Columns > Published on October 21st, 2011

The Case Against Ebook Self-Publication

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(Just joined us? Maybe you missed my first imaginary sockpuppet pundit making the case for ebook self-publishing, in which case, why not go back and check it out? Then rejoin us below as a second sockpuppet argues the case against, and pull on your gloves to fight for your favoured corner in the comments. Ready? Let's do this.)

The Case Against Electronic Self-Publication

Ebook self-publishing is a cop-out, it’s a settling-for-less born of laziness, and - lipstick the pig as much as you like - it’s no different from the self-publishing of old in any respect other than the novelty of its technological platform, over which - lest we forget - you have no control whatsoever.

Still think it’s a good idea? Here’s why you’re wrong.

In Praise of the Ivory Tower

It’s hard to get published. As a writer - someone who cares about great writing, even if only as a means to the end of doing something they love for a living - you should appreciate that fact, not resent it. It means that when you’re published, you have not only independently achieved a superior level of quality in your own work, but you’ve also been introduced into a system that will actively work with you to make your work better.

Is that elitist? Of course, just like Nobel prizes and Olympic gold medals are elitist. Publishing is about rewarding and promoting quality. Sure, there are some good writers self-publishing very successfully right now, and some historical examples of great writers who self-published. But they’re rarities, outliers; with no barriers to entry, the quality levels in any market will trend toward zero.

Publishers invest time, money and experience in making good books even better; they don’t have time to waste with crap, and you’re not yet a good enough writer to recognize when you’re writing crap. That’s why publishers use agents: they get to wet-nurse the notoriously unstable writer’s persona while they develop the raw rough-diamond talent into a sparkling gem of a debut book. The publisher then steps in and gets the book out to market, and passes the proceeds back toward the writer and the agent, in obedience to Yog’s Law.

In Praise of The Well-Oiled Machine

There’s a lot that goes into making the booksausage, but some parts of the process are kept hidden because they lack glamour. But you’re prepared to do all the behind the scenes stuff a publisher usually takes care of all on your own, aren’t you?

Good! So, you’ll want to start by doing a few structural edits on the book before passing it back to yourself - with some notes about how to make it more relevant to the current market, maybe - for some rewrites. Then you need to copyedit and proofread the book thoroughly - at least once right through, at each production stage; then typeset it all, do the text layout and a nice cover (no tacky clip-art!), check all file formats for errors and continuity; liaise with the printers if you’re doing physicals, sort out some storage (online or off), get it available for order through all major retailers, make sure the shipping arrangements all match up... and then you’ll have guided your book to the marketplace.

But you want people to be hyped up for launch day, don’t you? So you’ll have been using all your contacts in other media to sort out public appearances, puff pieces and radio spots; hustling for reviews everywhere and anywhere, from the New York Review of Angsty Musings On The Dreariness of Modern Life, right on down to Vik And Tad’s Sci-Fi-Fantasy Circlejerk Dot Com if there’s the slightest odds of a mention. And to make all this promo possible, you remembered to put together an uncorrected advance reader’s copy of the book in both physical and digital formats much earlier in the production process, didn’t you?

Excellent! Meanwhile you’ve been helping yourself plan your next couple of projects, keeping yourself calm, centered and fully motivated to carry on with the work of your life: writing books. The only thing standing in your way is the steadfast refusal of even the most ethically flexible medical practitioners to attempt to surgically remove your need for sleep.

That’s all the stuff that your agent and publisher will do for you when your work is good enough to make it worthwhile. That’s where the other 85% of a book’s cover price goes! Still feeling confident? Try throwing parenthood into the mix! How’s that next novel coming, champ?

Of course, you can hire in external talent to cover the jobs you have neither the time nor skill to do. Get a freelance editor to polish up the book, a design guy to do the layouts, cover and file conversions, a socnet wizard to hustle up some schmooze time on the blog circuit and maybe build you a decent website too... shouldn’t cost you more than, I dunno, four or five grand to get it all done to a professional standard.

That 70% of a few thousand sales at a buck apiece doesn’t look so much like money for nothing, now, does it?

Self-publishing is second-rate publishing

Let’s be blunt: for all your talk of egalitarian markets flattened by cutting out the middle-men, there’s a long-standing prejudice against self-published works, and it still pertains today. Now, the novelty of the new ebook platforms may be giving you some lucky exposure in front of some early adopters; when the cat’s away the mice can play, why not?

But the cat’s not gone for good, little mice! If you think the publishing industry is breathing its last, you’re deluded. They avoided repeating the worst blunders of the record labels, and once they settle on a strategy they’ll be gaming the new system just as hard as they played the old one. They have experience; they have social capital (and access to the other sort); they have older, slower and more lucrative networks at their disposal than you do. You think appearing in search on a few websites is enough? Look, there’s a reason why when I Google for a tyre-change joint I find Kwik-Fit before I find your cousin’s place out on the edge of town. When the book marketplace becomes the next battleground for the SEO geeks, your afternoon in the sunshine is all over bar the shouting.

The big houses will be back on top soon enough, stronger than ever, hungry for new writing talent... in fact, maybe you should try submitting something! Just be sure to use a different pseudonym, won’t you, so the agent or editor doesn’t Google you and find the typo-riddled travesty of a Cold War political thriller (with zombies!) you spaffed out through LuLu three years ago.

Publishing is like an elephant: sure, it moves slow, but it’s long-lived and it’s powerful and it never forgets.

At the risk of belaboring what should be an obvious point, the two standpoints I’ve just set out are deliberately exaggerated for effect, and neither of them describe my own particular attitude, which pretty much boils down to “wait it out or suck it and see”; I don’t think the earthquake’s over yet, and unless you’ve a knack for the cut’n’thrust combat of a retail market power-vacuum, you’re probably best to let the hustlers hustle while you stick to punching keys and making stuff up in your head.

The most important thing to ask yourself about self-publishing is “what do I expect to get from the process, and what will i have to do to achieve it?” It’s demonstrably viable as a business model, but it’s neither a sure shot or a cheap route... and if it all goes to hell in a handcart, you don’t have anyone else to blame but yourself. The internet is full of seemingly free advice, and you’d do well to read at least some of it, no matter how partisan. But be wary of strangers bearing unfamiliar business models, yeah?

About the author

Paul Graham Raven writes fiction and non-fiction, and leaves it to his editors to decide which is which; he'll be studying for a Master's in Creative Writing at Middlesex University from the autumn of 2011. He's also editor in chief of the SF/futurist webzine Futurismic, a reviewer of books and music, a cack-handed post-rock guitarist, and in need of a proper haircut."

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