Tuesday, February 1, 2011

E-books, Self Publishing, and the Blog That Kicked a Hornet's Nest, Plus a Few Questions

The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More
Chris Anderson
Hyperion, 228 p., $15.95

You're probably wondering what a book on economics has to do with sword and sorcery, heroic fiction, and historical adventure?  Well, I'm going to tell you.  Everything.

Over at Dean Wesley Smith's site, he's been doing a number of blog posts on different topics.  One of them is a series on the New World of Publishing.  They're fascinating, thought provoking, controversial, and well worth your time if you have any interest at all in writing.  I'm still reading through them, and more are being continually added, but one of the first deals with self-publishing

It was once a stigma to self publish your book, to the point that many considered it to be the kiss of death.  Conventional wisdom at numerous convention panels aimed at writer wanna-be's said don't do it.  Ever.  Or else A Real Publisher Will Never Take You Seriously.  Well, perhaps it wasn't quite that extreme, but it was close at times. 

Now Mr. Smith, along with a number of other writers, are beginning to sing a different song.  One of the things I like about the comments to these posts is that a number of smart people don't hesitate to speak up.  In one of them, Laura Resnick, daughter of science fiction author Mike Resnick, and a bestselling author in her own right, mentioned this book along with a followup one that I'm going to read next. 

This book is a major reason I was late in getting the previous post up. I couldn't put it down.  Finally, I had to so I could finish The Heretic Kings.  I still haven't written the essay on "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune", the next in the series on Kull. 

The whole premise of the book is that in the 20th century, production and distribution of popular media (books, magazines, movies, music) was in the hands of a few people and/or corporations.  This lead to a front loaded filtering process whereby content was filtered preconsumer.  The result became a hit oriented business model in which the companies gamble on a small number of products every month, knowing that many or most wouldn't recoup their costs and hoping that one or two would make enough to cover the losers.  This led to a fairly uniform culture catering to the lowest common denominator.  Niche interests and markets tended to be marginalized due to cost effectiveness concerns.

Since the advent of the internet, desktop publishing, and related technologies, such as iTunes, ereaders, file sharing software, etc., the market is moving away from hits and more toward niches.  Anderson's argument isn't that hits are going away (they aren't), but that they are and will become less important than in the past.  More and more business will be done in what is known as the tail of the distribution, where niche markets for the first time can thrive, and those who cater to the niches can actually make a living without having to go through a corporate gatekeeper.  Instead, the gatekeeper will be the consumer, who through the use of technology (e.g, search engines, reader reviews, blogs) can find items (music, movies, books, etc.) that fit individual tastes.

Where this applies to publishing is that authors now have the power (if they recognize it and choose to use it) to publish their own books.  Indeed, many midlist authors are doing this with their out of print backlists.  But it's not just authors who have been published by New York.  I followed links through several sites and blogs a little over a week ago, and I ended up on a site run by a young woman (20-something) who, after being rejected by the major publishers, simply decided to self publish electronically.  In something on the order of a year, she was able to quit her day job.  She also had foreign publishers knocking on her door asking about foreign rights.  Now she was writing teenage vampire angst type stuff, so I don't know how well her experience would translate to sword and sorcery or historical fiction.

Much of the book content sold through some sort of electronic medium is not available in stores, even if a print copy from a major publisher exists.  My unscientific observation is that this is especially true for sword and sorcery, historical adventure, and any fantasy that isn't a Tolkien clone, sensitive vampires, or steampunk.  I had to special order Scott Oden's Lion of Cairo because my local Barnes and Noble didn't carry it.  (Look for a review here sometime in the next couple of months.)  Borders' announcement on Sunday that it was delaying payment for a second month just strengthens the arguments that brick-and-mortar stores may be in more danger than publishers.

The dicussions I've read have been lively, thought provoking, and often heated.  What Dean Wesley Smith and some others are essentially arguing is that now is the best time to be a writer.  While New York and traditional publishing won't ever go away, the action is shifting to the author who treats writing as a business rather than art. because they are the ones who will have the best of both worlds.

A challenge Smith has set for himself is to write two stories a week and publish them electronically.  The most recent will be available for free on his web site and will remain up until the new story is finished.  These stories are published in all the main electronic formats and available for sale on his site as well as e-book outlets such as Amazon.  With two weeks off for vacation, Mr. Smith will have written 100 new stories this year if he completes the challenge.  Furthermore, they will be for sale bringing him income.

Now, for those of you still with me, here's how this applies to the type of fiction readers of this blog want to read.  I see the possibility of an untapped source of sword and sorcery fiction and historical fiction..  This all sounds good in principle.  Writers of good adventure fiction could actually have careers without having to deal with sales numbers killing their books because their books will only be removed from the market when they, the writers, choose to remove them.  Reader reviews would guide potential readers to new authors.  Those who want to write this type of fiction could, and those who want to read it would have something to read, and what get published (and therefore read) would not be influenced by the marketing departments of New York conglomerate publishers.

Of course I could be completely off base with what I've been thinking.  Wouldn't be the first time.  So I want to run a brief informal survey.  Please feel free to respond in the comments.

Would you be willing to buy a story, collection, or novel electronically if it was self published by an author with name recognition?

Would you buy a self published story, collection, or novel if the author were unfamiliar to you but had good reader reviews?

How much would you be willing to pay?  Assume a short story would sell for 99 cents, which is pretty much the floor imposed by the existing royalty structures of Amazon, B&N, etc., and go from there.

Would you be willing to buy a collection of essays or nonfiction?

I'd really like to hear from some of you, especially those who have been following this blog since the beginning or close to it.  What do you think?  Are we on the cusp of a potential explosion of good adventure fiction, or am I dreaming?


  1. "Would you be willing to buy a story, collection, or novel electronically if it was self published by an author with name recognition?"

    Yes, no different than I would print with 2 caveats: (1) if it's a favorite author and a book I plan to keep, my first choice is buying it in hardcover and (2) even with the best of intentions, I find that after working and reading on a computer all day for a job and then again for RBE, I have little desire to keep on reading electric text. To be quite honest, outside some ARCs and of course online stories, I have not completed reading an e-book yet. Then again, I don't have a Kindle, iPad, tablet, or smart phone either.

    "Would you buy a self published story, collection, or novel if the author were unfamiliar to you but had good reader reviews?"

    Yes, but there's the electric text concern still. The word of mouth reviews is key here, as is a desire to support other authors and artists by whatever little bit I can.

    "How much would you be willing to pay?"

    Depends on the title. I will not pay more for the e-version than the print version however. I think that's insane.

    "Would you be willing to buy a collection of essays or nonfiction?"

    Sure. I actually think the e-readers are ideal for reference and would gladly buy one and fill it with that purpose.

  2. I agree with everything you say. If I really want a book, I'm going to shell out the money to buy it in hardcover, and if I really, really want it, I'll buy a limited or deluxe edition should one be available.

    I understand the desire not to read on a screen if you do that all day because I'm in the same boat. I do a lot of computer work with my day job and then do online tutoring in the evening. I finally got an ereader for two reasons. Someone else was paying for it, and She Who Must Be Obeyed is beginning to get tired of the space the library is consuming. I've found it's not like reading on a backlit screen at all, although the refresh feature takes a little getting used to.

    And you're right about price. It _is_ insane to pay more for an ebook than the print version, any print version.