Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Ruminations on Publishing, Self Publishing, and Cows

Photo by Neil Halin, Cow in Kyrgystan, 2009

(Rumination? Cows? Just my wonky brain and its associations. And cows are cool.)

So this morning, I had a very thoughtful conversation with my 17 yo son about digital publishing and the future of the book, in all its forms. It started out by him reading me a twitter exchange (more here) between Cory Doctorow and David Hewson  on whether Doctorow's model is sustainable for the majority of writers. 

While the conversation veered off into a discussion of career threads and whether/if Doctorow is a unique exception to the rule that writers, as a rule, don't make a living off their writing, it began a long discussion with my son about ebooks and the future of publishing.

I've been wrestling with the self-publishing/traditional publishing quandary for far longer than the stories of Amanda Hocking and her successes (independent to traditional publishing), and Barry Eisler's move into independent publishing from the traditional model have been burning up the internet. I've been writing novels for the past 7 years and have been thinking about the world of publication for most of that time.

And I've chosen to walk the path that leads to a traditional publication: the long, slow road that winds its way through a literary agent and to an editor at a publishing house. There are times when I return to question this decision. Writing friends I have work-shopped with have chosen the self or small epublisher route and have several novels out in the world; books they were drafting along with mine. Their books are published. Mine are still waiting on my hard drive for my agent to make that first elusive sale.

Am I envious of them? Partly, yes. Though, truly, I am thrilled for them and it's less envy than frustration at the slow pace of my own march to publication. I am not naive about the business side of publishing. I know what the numbers show: it's hard to get a book published and it's hard to make a living from writing. However, I do think that Doctorow has a vision of a model that can work even on a smaller scale.

It's relational.

Ebook piracy is not going to be able to be stopped, not without seriously stunting the growth of ebooks as a medium. For that, we only need look at the music industry. Despite the cry that digital music has killed the music industry, what it really has done is displace it. Indi bands have access via the internet to a potential fan base not bound by geography or controlled by relatively few record labels. The bands that have some kind of relationship with their fan base are the ones who have been successful.

I think the same will be true in the digital book world. I can see a future where I might email a friend a book file (DRM free, as physical books are, by design) the same way in which I once handed them the physical book and say 'you must read this.' In the dead-tree-version, that story could only reach one potential reader at a time as the book got passed from person to person. In the digital age, that same file can reach many potential readers simultaneously. And it is the readers who feel they have a personal connection to the writer who will spend both their good will and their dollars in supporting the writer.

That's the Doctorow model, albeit on a much larger scale. That's where social media becomes so important.

But we're not there yet for the vast majority of writers. Part of the problem is that the bar has been lowered so far that anyone with access to a computer can become an author. Basic word processing skills and the willingness to put in some time will net you an ebook on all the major platforms. (kindle/sony/nook/stanza/etc). And for some reason, it feels like more people believe they can be writers than believe they can be musicians, so a lot of drek gets put out there on the 'net for readers to wade through. That leads to the continuing stigma against self-publishing. A stigma that has not really been at play in the music world.

The agent/publisher process was meant to filter the vast majority of what gets written so that what is published is quality work. However, because there's still no consensus of what makes a successful book and because the traditional publication process is so long and involves so much labor and cost, things are being chosen for publication purely on a commercial basis. Will it sell? Will it sell big?

That makes it even harder for the unknown writer, the writer of innovative, quirky, or hard to categorize work, and the midlist writer.

So why am I not moving into the self-publishing or small epub route? While I'm willing to do platform building/publicity, I'm more interested in making sure I have a strong backlist of books ready for publication while I'm focusing on building relationships with different constituencies on the internet. The hard sell is not something that appeals to me. Building up good will capital does.

For the unknown writer, I still think traditional publication offers some things that self-publishing does not. Access to retail outlets is still important, even as the book stores are shrinking in numbers. Whether it's true or not; whether it's fair or not, there is still an assumption that something published by one of the big houses is going to be better than something self published. (I do believe this will change in the future, just as it has in the music industry.) However, I also don't think it's an either/or proposition.

I believe that the most successful writers of the next decade will be:

1. those who are willing to keep revisiting the publication landscape and work flexibly within it,

2. those who keep working on their craft and know their audience, despite the changing landscape,

3. and those writers who maintain strong relationships with their communities.

I don't have any particular crystal ball prescience or control over where this whole messy business is going but I'm going to keep moving forward. For now that means working with my agent within the constraints of traditional publishing practice. As things evolve, so may my thinking.

Photo by Neil Halin, cows in Kyrgyzstan, 2009


  1. Totally agree, Lisa. I may be published through the little press but I have read and reviewed some of what's out there and cringed. (I cringe when I read my own work, too.) I think the big, big thing here is that writers need to be improving, constantly. Those who do will get noticed (eventually) and those who don't will likely fall to the wayside. And honestly, I try the traditional route first for about a year before I switch to eBook/small publishers. I know traditional is long and arduous and needs more time than that, but with one book out already I've been nagged with the question of when my next book is coming out and where they can find it and ... yeah. Throws a wrench into things but I'm sitting back and enjoying what I'm writing and the stories I'm telling, which in the end is what it's all about anyway. If I don't like the story, why the heck would anyone else?

  2. Aimee--I've read your work--you have *no* reason to cringe! Be proud, girl, you're a terrific writer.

    I hope you know this was not a dig on your choice in any way--I only wish continued success for you, my friend.

  3. Oh, I know it wasn't a dig. Not to worry there. And I adore you for thinking I've nothing to worry about but I gotta admit that I can see a huge improvement in my writing now from what I wrote with Sedition. I'm pleased it's doing well without *cough* marketing on my part. I know I need to market but was waiting for the first royalty check to use on that.

    But to agree with you some more, I've opted to send Deviation out to TOR at the end of July. I want to polish it up one more time and all that before I do, you know? But if TOR turns it down then I'll be sending it in to Double Dragon Publishing. ((They took Witch-Born and I've been really happy with the way they work.))

  4. Great post. I have friends (non-writers) who think I'm insane for not self e-publishing. It took me 4 years to find an agent. I've been on submissions for only 8 months and while all my family and friends think it is an eternity (and it does feel that way sometimes) I keep saying this is only a drop in the bucket! So many of my friends think I should just skip all this waiting and self e-publish but I am hanging on to the traditional route. Not that I haven't considered or won't consider self e-publishing but in my heart I still want to go the traditional route.