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The Myth of Publishers as Gatekeepers

I read a pair of posts over on Fantasy-Faction via Magical Words on the issue of self-publishing and its effect on the publishing industry in general.  The two authors took two very different approaches to the subject, and came from two different perspectives.

You should read the two posts if you really want to understand the full context for what I’m about to write.  But in summary, one called the explosion of new authors “the writer’s plague” and decried the damaging effect of much of self-publishing has had on publishing and English literature; the other expounded on how a self-publishing signal-boosting contest run by Mark Lawrence was “revitalizing” SFF.  The first comes across as very elitist even if it’s not meant that way, and the second is a massive exaggeration.  SFF is being revitalized by a large number of factors, of which one is certainly gems in the rough discovered from self-publishing.

But how does that relate to my post title?  Well, as often happens in self-publishing discussion, accusations of dreck-peddling by self-publishers and of elitist snobbery from fans of trade publishing came up several times in the comments to the two posts.  The existence of snobbery towards self-publishing and the justification for it are a mixed bag of truths that people rarely stop to examine.  But they should be examined.

Is and Why Is So Much Self-published Writing Crap?

Yes, a great deal of self-published SFF (and literature in general) is dreck.  So is s portion of trade published SFF.  There are several reasons for this:

  1. Publishers have an investment in their lists and therefore want to do as much as possible to be sure they pan out.  And so they engage in editing and proof-reading.  These costs come out of author profit for obvious reasons.  Many self-publishers do not to to the same lengths as trade-publishers to ensure the quality of the work.  This is for many reasons.  They are more likely to have a biased view of the quality of their work as studies have shown it is much harder to be objective about your own material and also because they may not have written enough or studied writing enough to know how badly they’ve misjudged their work.  Trade-published authors can suffer from the same issue, but that’s what editors and proof-readers are for.  Further, good editing costs money.  That’s why authors fork over s much of the profit to publishers and agents.  Which leads to the second issue.
  2. There’s nothing stopping you from publishing your trunk novels and high school angst poetry.  Self-publishing costs as much as you want to invest.  Stock covers and raw drafts and a few hours can get your book “published”.  This tends not to result in very good books.

 

People Misunderstand the Character of Publishers as a Business

Although publishers provide publishing services such as editing and cover design, publishers are not service companies.  Lulu, Lightning Source, and CreateSpace are examples of publishing  service companies.  You can pay them money for services.  There are many free-lance service providers.  But what they will not do is “buy your book”.  Which is itself a mis-characterization of what publishers do.  Publishers do usually buy the various copyrights associated with your intellectual property.  They don’t buy the intellectual property, though, only the license to produce a product from it.

But what publishers really are is venture capitalists.  Turning a manuscript into a quality book product is expensive.  Printing that book is expensive.  Just like a tech start-up tries to attract venture capital to start a business when they don’t have the money themselves, an author is something like a book start-up.  But they rarely have the money to take the risk on making, marketing, and selling their product themselves.  So the publisher comes in and looks at the product and if they think they can make money by fronting the author the money to produce and sell the book, they make an offer.

Now, the skills to produce a quality book from a manuscript are almost entirely unrelated to the skills required to produce a manuscript.  So not only does the publisher front the money, they provide the services in-house.  Their large reserves of capital allow them to take the risk of providing these services with no guaranteed ROI.  If the publisher publishers your book and it tanks, you don’t owe them the cost of production, nor do you owe them the advance on royalties for selling them the various license rights to the finished product.

It is the combination of these two aspects of a publisher that seem to cause people confusion.

Publishers Are Not Gatekeepers

Many people when self-publishing was just getting started were doing it because they couldn’t get accepted by a trade publisher.  Their product was not believed to be marketable enough for the publisher to risk an investment.  Publishers don’t give a shit about the quality of your manuscript.  They care about the commercial viability.

