Shannon Stacey

Could self-publishing digitally backfire?

So there’s a revolution afoot, with J.A. Konrath seemingly appointed the Robin Hood of the publishing world. Screw the publishers and self-publish via Kindle! Make six figures!

I’m happy for him. Really. My husband and I both read the Jack Daniels series and in my living room there are ten print books on the shelf—eight written by me, one signed Nora Roberts and my signed copy of Afraid by Jack Kilborn (Konrath). I’m a fan.

Here’s the thing, though—the drum he’s beating makes me nervous. His career path’s getting a lot of buzz and causing a lot of excitement in the writing community. Since he began sharing his Kindle numbers, I’ve seen a pretty dramatic increase in the interest being shown Amazon’s self-digital-publishing platform.

But let’s put Konrath to the side because, while he seems to have become the poster boy for self-digital-publishing, he’s one author. He’s a professional writer with an established readership and a strong online presence.

Self-publishing digitally is an interesting option that’s very appealing in some ways. There are many authors who successfully and professionally self-publish their works, and programs such as Amazon’s can facilitate that. I’ve thought about it. It’s intriguing. But the thought of finding the time to write that book, plus finding (and paying for) a freelance editor I can trust and commissioning (and paying for) professional cover art is daunting. I see other professional authors choosing to release some, or even all, of their titles through self-digital-publishing in a professional way and I think that’s a very good thing.

What concerns me is the interest I’m seeing from writers who aren’t finding success with either traditional print publishers or with established digital publishers. It’s now way too easy to hit spellcheck, superimpose a title and author name on a free stock photo, run it all through the magic formatting machine and—voila—a book. A day or two later, it’s available for purchase. To hell with honing your craft until your work merits being published.

(And as I’m drafting this, I see the news report that Barnes & Noble has announced a self-publishing platform similar to Amazon’s.)

That worries me. When anybody and everybody can manufacture a product and there are no quality controls, what happens to the market for that product?

It’s already becoming difficult, when browsing Kindle books for example, to sort through the outrageous number of offerings searching for something that looks—for want of a better word—good. There exists already a sad amount of books with covers made with Microsoft Paint and error-riddled blurbs and eye-rolling excerpts.

Now, with a “revolution” shining a spotlight on the self-digital-publishing option, what’s the digital book market going to look like a year from now? My guess is that it’s going to be positively glutted with crap.

When I was inflicting this train of thought on my husband, he summed up my fear fairly succinctly: “Be a lot easier to say screw this digital crap and go to a bookstore. At least you know a publishing house bought it and it was edited by a professional.”

I think, if the day comes when digital bookstores are overrun by rejected first drafts, there’s going to be a backlash and frustrated readers could return to the “good old days” of print, when books were vetted by the slush pile and edited by professionals. It’s especially frustrating for authors who are published by digital publishers because it seems not a day goes by without somebody in the media or on the ‘net in general confusing digital publishing and digital self-publishing. If that backlash comes, will we be painted with the same brush? I hope not but, given the amount of confusion out there, it’s possible.

Digital self-publishing’s an intriguing alternative to traditional publishing and I think we’ll see more professional authors achieve success using the platform. But I can’t deny I worry about it, too. A lot.

12 comments to “Could self-publishing digitally backfire?”

  1. Shiloh Walker
      · May 19th, 2010 at 3:27 pm · Link

    And that’s why I’ll buy my digital books from places where the books have been vetted. My self pubbed purchases are few and far between and it will stay that way-I don’t have time or the inclination to come through a mountain looking for the gems.

    I want a good, solid story with few typos and while I’m not demanding when it comes to covers, if *I* can go to dreamstime and come up with something better, than there’s a problem.

    So the selfpubbed stuff isn’t going to appeal to me. Those who want to jump on the bandwagon, let them. And I’m also not going to worry too much about this causing major waves-readers are smart. They know where to find the good books. They are already finding them and have been for quite a while.

