Sunday, June 27, 2010

What do you think?

This week has been one with little writing but a lot of plotting and planning as my son and I attacked the outside sprinkler system, started refinishing the kitchen chairs and I spent the day rearranging furniture yesterday. Which means it's been a productive week in a lot of different ways, not the least of which has been creatively. I'm one of those writers who, when stuck, seems to be able to clear the logjam through mindless, muscle-numbing labor.

But all the time working outside gave me time to think about the state of the publishing industry and some of the blogs I've read lately. Maybe folks in the industry are doing the same thing because con season is now in full swing. Maybe it's because Amazon's new payment scheme goes into effect in just a few days. Whatever the cause, the blogs are alive with thoughts about where publishing is going, whether or not the public is ready for the "inevitable" flood of self-published authors and what the next big thing is going to be.

Before getting into the heart of my post this morning, I just have to share this. I've made no secret of my dislike of sparkly vampires and emo werewolves. I'm a traditionalist at heart when it comes to ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night. So, imagine my glee to read that Stephanie Meyer, she of the Twilight series, is tired of vampires. All kidding aside, I have to applaud her desire "not to write it badly". So she is waiting until she can be excited about the story again. While she does, will someone please step in and write some non-sparkly vamps for YA and adults? Please?????

Laura Miller has a wonderful article that asks if the public is ready for the influx of self-published books that are already hitting the online stores:

One thing is true: Aspiring authors have never had more or better options for self-publishing the manuscripts currently gathering dust in their desk drawers or sleeping in seldom-visited corners of their hard drives. Writers can upload their works to services run by Amazon, Apple and (soon) Barnes and Noble, transforming them into e-books that are instantly available in high-profile online stores. Or they can post them on services like Urbis.com, Quillp.com or CompletelyNovel.com and coax reviews from other hopeful users. If a writer prefers an old-fashioned printed copy of his or her opus, then all of these companies (and many others) would be more than happy to provide print-on-demand services, producing one hard copy at a time whenever one is needed.

"Digital self-publishing is creating a powerful new niche in books that's threatening the traditional industry," a recent Wall Street Journal report proclaimed. "Self-published books suddenly are able to thrive by circumventing the establishment." To "circumvent" means, of course, to find a way around, and what's waiting behind all those naysaying editors and agents, the self-publishing authors tell themselves, are millions of potential readers, who'll simply love our books! The reign of the detested gatekeepers has ended!

She goes on to point out that what the public will find itself faced with is a huge slush pile. Freed from the need to find and agent and go through the submission process, there are fewer checks and balances on quality of craft and quality of formatting. What this will mean, in the long run, is still up in the air, in my opinion (and I'll have more on this below). In the meantime, it really is a situation of buyer beware and be aware when purchasing an e-book if you don't check to see who the "publisher" happens to be.

Agent Lucienne Diver has an excellent post this week on "The Next Big Thing". As writers, we are always trying to figure out market trends, what the public likes and doesn't like, what is getting bookstore placement and that always elusive critter -- what does the editor want to see. "Deciding what to focus your attention on is a necessary part of the business, and one of the reasons it’s good to have an agent on your side to brainstorm and do career planning with you. However, you need to keep in mind two things: 1) where your strengths lie and 2) you never know when family sagas will come back into vogue. . . The point is, if a saga, or a thriller, or a science fiction extravaganza is where your heart lies, if it’s where your strengths lie…not just based on your opinion, but those of critique partners or professionals around you…you should go for it." (the family saga was her example of what a client might be wanting to write.)

According to Ms. Diver, you should write what calls to you because if you, as the writer, aren't engaged by the story, there's a pretty good chance the reader won't be either. Remember, the books on the shelves right now were bought months, even years ago. She suggests reading the trade magazines to see what is selling now. Check out the post for a list of several very good magazines to watch for market trends. The caveat she throws out is, "I’m not saying that you should be deaf to the markets, either. If you’re writing within a genre, it’s important to know what’s intrinsic to that genre. . . It’s important to have an awareness of which market you intend to be your primary. Publishers can only put one thing on the spine, which helps bookstores decide where the books should be shelved and readers decide whether your book suits their tastes. Books that are not quite one thing or another pose a bit of a problem. There can be quite a bit of genre blending, but in the end, it’s the focus of your novel…is it saving the world or getting the girl, for instance…that decides it."

