I’ve lately been thinking that I should upload something on the Smashwords that all the kids are talking about. This is a site that facilitates e-publishing. You upload a file formatted in the necessary way and soon your book is for sale on Amazon, Apple’s iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, and so forth. It seems like another plank in the platform: website, check; blog, check; Facebook, check; self-published e-book, check. But wait, not so fast. As with all things in life, there are pros and cons to be debated here. Had a great talk with editor extraordinaire and general man about town Marco Palmieri about the subject after he pointed out this recent interesting post and discussion on The Practical Free Spirit, an enjoyable blog by aspiring writer Amy Sundberg. Marco said the topic had also been quite the rage at the recent LunaCon.
We all know the publishing world is going through an upheaval at the moment as e-books are leaping ahead much like internet sales of music did years ago (especially after iTunes demonstrated that people were willing to actually pay for music instead of downloading it illegally), and many things are different. One thing that remains from days gone by is the smelly curse of the vanity press. The old-school vanity press charged desperate writers to print whatever manuscripts they churned out and then deposited a big box full of books on their doorstep and moved on to the next mark author. You could probably make a survivalist bunker out of all the boxes of unsold books these writers accumulated. They had to schlep them around in their trunk and try to talk bookstores into selling them. Good luck with getting even your neighborhood store to carry your 2,500 page Tolkien knock-off or collection of earnest adolescent poetry. Best just to leave that box in the trunk for added traction in the winter.
The self-publishing industry has changed, however. Many more of these publishers offer editorial services and will get your book listed on Barnes and Noble’s website as well as Amazon. Their designers will make you a cover that doesn’t look like it was glued together from construction paper. Word processing and computer layout has made the production of a professional-looking book more accessible and at reasonable prices. And with the advent of e-publishing, even the middleman of the vanity press can be left behind. The greatest strength of the internet and e-publishing is that they are great equalizers; but the greatest weakness of the internet and e-publishing is that they are great equalizers. To paraphrase something that I can’t really remember at this time of night, when everyone is a writer, no one is a writer. Even a fabulous new talent might not get found when she is adrift in the vast sea of e-effluence that the internet distributes everywhere instantaneously every moment of every day.
Quick, what would you rather buy, a Ford or a Toyota or Fred Fredson’s Automobile? Are you more likely to buy the new urban fantasy from Simon & Schuster or Fred Fredson’s new book from Fred Fredson Publishing? There’s something to be said for brands, which bestow a sheen of legitimacy on the product. Granted, any brand has its lemons, but the consumer generally knows that there’s some quality control going on at a brand-name company. They know there’s a screening process. A car’s been tested, a book’s been edited. Who knows what the hell Fred Fredson’s been up to. I mean the guy dunks Twinkies in his coffee. Does he even know how to use spell check?
I’m certainly aware of the dangers of self-publishing, of the possibility of putting out self-indulgent floor sweepings you’re too close to to recognize for what they are. But I also know that there can be as much luck as craft involved in selling a manuscript, and just because something hasn’t sold does not inherently mean it’s unsaleable and not worth publishing. There are lots of variables involved in what gets published, and sometimes the quality of the manuscript, good or bad, isn’t the key issue. Sometimes it’s not even one of the issues at all. This is why I’ve enlisted a trusted writer friend as a beta reader, someone who will tell me what stinks and what doesn’t, what is fixable and what isn’t. And then I will have others read it too. The stories will be put through their paces. Quite likely not all of them will make it. Maybe I’ll get to the end and not have enough for a collection. We shall see.
Nevertheless, one of Marco’s points that will remain with me the most is a danger of any published book: what if it tanks? If you’re selling the thing, it’s likely someone can find out the sales numbers, and low sales of one book hangs around the neck of a writer like an albatross that’s swallowed a cinder block. And if you’ve self-published it . . . well, then you’re self-indulgent and a failure. Ouch. Uphill work for an agent, that’s for sure. But the publishing world is changing. Although many of us of a certain age still worry about that unique vanity-press smell of cheap paper, desperation, and flop sweat, I wonder how much the current reader is sensitive to the aroma? On a Kindle all books smell the same, as it were. People seem more willing to buy from Fred Fredson Publishing these days.
So where does this all leave me? Well, I’m still pursuing a number of traditional publishing projects. I’m not fooling myself into thinking that Amanda Hocking lightning is going to strike my e-book. This is just a little project on the side to put my name out there while I work on an original novel and various and sundry stories. I’m sure that between now and finished manuscript I will second guess myself several hundred times.