all sorts of different ways.

The world might be said to divide into two camps: those like Honorée Corder who believe that everyone should write a book, and those who believe that there are just some people who can’t or shouldn’t. For myself I really can’t see why everyone should have to make such a choice. I’m perfectly happy if you never write a book. But at the same time I can’t really see any reason why you shouldn’t do so. I may not like what you write, but I will “defend to the death” your right to do it — and also my right not to have to read the results!

I fear that the world is also divided into two different camps: those who read books, and those who don’t. Maybe we can hope for a slight increase in the proportion belonging to the first group as education continues to spread, but I really don’t imagine that we are going to see any sharp increase in book reading. We are lucky to be living in a world where we all have access to a vastly larger number of books than any previous generation has enjoyed. Though at the end, does it really matter that there were a few million books you didn’t manage to get round to reading while you were capable of doing so rather than just a few thousand?