  2. Kait Nolan
      · May 19th, 2010 at 3:35 pm · Link

    Certainly there is a segment of the population who might just say screw it and go back to dead tree books. But for many folks, the transition to digital isn’t something they’re willing to go back on. It is the wave of the future. And yes, while there is an ENORMOUS amount of absolute dreck self-published digitally (just troll Smashwords to see all the out of control word counts and horrible blurbs), you make the gross assumption that everyone self publishing digitally is doing so because they failed to succeed in traditional publishing.

    That is not always true. There is a growing contingent of independent folks who believe in putting out a quality product that has been well-edited and properly formatted (which, I assure you, can be done without having to pay someone–many writers are excellent editors as well–just not of their own work, so we trade services). They may be doing so because they object to how publishing as a business is run. Or they may, like me, be working on building a platform and a readership. Whatever the reason, there are many other reasons to digitally publish than failure.

    In any event, once the book is out, it’s a matter of strategic marketing and taking time to build a grassroots following and a reputation for excellence. And since the books never go out of print and are not bound by the usual rules of sales numbers in the opening week or whatever, there is the TIME for things to grow in a way that traditional publishing often does not allow.

  3. Zoe Wintesr
      · May 19th, 2010 at 3:36 pm · Link

    I wish that only authors who gave a crap about quality would self-pub their work. I wish there was some kind of BASIC quality control to be distributed by some place like Amazon or B&N.

    I don’t think this will kill digital publishing because I don’t think most crap is going to rise high enough in the store for anybody to find it.

    But that IS why I think it’s a good idea for indie authors to get on board NOW while they still have a shot of rising above the crap and gaining a following.

    My novella, Kept, is generally in the 500s to 600s in store rank in the Kindle Store. My second novella in the series, Claimed, which I recently released is already generally under 2,000 in the Kindle store and it just became available in the Kindle store on Sunday.

    I’m priced at just 99 cents, so it’s not a huge risk. People get a free sample from Amazon. They can read reviews (written by fans, not friends. Though some of my readers have BECOME friends, they met me through being fans.)

    They can look at the cover. While there are a few stinkers out there with good covers, most bad books have equally horrific covers.

    You also are not inundated with millions of crappy books when you enter the Kindle store.

    You’re first hit with recommendations based on your past purchases. Those recommendations are selling well enough and being reviewed enough times to be recommended in the first place. You can further check the bestseller lists in your genre and easily find the “vetted work.” Either it’s been vetted by major pubs, or it’s been vetted by readers and bought enough times to be selling well.

    Crap just doesn’t sell well continually. (Well, James Patterson aside, but yeah.)

    Just my 2 cents on the issue.

  4. Shirley Wells
      · May 19th, 2010 at 3:41 pm · Link

    I agree. It’s a very worrying situation. However, I tend to believe/hope that readers are like me in that they’ll see a ‘book’, realise it’s self-pubbed and move on. Life’s too short to sift through my own slush pile. If it hasn’t been liked by commissioning editors, then it probably won’t be liked by me.

  5. Zoe Winters
      · May 19th, 2010 at 3:43 pm · Link

    Oh, and… FAIL. I think I misspelled my name in my first comment. LOL. Yeah. It didn’t go through so I don’t know if it got marked as spam for some reason (there were no links) or if it’s in the mod bin.

    One other point while I’m here. MOST blogs and websites are crap. Yet most people don’t consider the Internet useless. Human beings like to categorize and organize. When stuff gets overwhelming there is always someone willing to make it easier to search out the stuff you’re looking for. That’s why people can find good blogs among the billions of crappy ones and good websites among the billions of crappy ones.

