7/15/2011

Electronic self-publishing

I've occasionally commented in the past on the growth of ebook readers, but said little regarding the 'indie' ebook market, often characterised as a flood of crap with a few gems dotted in it. This is, of course, an oversimplification, as is its counter argument, that sites like Amazon and Smashwords by placing publishing power into the hands of authors are signalling the death of traditional publishing. But there are elements of truth in both, and it's far too early in the midst of continuing developments for me to want to make any serious attempt at predicting where things are going.

I've self published in the past. More than twenty years ago, when a wave of cheap desktop publishing revolutionized fanzine and indie magazine layout and production (in the process giving me and many others a career in graphic design and layout after learning how to use Quark XPress and Photoshop), I got involved with other idiots like-minded enthusiasts putting together small-press comics and magazines with an average print-run of 200 copies that, at best, made back the cost of producing them.

In that context, self-publishing was not only accepted, but even encouraged, and provided a test bed for up and coming artists and writers including Frank Quitely, a Glasgow artist who now draws big-title comics for DC like Superman. Twenty years ago, he was providing art for Electric Soup, a Glasgow-based small-press comic. More recently, I put a friend's unpublished novel up on Amazon and other ebook retailers. A similar DIY aesthetic has long been in place in music.

Even so, I'm leery of the unfortunate belief on the part of quite a few untested authors that the new wave of e-publishing means they can now skip past the towering colossi of publishing like mice past the feet of an elephant guarding the entrance to a cave filled with treasure and immediately achieve success. The idea that they might want to improve as writers or gain some level of requisite skill seems to have passed most of them by.

The real publishing revolution, however, is for authors who already have a professional track record. Keith Brooke, himself a seasoned sf writer for some years with bestsellers and movie options under his belt, has been doing sterling work with his new infinity plus ebook imprint. There are many other examples, including 'collectives' of writers republishing old material from decades ago. Norman Spinrad and - hallelujah! - KW Jeter have been releasing backlist titles onto Amazon. These are tried and tested craftsmen and women who now have the bonus of not having to rely on certain machinations of commercial publishing to keep their older work in print essentially for ever. And for me, that's the great thing about self-publishing.


And while we're on the subject of seasoned authors releasing their own stuff, you should head over to Bill King's blog and read about his own experiments in that area. Bill - a former member of Glasgow's SF Writer's Circle - is the bestselling author of several fantasy novels for Warhammer. More recently, he started a separate series of fantasy novels he describes as 'a gunpowder military fantasy about a world ruled by racist elves' with a hint of Lovecraftian horror. The books sold in several territories - but only in translation. For various reasons, English-language publishers didn't want to take a chance on it. As a result of which, he's selling it himself as an ebook on Amazon and elsewhere.

As Bill himself says:

"My German publishers decided they wanted it. So did my Spanish publishers. So did my Czech publishers. I signed contracts for a series. At this stage my agent had not yet exhausted the English language publishing options and I thought surely somebody will come on-board when they see  that its a series and all these other people are buying it. I was wrong.
My writing career took a very weird turn for the next few years. I was a very published writer– just not in English (...) it wasn’t that Death’s Angels couldn’t find a publisher in English because it was “unworthy” of being professionally published — it was professionally published elsewhere and by people who had to pay good money to have it translated. It just did not happen to be what English-language editors were looking for at the time it was submitted to them. Since the book very possibly has a limited audience, those editors made an absolutely correct decision from a purely commercial standpoint.
Given the economics of mainstream publishing, a book like Death’s Angels might not make back the money needed just to get it printed and editors have to really, really love a book before they will take a risk like that."
So there you go: the real epublishing revolution, in action.
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