Vee Hav Vays Und Means

So, ebooks throw the publishing field wide, but have some drawbacks.

The first drawback is giving readers a way to weed out the truly awful. Not that readers can't weed out the truly awful themselves. Of course they can. I weed out bad books by the score any day of the week. I read two pages and put them down. Or download the preview from Amazon, then erase it.

The problem is even getting to the point you know the book exists - the equivalent of browsing your favorite brick-and-mortar bookshelf and finding new books. Amazon "people who bought this also bought" does that, if you make it a regular practice of browsing those - I do - and of downloading the free samples for the kindle. I think - it's been a few weeks since I bought from them, and the holidays and my anniversary happened in between, so it feels like years - fiction wise allows you to download free samples as well. However the "people also bought" is limited.

What we need in that respect are the equivalent of the books they used to publish, called "what do I read next". I understand the kindle boards do some of this. That's a beginning to the solution.

Of course the other part of the solution is for writers to do extensive self-promotion and perhaps there some sort of co-op or banding together (I'm suspicious of co-ops on an instinctive level. They take extraordinary organization to work) to cross promote. I've been the recipient of recommendations from my fellow authors - notably Larry Correia, who is an excellent writer, himself (well, my sons think he's better than I :) ) and Dave Freer, ditto and Ilona Andrews, also ditto - and given the same sort of help when I can. Something like that on a greater scale can help.

Also perhaps websites that hold an "eternal sf convention" where panels are posted on you tube? Or mystery convention, for that matter? Surely there are some of you fans out there who aren't devoting every minute of your lives to promoting authors! My question to you is "why not?" and my advice is "get to it!"

The problem of gatekeepers and what I'll call for lack of a better word "recommenders" is more of a problem.

You see, publishing houses have fulfilled two very important roles traditionally. Recently they've fulfilled one middling well and the other in general (with exceptions that vary depending on the field) very badly.

The one they've done very well is the one of weeding out the sheer unreadable stuff. If you think they haven't done such a good job at that, you haven't looked at what they're culling from. If they err there - and of course, they're human and they do - it is in using their power to "improve" the readers, which biases them in favor of the less-readable-but-more-moral (for their definition of moral, of course.) Which results in very few Yas with male protagonists, say (because boys SHOULD read about women. Never mind that they don't as a rule.) It also results in passing up "readable and entertaining but fluff" because they're looking for the worthy. But in general, if it's between the covers of a major house, it's not raw slush. (Oh, there's one or two, but not usually.)

The function at which most houses today fail spectacularly is that of creating a 'brand' and 'feel' for their output. In fact, in science fiction, I can think of only one house with a distinctive output - Baen. And that was because Jim Baen molded it to his personal tastes. It's something that large corporations have trouble doing - no reflection on individual editors.

I don't need to explain to anyone why the gatekeeper function is important. Well, maybe I do to some of you but that is ONLY because you've never read slush. TRUST me on this, ninety percent of it makes your eyeballs boil in their sockets.

Yes, there are side-evils to gatekeepers, particularly if they're all concentrated in one geographical location and all attend the same parties, etc. Particularly if the job doesn't pay much. The problem is that greed is one of the cleanest motives human beings can have. Greed and attempting to get sex. Yes, I know that's heresy, but it's true nonetheless. If you deny the search for those, you become embroiled in things like power games and prestige which twist the human mind much more than the craving for material goods or satisfaction can.

So we need widely distributed gatekeepers, from various geographical locations and points of view - as varied as the readers would be great, thanks - who have some claim to knowing what they're doing (there can be many claims) and who can make a living from this. Ideally, these gate keepers would have some means of self-promotion and of promoting their authors - and also of introducing authors to each other and allowing them to form impromptu alliances, which is very needed because writers are often solitary people.

For my money, the most apt institutions to step into this role would be literary agencies. Over the last few years they've done pretty much all of the manuscript selection, anyway. More and more they're scattered all over the country and if they're not catering JUST specifically to NYC there will be even more of them. And the best and largest ones already have in house publicists. IF I were head of a literary agency right now, or even a successful literary agent in an agency, I'd be looking very hard at transitioning to e-publisher. Perhaps dip my toe in with a few books/stories that I think are wonderful but which won't fit the very tight market currently.

Publishers could do it too, of course - and here is a great opportunity for medium to small publishers to grow very large, just now. Here I must mention that Baen Books were pioneers in e-publishing and would be the logical house to transition to a bigger part of its inventory online. (OTOH I'm not the publisher, I don't know all the details, and, no, Toni, I'm not telling you how to run your business! This is just my view from the outside.)

