I quite want to read Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow’s new book, The Rapture Of The Nerds.
I’m not hugely interested — I like some of Stross’ work a lot (basically the Laundry series and the near-future-Edinburgh police procedurals, all of which I adore), but other than Glasshouse his singularity-based stuff (Accelerando, Singularity Sky, that kind of stuff) does little for me, and I have no interest at all in Doctorow’s work. So I’m guessing there’s a sixty-forty chance I’ll enjoy the book — but if I enjoy it I’ll enjoy it a lot.
I had a quick look at it in Waterstone’s today, and it also looks like a short book — I’m guessing 40-60,000 words. Long novella/short novel length.
It’s currently available as a twenty pound hardback, which is much more than I’d pay for a shortish novel that there’s a decent chance I won’t like. It’s available on various US ebook sites for a more reasonable price, but not available on any UK ebook sites, because all of them insist on imposing regional restrictions — even though Tor own the rights to it throughout the English-speaking world.
However, because Stross and Doctorow are also good sorts, it’s *also* soon to be available (within a day or so), as a *free* ebook download from Doctorow’s site. Stross and Doctorow believe — rightly, in my opinion — that making books available as free creative commons works doesn’t stop people paying for them. Certainly, in my case, I actively sought out ways to purchase the ebook and give money to the authors and publisher even though I knew it was going to be available for free.
But I’m not going to pay twenty quid for it in a format I don’t want to buy it in, either (I reserve buying paper books now for books I either believe I’ll want to keep and reread many times, or books that aren’t available as non-DRM’d ebooks). So I’m going to get it for free, this time.
(Note that I would not download the book for free illegally. I have occasionally torrented books, in order to check a particular author’s work out, but always buy legitimate copies afterwards if those are available to me).
Note that this isn’t the fault of this particular publisher — Tor are publishing the book in multiple countries simultaneously, they’ve allowed the release of the free CC-licensed download, and they make all their books available DRM-free now, they’re doing The Right Thing here — but of the whole system of regional restrictions in copyright licensing, and ebook sellers being overly-restrictive as a result.
I understand exactly why this system exists, and it benefits the authors in many ways, as well as the publishers, but it’s becoming ever more clear that the system no longer works the way it should. Actively preventing customers from giving you money is never going to be a good long-term business strategy.
The question is, as with so much to do with ‘intellectual property’ these days, what do we replace it with? If I could figure that one out, I’d probably have a lot more money to spend on books afterwards…
There’s a big storm at the moment over the US Department of Justice going after several of the biggest publishers for alleged price-fixing of ebooks, which they allegedly did in order to prevent Amazon having a monopoly on book sales. Charles Stross has the best summary I’ve seen of the expected effects, here.
Now, a lot of people are cheering Amazon and hoping for the destruction of these publishers, because they see selling self-published ebooks as being a better option. I disagree, for most of them, even though I self-publish myself.
Self-publishing is definitely better for some people. It’s better for me, because I write stuff for a niche audience, among whom I have some kind of name recognition, which simply wouldn’t be of interest to a major publisher. It’s also better for a writer like Dean Wesley Smith, the most articulate and level-headed of the self-publishing advocates I know of, because he’s extremely prolific, writing roughly a dozen novels’ worth of prose in the average year, and he writes in a variety of very commercial genres and has experience running a publishing house.
I’m not sure it’s better for writers or readers, and I have two main reasons for that.
The first is that we’ve been here before. I’ve been in a couple of bands, and around 2000 one of them was putting MP3s on sites like Mp3.com, listensmart.com and dozens of other sites which no longer exist. These worked *exactly* the same way ebook and POD sites work, and they also had message boards, and those message boards were saying *exactly* the same things about music in 2000 that people are saying now about publishing in 2012. Substitute “the Big Six” for “the major labels”, “Amazon KDP” for mp3.com, and you can see the same types of people saying the same types of things. “Hooray for the death of the evil corporations that turn my genius down!” “I’m going to give all my work away for free so I’ll get exposure and become a millionaire!”, “Anyone want to swap reviews? I’ll buy yours if you buy mine, so long as it’s not over a dollar!”, “Aargh! My stats have gone down since ten minutes ago! Must promote more!” and so on.
