It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times

There’s been a lot of talk lately about e-books and self-publishing—and how they are affecting (ahem) Traditional Publishers. Since I get most of my work from publishers, this is a subject that concerns me mightily.

Newsweek recently ran a piece called “Who Needs a Publisher?” about author Boyd Morrison, first rejected by five agents and—once he’d finally secured one—then rejected by twenty-five publishers. “With nothing left to lose,” we’re told, “Morrison uploaded The Ark and his two other unpublished novels to Amazon’s Kindle store in March 2009. Within three months, he was selling books at a rate of 4,000 a month.” The article also mentions J. A. Konrath, an author of thrillers who had come to my attention through iReader Review (a blog I follow because it’s very quick to publish news when Amazon has free books in the Kindle Store). Konrath has an analogous tale regarding his experiences with the big publishers, and now self-publishes exclusively, primarily e-books, although if you want a paper book you can get one. According to iRR, he made $22,000 in December from the Kindle Store alone.

And it’s not just unknowns: the Wall Street Journal, in an interview with Stephen King last October, reminded us that King’s novella UR was released exclusively for Kindle in February 2009. The author comments, “I didn’t do Ur for money. I did it because it was interesting. I’m fairly prolific. It took three days, and I’ve made about $80,000. You can’t get that for short fiction from Playboy or anybody else.” Holy smoke! (Writer/entrepreneur Seth Godin similarly shook up the publishing world last August when he announced he would self-publish any future books.)

It’s hard to argue * with these numbers; profit margins for self-publishers are very, very good. Konrath says he can make more on a $2.99 e-book than he can from an $18.99 hardback. But … I wonder. Not about the money—about the quality. (I’m not speaking about King, here. Say what you will about his chosen genre, he’s a fine writer and getting better all the time. He’s a master at building suspense: I read The Shining the summer it came out, and there were passages so completely frightening I had to go outside and sit in the sun on the porch steps just to continue.) But a look at reader comments for The Ark yields: “terribly flawed; unrealistic, implausible; writing was often awkward and in need of a good editor; florid, absurd, cheesy.” Konrath’s first book, Whiskey Sour, garners comments like “this book was horrible: it takes every cliché known to man and throws it into one book; dumbed down and mediocre in both plot and writing.” Yikes.

I hasten to add that even traditionally published books get bad reader reviews (Ken Follett’s World Without End, anyone?); in fairness, both books I’ve mentioned got many more positive reviews than negative. And I haven’t read them, so I can’t pass judgment (Follett is another story: I read it and it was awful). Yet in both cases, negative reviewers express astonishment and disbelief over the favorable reviews; logrolling is even suggested. So, again, I wonder … maybe these books were rejected by traditional publishers for, well, a good reason.

The Newsweek article also mentions print-on-demand, the twenty-first-century version of a vanity press:

Bob Young, CEO of print-on-demand service Lulu.com, says that the publishing and distributing of books online will not be the old book industry on a new platform. It will be a new industry, dependent not on bestsellers but on niche publications. Young compares Lulu to eBay, which many feared would kill the traditional auction business. ‘Ten years and 60 billion transactions on eBay later,’ Young says, ‘Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and the farm auctioneers are still doing fine. That’s because it was not people with Picassos who were selling on eBay. And in our case, it won’t be John Grisham selling millions of copies on Lulu.’ (Emphasis mine.)

I think that’s where we have to make the distinction—and where I hope readers will make the distinction. I still want to “read” Picassos. Don’t you?

* UPDATE: It may be hard to argue with the math, but the sales figures touted by individual authors cannot be verified. Your mileage may vary, as they say.

 

Tweet: Who needs a publisher anyway? When reviewers criticize the editorial, you might.
Tweet: I still want to “read” Picassos. Don’t you?

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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3 Comments

  1. Ed Cheshier says:

    Your article about self-publishing was enlightening and fun to read. And I chuckled to myself about your comments on the latest Ken Follett novel. I’ve got it beside my bed and can’t seem to get through it.

    • jamiechavez says:

      Oh, Ed, don’t waste another moment of your precious life on that book. Seriously. I never (and i mean NEVER) quit a book halfway, but I did quit that one. My problem with it was that the characters all have modern attitudes. That and the fact that it moves at a glacial pace. That book could (and should) have been cut by half, and it might have been OK. (As you know by now, I’m pretty opinionated about books! And I LOVED Follet’s earlier stuff, Eye of the Needle, The Key to Rebecca, On Wings of Eagles) but these historicals are just bloated and bad. If it’s any consolation, I bought it in hardback. Good money wasted. :( I can always make recommendations if you’d like a replacement!

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