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.