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Self-Publishing, Part Whatever

While I was at the Durand Fantasy Expo on Saturday, I ended up talking to several other authors and publishing folks about self-publishing and print-on-demand.  Here are a few of my thoughts from the drive home.

1. Dear self-published authors: As a writer, I am not your target audience.  I can’t count the number of times authors, mostly (but not always) self-published or PoD, have tried to hard-sell their books to me.  Just don’t.

2. Self-publishing seems to work pretty well for comics and graphic novels.  This is something I’ve noticed over the past year or two.  Maybe it’s just me, but a lot of the self-pubbed/PoD comics I’ve seen are just plain good.  A while back, Jane Irwin gave me copies of Vogelein: Clockwork Faerie and Vogelein: Old Ghosts.  They were well-done, and I enjoyed the stories.

A lot of web comics seem to go the same route, using small PoD printers or self-publishing, and producing very nice products.  It makes me wonder what we on the prose side of things could learn from the comics folks.

3. Self-publishing takes a lot of time and work.  My very first book, a mainstream novel called Goldfish Dreams, recently reached the end of its contract with Fictionwise.  I’d really like to put the book out there on Kindle and maybe in a few other places.  Thus far, I’ve done absolutely nothing on this project.  I only have so many hours, and I also have to write my next book.  It makes me wonder — if I was fully responsible for the entire publication process, how much longer would it take to release each new book?

4. People will believe anything that protects their egos.  “New York editors don’t want good stories, and won’t take new authors.  You’re better off without an editor, because they’ll destroy your unique vision.  Self-publishing is better, because publishers only pay 6-12% royalties.”

There are times when self-publishing can work.  However, many of these claims are total crap … but they’re crap that protect the ego, and thus people choose to believe and defend ‘em.

5. I’m outnumbered.  There were a handful of other authors there on Saturday.  As far as I know, I was the only “traditionally” published one there.  A lot of people kept checking out my books and saying things like, “So I have to go to your web site to get these, right?”  Um … sure, you can go through my web site.  Or you can walk into most any bookstore in the country and pluck one of my books off the shelves.

I don’t know what to think about this.  I know the technology has gotten better and more available, and this is going to mean a lot more authors taking advantage of that technology.  But it was an odd feeling.


Please note that I’m not bashing self-publishing.  As I said in #3, I’m planning to use it myself.

Anyway, questions and comments and discussion are welcome, as always.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.



Sep. 7th, 2010 02:14 pm (UTC)
Here's the thing - BOTH are true.

Yes, there are times when people's egos lead them to say things as an excuse for why their manuscript got rejected when the reality is that their writing just isn't up to snuff.

But it is also true that agents/publishers look at manuscripts from the perspective of "is this marketable?" as much as they look at it from the "is it good writing?" An agent who has a blog here on LJ recently posted about just this thing. Someone whose writing is quite good may still find themselves rejected because agents/publishers don't feel they will be able to turn a profit.

A quote: "The writing itself isn't good enough to make up for plot, story, characterization, and structure failings.

However, if this series landed on my desk while I was acquiring? Hell yes, I would have snapped it right up and published it -- although I'd've made (and/or encouraged the author to make) some different editorial choices.

Those are two separate areas of my brain, though. It took me quite a while, and a lot of coaching from my (amazing, incredible) mentors to learn how to separate what I like as a reader, and what is publishable. Marketable. Money-making."
Sep. 7th, 2010 02:18 pm (UTC)
Both can be true. But this doesn't mean both are equally true.

I agree completely that sometimes good books are rejected. But it doesn't happen anywhere near as often as those who are being rejected want to believe.
Sep. 7th, 2010 02:32 pm (UTC)
First - I agree with you.

However - that last statement is actually an assumption. Because we honestly don't know. We don't know what percentage of rejected manuscripts are rejected because it's felt that they aren't going to be profitable enough. Is is 0.01% 1%? 5%? I don't know. To my knowledge, agents are keeping track of that sort of thing. It would be interesting if they were.

I do have a suspicion that the percentage has probably increased from ten years ago, though.
Sep. 7th, 2010 02:41 pm (UTC)
It's an assumption based on talking to editors, agents, and my own experience reading unpublished workshop stories for many years now. So yes, it's an assumption. But I believe it to be an informed one. I wouldn't try to pin down an exact number/percentage, though.

What makes you think the percentage has increased?
(no subject) - paulwoodlin - Sep. 9th, 2010 06:48 am (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 7th, 2010 02:41 pm (UTC)
This would definitely be good data to have. But I've worked with a small press reading slush, and all they wanted was for me to pass good books up the line. Agents and large presses might feel differently, of course (I have no relevant experience to relate), but the market for god books does exist.
(no subject) - mtlawson - Sep. 7th, 2010 03:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bondo_ba - Sep. 7th, 2010 04:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 7th, 2010 06:44 pm (UTC)
Teresa Nielsen Hayden has an article called Slushkiller about this. Partway down, it sums up the reasons manuscripts get rejected, including a not about what rough percentages are involved.

The gist is that the top 2-5% of books sent in are probably publishable or close enough to be worth encouraging, and the top 1-2% are what get accepted. Reasons for not accepting books in that upper range are things like "Someone should publish this, but I don't see why it has to be us" (Editor isn't sufficiently enthused to market the project), or "This writer is good, but this is the wrong book" (Maybe another project would work.)

I don't know if it's the same for agencies (I suspect people who know enough about the business to send to agencies aren't quite as clueless as people who send directly to publishers) but I saw enough agreement to that article that I suspect that the difference would at best shave off some of the functionally illiterate.