Then there is the function of "recommenders" - less is needed for this, because one presumes someone else has selected the book, had it cleaned up and published (even if self-published.) This would just be a person who recommends certain sorts of books according to his or her taste and creates a "brand" which makes it easier for people to find books they're likely to enjoy.

This doesn't require an institution or a reading staff. It requires a fairly devoted and fast reader, with strong opinions and tastes.

Honestly, given time and money and starting right now, there is an opportunity for common citizens, and even mildly-successful writers to do this right now, either by establishing a small publisher or by simply starting some sort of "imprimatur" business, where they give books they approve of a way to put "selected by xyz" button or label on their ebooks. Probably would have to do it for free initially, but a judiciously managed "brand" could be a valuable commodity in two or three years. People probably would pay to get evaluated to maybe get it, since it would add to their ability to sell. Kind of like the "good reading seal of approval". There would have to be several caveats, of course, like having a set and equal fee for everyone wishing to be read and considered, and I'm assuming a smart evaluator wouldn't JUST be bribed, which would dilute the brand.

(So, Sarah, why don't you do it? - you ask. It's a valid question. Mostly because I don't have time. I'm too busy writing my own books. Which is why I'm only a silent partner in a micro publisher - because I don't have time or emotional space to deal with the nitty gritty of day to day work. Also because it's a long-term, work-towards-the-future job, and I already have one of those.)

This would, needless to say, be easier for someone who already has an online presence, or whose judgement people already value. Someone who has a review blog, say. But he or she would have to be willing to read a lot and put in the work day in day out - oh, and convince the authors to first accept the "brand" for free, and then to pay some amount for it - an amount I expect would increase with the fame of the recommender.

And finally - and this distresses me, because though I belong to two group blogs, I really don't tend to ingratiate myself with groups of my colleagues (I suspect it's the too opinionated by half feature of my personality) - there are formal or informal alliances of writers. For instance, I - if/when I put out full novels on my own (I simply haven't had the time to do it) - would be more than glad to give "back of book preview" space to Dave Freer or Larry Correia, or half a dozen other authors I enjoy.

As for the idea that there is no money in publishing - or there won't be if there's so much competition... nonsense. The best ten percent will still be the best ten percent. People will still pay to see more of those writers. And then there is the sheer differential (because of production costs) between writers' income per volume. If I made, say, $2 per book, I would only need ten thousand people to buy each book (given that writing two books a year is easy) to make a passable income. Right now, to make that income, one needs more like fifty thousand readers. Now, making money in the millions of dollars might be harder. However, even that I'm not sure of, and I suspect time will prove wrong.

However, the "scrum" at the bottom might get bigger and noisier. That's okay. To an extent maybe the field will become more of a meritocracy. We'll never eliminate the luck-factor completely, but maybe we can reduce it to something less than all powerful.

In other words, I see an open future of more competition and of potentially far greater rewards for a lot more people. Whether it will happen fast enough that I benefit from it is something else again. I am already benefitting as a reader, though, by being given a far more ample choice.

I am open, btw, to other comments and questions about what can be done to facilitate the transition and better match writers and readers. If some of it interests me enough, I might even do a couple more posts on this.


*Crossposted at According To Hoyt after six am 1/7*

posted by Sarah on 01.07.11 at 01:12 AM


Good post, keep working it, we're getting there.

I'd like to propose that the New York Times institute a weekly section of book mentions. We could call them 'reviews'. :-)

Google 'book review' (include the single quotes).

I think we can find recommenders, too.

Bill Johnson   ·  January 7, 2011 2:41 PM

And on quite the related theme, RealClearPolitics pointed at

which discusses the very theme of the breakdown of gatekeeping, should anyone be interested.

Bill Johnson   ·  January 7, 2011 2:43 PM


DO try for some coherence. I hate to be unpleasant, but for someone who claims to be celebrating the fall of elitism to recommend to me the New York Times Review of books is... well... Words fail me, which doesn't often happen.

DO NOT presume that you know more about how people buy books in the FIELDS I WORK IN than I do, or that I'm unware of things like book reviews. (Rolls eyes.) If you want to engage in sniping and one-upping, DO try to treat your opponent as an adult, unless you want your opponent to treat you as a twit.

