Advent of the Electronic Writer

By: Karla Fetrow

Self Publishing: Vanity or Common Sense

There was a time, back when publishing houses had  good reputations, and reading books was a general pastime, that self-publishing was unthinkable to an earnest writer determined to create a niche in whatever genre he or she had chosen.  Whether it was fine literature or a Harlequin romance, the main point was that it had been accepted by a House, thereby earning the writer the title of “author”.  A self published book meant going through a press that may or may not be credible, that often resorted to generic covers and cheap bindings; sometimes with nothing more than a stapled middle.  The self-published writer was expected to shell out the funds for a minimum quantity and it was up to the writer to discover the ways and means of acquiring a return on his investment; making the rounds of book stores, clubs and conventions, often surrendering in self-defeat after a few months, with a packing crate full of books moldering in the attic.

Along came the Internet.  It not only changed the avenues for self-publishing, it changed the attitudes about publishing in general.  Ironically, it was the publishing companies themselves that generated this new awareness in the trials, errors and difficulties of breaking in to a publishing house.  The Writer’s Market, once the handbook of every aspiring author, began suggesting that before looking for a publisher, a writer should gain an online reputation.  It advised joining writing groups that would help build the strength of the written hand and guide the writer into the best places to be published.

The Tightening Circle

The previously naive writer was about to make a shocking discovery.  Published writers did not really want to share their trade secrets and unpublished writers; even ones so good it made you wonder why in the world they’ve been ignored, produced horror story after horror story.  Rejection slips filled their mail boxes or e-mail boxes.  They went through the rounds of agents, sub-agents and editors, paying more for their agent services than a profit margin would allow in royalties if they did get published.

Nor were these agents, editors or even online publishers very scrupulous, either.  Oftentimes, the ideas were stolen while the author was told to re-write.  Sometimes the online sites stole the writer’s work outright, promising a published story, then disappearing from the Internet once they had a collection of material.  Catering to a new vanity mode, many publishers began offering no payment at all for short stories, only a copy of the book it was published in.

Writers were truly faced with a dilemma.  The publishing houses only wanted established writers.  They only wanted writers that would promote their own work, or that had sponsors waiting to eat up sixty percent of their royalties.  The one avenue that offered hope was free offers for blog writing, but even that came with its pitfalls.  The blogs were not copyright protected.  In fact, the content often actually belonged to the company that sponsored them, which meant, once again, the intellectual property of the author could be stolen.

The vanity press began to look pretty good, especially since books no longer had to be distributed by hand, but could go through online book selling services, like Amazon and Alibris.  Not only that, the self published writer no longer had to publish in bulk, but use Publish on Demand services, selling five books or five hundred as needed.  Self-promotion was still involved, but agents, sub-agents, editors and sponsors were trimmed from the expense account.

Paper publishing in general, however, was beginning to lose its appeal.  The huge paper publishing houses were beginning to shudder, some of them going under.  A new form of reading was lurking on the horizon.  Electronic books; or e-books, were capturing the market.

Expiration Date for Publishing Houses

E-books, are electronic books, have actually been around for quite awhile.  They were used in the 1940’s as a digitalized indexing file, although not as a published edition of text.  By the 1980″s, they were being used by laboratories, Universities and libraries as a means of retaining and accessing scholarly material.  It wasn’t until the widespread use of the Internet however, that e-books came into their own as a means of distributing leisure reading to the public.

What had once been a means of storing and distributing technical material and scholarly information, is now the ability to read entire books, both fiction and non-fiction in electronic form.  Much of e-book popularity is due to the ease and convenience with which it can be accessed from not only computers, but cell phones.  This mobility allows a person to electronically read while strolling, traveling, or waiting in sitting rooms without having to carry bulky books.

Libraries buy ten percent of the books published by commercial publishers, and forty percent of the children’s books.  With millions of dollars invested in the publishing companies, libraries generally receive a discount for book purchases, creating a lucrative business for publishers and a satisfying relationship for libraries.

In recent more and more people have been requesting e-books from libraries, generating an interest in keeping a larger selection in supply.  However, just as the characteristics of major publishers have changed in regard to publishing unknown or unsolicited writers, their policies have changed in regard to what they will charge libraries for e-books.  Of the six major houses, four of them will not seel e-books to libraries at all.  The two that do, have upped their ante.

Harper Collins now requires libraries  to “buy” the book again after 26 checkouts – making it more like  a license to read than a purchase, and  Random House recently raised the price of a new ebook by 300%. So a fiction title might cost $80; and a non-fiction title, $120.

Douglas County libraries have decided this is neither practical or sustainable.  While they will continue to buy paper print titles by the Big Six, they will not be purchasing e-books for $120.  Their attitude is that in a free market, companies are free to set their own prices.  But if the terms are not acceptable, the libraries are free to look for a better deal.