This is why you see so many books published by trade publishers that are total shit writing-wise, or you think are total shit.  Snookie’s memoir is going to sell a ton of copies and make a bundle regardless of the quality of her ghost-writer.  When you are a debut author of fantasy or SF or whatever, the publisher has no way to judge the risk involved in publishing your manuscript, except for their experience in publishing other manuscripts from debut authors.  And many books fail, or at least don’t succeed massively.  The publisher has to have a way to recoup these losses.  That’s why you get such harsh terms in your contract.  The few major sellers and many minor sellers have to not only pay for the non-sellers, they also have to pay the bills and then produce a profit.

No one is stopping your from publishing your book.  A publisher is not preventing you from being on bookstore shelves.  The bookstore is the gatekeeper, although honestly, would you go in and yell at Shark Tank or Walmart for not investing in or stocking your amateur product?  No, you wouldn’t.  Because that’s silly.  Publishers are investors with services-added, and they have no obligation to invest in your product/company/brand.

Agents Are Not Gatekeepers

Similarly, an agent is a company offering services.  Services on commission.  They are not a gatekeeper trying to screw over brilliant but misunderstood works of art.  If they think your manuscript will make them money, they take it.  On spec.  No charges.  For which you agree to pay them a percentage on future profits.  If no publisher takes on the book, you don’t owe any money.  In fact, the agent is out time and money on your book that they could have spent elsewhere.

Publishers Accepting Only Agented Manuscripts is not Gatekeeping

If you need an agent to get your work considered by a publisher, it’s not “gatekeeping”.  Well, it is, technically.  But gatekeeping is not a crime.  It takes me four or five hours to read a standard-length fantasy novel.  If a publisher would receive a reasonably-expected 10,000 manuscripts a year, that’s 40,000 hours.  If they pay minimum wage to their first readers–which would be stupid, because knowing whether a book is potentially commercial is a high-skill job–that’s $320,000 a year just on the first screening of a manuscript.  Let’s say 10% of those manuscripts are worth a second look by a more experienced reader, or even just a second read by another first reader.  $32,000 a year.  That’s equivalent to an entire employee position.  Why in the world would you expect someone to provide you that service for free?  Some entire businesses have net profits less than $352,000.

Publishers want agented manuscripts because then that process is already completed, and without them paying for it.  Shit, the agent doesn’t even get paid for it.  Do you as an author really want to be shelling out a minimum of $32 a manuscript submission?  If you submit to 10 publishers, that’s $320 out of pocket for a manuscript that is unlikely to be picked up.

Now imagine that, but you’re paying for all the costs associated with production of the final text and the printing.  You’d rather be paying for that?  Please.

 

The Pros and Cons of Trade Publication

 A trade publishing deal takes care of all the technical aspects of publication and getting space on bookstore shelves.  Publishers are respected brands.  You can expect to sell many copies on name recognition of the publisher alone.  I know that a book published by Orbit or Tor with an interesting cover blurb has a strong chance of being worth my time and money.  And you get thousands of dollars up front, which you will keep even if the books sells not a single copy.

But you do have to get accepted by a publisher, probably pay an agent, sign over your copyrights, and for a general average of 10% of the cover price in royalties, and you have to pay back your advance with sales before you get more money.

 

The Pros and Cons of Self-publication

You retain full creative control, keep all the copyrights, and get a far larger share of the profits.

In exchange, you front all the money for production and have to source and compensate your own talent.  If you are wasting your money on a bad book, tough luck.  And you might honestly not realize the low quality or commercial value of your manuscript.

 

Snobbery

So, you often hear complaints about snobbery from trade-published authors or trade publishers and readers towards self-published works.  There’s no inherent reason for this, of course.  Great books have been self-published and horrible books have been trade-published.

But!

There is practical reason for this snobbery, condescension, etc.  Readers get burned by self-published works all the time.  There are tons and tons of horribly written, edited, and produced self-published works.  The majority of them suffer from fatal flaws.  And there are hundreds of thousands of them.  Why in the world would a reader want to run those odds when the odds are much better (though far from perfect!) when going with a trade-published work?  That’s a silly expectation.

But!