So, back to how this all fits together. There are authors bemoaning the advent of more and more venues where people can go to self-publish that book they haven't been able to get out through traditional means. There are others, like Ms. Miller, wondering if the public is ready to delve into the slush pile that will result from the influx of self-publishing options in this digital age. I'm not sure how the dust will settle. What I do know is the readers on the Kindle boards are starting to demand that Amazon put in place some sort of editorial minimum for anything published on the Kindle. Amazon has been known to pull e-books if there are too many complaints about poor formatting. To be included in the "premium" catalog at Smashwords, there are certain formatting requirements that must be met. Other e-book outlets such as Fictionwise require a minimum number of previously published books or a publisher or author with a minimum number of authors or pen names AND at least 10 books (iirc) to be offered through Fictionwise for inclusion in their catalog.

What does this mean? It means that some sites are requiring some minimum level of quality control already. I have a feeling we are going to see sites like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and others slowly requiring editorial minimums as well. But what I really think we'll see is the level of proof-reading will improve over time. Why this and not editorial requirements? Two reasons. First, for whatever reason, it seems easier to pick up on the oddly formatted paragraph or page, the misspellings, etc., in an e-book than in the paper copy. Or maybe it's that we are less forgiving in an electronic format because it is easier -- and cheaper -- to make the correction digitally than in recalling hard copy books, reprinting and redistributing them. The second reason is, in my opinion at least, one of the reasons the print book is suffering now and why so many e-book readers are willing to try small press and self-published e-books. There are too many books on the shelves now that aren't entertaining, aren't well-written and -- and this is what is inexcusable, in my opinion -- aren't well edited.

Will we, as readers, have to wade through a bunch of slush in our quest for good books? Sure we will. But we do that now. E-books have an advantage here. Most e-tailers allow you to download a sample of a book before you buy it. It may be a few pages or even a few chapters. That's more than enough to know if you like a writer's style and if the plot is going to grab you. All I know is that I've discovered a number of authors I'd never have read by checking out the freebies offered for the Kindle and by downloading samples of authors recommended by other readers on the kindle boards. As readers, we're going to have to educate ourselves to what is out there and the best way to decide who and what we want to read without wasting too much money. As writer, we're going to have to educate ourselves on the best way to reach and keep our readers.

I'm actually excited about the changes in the industry. Will there still be a need for agents and editors? Absolutely. They are, as we've said in the past, the gatekeepers. However, there is room in the industry for those authors who publish through small presses and who even self-publish. What do you think?

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

I agree that the influx of self-published books will make the market one big slush pile, but you are totally right when you say that it's already that. Possibly, not for quality purposes, but for what a reader wants to read.

A sparkly vampire book might be extremely well written, formatted, and even published through a traditional publisher, but if I don't like sparkly vampire stories on the whole, chances are I'm not going to like it. It can be as awesome a book as it wants, and it won't matter to me.

By the same token, if I love, say, shifter fantasy stories, then I'm more willing to put up with a "lesser" quality novel regarding such because that's where my preference lies. That book would have to really suck for me not to enjoy it.

I do confess to being a snob about self-publishing. I take comfort in knowing that while I don't normally do sparkly vampire novels, were I to suddenly take an interest in such, that the one I choose to read has at least made it through some sort of gatekeeper process. I want my chances of enjoying it to have a high percentage.

I have a nook, and recently downloaded from the "free books" section of B&N a book called Snapdragon Alley. It's published on Smashwords, which, after previewing some of their selections from the samples, have decided not to generally look into. That means that if I see it's published by them, I don't even go to the effort of downloading a sample.

