Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

Self-publishing -- another slush pile?

It's not putting commercial publishers out of business, and there's a reason. Actually, lots of reasons.
This is Daniel Friedman on why commercial publishers are still the avenue of choice for most authors. What he said. Really. (And I'm indebted to Warhammer 40K author Jim Gilmer for that link.)

Look at the numbers. Nearly a quarter of a million new self-published books appeared in 2011. I'm assuming that includes e-books, but either way, that's an awfully big slush pile. And that's all it is -- nobody has cast a commercial or editorial eye over it, and that means it's going to be pretty much like the pile of manuscripts that builds up in every publisher's office; maybe one or two glittering nuggets in a pile of rubble. Publishers don't ration books. They're not arbitrarily looking for one, or three, or five winners, and ditching the rest of the masterpieces. They're looking for anything they can make money on. It's not a lottery.

So in the self-publishing market, like all slush piles, someone can make it to the top sooner or later, but any unfiltered pile of goods needs a triage system so that the confused and overwhelmed consumer can make choices. It's bad enough walking into a bookstore and trying to decide what to buy unless you know in advance exactly what you're looking for, which is why publishers pay to put books on front tables and end caps.

Self publishing might look terrific -- no cruel editor or evil corporation to stand between you and that adoring readership you're sure is out there for you -- but it's only really (potentially) terrific for people like me, who already have an established name to persuade readers to part with their cash. Self-publishing e-books has a lot of advantages, provided that your brand marketing (your name) has already been done, i.e. you're a known quantity on the bookshelves. If I decide to cut out the middleman and publish creator-owned novels in e-book format, that self-published book will appear on the Amazon, B&N, or iTunes page with my other titles, which is my shop front online. Or at least it will if a customer is searching by author name, or if by clicking on one book (take Glasslands, as an example) my other e-book titles come up on the same page. You're still very much at the mercy of the site's search engine and whatever features the vendor decides to include on individual pages. It's still not a guarantee even for me that a reader will see my self-published titles. There's still marketing you need to do for yourself.

I haven't self-published e-books (although I wouldn't rule it out) simply because there's no advance. No dosh up front. I don't have enough free time to take the financial risk on speculative work when there are people already paying me for every hour in my day. One day, though, I might. We'll see.

The other point to bear in mind about self-publishing is that a lot of writers actually need editors, and I'm guessing that the average new writer who tries to break in via self-publishing has never been through the editorial mill. I'm not claiming that every editor is competent or behaves professionally (I could tell you some horror stories) and I'm not saying that all published books are thoroughly edited (it's an industrial production line, after all) but the trial by fire of having a commercially-aware stranger look at your stuff is the big test for any new writer.

The self-publishing business model, for want of a better phrase, has much in common with publishing books for free. Again, it's like tossing your manuscript into a slush pile if you haven't got any market profile to help readers find you in the first place. But you won't catch me doing that. Ever. It's not a loss leader. It won't encourage readers to buy my other stuff. It's not a brave publishing experiment or a new creative paradigm or any of that bullshit. It just creates an expectation that I'll do it for free again, and eventually devalues my product.

And if you're in any doubt that writers should be paid for everything they do, the wonderful and eminently sensible Harlan Ellison will put you straight. I know I've linked to that magnificent footage before, but every writer should bookmark it and play it once a month, just to stay focused.

UPDATE, 6/8/12: Amazon UK now sells more e-books than the hard copy variety.