There are many reasons an author might choose to self-publish besides they couldn’t hack it in the trade publishing world.  That creative control can be very handy.  There are many horror stories of publishers fucking over authors in contracts or with rights reversion.  There are horror stories of shitty or racist/sexist/etc covers an author has limited say in.  There are terrible stories about marketing from trade publishers for midlist books.  If you happen to have the necessary skill-set for publishing and marketing a book, it may be a much better choice to self-publish.  Hugh Howey got a trade publishing deal for print, but he kept e-book rights because is was financially sensible for him to do so given his success in that format.  He should be applauded for that decision rather than looked down on.

Maybe the writer knew they could make more money by ignoring the desires of the publisher.  If you can sell more shitty pulp novels at a higher royalty than you could a better quality novel through a publisher, who’s to say you shouldn’t, if profit is your goal?  (As long as you aren’t deceiving readers, in my opinion.)

Signal to Noise and Target Audience

The elitism in trade publishing is both misplaced and understandable.  The signal-to-noise ratio, or ratio of good books to bad, is drastically higher in self-publishing.  But it’s important to remember that even if an author is self-publishing because they couldn’t get a trade deal, it doesn’t automatically mean their books is terrible.  They may have a brilliant work that targets a niche market.  The publisher may have liked the book but felt they lacked the expertise to sell to its specific audience.  Perhaps it could have made profit but not enough.  Perhaps there was a glut in the market.  Maybe it was a little ahead of its time.  Maybe it didn’t fit the publisher’s brand.  Maybe it didn’t match any editor’s taste.

The sheer number of books being published today does make it a lot harder for even a brilliant story to stand out from the crowd.  Even though even more of the crowd of published books these days aren’t good.  It’s perfectly legitimate to complain about that.  Or to not read self-published authors because as a reader you’ve found it’s not worth your time.  There are more quality trade-published SFF books in the world than I could afford in terms or either time or money.  The review blog I participate in doesn’t review self-published books because we haven’t found it to provide us the same value as readers or reviewers.  There’s nothing snobby about that.  No one owes your book their time or money.  You may have a quality book that doesn’t succeed the way you want it to, and it doesn’t have to be malicious.

 

Conclusion

I am 100% against condemning other’s publishing decisions.  But I think it’s reasonable to discuss them.  If I think a writer might have done better to trade publish than self-publish, I’ll say so.  You shouldn’t call people stupid, or cast insults because they chose a different route than you.  You shouldn’t do that even if their book sucks, unless they are misrepresenting that for personal gain.  You’re perfectly welcome to say a book sucks, though.

The tone of the first article I linked to is distressing.  It’s metaphor is insulting.  It makes a few valid points, but there’s no reason why they had to be a jerk about them.  And it makes a few invalid points, as well.  Rather than just criticizing other’s “bad” decisions, we should first seek to understand them and the context in which they occur.  And then, with that understanding, we might consider critiquing them.  Maybe.

 

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I’m a Lazy Shit

Some of you may have gathered that I’m a lazy shit.  From the number of post series even with their own index page that never finished or even came to fruition.  I do in fact intend to get all of those up eventually, but I’m a lazy shit.  And some of them require serious research and planning and maybe even citation of sources, all of which I hate but the last of which I really hate.  Just ask my former Academic Advisor.  I’m more an off the cuff sort of person.  If you imagined this presents some major challenges to the goal of me ever having a story/book published, congrats.  You’re pretty sharp.

Anyway, for that reason, I will be trying to post on here more frequently, but in smaller bites to work my way up to having a stronger habit of consistency, which I hope will be beneficial to my fiction and also to those more ambitious series of posts sitting around the Chimney unfinished.

First up–today in fact!:

A world-building post on the challenges and answering techniques for creating a new and unique world not based on a set of previously existing Earth cultures.  Many of which are probably exocitized and stereotyped in your conception, particularly if you are a (white) Western European, or really any identity that isn’t a part of those cultures in general.  Fantasy versions of real-world cultures are fraught with risk, not just from cultural appropriation or downright racism, but from genre stereotypes, from lazy writing and characterization, from plain old old-hatted-ness.  But more on that in the post later today!