  6. jim duncan
      · May 19th, 2010 at 4:17 pm · Link

    Yes, it’s worrisome. There is such a thing as making it too easy to publish. I don’t read books digitally, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the culling process for good reading is going to be an ever-continuing and ever-growing issue. I’ve no sympathy for the lazy writers out there who take this route with their poorly edited, poorly covered, poorly written books. I do feel bad however for the writers out there who are good, who haven’t had the good fortune to find a home elsewhere for their work and who want so badly to see it published that they will brave these waters.

    It’s exceedingly difficult to make self-publishing work successfully. The vast majority of writers are not and never will be the Konrath type. At least Konrath is explicit about how hard it’s been to get where he is now and the amount of work and time it has taken. Unfortunately, many writers will see self-publishing success and gloss all of that over. I really hope that the future naturally evolves in self-publishing to include a well-developed process to bring the good stuff to the awareness of readers. I won’t hold my breath though. I think regardless, you will have to invest a LOT of time and effort into building yourself to get any notice. Time which, in many cases, would be better spent writing another novel and honing their craft.

  7. Ellen Fisher
      · May 19th, 2010 at 4:49 pm · Link

    When I started in e-publishing, there was plenty of really bad crap being published. Bad writing, bad covers (Poser, anyone?), little or no editing. The good writers from back then have gone on to bigger and better things. The bad ones have sunk into obscurity. I thnk a similar process will take place with self-publishing. There will always be junk out there, but if no one’s reading it, it’s hardly there at all. I mean, who cares if it’s cluttering up Amazon? Does anyone really go through the hundreds of thousands of books already on Amazon, or do they simply look at the bestseller lists?

    And Jim, I’m not sure it’s as hard for an indie to get noticed as you think. I’ve been indie pubbing my backlist for three and a half months, and I’m doing fairly well. I’d hardly call myself a massive Kindle success story like Konrath or Karen McQuestion (who, by the way, came into indie publishing with no previously published books), but I am moving some books. And having been out of publishing for three years or so, I don’t think that can be attributed to name recognition. It can be done with patience and a little simple promotion.

  8. Zoe Winters
      · May 19th, 2010 at 5:05 pm · Link

    I’m with Ellen on this one. I’m certainly nowhere near where I want to be yet, but I’m on a “10 year plan.” And I’ve only had work out there for a year and a half. Though there have been others like Karen McQuestion in the same boat as me (no previously pubbed work before going indie) who are succeeding far faster than me, I still consider my success thus far to be happening faster than I originally thought it would happen.

    I figure the first five years are going to be the toughest. And if I’m producing and successfully packaging and marketing good stuff, by the time I hit year 5, I’ll be well on my way to hitting “critical mass.”

    But I really could care less about the naysayers. No matter how you choose to publish people are going to tell you how impossible it is. And I did CHOOSE to self-publish. I wasn’t just rejected over and over and over and decided to do it myself. I couldn’t bring myself to make much of an effort in the trad system in the first place cause it just isn’t fun. Indie authorship IS fun to me. I want to do what makes me happy, not what everybody else SAYS I should do.

    Publishing is a crazy-competitive industry no matter how you go about it. It’s not for the weak. Anyone who will be dissuaded by naysayers doesn’t have what it takes anyway. And anyone really determined to succeed who puts out work readers don’t respond favorably too will figure out what they’re doing wrong and work to improve it, rather than assume the world just doesn’t understand and appreciate their “brilliance.”

  9. Alessia Brio
      · May 19th, 2010 at 4:04 pm · Link

    Hi, Shannon.

    Interesting post on a topic near and dear to me. I’m not at all worried about the digital market being overrun with crap, mainly because I feel the print market has a hefty percentage of crap already. I’ve seen plenty of those eye-rolling excerpts and poorly-written blurbs on books that have been through a professional vetting process. Thus, print published by New York is certainly no guarantee of quality. With the ease of entry into the digital market, yeah, I think the percentage of crap will be higher. However, I agree with Shiloh that readers are smart. Their cream will rise to the top. (Their cream, however, may not be the same as your cream or my cream.)

