The Self-pub Bubble?

After reading Ewan Morrison’s “The self-epublishing bubble” blog, I agonized for days that I, too, was deluding myself. I despaired that Amazon was cackling evilly as I innocently uploaded my precious manuscript, eager to gobble up the hamburger comprised of all of us starry-eyed self-published authors voluntarily sacrificing ourselves into its profit-hungry maw.

Why, yes, I can be overdramatic at times. And the longer I think about it, I suspect Morrison was being so, too.

Drawing from Hyman Minsky’s seven stages of economic bubbles, Morrison credits online publishers like Amazon and ereaders like Kindle for creating the “disturbance” that “reinvented bookselling” and creating this brand new market of epublishing, and he makes a compelling argument. He claims the lure of cheap and free content is sucking both readers and authors into the market that had never been there before, creating a glut of casual, uninformed consumption and low quality work that’s eclipsing better, more important stuff, robbing legitimate authors of their due. He further posits the few ebook self-publishing success stories are not only rare and thanks to a stroke of luck, but in fact are “half-truths” that encourage other hacks’ delusions of grandeur, upon which the soulless epublishing companies are only too happy to capitalize.

Well, I really can’t argue there’s not a whole lot of self-published crap out there, so point to Morrison on that one. And I have both purchased and downloaded free copies of way more books in the months since I got a Kindle than I had in several years leading up to last Mother’s Day, doing my part to contribute to the recent expansion of the bubble.

But some parts of his theory don’t quite compute. According to Minsky’s theory, a bubble’s bust is usually preceded by a rise in prices before the plunge, but the opposite happened with ebooks: they’re generally cheaper, often significantly so, than their paper counterparts. Morrison suggests we’re missing the point here. Ereader devices are making massive profits for their manufacturers (I have no idea if this is true, nor does Morrison offer proof), and we never before needed a $100 machine to read paper books, just the book itself. The device is inventing the market, fostering the demand, and we’re the suckers who’ve bought in by purchasing the new technology.

The crisis that’s looming is that while the price of ebooks is pushed to almost zero by the rush of frantic amateur self-publishing activity, the established publishing businesses will be forced into life-saving cost-cutting…. Meanwhile the mainstream publishing houses have suffered huge losses and now can only publish authors who seem to offer a guaranteed return [thereby stifling the discovery of new talent].

And what has happened to all those new authors who were told they could make money from epublishing? Well, they are working entirely for free (on spec) on the promise of those big 70% royalties on future sales. They write their books, they blog, they net-network and self-promote; they could put in as much as a year’s work, all without payment. So much writing-for-free is going on that it upsets the previous [advance-royalty] paradigm…

With five million new self-publishing authors selling 100 books each, Amazon has shifted 500m units. While each author – since they had to cut costs to 99p – has made only £99 after a year’s work.

Okay, maybe my Amazon-fodder brain is in denial, but… 70% of $1 (70 cents) still looks pretty good compared to 5% of $7.99 (40 cents). And keep in mind that the traditionally published author also has to cut an agent into the deal, because the major houses only accept agented submissions (15% of $.40 = 34 cents). Out of that 34 cents, the author must pay for promotional items and publicity (traditional publishing houses don’t do much in the way of promotion for midlist or new authors – you’re still gonna be responsible for your own website, bookmarks, conference attendance fees, travel expenses, etc.). And if the new author doesn’t reach a target sell-through percentage, that’s the last contract he or she will ever see.

But what about advances, you ask? Well, true, a self-pubbed author never sees one. But a newbie author won’t see a big one, either (a couple grand or so through a traditional house, nothing at all from an upstart epublisher), all or most of which will likely be spent on promotion and publicity, if he or she knows what’s good for them. And if the book doesn’t rake in enough profits in sales to recoup the advance and expenses, the author will never see a penny of a 5% royalty.

Compound that with the cost of getting discovered: querying agents is hugely time consuming and, despite the fact many now accept online submissions, it takes money to look professional and do it properly. This isn’t a new protocol – writers have been hopefully leaping upon slush piles since the agent-publishing house setup began.

Nor is writing a great story any guarantee of getting discovered. Agents and publishers, for their own economic reasons, are gatekeepers looking for stories that appeal to mass audiences, which means they fit into a nice, easily defined and marketable pigeonhole. If your story doesn’t fit the mold, no matter how great your voice, you’re either rejected or counseled to rework your darling baby into something that does. God help you if you don’t write about sparkly, ageless vampires or Regency aristos or studly kilted Scotsmen, because you will hear “I love your writing, but I can’t sell <insert marketing label here>,” until you are ready to fall on any Claymore you can lay your hands on.

Interestingly, these particular headaches can be avoided entirely by throwing one’s book up online (a totally expense-free process, by the way) and going directly to your audience. I’m not saying it’s easy – because it sure as heck isn’t – but it’s not any more work than going the traditional route.

And it’s not always about the money. Authors have always “worked on spec” and put years of effort into manuscripts before ever seeing a dime of advance or royalty money. Why? Because they can’t NOT write. They love their stories, their characters too much. It’s a sickness, an addiction, if you will.

