Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What's that you say about self-publishing, sonny?

One of the tensions at the SF Writer's Conference featured the many writers attending in order to get a leg up in a traditional publishing track -- agent, NY publisher, $25 hardcover editions, well-oiled distribution machinery, reviews, bestseller lists, reprints -- confronting enthusiastic promoters and enabling vendors of self-publishing opportunities and viral marketing and e-book formats.

Dan Poynter delivered a keynote at the end of the first day of the conference. Likening the changes roiling the publishing industry to a wind that no author can control, he recommended trimming sails as the only viable option. Publishers, he asserted, are running out of money. The business model is broken, and the big houses are too stuck in their ruts to contemplate fundamental changes. Throwing seven figure advances at celebrity authors is nothing more than a series of desperate Hail Mary passes. Independent bookstores are folding, so fewer resources are devoted to pre-publication reviews aimed at their buyers, and there are fewer sales reps servicing them. As independents fade away, so will the practice of returning unsold books back to publishers (an option that encourages independents to risk shelf-space on new & unknown work) -- and thus remaindered books will go the way of the dinosaurs too. As e-books gain traction, there will be no used books either ... and this is a good thing for authors, because they'll get paid for each new reader (e-books, claims Mr. Poynter, don't get passed around the way those old fashioned, germy paper things do ... especially if they're priced low). Something has to change, and since authors can't change publishers' behavior or market tendencies, we ought to change how we conduct ourselves in rapidly shifting conditions.

Okay, Poynter didn't say anything about germy paper. But he was terrifically entertaining, in the mode of a snake-oil salesman ... and he might even be right about the rigidity and vulnerability of the large publishing houses, what do I know? I can say that his talk made me nervous. After all, I was attending the conference to get a leg up in the traditional publishing track.

Mr. Poynter didn't have much good to say about the Six Sisters -- the last publishing conglomerates standing in the current trade publishing market, Bertelsman AG; Simon & Schuster; Hachette Book Group, USA; HarperCollins; Penguin Group; and MacMillain U.S. Poynter said the publishers owned by these conglomerates -- the New York houses -- take too long to bring a book to print, increasingly produce cheaply crafted editions, and keep most of the revenue generated on the backs of content-producing authors.

As for the second of three available options he laid out, vanity presses, Poynter dismissed them as a scam. Okay. I'm with him there.

What's left? Self publishing, says the sage -- especially in electronic formats. Do as Dan Poynter does. Smashwords, a conference sponsor, will take an author's manuscript as an electronic file, convert it to 10, count 'em, ten e-book formats, then permit the author to set whatever price s/he chooses. No fee to publish. Each time someone buys a copy, Smashwords takes a 15% cut if the e-book is sold from their site, more (up to 58%) when the sale is made through a major online retailer, like Amazon. The content creator gets the rest, which is a better deal than any NY house will ever give any author. Publication is more or less instantaneous.

Sounds pretty cool. Of course, there's plenty of fine print, much of it openly acknowledged on the Smashwords site.

Leaving aside e-books (which made up perhaps 2.5% of the market in 2009, according to Smashwords founder Mark Coker in an SFWC session the following day) -- is this self publishing thing viable?

Who knows?

Sticking to the facts, though, we learn from Bowker, the folks who bring you Books In Print, that 275,232 new titles and editions were published in 2008 (a decrease of 3.2% from the prior year). Fiction, I was sad to learn, suffered an 11% drop in new titles published during the same period. On the other hand, "On Demand" and "short-run" books scored 285,394, an increase of 132% over 2007 and 462% over 2006.


In the big picture, then, Poynter seems to describe the shifting terrain accurately.

On the other hand, his frame of reference is grounded in the fact that he writes non-fiction, a world in which platform -- the means by which an author reaches a book's audience directly, or DIY promotion -- is almost everything. I write fiction, though, and I'm left wondering how my mileage would vary (though Poynter did make sure to highlight a current reality of publishing, which was echoed by many others at the SFWC: promotion budgets allocated by the NY Houses for fiction are small or rare, and authors are largely expected to promote themselves).

Poynter's 'argument' for the rising wave of e-book consumers was pretty flimsy ... he mentioned at least half a dozen times that he travels 'all the time' and that he 'always' sees people using e-book readers 'wherever he goes.' Well, yeah. Business travelers in big airport hubs, and the next seat over in business class? Duh. The cool new gadget, too much disposable income cohort. I'll freely acknowledge there's a lot of e-book potential on the horizon (e.g., Apple's iPad and the devices that Amazon and Sony will inevitably bring to market to compete with it) ... but I'm not seeing any done deals. To paraphrase a certain 19th century author, perhaps reports of the book's death have been exaggerated.

It's generally accepted wisdom that many excellent manuscripts of all sorts never see the business end of a printing press. There's something random (or lucky) about who makes it over the hurdles to publication, and beyond that which excellent published books find their audience in time to avoid being burned to heat the warehouses that distribute the next crop of contenders (Poynter claimed that's what happens to books returned to publishers when they aren't temporarily revived as remainders ... and it may well be so).

Does that mean that agents, editors, and publishers are failing to provide the 'gating,' the vetting, the quality control that is the core of their value proposition? Are they instead an impediment to information that wants to be free, and stories that want to be read? Are readers really better off choosing from 275,232 books published by publishers rather than 560,626 books published by publishers and authors combined? Is the New York Times Book Review a tyrant in a Grey Lady's disguise?

Hey, I'm always happy to have books recommended to me by readers I know to have tastes that are reasonably congruent with my own -- especially if our differences skew suggestions in directions I might not have pursued in isolation. And I like to browse in bookstores, especially independent stores in which staff recommendations are featured in ways that cut through publisher-paid promotional fog. Those are modes of navigating potential reading material that don't appear to require publishers and editors to narrow my range of choices. Maybe keeping track of what my friends are reading on Goodreads or LibraryThing can and will supercede my reliance on editors and bookshop owners who have steered me well until the socially-networked now.

But I'm certainly not sure enough to tear up my query letters, and neither were most of the authors I spoke with after that Friday evening keynote.

In the end, Poynter sounded to me like a free market ideologue: it's the sales figures, stupid. And, by the way, quantity is a function of well-executed marketing, not some fancy New York editor's concept of quality. Specific examples (especially his own successful self-publication record) is evidence to Poynter that his size fits all.

A little hyperbolic, do you think?

For myself, I'm still partial to wheat from which the chaff has been separated ... at least for now.

(And, yes, I'll try to post more concisely in the future. Still getting my sea legs here...)

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