We've Got Trouble, Right Here In Ebook City

Okay, so - as a commenter told me yesterday - why do writers still need publishers? What is the point? Why can't writers self-publish on the web and be done with it?

Let's dispose of the silly stuff, first. I have had people tell me they could never self-publish because they need "editors" by which they invariably mean copy-editors, btw; or because they need a cover; or even because they need to format it.

These are ridiculous objections because there are free-lance copy-editors. If you can't afford that, find a friend who will do it for a dinner. If what you need is a REAL editor, you can hire those too. Ask friends or look through the adds in writers' publications. Ditto for covers. Believe it or not most artists are not that expensive when it comes to using their illustration for a cover. Look over at deviant art or another place where artists post their work, hoping to be noticed. As for formatting, you can usually find instructions on line. (It has occurred to me that if I were unemployed right now and were marginally more tech inclined than I am, I'd start a business formatting books for writers, and arranging them to fit the various publishers/services.)

Now, the real objections

- the first one, forgive me, I'm going to sound like a curmudgeon and I'm not. There is a point in any artistic pursuit when you think you are much better than you actually are. It's in the nature of the beast. You have managed to put something of the picture that's in your head on paper, in some format. When you look at it, you see what your original idea was.

I'm currently going through this with my drawing/painting. This is why writers groups are so important. A good one, will tell you about the stuff you left in your head. (I'm just not sure I want to take the trouble to get an artists group, since it's a only something I use to focus the writing and for some publicity.  Of course, if I got much better, I could possibly eventually maybe do covers.  Um.) But even writers groups can get used to your flaws and blind to them.

I'm not going to say the current publication-process is flawless. I know for a fact that many, many people who are publishable and perhaps even marketable (not the same thing) are simply not getting in. For one, must publishers these days don't have a reading/slush department and it goes through agents. Which means overworked agents have to find the time to read. I could write several posts on the flaws in that process, alone. Things that slip through, things that the system isn't designed to do, etc. I won't. There's very little point. Suffice it to say it is difficult to get published and while there is an element of meritocracy in it, it's not absolute.

However, what the element of meritocracy does do is weed out 99.9% of the absolutely unreadable dreck. Even more importantly it weeds out 75% or so of the "nearly there, but not able to keep anyone's attention but the author's" which is a subtler distinction. If you don't know what I'm talking about, you are the VERY fortunate avoider of slush piles. Anyone who has struggled through a slush pile knows how absolutely horrible the dreck can be and also that a lot of what should be technically perfect keeps "popping the reader out" every two paragraphs. (I've learned, if I actually analyze those I find fairly large technical mistakes, like bouncing around between the heads of characters in one paragraph. Or contradicting your scene setting in two sentences, or... But on the grammatical and superficial level these stories look passable. Only, they're not. They simply wouldn't hold up.)

Now it is a perverse thing I've noted that at that stage of near-publishable most writers are more confident than publishable writers. It could be because people are funny... Or it could be because that too is part of the stage of learning any art or craft. When you're at near the top, you see fewer flaws than after you study a bit and become even more proficient. Also, some people are naturally hard on themselves, which doesn't mean they're bad, and some people are naturally brimful of self confidence, which doesn't mean they're good.

I've found that amid self-published writers, confidence often outstrips the ability. Not always, mind you, but often enough that even though self-published is no longer a bad word, I like to read a bit of the book before I buy it - even at 1.99 on Amazon. When I disregard this rule, I often get into trouble. And I don't think I'm the only one. Because self-published is anyone from the raw newby (and I've for my sins bought a couple of books that turned out to be just that) who hasn't read a novel, but by gum hasn't written one, to the near-readable writer who is often more frustrating, and who has decided he's "good enough." Yes, there are also pros bringing out long-lost books. There are people bringing out the one-off book the publisher rejected. And there are first time writers who are flawless.

