OK, I had a whole long blog post ready to go about non-traditional publishing, and then I looked at it and realized that I was just saying the same thing again: there are scams, it is a ton of work, you have to educate yourself, check Writer Beware and Editors and Preditors before you commit yourself if you’re going this route, it’s right for some people/books but not for others, etc. If people are really interested, I can put that post up some other time; in the meantime, I’m going to talk a bit about the electronic scene.
I am a little reluctant to do this, which is why I had that other post all set to go. And the reason I’m reluctant is that I don’t actually have a ton of experience with ebooks. Then I looked into some statistics and realized that nobody has a ton of experience with ebooks – at least, not with the current ebook market. Because the current market is less than two years old. If my rough calculations are correct, two years ago, ebooks were less than 1% of the total US book market; last year, estimates were running 15-20% of the total market. And nobody seems to know whether this means people are buying ebooks instead of hardcopy books, or whether they’re buying ebooks in addition to hardcopy books.
Personally, I suspect it’s a bit of both. I adore my iPad, which I’ve had all of six months, but I only have two kinds of books on it: 1) books I already own in hardcopy, but that I want the convenience of being able to read on the road (that would be things like Pride and Prejudice for fun, and The Journals of Lewis and Clark for research), and 2) books that were only ever published electronically, so I couldn’t get them in hardcopy.
This may change at some point. I can foresee a day when I’ll only want my most favorite books in hardcopy, and I’ll get everything else in electronic format. (If I start seriously running out of bookshelf room, that day may come sooner rather than later…a four gigabyte flash drive would hold most of my collection, could I get them all in e-format, and it takes up a lot less space and is only about $10 if I catch the sale at Target with a coupon.) I have no idea whether this is the usual way to use ebook readers, or whether most ebook users went fully electronic as soon as they could and never looked back.
As a professional writer, I’m deeply interested in this cool new method of publishing stuff. For one thing, it represents a possible end run around the traditional publishing system for all sorts of things. Novellas and short story collections have both been hard to sell to traditional publishers; a lot of writers seem to be putting together their own ebook-only versions and taking them direct to Amazon. Similarly, gigantic 300,000-word novels are too fat for traditional publishing; they have to be split into two volumes in order for the binding machinery to be able to handle them, and then they seldom do as well as all-in-one-volume books. For ebooks, length doesn’t matter so much – at least, it doesn’t affect the cost of publication.
I also know a couple of professional U.S. writers who’ve been unable to get British publishers interested in their work; Amazon.uk is perfectly happy to take their ebooks and make them available direct, for a much larger royalty cut than they’d get from a traditional publisher.
I am much less sure how well all this would work for an unknown new writer. There seems to be at least some indication that the book-buying public is skeptical of novels that haven’t been through some sort of publication process involving gatekeeping, editing, and proofreading. A writer who has a following may be able to get people to buy his/her original ebook publications; I suspect it’s a lot harder for unknown newcomers to bypass the usual publication process and make a go of it.
My opinion in this regard was unfortunately confirmed by a quick run through some of the direct-to-Amazon ebooks that are available. A lot of them read like the bottom half of the slush pile – incorrect punctuation, sloppy syntax, incoherent prose, mixed-up word choices. Some of them obviously didn’t even run the spelling checker before they made their deathless prose available to all comers.
There are gems in the pile, but it’s not worth my time to hunt them down – not when I can spend that time browsing more e-editions of traditionally published books than I’ll ever have time to read, all of which have passed some minimum editorial standard, as well as having been professionally edited and proofed. I suspect I am not the only reader to feel this way.
On the other hand, I find myself a lot more willing to take a chance on an electronic freebie or 99-cent publication by an author I don’t know than I am on a $7 paperback that’s going to take up shelf space and be a lot more nuisance to get rid of if I don’t like it. I still want someone to pre-screen things for quality, though, and for now, that means traditional publishers.
What does this mean for writers trying to break into publication? More choices, and not enough information. Nobody really knows how all this is going to affect traditional book publishing, and it’s all changing so fast that today’s predictions may be totally out of date by next Wednesday. So once again, we’re back to figuring out what it is you want, how much and what kind of work you’re willing to do, etc.
If you really want to get in on the ground floor of exciting new technology (and are willing to take the risks that go with that sort of thing), then I’d say now is the time. Ground-floor time doesn’t tend to last very long. Do bear in mind, though, that e-publishing is so new that even the e-publishers don’t necessarily know the best way to publicize and sell original e-books, so you’ll likely be spending a fair amount of time and effort doing publicity even if you get accepted by one of them. If you decide to self-e-publish, the work load will be even greater – you have design and layout, editing and proofing considerations as well as marketing…and your marketing efforts will have that extra resistance to overcome in readers like me who still want the kind of gatekeeping that publishers do.
If, however, you’re interested in doing your own e-book simply because you’re so frustrated with the traditional publishing system…well, it’s not going to be any less work, or any less frustrating, really. The work and the frustration will be coming in different places, that’s all – and if you are the sort of person who can tolerate those frustrations and do that work, but who can’t tolerate the stuff that goes along with traditional publishing, it’s a possible alternative. I wouldn’t, but I’m not a risk-taker and I would purely hate doing all the promotion and marketing stuff. But that’s me. Different strokes, mileage varies, etc.