That said, I recently downloaded a free one that looked particularly interesting to me even though indications were that it's really a juvenile book. I'm about halfway through it, and while it seems to be a better written book than most of the Smashwords titles, I am finding myself not caring too much about finishing it.

It is aimed (seemingly to me anyway) at a much younger audience, and I'm finding the writing style as such. The story itself holds an interesting premise and the storytelling is good. It's just turning out that I'm not particularly interested in the characters.

I guess my point is that the book was offered right alongside traditionally published books, and I had to notice for myself that it was a Smashwords presentation. While that did put me on guard, since it was free, I figured what was there to lose?

My point is that I'm not enjoying it as much as hoped because really of my own preferences, not because it sucks. Frankly, from such a self-publishing venue, I think it would be the exception, just like it is the exception that an agent finds a well written novel in her slushpile.

Now, there may be a problem with the book that I haven't identified yet which is the root of the cause of my non-enjoyment, but because it hasn't been through a gatekeeper process, I'll never really know. Maybe it's been turned down zillions of times with traditional publishers or maybe this author went directly the self-publishing route.

I think however that, for now, I'd rather let publishers do the finding for me. Once I find an author I like, just like once I find a brand of anything else that I like, I can trust that my enjoyment percentages will be up there.

Wow. Sorry to hog the wordage.

Linda

Amanda Green said...

Linda, I, too, am willing to overlook a lot if a book is by an author I like or in a genre I enjoy. However, I find myself having less and less patience with books from major publishers that look as if they haven't seen a copy editor or proofreader. This is especially true for the few hard covers I still buy.

As for being a snob about self-published books, I think all of us are to an extent. Until the last couple of years, self-published books were either signs of some poor schmuck who fell for all the pretty promises and lost a lot of money in the process or books that no one would professionally publish -- and rightfully so. However, in the last year I have found some real gems in e-books that have been "self-published" on Amazon for the Kindle. Some of these have also wound up being picked up by traditional publishers because they have a track record of sales.

As for Smashwords, I've learned a couple of things I didn't know about them as I've researched them for this blog. The first is that they don't have the same quality control for those short stories and novels that go into their standard catalog that they do for the "premium" catalog. The books in the latter are available to be picked up and distributed through other outlets such as the iBook store, B&N, etc. Also, you have to watch to see if the book is "published" by Smashwords as opposed to "distributed" by them. You can see the differences by reading their terms of service for both the standard placement with them and the "premium" placement.

Now, honesty compels me to admit that most of my books, both hard copy and digital, still come from traditional publishers. However, the agency model has altered my purchasing habits. I have a price point for almost any book I won't go over. I won't pay the same for a digital copy of a book as I will for a hard cover. Nor will I pay more for the e-book than for a paperback IF the paperback is already out.

I love the free offerings for the Kindle. I've discovered new authors. The free previews have prevented me from spending money on books I'd have otherwise purchased and then hated. This is especially true for some of the so-called best sellers from the big publishers.

As we've said before, the next few years are going to be interesting for publishing. When the dust settles, the industry will be different. I happen to think it will be better for the changes. Fingers crossed.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I have a multi-published friend whose family saga historical books are on the best seller list in the UK.

About 13 years ago (under another name) she had an SF series published. It was sociological, love story SF, very readable.

She has the rights back and has released the books herself, since her publishers have her in a niche and she doesn't want the books to languish.

From what I've heard there are lots of published writers who have books that don't quite fit a niche and their publishers aren't keen to release them. Smashwords gives these writers the option of releasing their own books.

Since they are professionals, they know to use a freelance editor.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Sigh. It probably should grieve me that most of the unreadable free ebooks on kindle seem to be put out by large companies. It doesn't though.

I am insanely loyal (actually possibly literally) to one of my publishers and fairly loyal to the others. But that doesn't mean I have to agree with their every decision and guys, let's face it, massive corportations and -- sigh, yes, sf and fantasy are -- niche markets are not a really good fit. And they don't react as fast as conditions seem to change these days, plus, as Rowena says, they're all about their "perception".