The problem is distinguishing the gems from the muck. When - to quote Pratchett - gold and muck come out of the same shaft, how do you tell one from the other? Surely you know you're not going to read EVERYTHING that's self published.

This is not a problem for bestsellers. I'll be painted purple if I understand why bestseller authors don't just go "I'll publish myself, now." Unless it is because they want the advance in regular, scheduled payments. Or because a substantial number of their sales are paper. (Yes, you can contract with POD services, but I don't think those are quite where the price makes them viable for small or one off print runs.)

Even for established mid-listers, the choice is fairly easy. Oh, you're not going to get as many sales electronic as you would on paper. Yet. But that ratio is changing every month - perhaps every week. And for the occasional extra book or odd novellette, it's fine. And people know what they're getting with you.

For a relatively-recent, low-name-recognition mid-lister like myself, things are a little more dicey. If I started JUST publishing myself regularly, I probably could, in time, build an audience. Mind you, it MIGHT take me five to ten years, but I could probably make it. At any rate, it's worth it enough that I'm starting to dip my toe in that particular ocean.

But what about beginners? How can a beginner writer start off the gate and establish himself? Someone earlier said that perhaps people couldn't live form writing anymore. I don't think this is true. Writing, like any craft, will always have a much larger number of hobbyists than professionals, but there will always be money for the exceptionally good. A writer - even I - can only write so much, and if you want him/her to continue writing, you'll pay. Judging by the near-threatening letters I get (Mostly for the Musketeers Mysteries, but also the Shifter Series) demanding MORE books, I think there are at least some people willing to pay to ensure I continue writing.

The problem as I see it is some sort of imprimatur - some sort of label that distinguishes books that have gone through SOME form of gatekeeping, not nearly like what we have today (couldn't be anyway, to the extent that it will be a lot harder to control distribution.) Just something that assures the public that someone other than the author has read this book and thought it marketable.

It could range from basically a publisher (I am in fact working with a micro-e-publisher right now, or perhaps I should say involved with it, since it's in the nature of a cabal of friends) who does the proof reading/editing/cover/coding and at least a modicum of publicizing and who, for its pains takes, say 50% of the profit (which is far more equitable than what we get from established publishers, royalties running around 8%) to simply some form of "certification system" - the literary equivalent of the labels on port wine bottles that say "purveyor of Port to her majesty the Queen since..."

I have some ideas on how this could be accomplished, which I will write about tomorrow.


*crossposted at According To Hoyt  after six am.*

posted by Sarah on 01.06.11 at 01:46 AM


I am enjoying your series on ebooks very much. I have been doing the vast majority of my reading of books on my computer and this "cabal" set-up sounds like a great way to find some good reads.

What shade of purple?

Deb   ·  January 6, 2011 5:13 AM

My wife has started doing some copy-editing on Amazon, mostly for fun. I think I would rather be flayed alive.

Good writing is very hard, and requires a lot more intellectual honesty than the vast majority of people are capable of.

TallDave   ·  January 6, 2011 10:22 AM



Ah, but we who write genre fiction are not even considered "real" writers by most of our colleagues.

I was going to put in a couple of quotes to be glib, the famous:
There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein. ~Walter Wellesley "Red" Smith
You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you. ~Ray Bradbury

BUT I went to a site to verify how accurate the quotes were, and I ran across another quote on writing: The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say. ~Anaïs Nin

It brought up an idea that is probably going to become a blog post. There are things you can only say in fiction -- they hurt too much if stated bluntly, and they make the reader shut his mind against them. In the same way, my writing -- I've been writing fiction for twenty five years, published for about sixteen, published in novels for nine -- has been an effort -- continuous, unrelenting -- to plunge deeper to the truth. Or at least the truth as I see it. Telling the truth in fiction is not only hard, the mind and the body resist it and try to go back to the easy, calming spot. I can, at this point, write a story without ever engaging my emotions. That's the easy part. The hard part is forcing my emotions/thoughts to engage and dealing with them.
At this point I feel like I've just began in that task. When I started out, I didn't even know the task was possible or existed.

