Saturday, 14 January 2012

Essay: On Self-Publishing

The advent of ebook readers like the Kindle and Nook has changed the face of publishing. Traditionally, an author would spend years writing, polishing, hawking the finished product around various publishing houses, receiving rejection after rejection before finally (if lucky) getting a contract. This would give them an advance (a usually modest sum of money to be offset against future sales), and a guarantee that their book would appear in print at some future date. Even then, the publishing houses had all the power, persuading the author to change parts of the book, constraining them within a marketable genre, controlling the cover art, advertising, number printed and other aspects of marketing and then, sometimes, dropping an author without warning. With fantasy, where the trilogy is the default state, this can be particularly devastating, leaving readers and writers alike in the lurch midway through a series.

[Edit: for an amusing look at the process of how authors attract the attention of publishing houses, see this blogpost by author Michael J Sullivan.]

[Another edit: for some interesting statistics on how self-publishing authors are doing, what works and what doesn't, see this review.]

But ebooks have made a huge difference. Now authors can format their own work and self-publish the resulting ebook on Amazon alongside the big-name authors. They have to do their own pre-publication work - editing, proof-reading, cover art and so on - or else pay someone to do this for them, and they have to find ways to market it themselves too, but they have full control over the process and make their own decisions on pricing, length, genre and format, as well as artistic decisions. There are a few notable success stories, where authors have made a lot of money from self-published books. Some get picked up by publishing houses. One author, Michael J Sullivan, self-published after his six-book series was dropped just before publication, released them slowly, tirelessly promoted them to success and then royally annoyed his hard-won fanbase by signing up with a different publisher just before the final book came out, delaying the ending by months. But generally self-publishing is not going to make an author much money (but then very few authors of any description make a living out of writing).

For an author, self-publishing makes a lot of sense. You can skip the tedious part (the years of rejection slips and will-they won't-they wavering while the manuscript sits on a desk somewhere getting dusty) and jump straight to publication. Amazon in particular makes it incredibly quick and easy to publish that opus magnus gathering dust on a hard drive somewhere. One author (Andrea K Höst) had a book spend a staggering ten years with one publisher, which was always just about to come to a decision on whether to publish, before she took it back and self-published. Self-publishing gives an author total control, a higher percentage of the purchase price and a direct link to readers. It works both for new authors testing the waters, and long-established ones who can release out-of-print books, or works of no interest to their current publisher. On the other hand, there's no expert advice, no monetary advance, no marketing and no chance to sit back and wait for the royalties to flow in. The most successful self-published authors are those who made sure their work was professionally edited and presented, and then worked hard to promote it through blogs, social networking, paid reviews, giveaways and clever pricing strategies.

For the publishing houses, self-publishers are a threat, just as digital downloads were to the music industry. They cut out the middle man by connecting directly with the consumer, undercutting standard prices and then pocketing the profits. For the music industry, common sense eventually prevailed when the producers began to distribute digital tracks themselves, allowing consumers legal access to their preferred format. For digital books (ebooks), there has never been a large scale illegal industry, but conventional publishing has not yet embraced the rising tide of self-publishers. One day soon, publishers will realise that there's money to be made from helping out self-publishers (with proofreading, cover art, formatting, reviewing and the like), but they haven't quite got there yet.

For readers, however the book is published, the problem is to wade through the waterfall of printed books and ebooks now available. There are many thousands of fantasy books printed since 1954, when J R R Tolkien released the gold standard, 'The Lord of the Rings', and its hobbits, orcs, wizards, dwarves and elves first burst upon an unsuspecting world. Apart from a wobble in the 90s, the number produced each year has steadily increased. Locus magazine notes that in 2010 there were over 3000 works published in the broad genre of fantasy, science fiction and horror, of which 2000 were new and 1000 reprints. Of those 2000 new works, 614 were fantasy, 384 were paranormal (sparkly vampires, time-travel romances and the like), 285 were science fiction and 251 horror, with the rest being anthologies, omnibus editions, humour and so forth.

Amazon, the world's largest bookseller, lists 140,000 titles available in the UK under the fantasy heading (which includes both horror and paranormal, but not sci-fi). There's some overlap between formats, so the 76,000+ in paperback gives a better idea of the numbers in print, and there are almost 30,000 ebooks listed at the time of writing [December 2011], with over 1,600 released in that month alone. That's a lot of fantasy. Of course, most of these are conventionally published - printed by a publishing house, distributed to bookshops and libraries all over the country, driven by the container-load to Amazon warehouses and (as an afterthought) made available as an ebook - poorly transcribed, badly formatted, missing artwork and overpriced, as often as not.