For instance, I got in this field to write SF. Through a perfect storm of unlikely circumstances I sold a "literary" historic fantasy featuring Shakespeare. For years and years not just publishers, but the peripherals of the field (say, anthologies, for ex) would only consider me for literary historical fantasy. Then Fantasy and historical mystery. Took me till this year to move the perception to "science fiction and present-day mystery." (Not disowning the shifters, it's still one of my favorites, but as the fans tell me "it's not really fantasy." My MBE is, but almost on its own terms. I don't have a "fantasy head.") Or take the book I just finished. My very first sold short story was vampires. In fact it sold over and over and over again when I couldn't give anything else away. However, I've never done a vamp novel. Till this year. IF this one sells/does well I will garantee half the field will think it's odd that "an SF writer" can do this. Why? Niches. Building a believable historical vamp novel and a believable sci fi are much the same thought process. But it looks radically different from the other side. I'm not stupid. I understand marketing. Hence, different pen name.

However and for the record, I am highly in favor of anything that frees the creative spirit and allows writers to define themselves and write what's crying to be written -- and sell it to the fans, even if the gatekeepers say it doesn't fit.

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, kudos to your friend for not wanting to let her books languish. The fact her publishers have her slotted into a niche is one of the problems I see in the business right now. Too many publishers don't want -- or maybe they can't understand -- an author publishing in more than one genre. I can't help wondering how many good books we miss as readers because of it.

As for Smashwords offering authors like your friend an outlet for the books they have the rights back on, you're absolutely correct. Amazon also gives them this option as well. Soon, B&N will be adding this option also. One of the issues I see writers facing in this digital age is keeping on top of the various outlets they can use to keep their books in the public eye once rights have reverted.

Amanda Green said...

Sarah, your comment about most of the freebies offered for the kindle -- and for the other e-book readers as well -- is sadly all too true. Just as it is true that some of my favorite free books have come from the smaller publishers and even from the authors themselves. The most unbelievable for me, however, when it comes to a free e-book offering was when one of the large publishers offered Book 3 of a series for free. Not Book 1. Not even Book 2, but the third book of a, till then, 7 book series. Worse, the series is written in such a way, you have to read Books 1 and 2 to understand what happens in Book 3.

You also hit the nail on the head with your comments about "perception". It makes our lives as writers, and wannabe writers, interesting to say the least as we try to guess what the editors perceive the market will want and what they perceive their editorial boards will approve of, etc., etc., etc.

All in all, we are going to be living in interesting times for awhile as writers and as readers.

Dave Freer said...

Well, I think the e-book market is still going to offer a lot of slush... but yes, I see limits on entry barriers climbing in. Brands who offier 'two tier'membership have a serious problem - authors go to them because they want the credibility and reputation of the brand to promote their book, but the second tier is likely to 'taint' the reputation of the brand, unless it is vastly different... in which case it loses its draw. Or to put it another way, hypothetically Louis Vuitton decides there is a market in 'renting' it's label, and allows any old joe to start putting fashion accessories for sale with the Louis Vuitton Junior on the market - same logo but with a little j too... and hey presto Louis Vuitton very rapidly becomes conflated in buyer's minds with Louis Vuitton junior as to quality and desirability - which is why they'd never do it. The same goes for c-authoring BTW. If I decide to co-author (as the senior author) I am putting my seal of approval on the writer, because it's my reputation he is trading under.

Chris McMahon said...

It seems that things are tightening up, rather than easing - in terms of getting your work to the right people. From that PoV, I can't really see agents and gatekeeper editors becoming less prominent, but more so in the whole process.

I think we might have some new niches that run in parallel to the existing structure, which is good, as this provides more options for authors who just want to get their work out (& perhaps raise their profile). For professional authors though? Not sure if the new landscape really helps that much (to put bread on the table).

Anonymous said...

