A New Model for the Publishing Business?


As always, it seems that topics for this blog pop up in bunches.  After last week’s article about the problems the SF community is having with an invasion of political correctness activists, and our article of a couple of weeks ago about the way technology is finally making complete personalization possible (an article which even manages to plug our awesome coffee mug), we have one that combines the two, and also opens a more general discussion about how readers can go about choosing the right book to read in this era of excessive freedom of publication opportunities.

One of the arguments currently raging across the literary world (not just specific genres), is the validity of self-publishing.  It’s an argument that has created heated, emotional discussion with former friends declaring their hatred for each other.  If this were the middle ages as opposed to our milquetoast modern era, people would be picking up swords and building trebuchets over this.

The arguments that say that self-publishing is a positive thing essentially have to do with the fact that it is often extremely difficult for new voices to break into the traditional publishing model, and that affordable self-publishing immediately allows people to bypass a system that many see as broken.  Additionally, SP’s proponents argue, a greater proportion of the profit goes to the creator in the SP model.  In general, proponents tend to celebrate the everyman and democratic nature of the system as well.

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 11.08.55 AM

The arguments against self-publishing, on the other hand, generally tend to focus on quality and the need for gatekeepers.  The strongest argument, of course, is essentially “the fact that everyone can write a book in no way implies that everyone should“.  Anyone who has ever been a first reader of manuscripts or a teacher of creative writing grading papers will be nodding vigorously at this point.  Most of the work written on this planet should have been prohibited by law from ever being produced.  It is truly, horribly, unimaginably bad, and that badness is being foisted on unsuspecting readers by the self-published millions.  Most rejected manuscripts aren’t misunderstood – they are utter crap.  I’m not talking about “Stephanie Meyer bad” or “Dan Brown bad”.  Brown and Meyer are professional writers who can create sentences, stories, characters and tension – even if their style rubs people the wrong way sometimes.  I’m talking about truly bad.

The second argument is that, even seasoned pros need editing, and they need a third party to edit their books.  In fact one of the main reasons bestselling authors have declines is quality is because they become powerful and get edited less and less as their careers go on.  Self-published books are usually edited by the author, who – even in the unlikely event that he is a decent writer – probably has the editing skills of a chipmunk.

And let’s not even get started on the usual level of art and cover design that self-publishing “distinguishes” itself by. Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch.

So a reader is faced with a conundrum.  It’s clear that there must be diamonds waiting out there among the huge numbers  of independent writers’ work, but how does one go about finding them?  How to avoid falling into the inevitable traps predicted by Sturgeon’s Law in a field that hasn’t got gatekeepers removing the really bad stuff?

Science Fiction Sampler

A group of science fiction authors seems to have come up with a great idea (which is unsurprising as Science Fiction is supposed to be the literature of ideas, right?).  Eighteen writers who knew each other’s work because they’d been published in diverse traditional publications banded together to create an ebook “sampler” which can be downloaded free  on B&N and Kobo (currently listed on Amazon at $0.99, but they assure me that this price will be lowered to zero soon!).  This ebook allows readers to read work by any of these authors before deciding to plunk down their hard-earned cash on one of the books these writers have for sale.

It seems a brilliant, no-risk solution allowing readers to expose themselves to several different voices before making a purchasing decision.

Of course, this won’t solve everyones problems. This collection was created by a group of authors and editors that have been published repeatedly in traditional publications, and are all proven commodities (plus they clearly have access to a professional artist and cover designer).  A quick google search for any of the names will show that they are polished professionals who probably didn’t need that much of a push.  More than a search for new talent, this one seems to be a menu for people who want the latest from the up-and-coming writers in the field (list of the writers involved:  Brad R. Torgersen, Jeffrey Thomas, Martin L. Shoemaker, Larry K. Pinaire, Konstantine Paradias, Geoff Nelder, M.O. Muriel, Roderick MacDonald, David Kernot, Patty Jansen, Guy Immega, Kevin Ikenberry, Mark Iles, Stephen Gaskell, Kary English, David Conyers, Gustavo Bondoni)

But maybe it’s a way forward, a business model which will allow new writers to reach their audience and for readers to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff without having to buy stuff to do so – at least until a new system of gatekeepers or reviewers which can handle the huge volume comes into being.  There are signs of that, but there is still nothing like walking into a bookstore and pulling a book off the shelf for ensuring quality writing and production values.  It will be fun to see how this evolves.


