Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Only YOU Can Stop the eBookocalypse!

“I don’t know, Andy.  Twenty-five percent of net doesn’t seem like a lot.  Maybe I should just publish it myself through Amazon.”

Editors, authors, and agents everywhere have been hearing this from clients for some time now.  From Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing Program to Barnes and Noble’s PubIt program to Smashwords, “author-friendly” direct publishing programs are having a real impact on the publishing business.  And stories of authors who are selling millions of eBooks they self-published and then landing million-dollar print publishing deals from traditional publishers are leading authors to think, I can do that.

Unfortunately, this is somewhat akin to watching a lottery winner on the news and thinking, I can do that.

Like a lot of agents, I have been digging deep into the various options to bring my clients’ out-of-print works back into print and even to publish some originals.  This digging has included looking at Amazon, PubIt, Smashwords, and conversion vendors like Aptara, Impelsys, Constellation, codeMantra, and others.  It’s included conversations with agents who have launched their own operations using some of those vendors or other solutions.  And it’s included talking to some authors who have gone through the process.  And here’s where I’ve come out.

We are on the verge of an eBookocalypse.  Melodramatic?  Perhaps, but allow me to try and create an analogy.  Imagine if you went to Macy’s and started to find a lot of hand-sewn clothes from different, small lines.  These were not quality boutique items as we’ve come to expect such hand-sewn clothes to be, but instead were low-quality, with inconsistent sizing.  Next, imagine going to a car dealership and finding cars that were manufactured by companies the names of which you did not recognize.  The interiors seemed cheap and the engines did not perform like those of name-brand cars.  Now the quality of such items might be readily apparent to any potential buyer and they could steer clear.  But the same cannot be said of eBooks.

We have all had the experience of buying a book we don’t like.  But even if we don’t like the book, we can usually count on the book to have been printed and bound by a quality company.  We can usually expect the design and typesetting to be professionally done.  We just might not like the writer’s work.

Now, think back to an indie movie you might have seen and didn’t like.  You found the production quality lacking (“Hey, I can see the wires on that spaceship!”) or the lighting poor, or the sound quality bad (“Huh?  What did he say?”).  You wouldn’t know these things until you paid for and watched the movie.  The sad thing is that the acting could be great.  Even the writing could be great.  But the movie is ruined for you by bad production quality.

The reason I say an eBookocalypse is coming is because eBooks are vulnerable to failure both in the manner of a bad book and a bad movie—the writing could suck and the production quality could be poor.  And you won’t know it until you buy it and read it.

As a publishing veteran, I value the works published by different publishers in different ways.  I expect a higher quality of writing and production from Knopf titles.  I expect a different quality—say a more “popcorn read” quality—from Putnam books, and a lower production quality, such as cheaper paper, no endpapers, and no headband.  But I do expect decent typesetting and proofing from both companies and I know that every book published by both of those houses has gone through an editorial acquisition process, where more than one editor read it and deemed it publishable, and it went through an editing process where an editor read through the work and provided feedback and requested revisions.  It also went to a copy editor who looked over the work for issues with style, spelling, grammar, etc.  A designer worked on both the interior and the cover, to make an attractive book.  And a proofreader went through first- and second-pass proofs to ensure the typesetting job was as error-free as possible. 

Most, if not all, of these steps are missing from many of the eBooks hitting the market today.  And readers are starting to notice.

Creating a quality book is a time-consuming process and publishers are correct in their positions that there aren’t that many steps that can be skipped when creating a quality eBook versus creating a quality printed book.  Yes, printing and binding are eliminated, but not acquisitions expenses, contracting expenses, royalty reporting expenses, sales expenses, marketing and publicity expenses, editorial expenses (both development and copyediting), proofreading expenses, and distribution expenses (even if many of the distribution expenses related to physical books are eliminated, there are expenses to electronic distribution).

Dominique Raccah, Publisher and CEO of Sourcebooks, was kind enough to allow me to use this slide to demonstrate the value Sourcebooks feels it brings to the table for every book.  It’s compelling when one thinks about all it takes to publish an eBook or POD book into today’s marketplace.

In my search for a solution for my clients, I chatted with one new venture in the publishing world.  The venture, started by the former CEO of a major publishing house, has been partnering directly with authors, as well as with publishers, on bringing eBooks to the marketplace, as well as printed books in some cases.  In their model, the publisher and author split the proceeds from sales of the work 50/50, but all production costs, such as digitization, formatting, and distribution, are recovered from the author’s first proceeds.  And that’s just for reissues of out-of-print books.  On originals, the publisher gets world rights—including film!—and splits everything 50/50 with the author.  All “third-party costs,” e.g., developmental editor, copy editor, proofreader, design, publicist, and digital conversion, are recovered from the author’s first proceeds.

Compared to a traditional publishing deal, this seems a tough pill to swallow for any author.  For starters, traditional publishers pay authors an advance against which royalties are earned.  Those royalties in the eBook world are running mostly at 25% of net, but some publishers are rising to 35% of net.  On the sub-rights, for say translation and UK, the author usually gets 75% to 80%.  And the publisher pays all of the costs associated with editing, design, etc.  For an increase of 15% of net on an eBook and a loss of 25% to 50% on rights, this publisher wants to pass many costs along to the author, albeit on the back end.  But then there’s that pesky rights issue, too.  This publisher insists on controlling all rights, including film.  Rarely does a traditional publisher take that position.  And while this new model may include different opportunities to get the work made into a film, i.e., an association with a film production company, is that worth 50% to an author?