Sep. 7th, 2010 02:21 pm (UTC)
I've heard the "is it marketable" argument, and I'm not convinced. While no one is going to argue that we are currently innundated with sparkly vampires, there are plenty of new voices and new concepts coming out (and making money - if less of it), from houses large and small.

And SP authors have probably been rejected by EVERYONE, otherwise they wouldn't have gone the other route.

I used to do reviews for an SF website. I used to have an open policy on SP books - I would review them if sent to me. My eyes are still bleeding from that decision. The reason these books wwere not taken had nothing to do with marketability.

Having said that, there may be an extremely tiny proportion of books for which that is true, but 99.99999999999999999999% of SP work just isn't good enough to see the light.
Sep. 7th, 2010 02:28 pm (UTC)
Hm ... now you've got me thinking. Because there are so many reasons for any individual rejection. Maybe the book isn't right for that particular publisher. Maybe the editor already bought a sparklevamp vs. zombie Jane Austin mash-up that month. Maybe the editor remembers you as the one who ran over his dog.

Because a lot of books -- almost all of them -- that go on to sell get rejected first. Goblin Quest had thirty-plus rejections, and it's obviously good enough to sell ... but wasn't necessarily right for the publishers I sent it to.

So I don't know that I agree with the 99.99+% figure.

Part of it is persistence. One rejection doesn't mean much of anything. 10 might. 50 probably means something's not good enough. (In my case, some of those rejections were because my query letter sucked.)

On the other hand, from talking to editors, reading unpublished work, and so on, everything I've seen matches your revieweing experience -- most books/stories are rejected because, quite simply, they're not very good. (I definitely include my own early work in this category.)
Sep. 7th, 2010 02:38 pm (UTC)
Yeah, that 99.999% was pulled out of thin air, but it sometimes does seem that way, doesn't it?

Goblin Quest is definitely good enough - and the fact that it went on to sell to DAW shows just how good it really was. But (and I'm guessing here), even a great book like that one had to go through several rounds of edits, hire a professional artist and layout designer, etc., etc., etc. This is something most SP authors won't have access to, even if they are that golden 1% whose work would actually have been good enough to make the cut.
Sep. 7th, 2010 02:41 pm (UTC)
Yeah. I read a lot of young adult fiction, and I have heard enough stories of of publishers rejecting YA books because the protagonist was non-white, or queer (inappropriate!!), or female in a fantasy story (boys won't read it!!) that I'd be glad to have an alternative pathway. What those limitations are changes over time, but it is very clear that not all good young adult fiction gets published, and more terrible fiction that is similar to stuff that sold well in the past gets published than interesting, novel things that may not sell well in the future. Harry Potter awesome as a reader of YA fantasy fiction, because suddenly a bunch of fantasy books came out and some of them were really good. My guess is that not all of them were written post-HP; they were just suddenly publishable.

I think part of the issue right now with self-publishing is the lack of infrastructure to find the wheat in the chafe. I mean, there are a lot of terrible published books, but I don't read them. I can buy published books on the basis of Amazon reviews (though sometimes the negative ones; if it is too complicated, uses big words and the reviewer didn't care about the characters because they were all complicated people who didn't sound familiar, I will probably enjoy it.) So far I have only read self-published books on the basis of meeting the author at a con and finding them articulate and interesting or friend's recommendations (probably because they met the author at a con). This is how I used to find books to read before Amazon. It is going to take a while for the infrastructure to catch up, and it is only going to be welcomed by the authors who aren't just in it for their ego.
Sep. 7th, 2010 04:06 pm (UTC)
Yeah, this.

Not that there aren't terrible published books, but unless I have recommendations, I like knowing that at least a few other people have signed off on a book's quality before I pick it up--and I admit that capitalism has influenced me enough that knowing said people were willing to pay money for the rights is a point in favor, too. Anyone can be nice and say "Oh, yeah, it's great," but it's a lot harder to be nice when your wallet's at stake.
Sep. 7th, 2010 04:26 pm (UTC)
Yeah, but they have to be personal recommendations. Friends, family members and alter egos have made many Amazon recommendations worthless, especially for SP work.

And yes, the fact that other people are willing to pay money for something does make it more likely that that something is good!
(no subject) - funwithrage - Sep. 7th, 2010 05:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sylvanstargazer - Sep. 7th, 2010 07:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bondo_ba - Sep. 7th, 2010 07:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 7th, 2010 05:15 pm (UTC)
I can buy published books on the basis of Amazon reviews (though sometimes the negative ones; if it is too complicated, uses big words and the reviewer didn't care about the characters because they were all complicated people who didn't sound familiar, I will probably enjoy it.)

Me too. I've gotten to the point that after a quick skim the first one or two positive reviews, I skip straight to the one-stars, because they're usually more informative. If the negative reviews are all from idiots complaining that it was too weird, too complicated, they didn't understand it, they had to think too much, etc., then I know I'll like it.
Sep. 7th, 2010 07:58 pm (UTC)
Yeah, that sounds about right. Of course, it might be that the bad review guy who didn't understand it was actually the only one who found all the plot holes!

But I see your point.
Sep. 7th, 2010 08:18 pm (UTC)
Yes. In the romance genre I know prize-winning writers who are told by agents and editors that their writing is great, but 'no one is buying stories in set in that period,' or 'no one is buying this kind of single title contemporary,' etc. Trends in the sub genres play a huge role in what the agents and editors believe will sell. And of course they only buy what they believe they can sell.


Jim C. Hines


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