Twelve years later, all those people who hoped to get rich quick are still nowhere. Bypassing the major labels *does* work for a number of artists — just like bypassing the major publishers works for some writers — but the head of Universal Music Group is not sat on a street-corner with a sign around his neck saying “will be a middleman for food”. Because musicians aren’t generally also cover designers, video directors, PR people and all the other skills that are needed to get music into people’s hands.
So I suspect something similar will happen with publishing. The reason I hope so is that I want writers to get paid.
Because most writers don’t actually earn enough to live off through book sales. I know this because I sell more than most, and I don’t.
I currently average around £100 per week from sales of all my books combined, through all channels (physical books through Amazon and Lulu, ebooks through those plus Smashwords, iBooks, Barnes & Noble and half a dozen smaller bookshops). That’s tripled in the last couple of months, incidentally, and quadrupled since September — there definitely *is* a self-publishing boom going on.
Now, we’ll be as fair as possible to the anti-publishers here and say that income *only* came from my five full-length books. That makes £20 per book per week. We’ll be doubly fair to them and pretend *all* that income came from Amazon. Amazon make up around 25% of the total books market, so if my books were selling *everywhere*, then they could be up to an average £80 per week.
Now the thing is, my books sell *significantly* better on Amazon than the average. All my full-length books are in the top 50% of all books on Amazon at the moment. On average they’re in the top 25%. My best-seller (the Monkees book) is in the top 2%. And that’s on print sales — I rank higher on ebooks. Significantly higher.
Think about that for a moment. I have a book that is selling better than 98% of all books — not ‘all self-published books’ or ‘all books about 60s pop groups’. *Better than 98% of all books*. And yet I’m nowhere near earning a living wage from my writing. Even if we assume all sorts of weird things — pretend that books sell hugely in their first week then never sell again or something, and I’m the only exception — that suggests that the vast majority of writers don’t make very much from their writing.
So how do they live?
Like record companies, publishers pay an advance on royalties. This means the author may get, say, $5000 up-front for a book, and a 15% royalty on sales, but only start getting the royalty once it’s gone past the up-front $5000. Of course, $5000 is not a huge amount of money, but many advances are much higher than that, and it’s possible for many (not all) writers to write four books a year. Put that together, and you can make a living from selling books that never earn back their advance. Which is good, because most don’t. (I’ve seen all sorts of figures bandied around — obviously, publishers don’t want to say when they’ve lost money on a book, so it’s difficult to get reliable information — but none of them say that more than 50% of books ever earn out their advance).
The reason this works is the same reason that many people scream about the publishers — they keep most of the money. If you’re an author who’s making money, that sounds like a bad idea. But essentially publishers exist to be a redistribution service, taking money from the Dan Browns and JK Rowlings of the world, and giving it in the form of advances to less successful writers.
So the net result of the loss of publishers would be the loss of writers as a professional class. We’d have a few bazillionaires, because the Browns and Rowlings would be keeping 70-85% of their money, a handful of people like Dean Wesley Smith who manage to be fast enough to get an absolute ton of product on the market, a few peiople like me who find a comfortable niche or two and maybe manage to scratch a living, and a whole load of amateurs writing in their spare time with minimal or no editing. What you wouldn’t have is the vast swathe of stuff in the middle, all the mid-list writers who manage to earn a steady living from writing one or two good books a year.
So even though for me as a writer the big publishers disappearing would be a good thing, because I’d lose most of the competition for readers’ money, as a reader I’d quite like people to keep getting paid for writing books I want to read.
(On the other hand, if you want to stick it to The Man and give all your money to independent publishers, you can buy my books from Lulu, Amazon or Smashwords. I am nothing if not greedy. Down with The Man!)
I’ve been talking with a few people recently about self-publishing, and some of them are vaguely confused about what you need to do in order to get a book out if you’ve written it and want to publish yourself, so I thought I’d do a semi-comprehensive guide. This is for full-length books of 40,000 words or more – short stories are a slightly different beast.
First, you need a word processor that will output in both .doc and .pdf format. Microsoft Word will do both these, I think, and I know that LibreOffice, AbiWord and OpenOffice.org will. I actually use LyX, because it produces beautifully typeset work and you don’t have to fight it the way you do MS Word. If you use LyX, the book Self-Publishing With LyX (free PDF version) is a godsend.
