publishing

Why Self-Publishing Hurts Real Writers*

I wrote this for the old Apex blog in 2010 (before being expelled after the very whiny pushback following an even more controversial–but perfectly accurate–post that came after this one), so this is its 10 year anniversary. While I recognize that there are many excellent writers who self-publish, I stand by the major points and the role of gatekeepers. At the very least, it’s good to talk about these things. Always happy to discuss disagreement in the comments.

The last couple of weeks seem to have had a single hot-button issue.  Unlike many of the topics that get discussed in the genre, this one is truly relevant: publishing is changing, and no one really seems to know where it’s headed.  Will all print books disappear?  Or will ebook readers only destroy the mass-market / airport reading paperback business?  These are valid questions, and I’d like to take a shot at it.

But today, I’d like to address the other component that gets discussed when talking about worrying future trends: self-publishing.

The discussions generally go something like this:

Self-publishing proponent: Self-publishing and especially electronic self-publishing are great!  We don’t need to worry about those pesky agents and editors any more!  We can print our excellent work without interference and Amazon will even let us into their shop without all this insistence on having grammar and plot!  Finally, we can let readers decide what is good or bad!

Anyone who loves literature: Die! Die! Die!

And the people who self-publish are often left in a state of confusion regarding why the other party doesn’t share their enthusiasm.  After all, isn’t giving the authors more control over everything a good thing?

Well…  Let’s have a look at this.

Most proponents of self publishing fall into one of three groups.

  1. Clueless.  These people are generally victims of a vanity press scam.  They believe that people like Stephen King pay to publish their books.  They are to be pitied more than censured, and the best thing you can do for them is to send them a book contract for them to study. It might take days, but I suspect they will eventually realize that the money flows toward the author.  Sadly, much of this is their own fault – the information necessary to avoid scams is readily available, all you have to do is make a minimum of effort.
  2. Conspiracy theorists.  These are actually a subset of number 1, people who think that editors and agents are there to keep new writers and new ideas from ever hitting the shelves.  This particular group is just as irrelevant as the first, because it shows that they haven’t done their homework.  Or maybe it’s just easier to believe that there’s a conspiracy than to accept the sad truth: the writing you are subbing just isn’t good enough for public consumption.  Not liking the options (get better or get out), these people went the self-publishing route.
  3. Economists.  It’s better to keep all the profits yourself, right?  Why pay these editors, copy-editors, formatting people and especially artists, when I already have a great book – my first draft! – and I can format it myself, and use a cover design made by my niece, which is just as good.  And who needs publishers when I can upload it to my kindle.  And if I go the print route, I’ll sell them myself, after all, authors have to be great salesmen, don’t they?  I’ll make a fortune.  All I can say here is: probably not, and your cover art is making my eyes bleed. 

But why does any of this hurt real writers?  Am I admitting that the publishing world is moving to a model without gatekeepers, where it is a pure democracy?

Don’t make me laugh.  I may not know how it will work, but the world will defend itself from this somehow, and self-publishing stealing their sales is a laughable proposition.

The reasons that real writers are being hurt have to do with the confusion that readers are going to be experiencing until the gates are established again.  Readers know that most of the work they find in a bookstore has gone through an editing process, been checked for most spelling mistakes, and been formatted by someone who knows the correct sequence for page numbers (hint: 1, 2, 3, 4…).  Now, if bookstores suddenly disappear, how is that same reader, faced with only a product page to know that Fly By Night Publishing is a vanity press that will publish anything, including Atlanta Nights, or an individual whose knowledge of English consists of what he was able to pick up on the boat ride?  The profusion of self-published titles will educate some readers as to what publishers are worth their time, but it will alienate others, after they get burned.  Less readers hurts real writers.

The words “Published Author” have also lost much of their magic.  Most people, when you tell them that you’re published will ask “How much did you pay?”  The ratio of real writers to people who couldn’t make the grade and decided to self-publish seems to have gone oversquare at some point.  Even bookstore employees flee if you tell them you’re a writer.

Finally, and most sinister, is the fact that publishing houses are run by people who can do math.  So, if writers are willing to pay to have their books printed and also willing to eschew (or pay extra for) decent cover art, why are we footing the bills for all this?  A major romance publisher has already launched a self-publishing imprint.  Can others be far behind?  Of course, the smarter houses have realized that GOOD writers don’t pay to have their work published, and that they are also not good at selling books from the trunk of a car.  But it’s still worrying to see this trend, isn’t it?