They  have  identified some 12 groups of publishers, comprising over 800 individual companies. They have purchased from them over 7,000 ebook titles, which are available from their catalog. They buy their  titles at discount, and actually own them. This model of distribution, created by Douglas County Libraries, is now being picked up by hundreds of libraries across the nation. And they are signing up new publishers every day.

It’s a brave new world for writers.  Through elitism policies, the major publishers have discouraged the progression of fresh new talent into the writing field.  Many prospective authors  feel if they must promote themselves anyway, they might as well cut the middle man and do their own publishing.  The ones who do get published have either given away their work, or receive returns so low as to drop below minimum wage for their years of research, labor and love.  E-books are an open market, as easy to access as self-published paper print.  They can be sponsored at literary sites and e-zines, benefitting both the writer and the sponsor.  This is the healthy way to do business.

Here at Subversify, our mission is the promotion of literary talent.  We encourage writers with our freedom of press and free speech policy, and copyright protect their work.  Our future includes e-book listings.  If you are an author interested in promoting an electronic book, consider using the services of Subversify for sponsoring it.  If you are a reader, keep an eye on Subversify, as we herald in the future; electronic reading at its best.

About karlsie

Some great perversity of nature decided to give me a tune completely out of keeping with the general symphony; possibly from the moment of conception. I learned to read and speak almost simultaneously. The blurred and muffled world I heard through my first five years of random nerve loss deafness suddenly came alive with the clarity of how those words sounded on paper. I had been liberated for communications. I decided there was nothing more wonderful than writing. It was easier to write than carefully modulate my speech for correct pronunciation, and it was easier to read than patiently follow the movements of people’s lips to learn what they were saying. It was during that dawning time period, while I slowly made the connection that there weren’t that many other people who heard the way I did, halfway between sound and music, half in deafness, that I began to understand that the tune I was following wasn’t quite the same as that of my classmates. I was just a little different. General education taught me not only was I just a little isolated from my classmates, my home was just a little isolated from the outside world. I was born in Alaska, making me part of one of the smallest, quietest minorities on earth. I decided I could live with this. What I couldn’t live with was discovering a few years later, in the opening up of the pipeline, which coincided with my first year of junior college, that there were entire communities of people; more than I could possibly imagine; living impossibly one on top of another in vast cities. It wasn’t even the magnitude of this vision that inspired me so much as the visitors who came from these populous regions and seemed to possess a knowledge so great and secretive I could never learn it in any book. I became at once, very conscious of how rural I was and how little I knew beyond the scope of my environment. I decided it was time to travel. The rest is history; or at least, the content of my stories. I traveled... often to college campuses, dropping in and out of school until one fine day by chance I’d fashioned a bachelor of arts degree in psychology. I’ve worked a couple of newspapers, had a few poems and stories tossed around in various small presses, never receiving a great deal of money, which I’m assured is the norm for a writer. I spent ten years in Mexico, watching the peso crash. There is some obscure reason why I did this, tightening up my belt and facing hunger, but I believe at the time I said it was for love. Here I am, back home, in my beloved Alaska. I’ve learned somewhat of a worldly viewpoint; at least I like to flatter myself that way. I’ve also learned my rural roots aren’t so bad after all. I work in a small, country store. Every day I greet the same group of local customers, but make no mistake. My store isn’t a scene out of Andy Griffith. The people who enter the establishment, which also includes showers, laundry and movie rentals, are miners, oil workers, truck drivers, construction engineers, dog sled racers and carpenters. Sometimes, on the liquor side, the conversations became adult only in vocabulary. It’s a good thing, on the opposite side of the store is a candy aisle filled with the most astonishing collection, it will keep a kid occupied with just wishing for hours. If you tell your kids they can have just one, you have an instant baby sitter; better than television; as they agonize over their choice while you catch up on the gossip with your neighbor. We also receive a lot of tourists, a lot of foreign visitors. They are usually amazed at this first sign of Alaskan rural life style beyond the insulating hub of the Anchorage bowl. Many of them like to hang around and chat. They gawk at our thieves wanted posters. They laugh at our jokes and camaraderie with our customers. I’ve learned another lesson while working there. You don’t have to go out and find the world. If you wait long enough, it comes to you.

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10 Comments on “Advent of the Electronic Writer”

  1. What intrigues me is the fact that traditional publishing has turned into a promotional event for celebrity-ghost-written memoirs and MFA debut books. Or maybe even, the writing of those married to financially well-connected types with recognized names like Musk or Kennedy. Even University professors have been downsized when it comes to writing and are pretty much considered shit for publishing outside of university presses, where they promote one another.