Why you should think me your opponent at all puzzles the living daylights out of me. I too think ebooks will open up the field both ideologically and stylistically and that they are, on the whole, a good thing. However, two hundred or so years of established modes of doing business don't topple wihtout discomfort. I'm just pointing at the drawbacks and how they might be overcome.

For recommenders, I was NOT talking about book reviews, but a specific, well regarded system of affixing an imprimitur to a book saying in effect "someone you trust" (which you might or might not for most reviewers) "read this and it meets his/her/its taste."

Note that, I'm also doing these posts on my blog where they're read by people in the industry and that NONE of my colleagues, who know the field, brings up reviews or thinks they fit the requirements of this sort of thing. We all know about reviews. In ebooks as in paper books, it is possible to have an exceedingly well reviewed book that dies on the vine. (Look up Ill Met By Moonlight by Sarah A. Hoyt.) People don't in general buy books because of reviews. Reviews HELP but I have yet to read a review that makes me go "I MUST read this." At best it makes me aware the book exists or if I've already decided to buy it, gives me an idea what to expect.

Meanwhile, for MY fields of endeavor, the NYT reviews are very much besides the point. They simply don't mean anything for pure genre fiction that aims to be entertainment.

Sarah   ·  January 7, 2011 6:18 PM


Do please put away the irony card. You don't use it very well. That, or you haven't got a clue what you're talking about.

A. Using the NYT as an example for book reviews when anything outside a very narrow, elitist ideological band doesn't rate a mention unless it's to try to shit-can something that's selling well and the luminaries in the NYT offices can't figure out why... It's enough to make someone suspect you of socialist-left leanings.

2. Book reviews written by whom and for what purpose? One doesn't hand the latest Tom Kratman book to a Modern Literature professor for a review and expect anything but "What is this crap?" - although probably expressed in a more roundabout fashion than that. Unless you've read a specific reviewer's reviews for long enough to get a sense of how well their tastes mesh with yours, the most any review, anywhere, is going to do is make you aware the book exists and give you an idea what it's about. You can get that from the cover image. Usually.

iii. Recommendations are worthless unless everyone who sees them knows that the recommendations only happen because the "notable recommender" actually liked them. Otherwise they're like cover quotes on books - sometimes honest, but more often than not a quid pro quo arrangement that flat doesn't work.

d. You talk about the bastion of elitism, the NYT and then link to an article talking about how movie and TV producers can't dictate public taste any more. Seriously, WTF? Do you want someone dictating what's in and what's not? Or don't you. There are so many crossed wires here the fuses have melted.

5. A smiley face does not disguise a put-down. It's like saying "just joking" after every insult.

VI For the record: I don't want ANY ideology dictating what's popular and what isn't, what can be said and what can't - and I certainly don't want anyone blocking me from finding things that aren't that popular but do make enough money to justify publishing/making/selling them.

Kate   ·  January 7, 2011 6:30 PM

There are a few problems that I can see.

One is that a significant portion of those of us who read a lot have a romantic attachment to books as physical objects. I have a few PDFs and text files on my HD, but they're really not the same. Reading them is a chore, not a source of enjoyment.

The second is related to the gatekeeper aspect, and that's the lack of walls and gates. The internet is a huge frigging place with lots and lots of distractions. I'm fairly net-saavy but I'm aware of very few e-publishing sites. I never would have encountered Naked Reader Press if I hadn't enjoyed one of your posts here, followed you over to your home site, from there to Mad Genius, and followed a link from there to Naked Reader. (The internet, where stalking is socially-acceptable and often appreciated.) I also know of Project Gutenberg (Public Domain FTW!) and SJ Games' e23 (purely because I'm a fanboy). That's it.

The third is that anyone can go on the internet and read things they find entertaining for free. Getting them to pay upfront for what's essentially downloadable web content is a pretty tough sale to make to the few who do stumble across the threshold.

The fourth is a social stigma. It's one thing to be a published author who also releases material digitally. It's another to try to break into the field via what's essentially self-publishing. The success of bloggers vs the mass media might mitigate this somewhat in the future, but as of right now... There's still a pronounced "amateur hour" perception. (Not to mention that undermining someone's job isn't normally considered a good way to make friends and useful contacts.)

Fifth is the difficulty of copy-editing. It needs to be done. (And not by a scam artist advertising in the back of writer's magazines.) True, an agency could make the jump and hire editors. But they'd be burning a lot of bridges with publishers upon whom their business model currently depends by doing so. That's one heck of a leap of faith.

