Traditional versus Self-Publishing

Let it be said that the current publishing model, as a whole, doesn’t work perfectly. Great writers don’t make it, mediocre ones do, and the idea of nurturing an author into a bestseller is a part of the past. With eBooks, agency pricing and antitrust cases and debacles around author rights, the system is far from perfect. On some days, it barely functions. As a bookseller I am on the receiving end of a number of publisher fuck-ups, whether it is non-existent stock or ridiculous price-fixing or jacket treatment so abysmal that no one will pick up the book. (A notable example is the impending awful re-jacketing of the incredible Song of Achilles). As a reader, I am appalled at the number of spelling errors and formatting issues that are in final, proper copies.

But there’s still a great deal to be said for the publishing industry’s worth. It is a system of checks and balances, where there are proofreaders and graphic designers, editors and marketers. This is the machine that an author gets access to when a publishing house selects their work. Granted, the machine works better for the AAA authors, but once upon a time they all were bottom-list authors, the ones that the book reps advise booksellers to take 5 of. Very few get massive coverage and support from day one. The only example I can think of from last year was Erin Morgenstern and The Night Circus. It paid off: it was one of the very few books to enjoy a number one slot longer than 7 weeks on the 2011 bestseller list. It still sells well through word of mouth.

But it is hard to get published. Its nearly a full-time job in and of itself. It is very much like a job: compile a CV (the book itself, because outside of non-fiction no one will accept anything less than a full manuscript) and write a cover letter. Research all the publishing houses to find the right person and the right imprint. Then send those cover letters according to the specification of the website. (If they will even accept an unsolicited manuscript or directly from the author and not an agent.)

Each publisher will want a different set of things. Some will want a blurb and first 3 chapters. Some will want the whole manuscript, a blurb, a synopsis and any other qualifications one may have. Then there’s the usual three to six month wait for an answer, if one comes at all. Mostly, it doesn’t. Mostly, the work will sit on a slush pile amongst thousands of other manuscripts. Or it will get rejected immediately because the formatting is wrong, or they aren’t looking for any new authors or the cover letter was terrible.

Getting published is hard, and a lot of work for anyone who doesn’t have an agent or a contact inside a publishing house. Sure, lots of people get published every year. This year, 342,975 books have been published so far. It sounds like a lot, but there are 7 billion people on the planet. A little rudimentary maths tells us that is about one book per 20,490 people. Then consider how many of those might be from more than one person. There some authors that produce hundreds of books in their lifetimes. Patterson currently publishes two titles a month, for example. 24 books a year is no mean achievement. Compare that to the prolific Corín Tellado, who published more than 4000 novels and novellas in 63 years.  That’s roughly 62 works a year. (Which should make us all feel incredibly lazy.)

Given that, self-publishing starts looking easier. There’s no mean editor to say “this isn’t good enough. Rewrite it.” There’s no one stopping the aspirant author from getting a book out there. There are vultures that will help them do it. Vanity presses abound, and sites like Createspace make that author dream come true. And I suppose that, if the intentions are pure, then that should be enough. The book exists, friends and family and unfortunate denizens of the social media continent can be led to it by bribed bloggers and aggressive tweeting. Mission accomplished, said George Bush, and now we can all go home.

But after the work it takes to produce a novel, some money would be nice. Prestige would be too. And this is where the gates of self-published hell open and consume the will to live of the poor sod that thought it was worth a try. Sure, anyone can give it a try. Look at Amanda Hocking. Look at EL Grey. And…that’s about it, really. Yes, there is the select club of rich self-published authors, but there are maybe a handful of them. The way I see it, if one is willing to put in the nearly back-breaking work required to produce a top-notch manuscript, then why not put in a little more and get the support of a publisher? Sure, great content will produce its own fans by itself, but the self-published have to be their own publicists and life is busy enough without the pain of cultivating a substantial online presence. As it is, most publishers won’t consider an author who doesn’t already have a website and a Twitter following. Establishing that, as outlined by this interesting BubbleCow article, is relatively time-consuming. An aspiring author, published or self-published, will have to develop this web presence to start, but the self-published author will have to work much, much harder to sell books that way. Also, consider that there is no advance for the self-published author. An advance may not always be much but it is something solid.

All in all, both are tough, but I still would rather polish a manuscript until its good enough to be accepted by one of the Big Six than try flog my work in the giant trough of shit that is the Internet. I would rather have the help of experienced people at 7% of the book’s profits than strike out on my own for a tiny chance to make 70% off my novel.

JK Rowling, Pottermore and the Future

As far as moments in publishing go, the launch of Pottermore is massive. But what makes it momentous is that, for the first time in contemporary publishing, an author has dictated to the biggest names in book-retailing. To put not too fine a point on them, she has told Amazon, Apple and Barnes and Noble exactly where they can shove their DRM. That kind of authorial power is rare and truly magnificent in its scope.

The watermarking system of the Potter books is a much nicer approach to treating readers like trustworthy human beings rather than the Draconian (mm, puns) hammerlock of DRM. If the book is pirated, it can be traced. It’s probably more effort than its worth but at least Rowling is not treating her readers like criminals. I have discussed book piracy before, and my friends have offered superb links in the comments thread there, so this is an interesting and refreshing approach to DRM.

To be fair, there are maybe ten authors alive that could pull off something as big as this. My bet would be that if James Patterson, Danielle Steel, Jeff Kinney and that ilk decided to get their own online stores and sell their books directly, there’s not much outside a watertight publishing contact that could stop them. And big money means big lawyers to break those contracts. So where does that leave the humble bookseller? And publishers?

