Wednesday, November 2, 2011


This week I’m struggling with lines.

I read this at bibliotastic:

“Why oh Why don't these self publishing authors get someone to proof read their books before uploading them. Spelling & grammar like we see in these books would have gotten me expelled from school.”
Since order is emerging from the delightful chaos of the digital fiction world, lines are forming where once none were needed and I’m not sure I like where they are being drawn.

Writing of any kind needs only to meet the expectations of its readers to be enjoyed. If readers want foremost to safely predict the plot and the ending, there is no driving need for great literary skill. If readers expect fast moving action, characters can safely be stereotyped. If readers demand a visceral hard-edged slice-of-life drama, they are unlikely to care if there is no punctuation or too many adverbs.

This is borne out in the wide world of popular print fiction, the only qualifier being that the reader can predict what a traditionally published book will provide because there is a system in place to guarantee such expectations. Readers in the print world can select their preference by genre because someone pays a slew of editors to make sure the genre guidelines are met. Those editors bring with them a host of proofreaders, and someone pays them, too.

And who is it that pays for them all? The reader.

Not the author. Published authors are paid their percentage of the cover price. Publishers also pay the acquiring editors and copy editors and the editors-in-chief and the sub editors and editorial assistants, and they recoup the cumulative costs of all successes and failures from the consumer. It is an easy process to follow.

It’s how it’s always been. Everyone knows what they get. Everyone is happy.

Aren’t they?

Readers moan that the authors give them rubbish. Authors blame editors who won’t buy their Art. Editors blame the book buying public. An extraordinarily narrow line of titles will sell to a large market, while the remaining buying public is no longer big enough to sustain an equivalently broad range of subjects and preferences.

No one has actually been happy about it for a long time.

Meanwhile, once upon a time in a digital landscape there was anarchy and it suited the authors and the readers who dwelt in that green and pleasant land. In cyberspace there was a Utopian balance, where art was created for art’s sake and appreciated by hedonistic epicureans in togas, reclining in fruit filled grottos; a flask of wine, a book of verse and thou.

Or maybe they were really tech savvy literati secretly reading Geekphic in their grey felt work cubicles, many of them creating their own fiction. Whoever they were, they knew they should expect the best that could be produced and provided for free. They found they were capable of filtering for themselves. They could find fiction they liked and avoid that which they did not appreciate; there was room for brilliance, and any author could make their art and find their audience.

But outside, the unhappy editors catered to the narrowest market, the unhappy authors muttered ‘Fuck it,’ under their breaths and looked for fairer alternatives, and the unhappy readers with shiny new tablets under their arms, followed a few well known authors into the promised land.

Suddenly digital delivery made both the editors’ choices and the distribution bottleneck obsolete and a fashion for self-publishing emerged. Suddenly there were queues. Suddenly we needed lines. According to readers like the one quoted above, we must have standards. Where is the line for a reasonable standard?

Anyone can write a book, anyone can sell their work to the world, anyone can set their ego free on the page for better or worse, anyone can distribute their work to any outlet, anyone can review their own work or others, anyone can spam the ether, and anyone can be a self-published author.

We are all free from slavery and gatekeepers, and no one enforces the rules. No one has to write to guidelines, so no one can be sure whether they are reading a romance, or an adventure, or a tragic fantasy. No one checks the grammar, no one deletes excess commas, no one makes sure the heroine gets her man, no one cuts those cheap awful plot devices that leave a reader fuming, no one sets a fair price, and no one checks the author can even write a book.

There are no benchmarks.

Along with all the other things they did for a price, the traditional publishing industry kept enough authors out of the game to avoid a saturated market. That kept the prices high enough to cover expenses. After mere months the ebook free market is getting soggy. Readers are milling around a bit lost. They would like some quality assurance along with their low prices. Like gayray01 at bibliotastic, they are whining about grammar and punctuation, even when the work is free. They want standards enforced if they are expected to read.

Is it better to have the power to make or break a novel wielded by a privileged few editors or by the semi literate masses?

But anyone can be an editor now, too, and anyone can advise on content, anyone can proofread, anyone can be a publisher, anyone can sell cover art, anyone can sell a service or a package of services to a self-publishing author. That author can then enter the saturated market and hope they can get some of their money back.

If an author wants to make money, perhaps even a living wage from their writing, then they have to treat it like a business. Many businesses lose money in the first year or two, but they cannot continue to lose money. Each successive release cannot cost more and earn less than the one before; so is there a line between a reasonable expense for the production of a professional looking ebook and plain old vanity press? Authors are not generally rich and famous. 95% of published authors make very little money from their sales. 99% of published authors’ names will be unremembered five years after the event. When is an ebook published with vain hope of making its costs back?

