Welcome to my new blog, which I’m told is a must for all serious authors. Many writers use this venue to plug their books, and I’ll do some of that from time to time, but my intention is to use this space to address current issues in our rapidly changing world. My primary objective in writing fiction is to entertain, but I believe fiction is also an excellent medium for conveying ideas. A blog may be even more efficient if it can attract the attention of like-minded readers and has the advantage of being a two-way street. I’d love to hear what you think, too. Feel free to comment at length, whether you agree or disagree.
The world is indeed rapidly changing. In my first novel, THE JINX, published before the 2000 election, my characters dreamed about “revolutionary change, not evolutionary change.” The main themes addressed revolved around racism, and one of my “revolutionary” twists was the nomination of an African-American woman as a vice-presidential candidate. Today, we have an African-American president. While perhaps not as revolutionary in its message, THE JINX is still a great page-turner and delves much deeper into the way racism is perpetuated, from father to son, in much the same way my featured conspiracy led to the deaths of seven presidents. The book sold nicely and got great reviews, and it’s now available as an e-book for only $2.99 at Smashwords and (soon) at other fine online book retailers.
Despite revolution breaking out across The Middle East, the current revolution most on my mind is occurring in the publishing world. The ebook revolution is changing the way readers, writers and publishers think about buying and selling books. Borders is in bankruptcy, and I understand from sources inside the industry that publishers fear for their business model and their lives.
Readers and writers think about the publishing business in extraordinarily different ways. Readers have almost endless choices. Thousands of fiction and nonfiction books are published every year, and even the most prolific readers among us can only enjoy a few dozen of them. For the reader, narrowing those choices is the most difficult issue, and the market has evolved to make choices easier by creating gatekeepers, a network of publishing professionals and reviewers who select the best material generated by writers and guide the public towards the books that best suit individual tastes. Many of us devote our limited reading time to the latest and greatest from our favorite authors, so it’s hard for a newly published author to develop an audience. Most published authors, those who have made it past the gatekeepers, cannot earn a living from their writing.
From a new writer’s perspective, the publishing business is all about getting past the gatekeepers. There is a vast oversupply of unpublished work out there, and new authors face long odds to get published by a large, commercial house. The odds have become so great that an air of desperation pervades among the unpublished, or maybe it’s an air of oppression, the feeling of unjust exclusion that is a precursor to revolution.
The civility that once marked the industry is vanishing. Publishers rarely look at direct submissions from authors these days. An unpublished writer first has to intrigue a literary agent with a one-page “query” letter and maybe a few sample pages. Every agent I’ve spoken to or have read about says they are swamped with hundreds of these letters every week. Authors spend an incredible amount of time and energy worrying about and perfecting these query letters. Agents are so overwhelmed many have taken to simply ignoring queries that don’t interest them, which by most accounts is about 99% of them. Almost every published author has horror stories to tell about dozens of rejections before finally landing the coveted relationship; many have completed manuscripts that never cleared that bar. After spending months or years perfecting a 400-page novel, unpublished authors quickly become weary of being judged based on a two-paragraph summary, with no meaningful feedback and, most often, without even a response.
Agents are not completely to blame for this loss of civility. They are admittedly overwhelmed by material, and much of it is crap. Publishers don’t do much editing, anymore, and it’s the author’s responsibility to present a completed, well-crafted manuscript. I’ve been on the receiving end of unsolicited manuscripts, and a lot of them were poorly constructed early drafts. Many query letters telegraph the writer’s inexperience and poor storytelling craft. The deluge of this material has to be frustrating for agents, who are facing diminished demand from commercial publishers cutting their lists.
Unfortunately, the loss of civility impacts good writers and bad writers alike, and I’m guessing the bad writers, failing to recognize themselves, share in the frustration, the feeling that they are being unfairly excluded from the marketplace. Enter, the ebook revolution.
Self-publishing has always been an option for the most persistent of us, but print publishing can get expensive. My wife and I formed Redfield Publishers in 1999 to publish THE JINX (more on this in a future post, I’m sure), and produced the book (exclusive of marketing costs) for about $4 per copy with two print runs of 3,000 books each. Over the past two weeks I read up on ebooks and republished THE JINX on Smashwords for a total cost of, get this, zero. I don’t know if I’ll generate many new sales, maybe a few more when THE KING OF PAINE, goes online, but the book is back on the market for anyone interested and will remain there…forever.
Admittedly, a new author will need to invest something in a book cover design, which I already had, and may need to hire somebody to clean up the manuscript to make it ebook-ready, but the barriers to entry into the publishing market have been virtually eliminated. The gatekeepers have lost control of the gates. Thousands of unpublished authors are flooding the market with their shiny, new ebooks. The ebook revolution is here!
But before we all break out in song (I’d go with the Beatles’ “Revolution” to stick with the theme, although Kumbaya is rattling around in my skull right now), let’s take a lesson from The Middle East. Revolutions are messy. Sometimes the winners and losers are unclear. Sometimes the world might be better off with the tyrant even though the formerly oppressed are a lot better off. Now that writers have a cheap outlet for their books, readers have to wade through more crap to find material they like. On the other hand, authors have always had most of the responsibility for marketing their material to readers, and that won’t change (except in the greater amount of marketing to be generated by online sources, like (ahem) new author blogs).
The publishing industry is not dead yet. They still act as gatekeepers for people with limited time, although readers must pay for that service. Even ebooks from commercial publishers still cost over ten bucks, and a reader with time to spare can find quality ebooks from newbies and midlist authors who have flown the coop for $1 to $3. Some are even offering their work for free to build an audience. Authors are banding together to create a form of branding, a system of gatekeeping by endorsement that might replace the agent/publisher model. Ebook reviewers will create another subsystem for identifying quality books.
What does the future of the ebook revolution hold? I’m not sure yet. A few well-marketed ebook authors are making a killing. Amanda Hocking has cleared a couple of million dollars hawking her YA series. Joe Konrath, a modestly successful published author in print, has become the voice of the revolution. I recommend his blog, A Newbies Guide to Publishing, for a compelling economic argument in favor of self-publishing for authors. Readers should enjoy the wealth of low cost material, but I fear that the oversupply of material may ultimately overwhelm readers. I haven’t decided whether to self-publish my second novel, THE KING OF PAINE, as an ebook yet, but I’m getting close. Very, very close.
What are your thoughts on the ebook revolution?