    I’m certainly no J.A. Konrath. I don’t have a large, established readership. (I think there are, perhaps, a couple dozen fans who eagerly await my next release.) I don’t have a “strong online presence” beyond my little Twitter niche. But, for the first time since I started this writing journey, I can see the day when I will be able to totally support myself with writing revenue. That’s WAY encouraging to a no-list short story author who does not define success as “print publication by New York.”

    In my first month of self-publishing, I earned SIX times the most recent royalties check from my former publisher (small press, not New York) with only a partial backlist re-released. Old material, “vintage” Brio (i.e., not up to my current standards). Sales in the 6 months since have only risen. I’m paid regularly, either monthly or quarterly depending on the vendor, and I can check my sales numbers daily if I so choose. Thus, I can gauge the success or failure of my promo efforts.

    My first new work to be released under my self-publishing label has sold better than any of my titles ever released by a “real” publisher. (If you consider small press real, that is. Some don’t. Some don’t consider epublishing real, either.)

    So, I’m a fan of the self-epublishing, warts and all. And I applaud Mr. Konrath for sharing his experiences with us! He seems to be drawing a lot of criticism from some industry professionals for putting stars in aspiring eyes, but he’s forthright and doesn’t pull his punches. I admire that!

  10. Jean
      · May 19th, 2010 at 9:11 pm · Link

    This is the tip of the iceberg on this topic. At least you’re still able to determine from error-riddled blurbs items you want to stay away from (but you still had to take the time to look).

    The question about digital publishing and digital SELF publishing is a greater cause for concern. Digital publishing has just started getting hard-fought respect as a viable entity. I would hate to see it lose the ground it’s been gaining.

    All the drawbacks you mention are the things a professional writer considers, but a novice rejected by traditional publishing doesn’t even know to think about those things, so they don’t see the problem. Commission professional cover art? Why would I want to do that? Find a freelance editor? Some will do that and get ripped off, because they’ll not know what to look for. Others will just have a buddy look it over and think they’ll be good to go.

    Jason Pinter wrote an interesting article on this subject yesterday. I think we can expect to cover this ground a lot more in the near future.

  11. Booklover1335
      · May 20th, 2010 at 11:19 am · Link

    Hey Shannon,

    As a reader, not a writer I don’t search through the digital books available through Amazon. When I go there, I am looking for a particular book, series, or author. Like you said there are just too many choices and too many of them are unprofessional so I just don’t use Amazon that way.

    However, I will browse through books or genres at an online store like All Romance, or My Bookstore and More. I shop by author, recommendations, or by publisher even when I got to these online retailers.

    Personally I love both digital and print books, but I am much more careful about the digital books that I buy for some reason. I know many will pick up a book on Amazon if they have a Kindle, and that Kindle readers make up the majority of digital readers, but I don’t have the same fears. I won’t buy a self published digital book unless it is from an author that I already read (much like the author you highlighted in your post).

  12. Natalie J. Damschroder
      · May 20th, 2010 at 10:08 pm · Link

    The commenters here all make excellent points, but they’re all individual points, mostly with personal bias. That’s not a criticism, but of course it’s natural to defend your own choices.

    I take Shannon’s post from a global perspective, and I think she has a very valid concern.

    When e-publishing first began, the dreck was so severely dreckful, many, many readers got tired of wasting their money for unreadable books, and that’s part of the reason why digital publishing is still a minuscule proportion of the market. It’s taken a decade and a half for high-quality small publishers (most of whom also do print) to overcome the stigma placed early.

    Self-publishing has an obstacle of wariness no matter what the format, because quality is so variable. E-book self-publishing will be no different, and I definitely believe the ease of it will bring out a lot more books of poor quality, which will give the overall section of the industry a tarnish.

    *A* book can be really good. *AN* author can do really well. But I don’t think Shannon is trying to say that it/he/she can’t. As a whole, the quality issue is very likely to rear its ugly head again and cause problems for those to whom it does not apply.

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