    Traditional publishing no longer concerns itself with promoting strong fiction or great literature. They claim this is because of lack of sales. And thereby goes the death of great fiction and literature until the eBook market assimilates it, hopefully.

    So…as great literature takes a back seat to the mediocrity of celebrity memoirs revolving around people who have been on a reality t.v. show or two, do great math concepts fall by the wayside as well? Will they be replaced by counting on fingers? How about exchanging sound scientific principles for astrology, numerology and palm reading? Do you suppose we replace music with street sounds? And philosophy with religious ranting?

    I admire Subversify for taking up the slack. But, to be honest, my experience with publishing (even with a publisher with a profitable reputation) was not that remarkable.

    I suppose if I become a serial killer, they may consider my work; but I’m not seeing any other way towards a successful sales model when it comes to publishing. I gave up on that and have settled for writing for the joy of it and producing fiction, just because…

  2. @ Jen,

    ” I gave up on that and have settled for writing for the joy of it and producing fiction, just because…”

    Agreed – I don’t write for profit because, quite frankly, there really isn’t all that much profit to be made unless you’re already rich and famous or have insider connections. Instead I write for my own sake and, thanks to the editing staff here at Subversify, I at least get to see some feedback on my work.

  3. I coach authors how to get on TV and work with self-published authors as well as authors from traditional publishers. From a promotional standpoint, you are better off self-publishing as the traditional publishing houses don’t do much more than slam out a generic press release these days. Also as far as TV producers go, they do not care who published the book, they want experts, not authors. And as for profit, self-published authors make way more money than those from traditional publishers if they promote their book properly. OK, thanks, Edward Smith.

  4. Jennifer, there are a number of things i find ironic concerning viewers and readers. There is a great deal of criticism about the movies being pumped out, yet instead of taking note, film makers continue to keep pumping out generic plot lines, hoping viewers will be overwhelmed by the graphics. They seem completely oblivious to the independent film industry rapidly overtaking them. Television keeps hammering us with unreal reality shows that need no script. Both media seem to have cut the writer from the group; one by relying on second-hand scripts, the other by having no script at all.

    As far as readers are concerned; on the one hand i don’t blame them for losing interest in books. Most of what has passed as literature in recent years is down right boring; generally a sob fest from an observational point, without the convincing tone of being part of the experience. I’ve tried to read a few of the best selling authors as well. The only thing i could think was, “i can write better than that”, and “oh my god, i do write better than that”.

    But, it also tells something of the age mentality readers are embracing. Harry Potter and Twilight? Many years ago, when i was living in Berkeley, a professor friend told me (somewhat sadly) “we have just come out of a dark age and are going into a darker one”. At my tender, naive age, i didn’t understand what he was saying, but i think i do now.

    Azazel, musicians, artists, writers, all pour the blood, sweat and tears into their craft for one reason only; it is a compulsion and they are unable to imaginable doing otherwise. I don’t think it’s right however, to be exploited for this compulsion. An artist puts up his paintings. If it sales, it sales, but non-sales won’t stop him from painting. A musician looks for gigs or recording studios that will pay him to perform his music. If he can’t find one, he’ll go out with a tin cup on a street corner, but he keeps playing his music. I don’t see that a writer has anything to lose by publishing his work through POD or e-books. If it sales, it’s some money in the pocket. If it doesn’t, there’s very little chance he’ll stop writing.

    Edward Smith, thank you for your advice, which is pretty much what i’m saying. The smartest thing a writer can do is at least get copyright protection. This way, at least his work won’t be stolen, and if the work is popular enough, maybe the rest of the entertainment media will finally figure out, “oh yeah. We really do need writers that can hold a person’s attention.”

  5. @ Karlsie,

    I know that in an idea world the artist would be able to profit from his work without going through middle men – that he would get instant feedback about how people feel about his work and make his art his primary trade without any interference from without. But we don’t live in such a world today: sure, the artist will continue to ply his craft out of compulsion but his ability to do so is limited due to other concerns (particulary supporting himself through a “day job”) and the audience that he can reach without a middle man isn’t that wide.

    And that’s why I treat my writing the way that I do – while I love my works and enjoy producing them (and even reading the feedback, both positive and negative!), for obvious reasons I really can’t support myself on such works (no for-profit publisher in this social climate would want to be affiliated with it) and thus in practice it becomes a secondary activity.

    You say that your reaction to reading the “best sellers” is that you can easily out-preform them and that’s no coincidence – as the publishers aren’t looking for the most talented authors, just those that appeal to a large enough audience to make a profit (even if those authors are mediocre at best). Those of us that don’t have that “mass appeal” (to an audience that has been largely dumbbed down by the mass media age…) just can’t make it the conventional way and have to treat our art differently from the way they treat theirs (which is why I have the non-profit attitude – I don’t expect to make a red cent off what I publish: to me, the work is it’s own reward).