They aren't insurmountable. But I fully expect things to get worse before they get better. Inertia is pretty powerful.

All that said, I *want* to believe you're right.
But because I know I have that bent, I'm even more skeptical than I already would be. I'd love to see it happen, but I'm afraid I'll be one of the last converts.

Luke   ·  January 8, 2011 1:14 AM

And finally - and this distresses me, because though I belong to two group blogs, I really don't tend to ingratiate myself with groups of my colleagues

I think I can speak for Eric and certainly I speak for myself.

It is a pleasure to read you when ever you post. No ingratiation required.

BTW for continuity when you do a series of related posts - provide links to the previous material. they need not be CV links.

M. Simon   ·  January 8, 2011 10:45 AM

Sarah, it is ironic that you mention Baen Books in that Baen friend & associate Jerry Pournelle predicted/suggested this scenario a couple decades ago.

He foresaw the demise of physical publishing, and suggested that the companies migrate to (as you say) touting the above-average work.

Precedents have existed for quite a while, including various Book-of-the-Month club selections (eg SF book of the month, or Military book of the month), and celebrity endorsements such as Oprah's selections.

I disagree that a "reader" would have to function as a full-time position; anyone who knows of Jim Dunnigan, Al Nofi, or Austin Bay would have a good idea of what those authors liked or disliked in terms of wargaming and military history, and why. In that sense the reviews on function as more than book reviews; they are also analyses as to why a particular book is a good or bad work of history.

One of Larry Niven's anthologies included a foreword by Tom Clancy, who declared Niven his favorite author. If one is a Clancy fan, but unfamiliar with SF, that might well carry great weight in trying a Niven publication.

The situation demands less of a full-time reader than someone who is known to the public for their own works, or at least standards, like Oprah.

Alas, this approach limits the number of prospective endorsed works, since (as you point out) these people have many other demands on their time. This is why I consider publishing houses hold an advantage. They already have in place institutions and mechanisms for receiving, evaluating, and disseminating literary works. I suspect the lack of "distinctive output" is the result of traditional views on publishing, and suspect that once publishing companies wrap their heads around the idea that they need to change their paradigm, we will see some interesting new approaches.

Casey   ·  January 9, 2011 1:47 AM

You have wonderful points, and I wish I had more time to dwell on each of them -- but today is not the day for it. I'll try to give hurried answers:

Attachment to a physical book... years ago, this was the battle cry. Everyone was screaming "they'll take away my paper book when they rip it out, etc." Then they got kindles. Though I was never one of the "romantics" since what I'm addicted to is story in any form, I wasn't prepared for how much the kindle mimics a paper book psychologically. I have a cover on mine and honestly my biggest issue is to remember not to lay it open, facedown somewhere. Also, when I go back to paper, I try to press the "next page" button.

Your next two points are why "publicists" of some sort are required. Yes, there are no gates, so there need to be ribbons or buttons or something to call attention to this one author and endorse it. (BTW, if I missed it above, I'm sorry, but feel free to also stalk me at According to Hoyt. I shall add it to the side bar as soon as I figure out how -- sigh. Actually what's amazing is that I think I know all of my core fandom PERSONALLY in some manner -- emails, their fb page, whatever. Okay, probably not all, but that's the feel. No, it's not that small, though my joke is I have ten readers and I'm looking for the eleventh. It's just that the internet allows for a broader circle of acquaintance and for allowing strangers near.)
The why should people pay... as you know -- or perhaps not -- one of my guilty pleasures is Jane Austen fandom. When I had tons of time, I read the beginning of every story, decided if i wanted to go on. There is some "objective" factor, because the same authors tend to be popular with everyone. When I have less time, I look at how many comments an entry has, but that is an imperfect method, since it might just be very new. OTOH when I have near to no time -- now -- I don't go there, because I don't have time. Do I have time to read the three or four good stories. Oh, sure. But I do not have time to sift. If someone were to actually be good enough to point me to the good ones, and they were someone I trusted, I'd still be reading it. I see something like that with fiction.
Social stigma is vanishing, though I'd prefer to keep working paper publishing as long as I can, as it removes the impression I'm self publishing or epublishing for lack of publishing contracts. But honestly, it's almost gone. Bigger authors than I (but not by much) are now almost exclusively on line. And let's face it, being blessed with my particular, indefinible political view, I was never going to win any awards.
Unfortunately I agree with you that things will get worse before they get better. It is the nature of chaotic systems between states of equilibrium. My husband, who is a mathematician, could probably express this in numbers -- but the equilibrium reached at the end is usually HIGHER, which means... the future's so bright I got to wear shades? :)

Luke   ·  January 11, 2011 12:25 PM


Thank you. I'll admit it surprises me I don't seem to have many mutual-benefit associations with my colleagues. It has occurred to me maybe my views confuse them, but frankly I think it's more likely all of me confuses them. I'm not standard issue. One of the charms of CV is that none of us are standard issue.

