Archives for category: Self publishing

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?

There are (at least) two sides to self publishing. Some self-published authors do it because they relish the process, while others do it almost reluctantly, frustrated by their inability to find a traditional publisher who’ll nurture their baby. Members of the second group are probably unlikely to be as successful as the first group — many of whom have managed to be wildly successful and have earned scads of money. (Be it said, yet again, self publishing does not mean second-rate publishing. It’s just a different way into the marketplace.)

In addition to the problem of getting their books into libraries, which I wrote about yesterday, one of the difficulties facing self publishers is attracting serious review attention. The number of print media book pages has declined sharply in the past ten years, and if large publishing companies are chafing at their inability to elbow all of their books into the review pages of noted publications, you can imagine the frustration facing the self publisher. Now, someone like Hugh Howey, who has established a huge following, will clearly suffer less than his frustrated peers. Print reviews of self-published books remain vanishingly rare: the key to success resides in social media. The most successful self-published authors have an audience which follows them on social media, and eagerly awaits news of their next offering. Jane Friedman provides a link to her 2015 report on social media use for the self published.

One extreme solution for those desperately seeking review coverage is just to buy it. I wrote about this under the title Sock puppetry a few years ago. For an account of how such endeavor can go awry please go to The Shed at Dulwich and view the amusing video there in which a paid reviewer takes things to their logical conclusion.

If you have a publisher you can blame them for whatever goes wrong — and this might just be one of the best reasons for some authors to go the traditional route.* If you’ve slaved to get reviewed, you can go wild if the resulting review isn’t as wildly enthusiastic as your own blurb would be, but realistically there’s not a lot you can do about it. Or is there? Here’s a cautionary tale from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (via The Passive Voice). The Digital Reader provides a roundup of the same saga.

See also Reviews of self-published books.


*Other reasons are discussed at Do we really need book publishers?

Libraries tend to be happy about the digital book because it potentially gets them away from their problem of finding space for all the new printed books which we keep throwing at them.* But of course the digital revolution has dragged along with it an overwhelmingly large selection of new books.

Self publishers have found it difficult to get their books made available in libraries. A friend did manage this by getting the ear of a friendly local librarian, so an ebook of his young-adult novel is now available for loan at his library. The key problem with self-published ebooks and libraries remains the discovery issue. Libraries have systems for acquisition, contract suppliers, standing orders, approval plans etc. — and however good your ebook may be, if they can’t purchase it in the way they normally purchase books then libraries are unlikely to be able to obtain it. They just can’t make one-off arrangements for every self-published book: there are just not enough hours in the day. Some additional justification for librarians’ choice to pay less attention to self-published ebooks may also provided the fact that they tend to be fairly inexpensive, so disappointed punters may be assumed to be willing and able to go out and buy a copy.

Lending of ebooks at American public libraries is reported to be increasing at about 30% a year according to Jessamyn West at Controversy within the business is continually being stirred up by one big traditional publisher after another tweaking their terms of supply. Obviously the basic problem is that unless some limits are placed on frequency of issue, an ebook sold to a library could potentially mean that, what with inter-library loan and unrestricted lending, no more copies would ever be sold to any libraries. No doubt everyone can accept that that’s not “fair” to the author and the publisher, but what is fair is far from obvious, and depends on which axe you are currently grinding. I believe that the twisting and dodging going on reflects not some dastardly plot by publishers, but rather the fact that this is still a relatively new market, and what the “correct” terms of trade should be is still evolving. Publishers do not see any benefit in preventing any sale of any of their books. They do, though, have an interest in avoiding sales which lose them money, either in the short term or over the long haul. If this was an easy balance, discussion would long be over.

Library lending of ebooks got off to a slow start. Publishers Weekly reported in its 30 November 2015 issue on a Book Industry Study Group investigation of Digital Content in Public Libraries. At that time only 25% of library patrons had borrowed an ebook in the previous year, and only 9% had checked out a digital audiobook. It’s not that library patrons were anti-ebook: 44% of them reported reading an ebook in the year before. Until you’ve done it, borrowing an ebook from the library might seem hard. But of course like almost everything once you’ve done it once it becomes simple. Lack of availability was reported as the main impediment but now, as CNN reports, there are more than 391,000,000 ebooks available in US public libraries — not sure just how this relates to the Google estimate that the total number of books ever published is just 130 million! I guess we have to assume lots of multiple copies, though more realistically perhaps we should conclude that when it comes to superlatives like this there’s no way to discover the real facts.

Here’s one guy who’s gotten over the library lending hurdle. An ode to library ebook lending apps comes from a dedicated e-reader.  (Link via The Digital Reader.) I have myself borrowed several ebooks from New York Public Library: it is easier than placing a reserve and then walking over to the local library once the p-book arrives. Maybe less health-giving though, and I do still prefer to read a p-book.


* See also Crewing mustie books and More mustie crewing

Publishing people get asked this all the time. It’s a toughie: your acquaintance might have written a masterpiece but the odds are the manuscript is not that good, or at least unsuited for any publisher you know. But without looking at it how can you know? We’ve all evolved temporizing answers, most of which, like the Penguin Random House example shown below, tend to take cover behind a literary agent. I’ve never come across a piece of paper like this before, but it makes perfect sense that PRH would feel the need for something they can thrust into the hands of anyone who asks them the dreaded question. The document obviously originates in the UK, but PRH had a stack of them at the recent BookExpo America exhibition in the Javits Center.