  6. Part of the problem is the people buying the “best sellers” are the ones who can afford them. These people for so many reasons-and I’m not here to judge- don’t have time to delve into great works of literature. They want to be quickly entertained, educated or transported and then get back to work. Or, they want to appear as if they read. I know many people with large collections they either haven’t read or dropped out of midway.

    Publishing houses know this, obviously and cater to the short attention span and also to the young people-because people still make their children read, and a child reading anything is good enough for most. Actually I can’t disagree entirely. Reading anything IS a good start, it’s what happens next though…

    Most writers, artists, musicians, performers who really feel a calling to their work know they would do their work no matter what simply because to NOT do it would be too painful to bear. We all know this is not new. Also a story, a song, a glimpse of time is nothing if it is not heard, read or seen. Of course most authors would and do give things away freely when they can.-This by the way, pays off in spades.

    What is new, I think is this desperation to be heard, seen and remembered. You speak of a “traditional publishing” which in fact is not traditional at all, it’s really only about 200 years old at the most. Before such time anyone wanting to publish had to pay the print shoppe either themselves or through patrons, up front. A lot of times you had to pay a book seller to carry your books or commit them in a consignment type of arrangement. To get your works out there, you had to hustle.

    What we are coming around to, to me is a more traditional way of communicating our stories and frankly, to me it is better, it brings the authors, painters, sculpters, musicians, poets,etc. out of their mysterious rooms and off of pedestals and makes them real. Everyone has to communicate more. It is, a good thing, if not entirely comfortable and yes, most people have to work or have a companion who does or some sort of patron. But this is good too, it creates even more inspiration.

    As for the libraries; I say bravo for not wanting to pay those ridiculous prices. My public library reports a $0.00 budget for new books of any kind. Everything in there now is donated, so paying for something that costs almost nothing to produce is highway robbery on the part of these publishing companies and shame on them. They will see the effects of that eventually.

  7. I want to correct a false assumption about artists. Writers often think that artists simply find their gallery by amazing the director with tremendous work; and then placing in a known gallery as the artist sits back and waits for their art to sell.

    In L.A. at least, it doesn’t work that way. I know this because I paint as well as write. And if you want to get your art work out there — where it will be advertised in venues like the Los Angeles Art Walk and sell — you will be most likely submitting an email with a photo your piece to a variety of galleries. They will review your work to see if it fits their current mandates, schedule you an appointment to meet with the director to pay a fee for gallery space(around $200 for a month or so) to showcase your work, and maybe offer you a private showing, a few venues and then hand your work back to you, unsold. You may get your name out there from this; but most likely, you probably will not.

    Grainne, going back in history, I have to disagree with the way modern publishing has changed. If anything, today’s publishers seem to have turned back to doing what wealthy families in the arts did years ago, in the 1400’s on. Before those print houses published work, writing was commissioned by the beneficent patrons of the arts — wealthy families, like the bourgeois Medici family. These wealthy patrons of the arts sponsored the life of the writer, artist and musician. They commissioned work like that of Michelangelo and even paid for assistants to support the artist, writer, musician.

    Actually, if you compare today’s environment of the wealthy elite influencing the sale of the arts, it is very similar to that. Except that the creatives aren’t living in the lush homes of the wealthy and being fed by them, like in the past. Instead, many artists, musicians and writers are living in the streets, hoping to catch the eye of the patrons of the arts. And once again, wealthy elite families are supporting our rise to fame, or not.

    The difference is that a traditional publisher may have the funds to pay a writer a healthy advance that the writer can use to promote himself/herself. With self publishing, an author may not have the funds to access those means. Marketing usually costs money and many first time authors are not dripping with excess money.

    I agree that much of what is sold by traditional publishing houses is signed on strictly for a quick read, not to impress literary tastes. Certainly, much of it appeals to the issue of the day, the trends, the current tastes of youth. It’s why vampire books sell better than literature. It’s why poor writing like that of Dan Brown becomes best-selling work. It’s why we buy books about a “zipperless fuck” when we are young by a gal named Erica Jong and why now Erica Jong’s sales aren’t as remarkable. Certainly, Justin Bieber is now a hot seller; but will he be at the age of 40? Find something trendy that works up emotion, and it will sell. Write a fantastic love story without any sex and you won’t sell one book, even if it is the best written work, ever.

  8. Really, if you want to get read, the best thing to write these days are scripts, not books. As someone here said, television producers don’t care about your MFA or your celebrity pedigree. They are looking for scripts that make them money. Books may sell well after you’ve sold the script. Most of us writers go at this backwards.

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