Your point on back links is very well taken. I confess I am lazy with doing links because of the various steps my computer takes to protect me from the popups. And... er... I'm lazy.

Sarah   ·  January 11, 2011 12:28 PM

I am honored to count Jerry among my friends, but we have never spoken about ebooks. I suspect this is very much a case of minds running on the same track.

As for authors recommending each other -- Oh, of course. In fact there are cooperatives of authors developing formal and informal. For informal, mutual admiration societies, I recommend you try out Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia. He's a fun writer and he's doing an inordinate amount to promote my work. (Thank you Larry.) He's also probably a cousin several times back, a few centuries away (G). At least a lot of the same surnames appear in both our lines. We've decided to be functionally cousins. :) Also Dave Freer will strike you as a disingenuously simple writer, until you dig into his work and find layer upon layer of significance. If you haven't tried him, do.

HOWEVER writer-on-writer promo has limits. you can trust my recommends of people at about my level. But if I told you Dan Brown is wonderful (I won't, truly. Doesn't know historical research from a hole in the ground) could you trust it? Not necessarily. I can tell you the truth about my feelings on him because he's so far above me a campaign by him to destroy me woudln't even make sense and might increase my following. However, with people just above me, a word in an editor's ear could cost me contracts; a word to their fans could earn me devoted anti-fans dinging down every book of mine on Amazon and worse. And if you think writers don't do that in exchange for what they view as badmouthing them, trust me, they do.

Yeah, someone like Oprah might do. (Not for me, but it's personal.) Instapundit already does this function.

What I was thinking of, however, as a full time job with low capital and the potential for income, at least in advertising, particularly if one is the first, is something like those books they used to publish called "What do I read next?" only the internet would allow for a more freewheeling and thorough association. You know, the type of site where you could go look up Agatha Christie and see all the suggestions people have made for authors they also like as well as AC. The suggestions would have a strength-measure, depending on how often they've been recommended. I think there is a market for this, and I hope someone stumbles on the idea. I simply have neither the time nor the technical savvy to do it. As seen by my difficulty putting links in my post, or linking my own blog on the side bar.

Sarah   ·  January 11, 2011 12:37 PM

What I forgot to mention -- copy editing or even editing can be had for hire. Now, you have to trust the editor and you have to be able to take correction. Of course, if you're already published, you know how to take copy-editing. Not a big deal.

Right now I'm taking shameless advantage of a friend who is doing my non-mainstream stuff "on the cheap" till I can afford to pay him more. But I also just recently heard of a laid off professional hiring herself out for $20 an hour -- which comes out I think to about what I pay my friend. This is not difficult, it's just that all of a sudden writers lists have adds for EDITORS and there's chat about the great editor you found. This too is a wide-open career opportunity for people who are laid or/unemployed just now. Might not pay wonderfully, but it just might keep the rent going.

Sarah   ·  January 11, 2011 12:43 PM

And TRUST me, I need a copyeditor. Portuguese is very limited on double consonants and I'm left with sort of a love/hate relationship with them. I put them where they don't belong, and don't put them where they belong. It's a favorite joke among my friends. I'm also capable of untold cruelty towards the innoffensive common comma.

Sarah   ·  January 11, 2011 12:45 PM

Actually, Sarah, one has a fair expectation of inducing apoplexy in said professor.

Tom Kratman   ·  January 11, 2011 11:46 PM


I know it often confuses me too, but that was actually Kate's comment. I second it and your wish though. (Having, through no fault of my own, suffered through a literature degree I'd have loved to put one of your books in front of most of my professors. :) )

Sarah   ·  January 12, 2011 9:47 AM


Thanks for the sentiment (yes, it was my comment you responded to) - and yes, your books probably would induce apoplexy in said professor. It would be a fun experiment some time, although there might be a teensy bit of difficulty getting the results into a scientific journal.

As advertising, though... "80% of literature professors asked to review this book had an apoplectic attack" (Yes, it is a bit on the low side) - priceless!

Kate   ·  January 12, 2011 1:36 PM

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