For booksellers, the doom and gloom is unnecessary. Most authors don’t have the wherewithal to be able to bypass the retail chain. Honestly, JK Rowling is a rock star amongst writers. The Telegraph shares these facts:

69 Different languages that the Harry Potter books have been published in.

400 million Copies estimated that the Potter books have sold worldwide. It is considered the fastest selling book of all time.

200 Countries in which the books have been published.

Her record-breaking sales and allure as an author gives her power that 99% of the world’s authors do not have. The reason self-publishing hasn’t been able to put a dent in the publishing world at large is because publishers still give authors a platform and help they would not have alone. (Selling your own books is much like door-to-door insurance selling. Thankless, tedious and with pitiful payoff.) Amanda Hocking and the untalented EL James of Fifty Shades notoriety are still the only examples of self-published authors gone big. Rowling had to start with a publisher. Now she has outpaced them and given something back to her incredibly loyal readers.

I like to see this momentous occasion as a wonderful snub to the big baddies in book retail. It is remarkable to see an author empowering her readers by treating them like people. The books are fairly priced at R90 and can be bought with South African credit cards. This is a great time for readers, and inspiring for other authors. No doubt, the publishing industry needs an overhaul. It still screws the authors, and the book retailers screw the buyers. This is a brave new world of author power; I can’t wait to see what happens from here.

Jou Ma Se Social Network

It is a well-documented fact amongst those that know me that I generally don’t tolerate pointless bleating. And while there is the usual white noise that suffuses the open-plan offices and braai lapas, nothing has hit quite an unnecessary pitch like the petulant whining that comes with each change of a social network. One of the most annoying First World problems of 2011, I reckon.

I have had my Facebook account for six years now. That’s longer than most of the houses I’ve stayed in, longer than the time I spent in university. It has been through so many changes as to barely resemble the original layout. And I’m still using it, and so are 880 million other people. And while Google Plus is…nice, I suppose, it doesn’t have everyone there. It was hard enough getting my family to understand Facebook, never mind porting them over to Google Plus. (Which does make Facebook your mom’s network.) Most people aren’t going to bother with the move. It has stagnated mostly, except for the small surge of people that joined it when it was open to all a few days ago. (Their excitement was cute.) Having been there since day one courtesy of tech guru Tally, I can say that I have mostly lost interest. Its more of a bizarre mix of Tumblr, Twitter and Flickr. There really isn’t as much intensely personal overshare as Facebook and the circles idea was great. But as for the hangouts…well, I don’t have the bandwidth or inclination. At the end of the day, its not a Facebook killer. Maybe that isn’t what it should be trying to be.

For some, it all boils down to fandoms, and people pledging alliances to things as indifferent to their love as Google, Facebook and Apple. Friend SJ said that he’d rather Google take over the world than Facebook and Apple, but considering that all Google does well is email and search engines, they really aren’t that close to any kind of domination. After the failure of Buzz, Wave and the sputtering of Google Plus, maybe they should just stick to the stuff they do really, really well: making the Internet an easier place to be. And paying for YouTube, that is quite charming of them. I have made my arguments for Apple before, and Facebook is an interesting phenomenon in that it really is the best way to share each other’s lives. With the new subscriptions and lists, its much easier to squeeze out the info I want from the people I like while adding the people I’m not really allowed to defriend to the Restricted list. I am aware of the security issues, but we have to make peace that everyone knows where you are. I’m not so sure why everyone gets upset about security on the net, but invite pizza delivery guys to their houses or readily put their residential address on any form they are asked to sign.

Ultimately, if the Facebook changes bug everyone so much, then just use it less. There’s a beautiful world outside and it doesn’t need a news feed.

Greenpeace: anti-intellectual, anti-environment, anti-reason

As part of my attempts to be as awesome as Penn and Teller, I would like to point out the problem with Greenpeace. Look at this article here on why South Africa shouldn’t even consider nuclear power, and should instead be looking toward technologies that currently do not work and cannot support industry.

Then read my post here on nuclear power. Because I do actual research.

No one likes to talk about the other plant at Fukushima, built ten years after the one that did have a minor meltdown. The plant that quietly shut down with no troubles and leaked not a drop of radiation. No one wants to talk about that one, because it just isn’t cool to defend nuclear power. Ever. Even if France is wise enough to keep investing.

Why, though? Why are organisations as huge as Greenpeace refusing to do their research? South Africa does not have the time or money to invest in researching new forms of energy. (Unless we could somehow run Joburg off Malema’s ego.) We don’t have giant universities and corporations to do that. What we do know is that nuclear is cheap to run once the buildings are finished, that it has no pollution and the waste can be safely disposed of. It has fewer deaths than coal, uses less water than solar panels require to be made and is sustainable in the long term. And before we can harness solar to a decent level of productivity, the technology for recycling nuclear waste will be available. There are no good reasons to be anti-nuclear. As one of my fellow Dr Strangeloves notes, (@prof818) Greenpeace can’t see past the atom bombs. They refuse to believe that anything to do with hardcore science can possibly be good for us. They actively oppose genetically modified foods that could save lives. (Because hating the poor is trendy?) Never mind the job creation that Greenpeace prevents, and the fact that the Canadian goverment sees no public benefit in the organisation and therefore has cut all their tax benefits.

And never mind the propaganda against Apple, a publicity stunt as ridiculous as it is facetious.

Greenpeace, you make me want to stab baby seals. This is not a good outlook for an environmental group. Why do you hate science, and scientists, so much? Is it because BA is the best you could do? Even then, a humanities degree would have taught you to critically analyze and understand information, not have knee-jerk reactions to anything not made of hemp and rainbow-cloaked sentimentalism. Either become more informed about the issues you protest, or have the decency to drown yourself in soya milk.