“Our company policy is to not accept [boldly split infinitive] unsolicited manuscripts or synopses and we cannot enter into correspondence about unpublished work.” A bit harsh? Not really — it costs a lot to deal with such correspondence and a target as big as Penguin Random House must get boatloads of it. More efficient to focus on your regular source of supply, the literary agency world, rather than rush off down dark alleyways. Sure you may miss the odd wonder, but as a percentage play it’s hard to argue against. Of course as a public relations move it might be seen as a bit less successful.

This sort of document is exactly the sort of thing the commentariat loves to latch onto. Didn’t we tell you those fat cats in their New York ivory towers don’t care about innovative new work or the people who produce it? Just see how they treat aspiring authors — and it’s their job to publish books. Amazing!

Stop and think you windbags. If you were to run a publishing company would one of your priorities be to employ a couple of people, skilled people, who had no tasks other than to write letters to hopeful authors who have invested a postage stamp in sending you their latest stories? Well, you might, but if you’d ever worked in any publishing house where despite such disclaimers unsolicited manuscripts do inevitably creep across the transom, you’d know from bitter experience that the likelihood of an unsolicited manuscript actually being publishable are vanishingly small. Sure it happens, but on no cost-benefit analysis is it worthwhile setting up your acquisition department to focus on the slush pile. Everyone in a publishing house is already doing huge amounts of work with the books they’ve actually solicited. It would be idiocy to wander the streets scouring through local trash bins in the hope of finding another brilliant manuscript. Even in our ivory towers the day has only got 24 hours in it. And while we love to publish books, there can never be (pace the commentariat) a duty to publish every book ever written. So, you have to deflect.

Now, if your name is Ian McEwan you know they’d enter into correspondence with you about anything, unpublished or published: but of course the bit of paper isn’t meant for the likes of him — and PRH already employs someone whose job it is to keep after their authors about unpublished work.

The Digital Reader brings us news of what is being presented as suicidal corporate greed.

I wrote about Patreon recently under the rubric Patronage. The idea behind the site seemed like a good one: funding for creative artists including authors by members of the public who believe in what these people are doing and are brought together by this site. They report over one million active patrons. But now it looks like the owners of Patreon may kill the goose because of their desire for a larger share of the golden eggs. At the moment they keep 5% of donations, with another 5% retained to cover costs. The Passive Voice has a thoughtful piece on the situation, focussed mainly on rights which Patreon take as they try to evolve into a SaaS (Software as a service) platform, helping in content creation. Rights ownership may be one method they want to use to increase profitability. While a writer might be willing to cut their patron in on some of the rights in their writing, granting that to the website facilitating the patron/client transaction might seem less obviously acceptable.

Patreon has been providing a service since 2013 and lots of artists have benefitted from it. As The Passive Voice points out, with an internet-based business “raising prices is very difficult because someone else is always ready to clone the business plan and offer the service for less”. The financial pressure may in fact be coming from the payment processors, basically bankers. Please stop at the edge and reflect on whether 5% of an amount which keeps growing isn’t better than having your client-base desert you. “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. There are alternatives, including PayPal apparently, but Patreon does seem to be a useful option.

Of course there need be nothing ominous in a business offering new services. If some people want them, fine, and if nobody does, one hopes they haven’t become essential to the company’s survival. The company has raised $106 million in venture funding, and obviously needs to show some return. It’d be nice if something like bringing patrons and creators together could be done on a modest scale, but it seems like everyone with an on-line business wants to be a unicorn these days.

A Patreon reading list can be found here at TechCrunch. This piece contains an additional link to a helpful post from the same source entitled The Business of Patreon.


Well, I worked in publishing for almost fifty years and I never heard anyone claim this: maybe it was whispered and I didn’t hear. Doubt it. However Mr Eco came from Italy, and maybe they say this all the time around the water cooler at Mondadori. I suppose it’s also possible that it may have lost something in translation.

The Passive Voice sends the picture without comment. Not that one’s really necessary if your job is to display the stupidity of publishers.

And who is that beardy guy? He looks  a bit familiar. One wonders why he was selected to lend weight to this silly sentiment. He is certainly suitably quizzical, though one doubts he had too much familiarity with publishers. An Assyrian? A Greek god? A historian of beard styling could no doubt pin this down.

It’s an odd sentiment to have become such a quote-trope, though none of these wallpaper manufacturers seems concerned enough to hint at a source. I suppose it’s the self-publishing community that’s driving this popularity: as we all know there’s a substantial body of resentment against traditional publishers out there. I suppose some publisher once turned down a book proposal from a sensitive author, and now we’ve all got to pay for it. (Let me insist once more that I think the development of self publishing is an entirely beneficial thing for us all, book publishers and readers alike.) Ironically, I think it’s generally accepted that “easy” reading is what self publishing is so good at providing, while anything serious needs the help of a traditional publisher. See Richard Hershberger’s two recent excellent columns on “The State of Book Publishing” at Ordinary Times: (Part 1 and Part 2).

Mr Eco’s quote may have originated in a 2011 Guardian interview where he said “It’s only publishers and some journalists who believe that people want simple things”, though of course it’s possible he may have formulated it differently elsewhere.

These straw men are always an excellent target if you care about winning.