Columns > Published on October 7th, 2011

The Case for eBook Self-Publication

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Change is afoot in the publishing industry. Stories about self-pubbed authors making big money have been all over the papers... well, all over the websites of the papers, at least. Stephen Leather! Amanda Hocking! GP Taylor! Louise Voss and Mark Edwards! (My examples are admittedly UK-centric, but I’m sure a little digging will unearth some local equivalents.) It’s a siren song: the seedy hucksterisms of the vanity presses are being elbowed aside, and authors heretofore snubbed by the snobbery of literature’s gatekeepers can go straight to the marketplace. Never before has it been easier to write creative works and disseminate them all over the globe; there are even mechanisms for getting people to pay you for the stuff. (And mechanisms for them to avoid paying, of course.)

So what does this mean for you, aspiring writer that you are? Should you play it old-school, chase down an agent, pitch at publishers? Or should you start slamming out as many ebooks as you can produce and see what you can get for ‘em?

The intertubes are full of punditry, and I don’t see any point in me adding to it. So instead I’m going to present the (somewhat caricatured*) cases for and against self-publication, starting here with the case in favour. The following column will present the case against, as well as my personal (and much more subjective) opinion... at which point we can all take to the comments like a pack of rabid meerkats and debate just how much of a scruffy wronghead I really am. Sound like a plan?

Of course it does. So, without further ado:

The Case for Electronic Self-Publication

Leapfrog the gatekeepers!

We’re all good enough writers here that we know a lot of folk who would be writers just can’t write (right?), but we’ve also been around long enough to meet more than a few brilliant penmonkeys who just can’t seem to sell their work, or midlisters-without-current-contract pushed out into the margins by the economics of the Long Tail as applied to tangible media distributed under a remaindering model.

There’s great writing out there that people would be willing to buy, and the publishing houses are too slow and stuck in the past to take advantage of a diverse and hungry market; what better solution than the level playing field of self-publishing ebooks (with maybe POD physical editions available at a premium, too)?

It’s basic late-capitalism economics: publishers and agents are first and foremost interested in making a profit, and the quality of your work is nowhere near as important to them as the ease with which it can be marketed as more-of-the-same to whomever it is that still buys whatever was big news three years ago. Dan Brown, and those who ape him; the serried and seemingly limitless ranks of post-Hamiltonian fangbangers and randy werewolf tales; “celebrity” “novels” ghostwritten by people with only marginally greater writing talent than the people they’re sockpuppeting for... publishers have squeezed the golden goose so hard that it prolapsed.

But there’s a way out, a bridge across that tepid river of avian bumslurry! A shining bridge to a populous promised land full of eager punters hungry for your latest creation... and with money to pay for it, too. So stop chasing agents and contracts, and start chasing readers.

Fast products for a fast market!

That novel you just subbed to the agent you’ve been chasing for a while - you started writing that thing, what, a year ago? Let’s assume you get a positive response today (yes, I’d love some cake and champagne, thanks for asking), and that the agent manages to place it with a publisher within six months of taking you on. Just to add to the fantasy, let’s assume the publisher is keen on your book, that they fast-track it through the publication process and don’t bump it down the list to make way for the Next New Shiny or the shambolic return of some elder statesman of the genre, and that there ain’t no slips ‘twixt cup and lip, so to speak.

So: you get representation for your just-finished debut book today, but you might see it on a shelf after twelve months if you’re extremely lucky. Two years would be more likely; three years or longer, definitely not unheard of. Publishing moves slowly.

A year’s a long time. Time in which you’re supposed to be working on your next book; how’re you supposed to do that without knowing what the public liked or loathed about the first one? And by the time the sequel’s finished and edited and published, who knows how the market might have changed? There are hungry readers out there, and if you can give them what the publishers currently can’t (or maybe won’t), then a bounteous harvest awaits! If werewolf technothrillers are selling hard rightfreakingnow and you’ve got one sat in inventory, for instance, it’ll be dead in the water by the time it makes it into stores by the traditional route; if you push it out now as an ebook, however, you might reap the whirlwind.

And let’s not forget, this isn’t vanity publishing; you know your stuff is good. You’ve even had a handful of rejections in which you were told that your work was “just not what we’re looking for” or “not something we can sell right now”. Well, if they can’t be bothered, why not do it yourself? Why let the caprice of editors and agents who secured their careers on the successes of twenty or thirty years ago decide whether you get your shot in today’s gladiatorial arena? Sharpen your sword, strap on your flamewar armour, and show ‘em what you’re made of!

A bigger slice of the pie!

Best of all, you get to keep a bigger chunk of the booty from your conquests. Why would you want to get a deal with a publisher, anyway? That advance figure you’ll be offered (if you even get an advance worthy of the name, which - for a first non-celebrity novel outside the barely-read critical darling that is the literary genre - is becoming increasingly rare) is basically a loan against possible future royalties that you may never earn out.

Furthermore, you’ll only see - at best - 15% of the recommended retail price of a book heading towards you as its creator; all the rest gets sucked up by not just your publisher (who pisses money away on fancy lunches for their bestseller authors, while the tiny promo budget for your own book is eaten up by paying for a few weeks of the PR intern’s phone bill and a couple of email blasts to barely-known book bloggers) but the big-box retailers and their inefficient business and distribution models, not to mention being rock-and-a-hard-placed by the tug-of-war of publisher/retailer discounting deals. It’s not quite as bad a screwing as the average band gets on their first album, but it’s not far off.

Now here’s a books retailer with a solid reputation that not only has global reach and a popular ereader platform on its side, but that is also willing to offer you, the author, up to 70% of the retail price of any ebook you sell on said platform. After years of chasing representation or traditional publication, there are now writers selling hundreds of thousands of copies of their own work directly to their readers, without any help - or hindrance! - from agents or publishers.

They’re living the dream. You can live it, too.

Go forth, my friends, and publish. This is the new republic; the aristocracy has been put out to pasture, and the future is yours.

[ * OK, strongly caricatured, then. Ain’t my fault if the extreme positions are silly by default, is it? ]

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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