So, as I have no interest in selling my books from the trunk of a car, especially my unedited books, I have to say that, even though they represent no threat to real writers from a sales point of view, proponents of self-publishing do damage their ability to make a living.

And that explains the words “Die! Die! Die!”

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work is very emphatically published by publishers and not by him (mainly because he likes real editors to proof his work before showing it to others). His monster novel Ice Station Death was both well-received and popular. You can check it out here.

*The best thing about living in Buenos Aires is that one doesn’t need to be euphemistic about blog post titles.  We don’t believe in political correctness down here, thankfully, and no one who disagrees with me can drive to my house and berate me in person for my views!

My Favorite Anthology Covers

I sell a lot of short stories, both original and reprint, so it stands to reason that my work has appeared not only in magazines, but also in countless anthologies.

Sometimes, the antho cover is a bit of a disappointment.  Most times, though, they are wonderful, with either beautiful artwork or brilliant design jumping out at readers.  But, since I’m an expert at neither art nor design, choosing my favorites ends up being a question of personal opinion without too much basis in argument of any kind.

That, of course, has never stopped me before so, without more ado, I present my five favorite antho covers from books in which my work appears, in no particular order.

 

A High Shrill Thump makes the list because that Etruscan zombie on the cover is an illustration of my story “Comrade at Arms”.  I’m pretty sure this is the first time the cover illustration of an anthology was based on one of my stories.

A High Schrill Thump.jpg

 

Made You Flinch. This one makes the list because, all these years later, I still remember it.  The reason was that, as I was working my way through the lowest ranks of the indy press, the quality of artwork was often iffy at best.  This one was striking, and anything less than iffy.  I don’t recall much of the stories inside (excpet mine, “Topside”), but this cover is unforgettable.

Made You Flinch

 

Sha’Daa Toys.  I always loved the Sha’Daa covers, even before I managed to convice the editors that I was good enough to join this particular shared world antho series.  And the Toys cover is creepy and dark and moody and everything that it should be for the apocalypse.

Sha'Daa Toys.jpg

 

American Monsters Part One.  The Fox Spirit Books of Monsters represent the most critically acclaimed series of anthos on this list, and with good reason.  They have a powerful lineup of writers from all over the world writing about the monsters near and dear to them.  It’s understandably powerful.  But the artwork is also wonderful.  How and you not love these sepia-toned images?  My story “Vulnerable Populations” is included in there.

Amercian Monsters Part One.jpg

 

Sinisterotica.  Normally, this cover wouldn’t have made the list.  I don’t love it when computer-generated humans land in the uncanny valley, and those fonts are… questionable.  But the cover is also the bravest, boldest thing I’ve seen in a long, long time.  Only the judicious use of shade keeps it from landing in the adults-only section behind a brown paper wrapper but, as they say, no guts, no glory, so this one makes the list among more professionally executed covers.  It contains my story “Top of the Food Chain”.

Sinisterotica

There are so many more that I love, and I hate to leave out such a massive number of great publishers and editors.  But I had to cut somewhere and these are the five I thought of today.

Ask me again tomorrow, and I’ll probably pick a different five.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over 300 published stories.  His latest collection is Off the Beaten Path, a curation of stories that take place outside the usual American and European settings.  They will make you think, and they will entertain you.  You can check it out here.

 

Learning to Love Romance: Crafting a Romance Anthology for Everyone

Robot Love

Here at Classically Educated, we enjoy discussing nearly all aspects of cultural life, but attentive readers will have noticed that we have a particular soft spot for literature.  For that reason, we are delighted to present today’s guest post, Written by  Elizabeth Hirst.  Elizabeth is a writer, editor and 3D animator from Hamilton, Ontario Canada. She is a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop, Class of ’06, and a student of life.

The latest book she has published, Love, Time, Space, Magic, can be found here (print book) and here (ebook).  We hope you enjoy Elizabeth’s insight into the creation of the book as much as we did.

It was probably around May or June of last year when I first started tossing around the idea of doing an anthology with love as the central theme. My company, Pop Seagull Publishing, does a lot of conventions, street fairs and other community events, and a large share of our sales comes from hand selling and building relationships in the community. So, when my regulars tell me something that they want, I listen. And what I had been hearing, largely from my younger and middle-aged female customers was: “Do you have any Romance?” Clearly, a large portion of my target market was looking for love stories with sci-fi and fantasy elements.