Thus, faced with the option of not finding a publisher or going with a publisher that takes half of everything, more authors are choosing to go the self-publishing route.  The problem is the steps that are being skipped and, let’s face it, just because an author can afford to self-publish doesn’t mean he or she has a book of high enough quality to deserve publishing.

As an editor, I worked on some questionable books.  All were books I did not acquire, but that I was assigned or hired to edit.  In such situations, I didn’t have any say in the acquisition for publication.  Yet these books were acquired, meaning editorial judgment was exercised.  And we’ve all read books and thought, This got published?  How?  Now, imagine what happens when the only editorial judgment at work is the author who decided to self-publish that book.  When I was an editor and was handed a book to edit that I found a difficult read, I did everything I could to make that book far more readable.  I tore books apart and put them back together.  I line-edited aggressively.  I wrote long, long editorial letters and made the author rewrite two or three times.  In one case, I just wrote the opening three chapters of the novel, to make it easier to get into the story.

Does every editor do this?  No.  In fact, I’d say there’s a growing tendency by editors to look for books that don’t need editing, so that their time can be better spent looking for new things, than editing the titles they’ve already acquired.  But there are still editorial meetings and there are still generally multiple reads on a title before an offer to publish it gets made.

As a reader, I’ve long looked at who published a book before buying it.  If I’m browsing books on Amazon, I certainly veer away from publishers I don’t know and anything via iUniverse.  Why?  Because I don’t yet know if I can trust the editorial judgment of those unknown houses and because I know that no editorial judgment was applied to the iUniverse title.  But I suspect most readers are more likely to look at a cover and read a blurb and thus may not realize how many steps might have been skipped in a book’s self-publication.  They may not know that “Abysmal Press” has published only one book and that the author never even spell-checked his own manuscript.

But I think readers are starting to catch on.  From comments on Amazon to articles in major newspapers, some of the bestselling self-published authors are taking heat for the production quality of their books and the quality of their writing.  Perhaps we can’t pick on the quality of the writing if the masses like it (plenty of publishers turned down THE FIRM and other bestsellers), but certainly we can expect that if you are going to put your name on the book, you need to put in the time and money to make sure you are producing a quality work. Because, if you don’t, then readers will find themselves more and more often turned off by the book they’ve just paid to read and may be more likely to put their money elsewhere next time, as in not into books, but into a movie or a videogame.  So, for all you authors out there thinking about self-publishing, do it right, or don’t do it at all, please.  For the sake of readers everywhere.  Only YOU can stop the eBookocalypse!



tielserrath said...

Firstly, I've had some appallingly badly formatted ebooks from major publishers. It seems to be improving, but from the state of the end product it looked like most publishers simply converted a word document to html and threw it out there without any further proofreading.

Secondly, the ability to sample an ebook allows you to rapidly ditch anything that has too many errors - the same as flicking through a book in a bookshop.

Yes, there's rubbish out there, but I've found a lot of remarkable self-published fiction, and I'm ecstatic that I can now pick what I want to read rather than having someone else decide if it's 'suitable' for publication.

And the thought that writers might be able to 'do it all' seems to unsettle both agents and publishers. I actually enjoy the proofreading and cover design aspects. It can be frustrating, but knowing you can handle the whole process is rewarding in itself. I do agree that writers must work hard to produce a properly finished product, however your 'ebookocalypse' seems to me to be unwarranted scaremongering.

We are living in an unprecedented age of creativity. For the first time individual artists in all areas have the opportunity to access a global audience, and, as happens in these situations the group of people who have previously had control leap up with the same justifications. 'You need us!' 'We keep it special!' 'We can't let just anyone have this!'

We heard it with penny dreadfuls, with paperbacks, with pulp fiction. 'You're spoiling it!'

No, we're not. We're just doing it differently, and somehow I don't think the sky will fall this time, either.

Mark A. Rayner said...

I definitely agree that self-published authors should pay for proper editing and proofing help. (And a decent artist to produce a cover that doesn't look like amateur hour.)

I think this ebook revolution is going to take a while to shake out, and as a consumer of books, I really want some kind of independent review mechanism for ALL books -- self-published, indies, and those put out by the big publishers.

Something like, but for fiction.

Leah Griffith said...

When I first started reading this post I had my defenses up; after all you’re the gatekeeper and I’m the one being denied entry into the Promised Land. Shortly after reading a few lines I could see that you were voicing the same concerns that I have as an author...and probably a soon to be self-published author.
I could throw my book up on Amazon, but I refuse to rush forward. I intend to present my work as professionally as possible. It took me a year to write it and another year to edit it. I certainly don’t want to look back on my first novel with embarrassment because I didn’t take the time to make sure that it was completely ready.

Kelley said...

So, I'm curious then where you stand on authors who self-published (orig, not backlist) but are doing well? Not those pulling Amanda Hockings, but well. Do you see a way how agents could help them to do even better? Can an agent come in after the fact and open new arenas for them? Or is well not enough? Just curious.

No Filter: The Book said...

The readers will be quite clear if they read something terrible for their money. And samples make it clear how the formatting is. The market is pretty powerful in editing out the good from the bad in self-publishing.

Edmund Davis-Quinn
Westbrook, Maine

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