There is a tendency in all art forms in which you can't express the truth -- or the truth according to you -- because of gatekeepers or social restraints, to become elaborate, rococo and obsessed with form. You see a lot of this in today's fiction. Outre settings, outrageous situations, more and more difficult feats of writing (and now, second person singular present tense!) revealing an amazing level of virtuosity. But you scratch it and realize it is not real writing. It's a way to AVOID real writing, because we're at a time when even thinking of the truth can be dangerous -- much less writing it. Sure, no one is going to come and take you to the Gullag, but you can be cut off from your job, your position and effectively if not legally "black listed." You can be made socially unacceptable. Most human beings don't wish to risk that, and so we sweep around in our mannered dance, determinedly avoiding revealing any true thought or feeling. IMHO this is what is responsible for so much echo-chamber bs in writing. You know, the women are all wonderful, the men are all evil, Westerners are all bad and the past was a pit of eniquity to which we are oh, so superior. Because those are safe thoughts, and more part of the mannered dance figures. I've said before my problem with this is not that it's stupid, it's that it's boring.

Um... sorry, Dave, I'm sure you didn't mean to uncork this, and I'm not sure where it's coming from, but I probably should save it for a post.

Sarah   ·  January 6, 2011 11:15 AM


Not really on-topic with the rest of the comments here (though it is with the series of articles). Here's something from another reader, regarding Borders VS Amazon, that might interest you.

Money quote: "The bigger problem is that while Borders lets me find things I'm not looking for, Amazon always lets me find the things that I am."

Kathy Kinsley   ·  January 6, 2011 6:20 PM

Actually, I just made a reference to this in answering another comment (G).

She's wrong. She's very wrong. Borders SHOULD help you find books you're not looking for. My problem is that nowadays most of my visits to brick-and-mortar-not-used-bookstores, I do go in with money I wish to spend, and come out either empty handed or with a couple of research books or with a CD or movie (which are barely on my entertainment list.) I don't think it's just me, either. A friend of mine calls it "Let's go be disappointed by the bookstore."

Part of it is the prices. I mean, risking 10 to 15 on an author I've never heard of seems ridiculous. And there's an even chance the book will go against the wall halfway through.

Most of the books I find that I wasn't looking for are either used bookstores (I mean, for a dollar, I'll take the risk) or, more often these days, Amazon. You see, they have the "download a sample." I'll go in to buy a book by an author I like, they will have the "people also bought" -- now this is not reliable enough to just BUY the book, but it's plenty reliable enough to "download a sample" which allows you to check out a book and see if you'll like it. I run about fifty fifty on whether the sample gets deleted or the book bought.

I think Megan captures perfectly the experience of buying PAPER books, but not electronic. With paper books, Amazon was terrible for browsing. Thank heavens for ebooks and the kindle that has become a semi-permanent accessory of mine. (I got it the pretty red leather cover... :) )

Sarah   ·  January 6, 2011 6:45 PM

Actually, I think she was saying that what she likes about Borders was that she finds the books she wasn't looking for. But that it didn't have the (perhaps obscure) books (and she does mention Kindle pretty early on) she was looking for. And that finding the things she wants outweighs the 'discovery of new'.

She and I differ a bit there. But, we need to figure out something that works for both sides of that particular fence.

Kathy Kinsley   ·  January 6, 2011 7:08 PM

Should you manage to seel through some outlet like amazon (and there will be more), you will get buyer feedback. Even now, as I go to the Android store for a phone app, I see user reviews and ratings. Ditto download.com. The software is there today.

So I avoid the dreck handily. What are you afraid of? Making money off dreck? I'm sorry, that would make you like nearly EVERYONE in Hollywood. I guess you wouldn't want that.

But it's easy to establish user reviews - no need for a gatekeeper when you have thousands. Isn't that why we decry the mainstream media today?