It’s no surprise that my readers would be primed for these kinds of stories, considering the success of Twilight and other paranormal romance heavy-hitters in recent years. However, Pop Seagull, while being a company devoted to its readers, is still my company, and to be honest I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy. My longer work is mostly action and adventure, and I grew up with movies like Indiana Jones, Mulan, and Star Wars as my favourites. I’m much more interested in a trip through ghoul infested woods with only a shotgun, a dog, and an unreliable reporter than I am in the mushy stuff, most of the time.

Another potential roadblock on the way to Romance success is my other key demographic: young men in technology fields. The company has seen a lot of sales and support from these guys, who tend to love action, and sci fi, and humor. There’s a lot of overlap interest-wise between my male and female customers, especially when it comes to strong female characters and emphasis on strong character development and relationships. However, when I was envisioning a traditional Romance title, complete with buff naked people cuddling on the cover and formulaic plots featuring soft-core sex scenes, I just didn’t really see my typical male customers getting on board. Also, to be honest, I just didn’t think that releasing that kind of title accurately reflected me, or my mission for Pop Seagull.

Still, based on the amount of demand I was hearing from readers, if I wanted to take Pop Seagull to the next level with a really great anthology, I knew Romance might be the way to go. But, if I wanted a book to appeal to our reader base, it couldn’t be a typical Romance book. After some thought, I decided to open up the idea of romance a bit. I asked for stories based on the theme of love, with no prescription for the ending (it didn’t have to be happy) or the type of romance (it didn’t have to be consummated, or at least not ‘on screen’). As befits our company philosophy, the characters could also be of any sexual orientation. With these guidelines solidified, I stepped out on a limb, and opened up submissions.

Dragon Lover

With all of my anthologies thus far, I have left some wiggle room in the secondary themes and general feel of the work, to leave space for the ideas coming in. As I read through the first round of submissions and picked out those that I enjoyed, I noticed that many of them were high-emotion pieces where love was a powerful force involved in shaping the characters’ lives. Often, in the stories I chose, love ended up pitting itself against other titanic forces. Once I had assembled the first three or four stories, I had a secondary theme, and a title: Love, Time, Space, Magic.

More submissions poured in, and despite my initial reservations about Romance, I couldn’t have been more pleased with the volume, quality and variety of the work sent to me. So many of the stories brought a tear to my eye. So many more impressed me by being truly romantic and sentimental while still upholding other themes in a very small amount of space. In the end, after having reservations about the quantity and quality of work I would attract, I found that I was forced to turn away work I would otherwise have bought, because we had reached the end of our budget and space. We closed three months early, and I began the most time-consuming phase of production: layout and design.

Most editors do not do their own book design, but I, like many Canadians of my generation, have far too many degrees and far too few places to use them. And so, as I entered production, I found myself grappling with the question of how to make the cover and interior design signal ‘Romance’ without telling male readers that the book was not meant for them. For better or for worse, men in our culture have been socialized to feel that if they see a Romance cover, the book will only appeal to women and dwell on themes that often don’t interest men as much. Since I’d taken great pains to buy stories that anyone can enjoy, with plenty of action, science, alternate history and great world building, it would have been a terrible waste to design a cover that warded half of my customers away right off the bat. I thought about ways to blend the heralds of romance stories with the scientific, the historical and the strange.

My first inspiration came from my day job. I work for a medical non-profit, and often see pictures of cells, anatomical drawings and other such work. I think that these images contain great beauty, and seeing them led me to the idea of using an anatomically correct heart on the cover as a way of conveying both beauty and the complication of traditional romance tropes. I also love the use of flowing script and old manuscripts, and thought that using the texture of an old parchment manuscript would also convey the fantasy and historical elements of the stories I’d chosen. Naturally, when I put these two trains of thought together, I was led to Da Vinci’s anatomical drawings. In my font, image, and texture choices, I tried to get as close to a Da Vinci manuscript as possible, while still keeping a modern flair.

The result was this:

Love, Time, Space, Magic Cover

I don’t think anyone would call this cover un-romantic, but there are still no airbrushed cuddling models or Fabio-esque guys with hair flowing in the wind. It appeals to both the emotional and the historical/scientific in its influences, and just generally catches the eye.

I first started on this anthology looking to better serve my core customer base, but through the challenges that ensued, and the wonderful work that I found to publish, I ended up with something that I really enjoyed working on. I think that Love, Time, Space, Magic is truly a Romance anthology for any gender, and diverse sexual orientations, and that makes it a thing of beauty. Through working on this book, I feel that I, and the contributing authors, have shown that Romance doesn’t have to fit a narrow conception of the genre, or a gendered concept of love, and I couldn’t be prouder to bring that message to the world.

A New Model for the Publishing Business?

Underwood

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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