I buy lots of ebooks. During the big 5 fiasco I had to look elsewhere and I've discovered new venues and authors I hadn't considered before. I'm not going back to my old habits. The big 5 have lost a lot of my custom forever. Prices went up, geographical restrictions hit and I realised small publisher offerings can be a breath of fresh air.
The big 5 are on a treadmill. If a book sells well they all want to sell a practically identical book. The lowest common demonimator problem. The same goes for Hollywood.
I've sometimes read a new book and wondered if I've read it before - it's so same old, same old.
As I get older I lose patience quicker. I got to around 17 with Xanth only 4 with Wheel of Time and lately I just don't bother finishing a book if I'm not involved. I have plenty of others waiting.
I wondered what the fuss was with Larsson and recently tried him. Just finished the 3rd book. It's a new voice, refreshingly different style.
Hopefully the self publishing authors can break through the mass of identical books the big 5 want and allow the readers to read something new that engages the reader. I'm voting with my dollars.
Laine

Stephen Simmons said...

"The Lightning Thief". My daughter loved the story, which she read before she even heard the first whisperings of a forthcoming movie. But she grumbled throughout about how poorly written and poorly edited the book was. I read it, based on her endorsement. She was right. The story is extraordinary. But it wasn't "ready for publication", in my estimation, when it was published. The author had a number of brilliant passages, and a wealth of considerably less-than-brilliant bits connecting them together.

Stories like that, without the services of some sort of proof-reding/editing professional, just won't make it in this new world. And that will be a loss, for all of us.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, absolutely. Which is why, whenever an author considers releasing an e-book through Smashwords, Amazon or any of the other e-outlets, they need to read the fine print. For example, an author has the electronic rights to a book they've written and decide to release it through Smashwords' premium catalog. They meet all the formatting requirements. Now, in order to get into some of the reseller's (iBooks for ex.), they have to have an ISBN for the e-book. If they use "free" ISBN service through Smashwords, Smashwords basically becomes their "publisher". If, however, they purchase an ISBN through Smashwords, Smashwords will be listed as the distributor. However, if the author provides an ISBN on his own, then Smashwords isn't prominent in how it is listed regarding the book in the other e-stores.

With Amazon, it's a bit easier to "hide" the fact you are self-publishing an e-book. You don't need and ISBN to be listed in the Kindle store. Amazon instead assigns the book an ASIN (or something like that. I'm too tired to go looking up the exact acronym.) Unless the reader pays attention to the "publisher" info, it isn't as obvious that it is a self-published book. This is good for those authors who have had electronic rights revert back to them and who want to keep their book available to the public but it means readers have to pay more attention if they want to avoid self-published books.

Finally, I think the preview capability a number of the e-book retailers have in place is an invaluable tool. I believe it will become even more valuable as more and more self-published e-books hit the stores.

Amanda Green said...

Chris, I think what we are going to see more of are literary agencies branching out to offer e-publishing services to their clients. There are several reputable agencies already doing that. They have formed small e-presses in order to protect their clients' e-rights. I'm not sure I totally approve, but I'll leave the ethical issues of that up to the AAR.

As for the influx of self-published e-books, I think we will see those numbers spike for awhile and then level off, possibly even decrease. Part of the reason I think this is I can see agents doing their best to dissuade their clients from doing too much self-publishing, especially of new material. Also, while the Big 5 publishers may take too long to adapt to the digital age, other publishers are already making that adaptation. Then there are all the small presses that have already made the jump to e-books and have very solid reps in the field. Finally, I think we are going to see more and more authors joining together with others to form their own e-presses.

As for what this means for professional authors, I think it really is up to the individual author. I do feel it is going to be more time consuming on the one hand because the author is going to have to do even more marketing and reaching out to their fans and the reading public-at-large. On the other hand, there are a number of authors already making a fine living publishing electronically only. As I said in an earlier comment, the next few years are going to be very interesting -- but probably not very comfortable at times -- as the industry adapts to new technology and changing demands and expectations from the reading public.

Amanda Green said...