But for the reader, these are the easy ones to find out about. The handful of really big releases each year, or those which coincide with films or TV shows, will be advertised on billboards, on buses, in cinemas and on TV, reviewed in upmarket newspapers and magazines, and available in every bookshop and library in the country. You can hold the book in your hand, admire the cover, read the blurb and even read a chapter or two before you buy. It's surprising, actually, how many people buy fantasy books because of an appealing cover. Smaller releases will still make the bookshops, and you can read about them on blogs, social networking sites and discussion groups dedicated to the genre and on online booksellers like Amazon. Many of these also have reviews and rating systems, so you can find out the opinions of those who have already read them. Almost everything well known will have hundreds or even thousands of reviews. Even if you don't have a Kindle, with an ebook reader on your computer, tablet or phone, you can download a sample of the book. And if you don't want to trawl through all this information, established authors and publishing houses may have a track record, so you may feel safe in taking a punt on a new book by so-and-so. Eventually, all the popular books work their way through to the second-hand market, where you can pick up a copy for a song (hardbacks are particularly good value, but with fantasy, beware of picking up just part of a series - it can be disconcerting to find yourself reading book 3, with no idea what's going on).

With self-published books, virtually none of this infrastructure is available. The author may well be unknown, with no previous publications and few reviews, or even none at all. Or, worse still, the only reviews may be too glowing to be real. And the vast majority of self-published books are invisible - out there, somewhere, but impossible to find. So how does anyone manage to find new material worth reading?

The first place to start is Amazon. The Kindle section doesn't make any obvious distinction between professionally published books and any other kind, but there are a few clues. Price is the most obvious one. A professional product will cost much the same as the cheapest printed version: around £5 for a mass market paperback (around $8 in US terms), and more for a hardback. Self-published books tend to be £3 or less ($5 or less). Some will be less than £1 ($1.50) or even free. A self-published work may only be available in ebook format, not in a printed version at all. And self-published works often have few reviews, or none at at all (although this is sometimes true of professionally published books outside the mainstream, too, or from outside the US/European axis).

Amazon displays lists of the 100 top-selling Kindle books in various categories (from generic ones like 'fiction' to more useful genre categories). There's a free list as well as a paid-for list. The free ones are worth a look, because sometimes an author with a long catalogue will give away the first of the series to entice readers, and there are plenty of out-of-copyright classic works, but for fantasy I've found that a paid-for book is more likely to be of readable quality. The paid-for list will be a mixture of big-name best-sellers, and smaller authors who have either aggressively marketed or have found an updraught of reader response. But a few authors have found ways to 'game' the system; with specialised genres, it's easy to get into the best-seller lists with just a small number of sales, so an unscrupulous author can buy his own book repeatedly over a short time (and Amazon gives him back 70% of the cost, so it's not as expensive as it looks).

There's not much information in the lists, so you have to click through to the book's home page and read the blurb to see if it sounds like your cup of tea. Very often you can tell right there that's it's not your thing - key words like 'vampire', 'demon', 'wizard', 'adult themes', 'unicorn' and so on are big clues. A teenaged lead character makes it likely to be a young adult book. Urban fantasy will be set in a modern city. A half-dressed man (or woman) on the cover is likely to indicate a paranormal romance. Even if it's not quite what you're looking for, Amazon has one other trick up its sleeve - the 'customers who bought this also bought...' list. This doesn't work so well for books that haven't sold many copies, but a more popular book may be linked to up to 100 other books. This works very well for specialised genres.

But if the blurb sounds interesting, then the next step is to read the reviews, and this is where the whole business gets very fraught. Many self-published works have no reviews at all, which is no help. But even where there are reviews, they are not necessarily very useful. There is nothing to stop the author, author's spouse, mother, publisher, best friend and work colleagues from writing reviews (everyone has an Amazon account, after all, and there's no need to have bought the book to post a review). Authors sometimes create 'sock puppets' (fake accounts) to post multiple reviews. They can also pay reviewers or use one of the new sites such as BookRooster and who, for a fee, will pass the book out to independent reviewers. This guarantees a certain number of genuine and honest reviews on Amazon (and possibly other sites), but again, there's no assurance that the reviewers know anything about the genre.

The Holy Grail for readers is the honest, unbiased review which explains both the good and the bad aspects of the book. I find the poor ratings (1-3 stars) are actually the best guide. If a reviewer explains what he/she didn't like, that gives me a good feel for whether I would or wouldn't like it. The ideal is two or three long, detailed reviews which are moderately critical. After all, something that one reader may hate (lots of graphic sex, a religious theme, gory battle scenes, a traditional farm-boy-turns-hero story, a complex political plot) may be exactly what someone else is looking for. And actually, this is also what authors want, too, precisely because it's what readers want (and conversely, it's always helpful to know what turns readers off). So where else can a reader find suitable reviews?