But thanks for thinking, and explaining your thought process. I do respect your choice - it's yours, not mine, and doesn't bother me one bit.

But I think a better world awaits...

Bill Johnson   ·  January 6, 2011 8:07 PM


No problems making money off dreck, but go look at Amazon, right now, at all the self-published and small press books. Most of them don't even get ANY reviews. They get lost in the VAST ocean of books.

It's not "if I manage." I do have stuff on Amazon, from large and small publishers, and trust me, there's a difference in the attention they attract. If something has five/six reviews and is self-published, these are often the person's close friends and utterly unreliable.

I do agree a better world waits. I do agree that current gatekeepers are not doing the best possible job and a lot of them have no reputation and/or pull when it comes to readers, but I don't think it's possible to just do away with some form of "recommend and certification" system. You can't publicize enough. You just can't.

I didn't use to think like this, btw, until I saw the results of self-publishing even for friends who are as -- or more -- established than I am.

Sarah   ·  January 6, 2011 9:06 PM


First of all, Sarah is published on Amazon -- under several names because of the different genres and series she writes. She is published by major houses as well as the micro-press. 'Nuff said.

As for not needing gatekeepers because of reader reviews and ratings, well, sorry, it doesn't work that way. To start, reviews can be posted on Amazon or any other site that sells books whether you've read the book or not. Secondly, a number of people will rate an e-book down, not because they hate it but because they don't like the price. Third, whether you realize it or not, comparing apps to e-books is like comparing apples to oranges.

Finally, your comments about dreck are so far off base when it comes to Sarah and her writing as to be laughable. Like most writers, she wants to put out the best product she can. Part of that means making sure it is well edited AND properly formatted for each respective e-book reader. I don't know how many self-published e-books you've read, but believe me a number of them are poorly written, poorly edited and poorly formatted. AND, just an fyi, they've gotten good reviews. Why, because as noted above, reviews can be posted by anyone, no matter who they are or how much -- if any -- of the book they've read.

Does that mean all self-pubbed books are dreck? Absolutely not. The good ones are written by authors with talent and who care about making sure they are well edited and well presented. Just like a good app developer wants to make sure his app actually does as advertised.

Just my two cents worth.

Amanda   ·  January 6, 2011 9:58 PM


Just for what it's worth, Sarah's sold series to three of the major houses so far, including science fiction, urban fantasy, historical (under different names, mostly), mystery (again under different names), with excursions into other genres, and that's before you talk about the small publisher, the micro-presses and such.

Your comparison with applications doesn't work. One calculator app is enough like any another calculator app, that you can compare them on features and cost and make a decision you probably won't be disappointed by.

The last time I looked, one book, even one book by a given author (For the sake of argument, let's say Sarah A Hoyt, and choose Ill Met By Moonlight) can't be compared to another book by Sarah A Hoyt (Let's say, DarkShip Thieves). You could be a fan of Sarah's books generally, and love Ill Met By Moonlight but hate DarkShip Thieves. Or vice versa. Reviews on Amazon or anywhere else can't tell you if this will happen.

This is the function of browsing in a brick and mortar store - reading the opening of a book to get a feel for whether you like it or not.

I'm not sure what you read to get the impression Sarah is worried about making money off dreck. Of course, it's possible that you aren't particularly discriminating in your reading habits, and don't mind reading something that would get tossed out of any self respecting slush pile - and possibly inspire sterilization of the rest of the pile, in case something leaked. Yes, there are attempted novels that bad. I've read some in my time as a slush reader, for my sins.

Me, I'm a bit fussier. I've read good, and I've read claw-your-eyes-out horrible. I prefer my money to go to the good - and that function is what the gatekeepers should primarily serve.

In short, while you might have no issues wading through shit to find the one or two diamonds in the entire cesspit, most people don't have the ability or the desire to do it.

Kate   ·  January 6, 2011 10:12 PM

Ads, not adds.

rhhardin   ·  January 8, 2011 5:50 AM

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