Laine, I'm doing the exact same thing. I don't like sparkly vampires, for example. I've tried reading Twilight. It didn't resonate with me. Worse, I've picked up too many books since Twilight came out that are nothing more than pale clones of it. What I have found since the agency model went into effect is that I am more willing to look at books and authors I might not have before. And I've found some new authors I like. Maybe the Agency 5 will learn the lesson and gain some sanity. But, until they do, I am more than happy borrowing their books from the library and trying new authors from other publishers on my Kindle.

Amanda Green said...

Stephen, your comments about The Lightning Thief are reminiscent not only of books I've read but also of comments I see on a number of different forums. I hope we see an improvement in copy editing and proofreading in the near future. There are too many books that suffer from a lack of both coming from publishing houses of all sizes and formats.

Francis Turner said...

The "editor" issue is one that will only be solved by branding. As in ebook site X offers properly editied/formatted etc. works whereas sites Y & Z do not.

The trick is that we need a minimum bar to cross but that bar needs to be somewhat lower and quicker to overcome than the current one in getting accepted by a publisher.

Mike said...

I wonder if there will be a shift from "gatekeepers" (or is that high priests separating the holy from the unclean?) over to a "quality mark" or something? I mean, you can buy any electronics you like, but some people prefer UL approved and similar marks of quality. So instead of the gatekeepers being the bar between unpublished and published -- with the functions that they perform largely implicit -- the functions of editing, publicity, etc. become explicit and help identify islands of quality in the swamp?

Josh said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Amanda Green said...

Francis, I agree. Fortunately, most legitimate e-publishers already offer editorial services. There are also some very good free lance editors that can be hired. What I am afraid we're going to see an influx of "editorial services" that will take in a lot of the unwary self-published authors as well as a number of new writers first submitting their books for publication. This particularly worries me because I see more and more often blogs telling new authors they need to hire a third party editor to insure the quality of their manuscript before submitting.

As for what the minimum bar will be, I think it is going to be a lot like it is now. It's going to depend on the "house". Some have higher editorial standards than others. What is going to have to happen, in my opinion, is for authors and editors alike to quit relying on tools like spell-check and grammar-check. Those are helpful but not always accurate, as we all know.

Amanda Green said...

Mike, I think we are going to see both. I think we will still have the gatekeepers. Why? Because most people will still prefer buying their books -- hard copy or digital -- from legitimate publishers. That means, unless and until the current model changes, the need to find an agent and be signed on by a publishing house, big or small. Agents have increasingly become more of the gatekeeper. Not only do they have to like your book and think they can sell it, but they also have become the first line of editing from what I can tell. I know Dave and Sarah have blogged about how a lot of what agents do today is what editors used to do. There's another aspect that we have to keep in mind as well. A lot of people are like the Baen barflies. They may initially read a book in a digital format. But, if they like it, they'll want a hard copy as well. Most self-published e-books are not available in hard copy format. So there will still be gatekeepers as well as that standard of quality people will come to expect in their books and I, for one, welcome them both.

matapam said...

I see the editing and formatting problems as something that could be easily fixed, unless the writer has massive grammar issues (and still managed to interest a publisher?)

With e-publishing any poor grammar can get by. But it won't get popular.

What e-publishing is going to do is allow e-readers to find the writers that all readers are going to love. Without the barrier of the publisher, these new superstars are going to be out there to be discovered. If the readers can find them.

And I think as word spreads though facebook and MyPlace and Twitters and whatever we will see some really big sellers.

That, I think, is what may save the traditional publishers. They will have "pre-tested in the e-market" stories they can market to the rest of the readers.

And then the Author needs to watch the contract terms, because the Publishers aren't going to want to admit that they are now a much smaller part of the whole product.

Mike said...

What I'm reading seems to suggest that we're going to replace bars with filters? I.e., anyone can put their stuff up pretty easily, but then comes the slog of getting enough readers interested. And providing them with another hit soon enough to keep them interested. In the midst of about a gazillion other competing draws on their interest. Which in part means that marketing is going to go guerrilla. Sounds like fun, actually.