 
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Posted by on May 16, 2017 in atsiko, Blogging, Books, Uncategorized

 

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Should Authors Respond to Reviews of Their Books

Quite randomly, I stumbled onto a web of posts and tweets detailing an incident of an author commenting on a review of one of their books, being taken to task for it, and then spending what I see as way too much time further entangling themselves in the resulting kerfluffle.  I won’t name this author, because I’m not posting clickbait.  I read both sides of the argument, and while I sided mostly with the reviewer whose space was invaded, I do think some of the nuance on both sides that was over-shadowed by this author’s bad behavior offers valuable insight into both review and more general netiquette.

First, I want to establish some premises:

  1. Posting to the internet is a public act.  That’s true if your post is public rather than on a private blog or Twitter account, say.  But it ignores the complexities of human social interaction.  If I’m having a chat with my friends at IHOP (Insert your franchise pseudo-diner of choice), we’re in public.  So it’s a public act.  But not quite!  If some random patron three tables down were to start commenting on our nastily engaging discussion of who should fuck who in the latest, greatest reverse harem anime, we would probably consider that quite rude.  In fact, we have lots of terms for that sort of thing: butting in, nosy, etc.  I think a valid analogy could be made for the internet.  Sure my Tweet stream is public, but as a nobody with no claim to fame or blue checkmark, it’d be quite a shock for the POTUS to retweet some comment of mine about the economy or the failings of the folks in Washington.  The line can be a bit blurrier if I run a popular but niche politics blog, or if I have a regional news show on the local Fox affiliate.  But just because you can read what I wrote doesn’t mean I expect, much less desire, a response from you.
  2. My blog/website is my (semi-)private space.  Yours is yours.  I own the platform, I decide the rules.  You can write whatever you want on your blog.  Your right to write whatever you want on mine is much less clear-cut.
  3. You have institutional authority over your own work.  While most authors may not feel like they have much power in the publishing world, as the “creator”, they have enormous implied power in the world of fandom and discussion of their own specific work, or maybe even someone else’s, if they’re well-known friends of Author X, say.  If I criticize the War in Vietnam or Iraq, and a four-star general comes knocking on my door the next day, you better fucking believe I’m gonna be uncomfortable.  An author may not have a battalion of tanks at their disposal, but they sure as hell have presence, possibly very intimidating presence if they are well-known in the industry or for throwing their weight around in fandom.

Given these basic premises which I hope I have elaborated on specifically enough, I have some conclusions about what I would consider good standard netiquette.  I won’t say “proper” because I have no authority in this area, nor does anyone, really, to back up such a wording.  But a “reasonable standard of” at least I can make logical arguments for.

  1. Say what you want on your own platform.  And you can even respond to what other people have said, especially if you are not an asshole and don’t name names of people who are not egregious offenders of social norms or who haven’t made ad hominem attacks.
  2. Respect people’s bubbles.  We have a concept of how close to stand to someone we’re in a discussion with in real life, for example, that can be a good metaphor for on what platforms we choose to respond.  Especially as regards critique, since responding to negative comments about oneself is something we know from past experience can be fraught with dangerous possibilities.  I would posit that a person’s private blog is reasonably considered part of their personal space.  A column on a widely-read news site might be considered more public,but then  you have to weigh the consideration of news of your bad behavior being far more public and spreading much faster.You should not enter it without a reasonable expectation of a good reception.  If there is a power imbalance between you and the individual whose space you wish to enter, we have rules for that.  real-world analogies.  For example, before you enter someone’s house you knock or ring the doorbell.  A nice email to the specified public contact email address asking if they would mind if you weighed in is a fairly innocuous way to open communications, and can save face on both sides by avoiding exposing one or the other to the possible embarrassment of being refused or the stress of refusing a local celebrity with no clear bad intentions.
  3. Assume permission is required unless otherwise explicitly  stated.  This one gets its own bullet point, because I think it’s the easiest way to avoid the most trouble.  A public pool you might enter without announcing your presence.  Would you walk into a stranger’s house without knocking? One would hope not.
  4. Question your reasons for engaging.  Nobody likes to be  called sexist.  Or racist.  Or shitty at doing their research.  Or bad at writing.  But reactionary  defenses against what could be construed as such an assertion do not in my mind justify an author wading into a fan discussion.  Or a reader discussion, if one considers “fan” as having too much baggage.  An incorrect narrative fact is likely  to be swiftly corrected by other readers or fans.  Libel or slander is probably best dealt with legally.  A reviewer is not your editor.  You should probably not be quizzing them for advice on how to improve your writing, or story-telling, or world-building.  Thanking a reviewer for a nice review might be best undertaken as a link on your own blog.  They’ll see the pingback, and can choose to engage or not.  At best, one might pop in to provide a link to their own blog where they provide answers  to questions raised in the post in question or a general discussion of the book they may wish to share with those who read the review.  But again, such a link would probably be best following a question on whether any engagement by the author might be appreciated.