On the surface, blogs specialising in reviews for a particular genre would seem to be the perfect answer. After all, they read lots of likely books, giving them a good basis for comparison, and they give them detailed, honest reviews, don't they? Well, maybe. In my experience, they tend to be more focused on giveaways, publicity puffs from publishers, interviews with authors and (sometimes) telling cute stories about the kids or their own technology disasters than actually reviewing the books. They also have the problem of all semi-professional reviewers - they get books for free from publishers and authors, so they are really NOT going to be putting out bad reviews. They're not, after all, going to bite the hand that feeds them. And because they're in bed with the publishers, they are very resistant to self-publishing authors, or anything too far from the mainstream (some of them are downright hostile to self-publishers). The best of them will give sufficiently detailed reviews that you can at least make up your mind whether it's the sort of book you might like, and you can then check other reviews on Amazon and elsewhere for a better idea of quality. There is also a growing number of review blogs specialising in indie and self-published books, of various genres.

I've found that Goodreads is the best place for information. It's a social networking site (sort of), although you don't have to use it that way. I have a small number of fantasy-loving 'friends' whose reviews I trust, and the site gives me updates on what they're reading, rating and reviewing. That gives me lots of ideas for new reading material. I also belong to a couple of fantasy discussion groups, and they have 'what I'm reading now' threads and specific book threads which also throw up good ideas. I also check out every author publicising their own new releases (these are often very cheap, and although some are terrible, I've found a number of good ones).

So having found possible books to read, and checked the blurb, and read all the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, the final step is to download a free sample from Amazon. This gives you the first 5-10% of the book to read so you can determine the writing style, the level of formatting or spelling errors, and so on. I give books two to three pages to hook me. If the first pages are interesting and the author can write grammatically, then I'm in. There are sites other than Amazon where free samples are available - Smashwords is a popular one with authors, because it's geared up for self-publishers, helping them to format ebooks in various configurations for different ereaders, selling the books and facilitating reviews. For readers, however, it's a mess - hard to find anything, and with a high proportion of rubbish (in my experience).

The final consideration is price - I'll pay a standard paperback price for a book by an established author, but I expect a self-published work by an unknown to be cheap. I don't mind taking a punt on something really cheap, but not on a full-price book. But contradictorily, I'm wary of free books. Sometimes this is just a hook to draw readers into a long series at regular prices, and these are usually good value, but for the rest - if an author doesn't value their own work, why should I? I'm more likely to abandon a free book, or leave it sitting, untouched, on my Kindle, and I'm more likely to write a brief, scathing review.

If all this sounds like a long-drawn-out and time-consuming process, it doesn't have to be. I've streamlined it to a matter of seconds to skim-read the blurb and a few reviews, then decide whether to download the sample. From there, it only takes me a page or two to decide on whether I want to read the whole book. This is a fairly ruthless approach, but since I already have a long list of books already downloaded, there has to be a strong hook right at the start to draw me in.

So how good are self-published books? The worst are terrible - badly edited, with trite plots, cardboard characters and clichéd magic systems - but these are easy to weed out. It doesn't take more than a few paragraphs of the sample to determine whether the author is acquainted with grammar, spelling and apostrophe usage. But there is a whole tranche that rises above that level but is still derivative and dull. Sometimes a good opening can suck you in, only to find the plot tediously predictable. But, to be completely honest, a fair few professionally published works fall into the same traps. Just because a book has been deemed worthy of publication doesn't make it enjoyable.

The real joy of self-published works is that authors are constrained only by their imagination. The best are original and unpredictable, and I take real pleasure in finding a writer who takes me to unexpected places in unusual ways, even if the writing is not always outstanding. Self-published books come to the reader directly from the creative mind of the author, without any intervention from those with financial or marketing considerations foremost, and as such even the worst of them deserve to be cherished. 

[Update: for a list of 20 best-selling self-published books in the fantasy/sci-fi genre, have a look at Michael J Sullivan's guest post on The Ranting Dragon blog here.]


  1. Andrea linked to your essay on Twitter and said it was very interesting. And lo, it was! And since there were no comments here - and I hates having no comments on my own stuff, it makes me feel like I am talking into a storm drain - I thought I'd say something.

    Since my kids started downloading large quantities of stuff a few years ago I was struck by how much of all of it - games, music, fiction - was created by amateurs. 80% at least. So I guessed that was what the future of creative stuff looked like. Roll on! :)

    1. Thank you for the kind words. The magic of the internet has freed us all to create, as far as we are able. Or at least to comment on other people's creations. :-)

  2. Hi!

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    The essay is certainly amazing filled with extremely important points. I agree with you on your points against free books. According to me, the ideal price for a new eBook by a new author should be between $1.99-$3.99. However, as the market matures, prices should increase steadily as current levels of extremely low prices may possibly ruin self-publishing industry in future.