So, Mr. Morrison, thanks for the warning. But I think I’ll keep writing – and self-publishing – anyway.

Why I’m Self-Publishing

Amazon.com has taught readers that they do not need bookstores. Now it is encouraging writers to cast aside their publishers. (1)

Somehow I don’t think this is gonna be a hard sell.

I’ve heard so many horror stories from authors who’ve tried for years to get an agent, who then tries for years to get an editor’s attention, who then tries for years to convince his or her bosses to actually publish the book. The house of cards can and does collapse at any one of these points, with the author left S.O.L. and clutching their precious manuscript, right back at square one. Is it any wonder so many potential authors cringe away from subjecting themselves to such an agonizing experience?

I adore “real” (paper) books and bookstores, especially independents like my local and beloved Changing Hands, but traditional publishing’s MO and business model make no sense to me. Finding a publisher for a book is less than half the battle. Convincing bookstores to buy and keep the books on their shelves is yet another skirmish. Then consider a bookstore gets to return any unsold copies of the books with little to no financial penalty, all of which counts against the author’s sales totals, royalties, and ultimately, their chances of ever getting another publishing contract.

The odds certainly seem stacked against our valiant author, who just wants to tell an entertaining story.

Sure, the traditional publishing route offers some pros – like an established distribution network, monetary advances, and the superficial appearance of professional acceptance – but today’s publishers offer very little to a start-up author in the way of promotion, marketing support, or any guarantee of long-term business relationship. Even with an agent and editor, an author still has to do all her own marketing and self-promotion. And with royalty rates of less than 10% (traditional hardcover or paperback) compared to 30-70% (self-publishing ebooks), why should an author give anyone else a cut of her meager earnings? Does she really get her money’s worth?

“…[P]ublishers [are] in love with their own demise.” (1)

Whether this is true or not, many traditional authors I’ve met are in a full-blown panic. Traditional publishing houses are dropping midlist authors and refusing to take risks on new, unknown writers. If you’re not Stephen King or a cast member of the Jersey Shore – even if you’re an established, published writer – good luck getting a book deal.

Some are even dropping print format entirely. Reports of publisher bankruptcies and authors subsequently left high and dry without earned royalties being paid are becoming disturbingly commonplace. Getting the rights to your own work back from these publishers in such dire straits is an expensive, time-consuming, agonizing process.

[T]he landscape [is] in some ways changing for the first time since Gutenberg invented the modern book nearly 600 years ago. “The only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and reader,” [Amazon executive Russell Grandinetti] said. “Everyone who stands between those two has both risk and opportunity.” (1)

And this is the crux of why I’ve decided to self-publish electronically.

Electronic publishing still seems to be in its infancy. Authors, publishers, and readers alike are yet feeling their way. Who owns what rights? What precisely does a reader purchase, and will he or she be able to share an ebook with a friend as easily as a printed one? Which electronic format is best? Nobody seems to know all the answers yet, but I think the possibilities, the dynamic flux is exciting.

Ebooks certainly seem like the way of the future, and I doubt there’s any turning back. It’s so seductively easy to download a book in seconds, on a whim, for pennies compared to a hardback, and carry around a slim, lightweight e-reader wherever you go. There’s a huge savings not only of the consumer’s cash, but an environmental one as well: less paper means less deforestation, and no physical shipping of inventory around results in a far smaller carbon imprint for every book published. And don’t discount the privacy factor: no one else on the bus or in the coffee shop has to know you’re reading a trashy romance just by looking at the bodice-ripping cover design!

New, unpublished authors like me are seeing this paradigm shift as a fantastic opportunity to connect directly with the people who might enjoy reading our stories. I don’t have to write to impress a gatekeeper anymore. I can write what speaks to me and share it with likeminded readers, no middlemen involved.

Some claim that editors and publishing houses are a necessary quality filter. Maybe so. There is inarguably a steaming pile of self-published schlock available now. But I’ve read some utter crap that presumably was signed off on by an editor, too. A publishing contract doesn’t seem to guarantee a writer any kind of minimum quality control anymore.

Nor does self-publishing carry quite the stigma it used to. Examples like Amanda Hocking and John Locke have proven that monumental success is possible without the backing of a publisher. And I’ve heard anecdotal reports of self-pubbed authors with decent sales attracting offers to publish current and future manuscripts from digital publishers interested in cashing in on their established readerships. Self-publishing is no longer a one-way ticket to obscurity or disdain.

Maybe it’s conceited, but my experience with writing fanfic has taught me that there’s an audience for every niche, every voice imaginable. Through fanfic reviews and contest feedback, I now know there are people out there who appreciate my voice, my creative output, and they’re not just my friends and relatives. Why should I go through the agony of finding the one agent, the one editor who agrees and is willing to take a risk to publish me and reach them? Why not just go directly to my market?

I’m not likely to make self-published millions like Hocking. I’m not likely to be the next J.K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer, either. But that’s okay. Some people will read my stories and find enjoyment in them. And that’s all I could ever ask for.

(1) All quotes from “Amazon Signs Up Authors, Writing Publishers Out of Deal” by David Streitfeld for NYTimes.com on October 17, 2011. You can read the entire article at NYTimes.com