Overall, I think I’ve suggested a good protocol for an author tojoin in fan or reader discussions without causing consternation or full on flame wars, and at a cost barely more than a couple minutes to shoot an email.

 
 

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Hiatus: Again

So, as I hate my life and happiness and am currently in the process of working on a video game project, including the coding and a narrative arc that could probably be comfortably condensed into 47 fantasy trilogies, schedule posting on the Chimney will be on indefinite hiatus.  That does not mean I won’t be posting.  I probably will.  But it will be sporadic and all post series are on hiatus.

I’m having a hell of a fun time, so though I am a bit sad that I won’t be ramping back up my posting schedule, I’m not too sad.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2016 in atsiko, Blogging

 

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Getting Your Priorities Straight

I’ve had a great time working on this blog.  It’s been loads of fun, I’ve learned a lot about myself, and I’ve met some great people.  I really appreciate everyone who’s read and commented here.

That may sound like a goodbye speech, but what it really means is that I’ll be posting less on here than I used to.  Probably once or twice a month at the most.

This is for several reasons:

  1. I made a commitment to my friends review blog, where I’ll be reviewing various speculative fictions books in many genres.  I’ve posted several reviews there already, and I encourage you to go check them out.  If you like Young Adult books, my two co-reviewers each review about the same number of those a month as I do spec fic books, so definitely check that out.  Most recently, I reviewed Scott Westerfeld’s Afterworlds with my co-reviewer Marisa Greene.  In about a week, you’ll be able to read my reviews of Richard K. Morgan’s The Dark Defiles, the third and final novel in his Steel Remains series.  Here’s the blog: http://notesfromthedarknet.wordpress.com/
  2. I’ve decided to spend more time actually writing books.  High/Epic fantasy has been becoming more popular in the YA field, and many of my projects fit that category, including my current WIP.  After that, you might get to see some reali, live chimney-punk! 😉
  3. I’ve found less and less to write about on here as time goes by.  Part of this is that I’ve said a lot of what I have to say on some subjects, such as world-building.  And part of it is that more general topics, such as genre and writing mechanics have already hit their third cycles on some of the blogs that started out around the same time I did.  Many of those blogs have even stopped posting at all.  I’ve been less active commenting on other blogs for that reason, which means a large decrease in traffic here, as well.

The Chimney is still my home on the web, and will be for the foreseeable future.  I’m not closing it down, and I hope I never do.  This change has already been occurring over the past year or so, it’s just not been official until now.  Once my schedule settles down, and I get into the groove of writing prose, I’ll probably be back to posting here more regularly, especially since writing actual manuscripts really gets my creative and research juices flowing.

 
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Posted by on September 22, 2014 in atsiko, Blogging

 

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Now with Book Reviews! Sort of…

A friend of mine, Nick Morgan, has started a book review blog.  It’s mostly just for fun.  But he’s invited me to do the speculative fiction reviews, and I’m really looking forward to it.  I’ve always wanted to give book reviewing a try.  Also guest-blogging will be a mutual friend of ours Marisa Greene.