How much is needed to produce a professional finish? Where is the line? Is an ebook good enough when it meets all the criteria of a traditionally published novel? Does it need grammar and punctuation correction? That will require several proofing runs at $300 - $2000 each. Does it need quality cover art? Does it need to meet a set number of expectations in plotting in order to be satisfying for the majority of readers?

And if it is NOT a professionally finished product, if it is no more than an author can reasonably produce from their own effort, can it ever hope to draw market attention? Do readers even know how much a professionally finished ebook will cost to produce?

If reviewers, who no longer need any kind of pedigree, not even a pass in junior English, decide some books have too many modifiers, or suffer from convoluted sentence structure, or are not grammatically correct, or if they are considered too expository for today’s fashion, or too slow, or too meandering, or too violent, or too explicit, can those books from outside the common denominators ever hope to succeed, financially or otherwise?

If an ebook must have a professional finish, that is, must meet all the standards of a traditionally published novel and therefore must cost many hundreds or even thousands of dollars before it can be considered by any reasonable share of the market, how have authors improved their lot by self-publishing? It seems to me they have moved headfirst into the vanity publishing market. Traditional publishers and distributors can even charge for publishing packages now, and reward a chosen few of the broke authors with extended print distribution - the same sort of distribution once promised by traditional publishers who paid their authors. The situation is ludicrous. Where is the line for reasonable cost?

How many 99c books, or $2, or $5 books do we all hope to sell? Is hope the operative word? Dream? Pipedream?

There are many good websites filled with free information to help self-publishing authors find the best deals and avoid some of the worst cost pitfalls, but not everyone is able to do their own research. Certainly the loudest message to broadcast is to preserve your copyright under all circumstances. If you are self-publishing you should never be required to hand your rights or your future rights to any other person or organization. And beware editors who believe they have the right to arbitrarily change your text. But if we are required to meet a set of externally approved criteria and to pay for the freedom to self-publish, how have we moved forward from the old system?

If it costs more to produce a book than you can ever hope to recoup in sales, why would anyone continue to self-publish? If free fiction is ridiculed by semi-literates, why would the hard work and generousity of authors who give their work away continue?

If we reestablish the old system of controls and cliques, in the end what have we gained?

Why can’t good enough be good enough?

Have we created a new system where the author is worse off than they were before the revolution?



Old 333 said...

Lucky for me I just write poetry. Maybe if each poem came with a sandwich, or a flower - then I could be rich.

Letitia Coyne said...

Ah, but I recall:

Perhaps I could siren seduce you into coloured covers and then an Amazon account, or Lulu, or even one of my beloved free directories.

You could be richer, with even more adoring fans than you have already - and there are lots of them - if you made a little book of poems for them to hold.


Garth said...

Once apon a time I bought a copy of PKD's Transmigration of Timothy Archer which has a hidously corporate late 20th century cover.
Last week I got my hands on an older copy in a second-hand bookshop. Comparing the covers shines a light on the duplicity of the publishing industry.
Dick's novels were trash when they were first published - unworthy of anyone but grubby teenage boys - now he is an accepted literary genius with umpteen crap film versions of his books (Blade Runner and Scanner Darkly excluded)
I'm sure he's turning in his grave.

Letitia Coyne said...

It’s with great shame that I admit that PKD is one of the many acclaimed authors whose work I have never read. Blade Runner is a favourite movie and I loved A Scanner Darkly. But Total Recall [which I also love] is a better example of the point I’d make with publishers. Arnie exactly represents the publishing industry’s outlook.

He isn’t an actor; he doesn’t try for Broadway. He knows what he does, he knows his audience like what he does, and he doesn’t need to do more than perfect his formula and repeat. The publishers can read PKD as an unknown, see that he writes sci-fi and judge immediately that it doesn’t matter if he writes brilliantly or like a half-assed hack, his only audience as a sci-fi writer will be grubby teens.

They might be over generalizing, but averages tell them that is where their primary market is. As long as his stories fit the pattern for that particular audience, in their view, potential for any other market is not relevant. His skill or lack of it does not mean anything. They will market to the audience they know will buy sci-fi. They perfect their formula and repeat. It is a model that works well financially.

The same applies for authors like Stephenie Meyer or Ken Follett [whose latest novel has a first release print run of 26 000 000]. They don’t write well, but they have a perfect formula and they repeat. They make millions and that is ALL that matters for a business model. It’s a shame they then go to literary discussion tables and speak and behave as if they are talented. Arnie doesn’t bother; neither should they.

Initially, publishers did not have to acknowledge any skill from Dick because ART does not matter. Once his stories were noticed outside the walls of the sci-fi community, he received recognition and the publishers could rerelease his books as if they knew all along he was a genius. [Fans still cannot have his work discussed as (L)iterary fiction on our national broadcast network’s Book show.]

I’m not justifying it, but I understand that the system is motivated by money only, and marketing his ART only becomes relevant when they realize they can tap a new audience. Why are we setting that system up online, too?