Those Things With Words In Them

Christmas has come and gone since I last posted. Santa brought lots of fattening candy to my house, along with a couple of Disneyland t-shirts and two XBox games (Fallout: New Vegas and The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim.) There were also three unusual artifacts under the tree:

Stack of books under Christmas tree

These are called books. (They’re also all biographies, but that’s coincidence.) Look at them carefully, because there will come a time when you will tell your grandchildren that in your youth you could walk into a store and be surrounded by thousands of such things, while all of them were still shiny and new. The children will scoff, of course, but only a little bit, because young people sense instinctively that the world was very peculiar before they were born. What makes these books especially distinctive is that they have an actual physical presence — they exist as print on paper rather than as an electronic matrix of bits and bytes on a hard drive or in the static RAM of an e-book reader. All of the books that I’ve read this year have existed in this latter form and were mostly stored on my Barnes & Noble Nook, an original model e-ink Nook early in the year and a Color Nook later in the year because I prefer its backlit display. Here it is pretending to be the latest Stephen King novel:

E-books are not new. I remember reading them on my Palm Pilot nearly a decade ago. But over the last couple of years they’ve begun swallowing increasingly large chunks of the book market, even as the book market itself has become increasingly small, and publishers have begun to worry that the days of dead-tree books, and the brick-and-mortar stores that sell them, are numbered.

As a writer with approximately 90 published books to my credit, my feelings about the e-book revolution are mixed. I love carrying an entire library around in a device slightly smaller than a notebook, but I also love bookstores and if I ever write another book — the last one came out about a decade ago — I’d really like to see it on a bookstore shelf and not just on a bookseller’s Web site. Not all writers feel this way, though. Many have embraced the e-book not only because it gives them another market for publication at a time when markets for publication are disappearing but because e-books offer them a way to control their own destinies by publishing their books themselves.

Self-publication. I remember a time, not that many years ago, when writers uttered those words with disdain. The term we used for printing houses that catered to authors who wanted to self-publish was “vanity presses” and authors who turned to these houses as an outlet for their books were regarded as pathetic figures, unable to convince real editors that what they had written was worth the time and money it would take to polish, print, distribute and advertise. And, indeed, most self-published books went no farther than the bookshelves of the author’s family members. They were like those Web sites you bookmark and then never bother to go back to. They sounded interesting in theory, but the execution was just a little bit off.

This has all changed, and the change has taken place with remarkable speed. A lot of perfectly respectable authors, ones whose names you would have seen on the shelves in Barnes & Noble just a few years ago, are now publishing their own books, either because the shrinking roster of traditional publishing houses can no longer find room for them or because they feel that the relatively small percentage of a book’s price that traditional publishers let them keep (when I was writing books this was usually 6 to 12 percent of what was left after certain publishing expenses, vaguely defined in my contract, were deducted) can’t compete with the much larger percentage that they can skim off the sales price of an e-book sold through’s Kindle Store.

I’m really not sure how I feel about this. In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that a large part of my income comes from editing books for authors who are intending to self publish and that Amy, the professional graphic designer I live with, has a sideline in designing both e-book and print-on-demand editions for authors who want to use the currently available self-publishing outlets. (If you’d like to use our services, just ask. I recommend going through Hotspur Publishing, a small press run out of Eugene, Oregon, by my writer friend David Bischoff, the URL for which can be found in the Blog Roll on the right side of this page.) But I’m still not sure I see why any writer who might have a shot at traditional publication through a respectable publishing house would choose self-publication first, without at least attempting to go the traditional publishing (or, as some people now call it, the trad-pub) route. Yes, the respectable publishing house would keep a significant chunk of change from the books’s earnings, as would printers, distributors and bookstores. But the publisher would also secure the writer’s book a degree of public visibility that self publishers have to struggle to achieve.

Perhaps the most successful self-published writer that I know of is a 20-something woman named Amanda Hocking. As a private nurse with lots of spare time on her hands she wrote more than half a dozen books, mostly in the paranormal genre, and published them herself. By early this year these books had earned her something like two million dollars, a sum even a traditionally published author would envy. Yet the moment St. Martin’s Press, a traditional publisher, offered her a multi-million dollar advance for a new series of books, she took it. If self publication offers such tremendous advantages for authors who could secure traditional publication if they wanted to, why is the most popular self-published author of our time making the leap to the trad-pub world?

My guess is that this blog will be read by more than one self-published author and I encourage them to comment. Here’s the question I want to ask: What are you looking for in self publication? The freedom to write anything you want? Freedom’s great, but most self-published authors I know are struggling to achieve a fraction of the sales they once got as traditionally published authors. I reserve the right to have a personal epiphany about self publication as the logistics of the publishing field shift in the months and years to come, but for now I don’t really get it. In the meantime I’ll continue to play both sides of the fence, even as I struggle to figure out which side of the fence I’m really on.

One comment on “Those Things With Words In Them

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