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  1. I have self published a book on Amazon Kindle. It is not in print, and no one has seen fit to buy a copy at $3.99. Still, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I am “a published author.”


    1. Congrats! I’d love to know more about the process – did you try to get the book published through traditional means first?


  2. I self-publish through Smashwords. Every story I have self-published I tried to have traditionally published. In fact, I have been writing and submitting for 30 years, with no success. Last year I came very close to just giving up, when I read about Smashwords in Newsweek and decided to give it a try.

    I have not been disappointed. They charge no fees, not even for their Premium Service or for ISBNs. They distribute copies of ebooks to online retailers, including Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Sony, and Apple. I have received a number of good reviews, both on Smashwords and GoodReads, and I have a few thousand downloads after a year. I give my ebooks away for free, but I intend to sell future story collections and novels.

    Perhaps I would have been a bigger success had I been traditionally published, but as of now I have been read by more readers through self-publishing than I have through traditional publishing, and the goal of any writer is to be read.


    1. We’ll count you firmly among the “yea” camp then. Do you think gatekeepers are important in maintaining quality, or do you think the access to publishing outweighs this risk? (I suspect the latter, but would love to hear your take!).


      1. My feelings about Gatekeepers are mixed. On the one hand, if a publisher receives a 1000 submissions a year but can only afford to accept 5, then by necessity his editors must be judicious about what they accept. On the other, Gatekeepers are human beings, not super-objective computational machines, so they are influenced by prejudices and other subjective influences just like anyone else. At the very least, Marion Zimmer Bradley has stated that editors look for stories they know their readers will like, not necessarily the best written stories. So quality is not specifically the issue, but taste is.

        My experience suggests that most Gatekeepers are too conservative in their tastes. You would think that in 30 years at least ONE editor would have liked ONE of my stories well enough to accept it, but it never happened.

        However, prejudice can be very strong. I submitted one of my self-published stories — “Barbarians R Us” — to an established fantasy magazine that had just opened itself for unsolicited manuscripts. I didn’t expect it to fair well, but in fact the submissions editor loved it and wanted to accept it. She even let me call her by her first name. However, she needed the approval of the publisher, but she indicated that that was a mere formality. She seemed quite confident he would accept it based on her recomendation. Unfortunately, he rejected it; his reason was that “barbarian stories are a hard sell” to him. I accepted that, but when I wrote to the submissions editor to thank her for her support, she was just as surprised as I was that he rejected it, and indicated that she didn’t know about his dislike for barbarian stories.

        Now I ask you: what kind of publisher doesn’t tell his submissions editor what kind of stories he won’t accept? So God alone knows what was the real reason for the rejection. Still, this kind of experience makes me wonder why Gatekeepers reject otherwise good stories that could be published, beyond mere commercial concerns.

        As for access to publishing, I look upon this time as being similar to the time right after Gutenburg printing became widespread but before the rise of publishers, when virtually anyone could get anything printed regardless of quality, if they could afford to pay the printing costs. Even assuming 95% of that printed material was monumentally attrocious, good writing didn’t disappear or even suffer for it, so I doubt self-publishing will kill it now, despite certain apocalyptic predictions. Back then, printers were willing to let “the market” decide which works succeeded and which failed, and I see no reason not to do the same now.


  3. That was extremely clear – thank you so much for chiming in. We truly appreciate both the time you took to respond and the response itself, which definitely makes the whole discussion richer!


    1. I think it would be better to say that I consider Gatekeepers too cautious about taking risks on new writers, rather than too conservative in their tastes, but both probably apply and ultimately lead to the same result.

      Your welcome.


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