Is it time to stop e-publishing?

Today looked a lot like Tuesday. There are school trips to volunteer for, evening meals to be planned before Karate, the washing has to go on…Tuesday stuff.

Just because it looks professionally printed, doesn't mean it makes sense...

Just because it looks professionally printed, doesn’t mean it makes sense…

But then I got to the computer and a friend had posted a link to Chuck Wendig’s latest post. Here it is:

Apologies for the profanity – it’s his, not mine, and it’s just the way he is, bless him.

I like Chuck’s posts, and I like his books. He writes in a way that sounds like a snarl, like the words come pouring out at speed, but I’ll bet he revises and works really hard on every sentence. In fact, since my e-copy of one of his books was published with some editing notes left in, I KNOW he does that.

Anyway, I like to read his books and his blog, and I usually find myself in agreement with what he says. In the case of e-publishing, what he tends to say is “There’s no problem with it, but since there are no Publishing House Editors, or agents involved, YOU have to be the guardian of the quality of your work.” There’s literally nothing stopping you typing a stream of consciousness novel and uploading it with a crayon drawing for a book cover.

In his latest article, Chuck argues that the very freedom that e-publishing has brought has clogged the virtual bookshelves. Finding decent books amongst the dross has become harder and harder, and many people are taking price points, or even the self-publishing aspect itself, a indicators of quality. You can see the logic – “I downloaded five $0.99 books, and all of them were terrible. I won’t bother with books that are sold so cheaply.” Or “Every self-pubbed book I’ve read has been riddled with mistakes. I’ll stick with traditional publishers from now on.”

The very first e-book I bought was “Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister”, by Gregory Maguire. It was for my Hewlett Packard iPaq, and it had some beautiful illustrations, as well as the text. That was a book that had recently come out through a traditional publisher. I later bought “The Hunger Games” and “Save the Cat!”. These books looked, on my e-reader/phone, just like they did in the stores.

Then I bought a book that was self published. The author had set up a small press, but was writing their own books as well as advising and publishing others. (No gender indication or clues here.) The book wasn’t good. The cover was pretty enough, looking more professional than amateur, but the story was unlikely. Within the first two chapters I was openly scornful of what I was being asked to accept, and I had already found upwards of ten spelling or grammatical mistakes. Although I had downloaded the book on a free offer, it was going on to charge around $7 per copy, and this was only the latest in  a series of books by this author. This book had been written by someone with experience, edited and proofread, and yet it was still a very bad book.

Perhaps the problem is identifying the difference between a bad book and books we don’t like. “On the Road” is held up as a classic novel. My Father-in-Law has two copies. I read it years ago and despised it. I found the characters unlikeable, their journey pointless and the whole book depressing. Does that make it a bad book? I don’t think so. I won’t read it again, but I know that other people reading it have found it to be marvelous and inspiring and so on. No one reads it and says “I hated all the spelling mistakes, and the main character’s name changes spelling three times through the book.” As a novel, it’s done properly, despite the author writing the whole thing on one continuous roll of paper. It’s been properly edited and proofread and packaged. It’s a good book, and I just don’t like it.

Compare that with other books I’ve read, where the story might have appealed, if it weren’t for the constant errors and formatting disasters that drag me out of the story and make me grind my teeth. It’s a bad book.

All these are things I thought of while reading Chuck’s blog today, and it made me think about the eight or nine e-books I have on Amazon. I’m giving one away currently, and it’s not setting the world aflame. The last few days I’ve been wondering if there was any way to get more people to download it, to review it, to tell their friends about it. And now, I’m considering removing it, along with all the others.

I like the books I’ve written. The collections of short stories were fun to produce, and writing longer things was a novel experience (heh heh heh!) But as I mentioned before, it’s been two years since I began putting my work up on Amazon, and in that two years, though some books have sold, I’ve not earned anything from them. And in addition to not earning, I’m adding to the heap of books people have to wade through to find what IS worth reading.

I wonder if it’s time to admit to myself that writing prose is only ever going to be a hobby, and if that’s the case, is it something I need to share with the world? My plays have a publisher and moderate success – they have a purpose, in that they are sold and performed all around the world, every month. I get an income from those sales, and people out there get plays to act in. But these e-books go out into the world and I worry that they don’t sell, even though I’ve told myself there’s nothing riding on those sales, that I’m just publishing for the fun of it. Well, that doesn’t feel like a worthwhile reason any more.

All this has more weight right now because I have few commitments this week – no library shifts until Saturday, just the one school trip to volunteer for today, and the laundry already more than half-done. I have the Romance Challenge novel standing at 7,500 words, and four days of writing might see most of a first draft completed. That would leave a week of half-days to finish and revise and publish before my self-imposed deadline of Feb 14th.

And then? Do I watch the stats for another e-book, telling myself it doesn’t matter if it sells, but wishing it would? Wouldn’t my time this week and next be better spent working on sketches and pays for TLC and planning Tiniest Weasel’s birthday, and something for Mrs Dim for Valentine’s Day?

It’s not that I’m thinking about stopping being a writer. That’s something I’ve thought about before and rejected, because I couldn’t stop being a writer. But maybe I can do without the extra worry of publishing e-books. If I’m finding my head full of short stories, I can write them down, but there’s no need to take them further, and if I do, there are always competitions out there, if you look hard enough.