I may or may not be cross-posting the reviews to the Chimney.  I haven’t decided yet whether that would dilute the focus of this blog to much.  If I don’t cross-post, I probably will link to them on Twitter and at the bottom of whatever post I happen to be writing for the Chimney that week.

 

Keep an eye on Notes from The Dark Net for those reviews.

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2014 in atsiko, Blogging, Books, Reviews

 

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Reader Interpretation and Authorial Intent 2: The Difference Between Good Books and Books You Like

It’s becoming less of a strange concept these days: Just because you like a book, it doesn’t mean it’s good; just because you hate a book, it doesn’t mean it’s bad.  People often talk about this concept under the guise of “guilty pleasures”.

That’s the reader interpretation side of the issue.  On the authorial intent side, we have goals vs. execution.  An author might have sophisticated thematic goals, deep understanding of their characters, or brilliant and edge-of-your-seat plotting ability.  But that doesn’t mean they can put all of it on the page so the reader can see it.  I’ve heard many writers discuss the goals of their book, their plans for the characters, etc.  And quite often I’m dying to read that book.  But when I finally get my hands on a draft, or even a published book, it’s awful, or I hate where they went with it, or both.  Casual readers might be more familiar with this issue from reading back cover blurbs.  They’re written to sell the book, often by someone who is not the author, and they make it sound like the most fascinating book in the world.  But then you read it and it’s trite, or boring, or predictable.

In order to visualize this, think of a three-dimensional graph using Cartesian coordinates: x, y, z.  x is the goals of the author.  Are they unique?  Interesting?  Well-constructed?  Then they get a high x-value.  Look at the execution.  Is it elegant?  Is it good?  Does it get across what the author wanted to get across?  High y-value.  Finally, and this is arguable, but the most important issue to some people: Did you like the book?  Were the characters interesting?  Did the plot twist blow your mind?  Did everyone get what they deserved–or not?  High z-value.

To give you a better idea of how this graph works, high scores on all three axes mean the point on the graph representing a given book is in the back right corner.  The further away on the y-axis, which should pierce your belly-button, the better the craft behind the book.  The farther to the right on the x-axis, the loftier the goals of the story.  Finally, the higher up on the z-axis, which should be running parallel to your spine, the more you enjoyed the story.

As an example of a book to be plotted, let’s take The Scarlet Letter.  This was a brilliantly crafted book, with lofty thematic goals.  And I sort of liked it.  So it would sit somewhere to the bottom of my sternum, well past my right middle finger-tip, about five feet in front of me.

Nova Ren Suma’s Imaginary Girls, which was a fantastic example of magical realism, had lovely prose and interesting characters, and which I thoroughly enjoyed, would be fairly close to the upper right, back corner of my book box.

And then there are the tons of mediocre books that I might not read again, but don’t regret reading the first time.  And then we have Haruki Murakami, who is no doubt a great author, but whose penile adventures I have exactly zero interest in.  If we stuck the z-axis right down through the top of my head, he’d be about at knee-level and to the northeast of me.

 

I think “guilty pleasure” does a decent job of describing the phenomenon of knowing something is not particularly good and still liking it.  Kind of like McDonald’s.  I love McDonald’s even though I know it’s horribly unhealthy, and try not to think about the process of making it while I’m eating–or ever.

More bro-type folks then I might find Natty Light to be a better metaphor.  It’s an atrocious beer, tastes like watered-down camel-piss, but at least it gets you drunk.

And now I’m going to go feel ashamed of myself for suggesting that anyone compare natty light to literature.  Even Twilight-level literature.

ETA: If I were a good writer, I probably would have opened with that Twi-light/Natty-light line…

(This is not hating on Twilight.  I don’t like it, and it’s horribly written.  But plenty of people I know have said it’s their guilty pleasure.  Other readers may feel differently.)

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2014 in atsiko, Blogging, Books, Reviews

 

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