Answers in the comments please – vote “Give it up!” or “Stick it out!” . Remember, the e-books were never meant to turn me into the next JK Rowling or Hugh Howey, so it shouldn’t be about financial success.

8 responses to “Is it time to stop e-publishing?

  1. I think we’ve passed the point of not having e-books in our lives. That being said, the sheer quantity of bad books can be overwhelming. I’m writing because I have stories to tell. Would I turn down a ticket to the best-seller list? No.

    Chuck wrote a post a week or so back about self-publishing being part of the big leagues now and I agree. If you are going to put a book out there, learn the craft and understand the business. Getting stuck on the numbers will only make you crazy.

    Find authors you like, share them with your friends, and maybe magic will happen. If it doesn’t, it’ll be okay.

    • Thanks Leila! The conversation is raging over on G+, with people telling me to leave my books up and saying nice things about their quality. Still haven’t made a decision about the romance novel though.

  2. It doesn’t sound like you’re one of the ones who should be pulling out of the race. I’m not even in it yet, and it’s hard not to take Mr Wendig’s posts personally– I agree with his thoughts on professionalism and not publishing crap, but as someone who’s choosing to self-publish instead of querying agents, etc., it feels like he’s saying DON’T DO THIS WE’RE ALL FULL UP HERE, GO HOME. But I’m doing it, and I’m doing it major-league style. I don’t expect immediate success (giving it at least five books or five years before I decide I’m a failure), but I can hope…

    I guess whether you keep going or pull everything is a personal choice. I haven’t read your work, so I can’t speak to that. I would say, though, that sales are a terrible indicator of quality, and we shouldn’t judge whether our work is part of the sludge tsunami based on that. Some bestsellers are great, some are junk that I couldn’t choke down if you held a gun to my head. If you know what makes a good story and can produce work that doesn’t give self-publishing a bad name, I doubt very much that you’re hurting anyone by putting your work out there.

    • Thanks Kate,
      What you’re saying is something I’ve heard from friends over on G+ too – don’t let sales be your indicator. The problem is, believing my stuff is good but overlooked doesn’t provide an answer to “What do I do now?”. If my books are good (and they’re not dreadful, I know that) then it’s my marketing at fault. This latest round of free giveaways, I think I’ve really tried – I looked up websites and submitted details, put out tweets and blog posts and G+ and Facebook notifications. But there’s still little response, and I think the volume of content is the issue. If people don’t find my books, don’t try them, what does it matter if they’re good or not?
      I’ve had some good reviews, but not as many reviews as downloads, and there’s no indication that things are slowly picking up. But writing plays does earn me money, and it would benefit from more effort invested there. So shouldn’t I put more energy into that?
      Maybe I’ll leave the e-books to stew, rather than pulling them. But don’t let my doom and gloom put you off your plan. I still think self-pubbing is wonderfully liberating, and I’m sure there are still opportunities. Building your networks is more important than ever, so that when you have a book to announce, you can reach as many people as possible. Getting them to tell their friends is the next hurdle….

  3. If a person self-pubs a book that never takes off with readers, it could easily be because it hasn’t been marketed properly. You’ll never know if it’s “good” or not. If self-pub doesn’t work out for someone–they should return to traditional pub. Agents and publishers know how, where, and when to place material so it gets noticed. If a person cannot land a deal, ever in their life, than they haven’t learned their craft and, if that’s the case, then self-pubbing won’t help them. I believe dedicated, hard-working authors will break through if they keep writing, keep studying, and keep trying. It was my fifth book that landed an agent and then a traditional pub deal. Good luck everyone–don’t quit!

    • Hi Jennifer,
      Thanks. I think you’re right (and congratulations on your book deal!) Persistence has always been a huge part of the publishing industry. All self-pubbing has done is remove the barrier to publication, not to success. All that separates e-publishing from vanity publishing is the cost. There were some great books that would have been classed as “vanity publishing” but their popular success overwhelms that descriptor.

      I’m certain my marketing could be better, could be more focused or upbeat. I fight against my natural inclination towards self-deprecation, against the fear that every promotional post or tweet will be seen as spam. But as I’ve said to others today, the question really comes down to where I want to devote my time and energy. I’ll never stop writing, and the ideas won’t always be plays or sketches, so there will be more short stories and maybe more novellas in the future. But if publishing e-books means more years of forcing myself to find new ways to shout about my work in the vain hope that it’ll pay me some cash…Well, why not write more plays and add them to the ones that already sell through my publisher? I’m happy with the books I’ve written, but none of them are works of genius, none break the mould like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter. I may leave them to posterity, sitting quietly on the virtual shelves at Amazon, always available to those who want to look for them. And in the meantime, others can use the space I vacate.

  4. I’ve decided the self-publishing route isn’t for me. I un-published some short stories that had been collecting dust and have improved them since then. I’ve struggled to read self-published books because they are either poorly edited and presented or are just plain bad writing. It would devastate me if someone felt that way about my books and stories. If I’m ever lucky enough to publish through a small or large publishing house, I know someone will be looking over my shoulder, making sure everything is ship-shape before it meets the world. People work hard for their money and shouldn’t waste it on books that aren’t ready for release.

    • I think that’s a brave decision, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Although there’s a lot going on in the publishing world, trad publishing is far from dead, and you’re right, the process of trad publishing ensures a high-quality book at the end. I wish you all the best in your search for a publisher – if you find one, let me know here so I can post links!

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