First, we’ll look at print publishing. Export your book as a PDF, with all fonts included in your file – if you don’t do this, there may be typesetting errors with your finished book. Most typesetting advice will tell you to use a ten-to-twelve point serif font, but I use a fourteen point sans serif. This is because my wife is visually impaired, and she finds this much easier to read. I suspect this will be the case for other visually impaired people, and I don’t want to exclude anyone from reading my books. So long as you use a simple, plain font for this, not Comic Sans or anything equally horrific, your book will look professional enough.
You will want to set fairly generous margins on your pages in the PDF, to allow for the pages to be trimmed. I use the margins suggested in Self-Publishing With LyX – Top: 2.5cm, Bottom 2.5cm, Inner: 2.5cm, Outer: 2.0cm . If you’re using Microsoft Word or one of the Wordalike Free Software word processors, lulu.com have a template you can use that will make your pages the right size, but when I used this (on my first two books, before I discovered LyX) I found it extraordinarily fiddly to use with LibreOffice, and next to impossible in AbiWord. I don’t have a copy of Microsoft Word, so I have no experience with that.
Once you have your PDF, you next need your cover. If you can’t draw yourself, you have a couple of options. One that some writers take is to browse stock photo libraries, and pay a small amount (usually in the tens of pounds) for rights to use a picture. You can, however, also search Google Images for images that have been freely licensed for commercial reuse.
One thing to remember, as well, is that all images created by branches of the US government are automatically in the public domain, so lots of military, scientific or space photographs, as well as photos of various politicians and so on, are completely free to use.
Now create an account with a print-on-demand publisher. I have heard very, very good things about CreateSpace, but I use lulu.com myself. This is partly because CreateSpace are an Amazon company, and I don’t want Amazon to have a monopoly or to put my eggs in one basket, and partly because Lulu also offer very good quality hardbacks, and I like to have nice copies of my books.
Once you have an account, click ‘start a new project’ and follow the steps it tells you. You will want your book to be available as a trade paperback (this is a normal paperback of a standard size – Lulu also do larger, coffee-table style books), as a hardback, and as a PDF (don’t add DRM to your PDF – DRM doesn’t deter so-called ‘pirates’ and does deter actual readers). Lulu have an easy-to-use cover designer that will take your image, resize it to the right dimensions, and let you add the title, author name, back-cover blurb and so on. You will get a PDF copy of this completed cover – take a screenshot of the front cover and save it as a JPG, and you can use it for your ebooks.
While Lulu do publish ebooks in non-PDF format, I’ve had nothing but horrendous experience with them in that department, so don’t put your ebooks out through them, other than PDF versions.
You can either buy an ISBN for your book or get one assigned by Lulu. There is no reason I know of not to use Lulu’s. Once you have an ISBN assigned and have bought and approved a proof copy of your book, you can choose either Lulu’s ‘ExtendedReach’ service (which is free, and gets your book on Amazon and into bibliographic databases so other stores can choose to order it) or their GlobalReach service (which is expensive but gets you onto other sites like Barnes & Noble). Interestingly, they seem to be experimenting with merging these two services and making them both free, but I don’t know if that will be going ahead.
Now you’ve got your physical book sorted, it’s time to think of your ebook. For this you’ll need your book to be in Word .doc format. (If you have a choice of which .doc versions to output as, choose Office 2003. DO NOT choose either Windows 95′s version, which doesn’t have all the features you need, or docx, which the major sites don’t yet support). There are many programs that will allow you to produce your own good-quality epub and mobi files, but if you want to get on the major sites you actually want them to convert the files for you at the moment.
Read through the Smashwords Style Guide (free ebook in various formats here) and follow its instructions precisely, paying special attention to the section on Table Of Contents. Then create an account with Smashwords and upload your correctly-formatted .doc file. Smashwords will then convert your book into every format in which you wish to sell it. Select all formats except .mobi (the Kindle format, which we’ll deal with separately) and PDF (Smashwords’ PDF copies look horrible, sell PDFs through Lulu instead).
Smashwords will assign you a free ISBN for your ebook, and will sell DRM-free copies through their own site, but their real advantage is that they will get you onto other online bookstores. They’re the only simple way to get on iBooks, Kobo, Diesel and Sony’s bookstore. They’re also the only way for people outside the US to get on Barnes & Noble’s Nook ebookstore. (People in the US can use Barnes & Noble’s PubIt). These sites between them account for something in the region of 20% of the ebook market.
Smashwords will claim that they offer distribution to Amazon, but they don’t. Disable this option just in case this changes, because you’re going to put your book out through Amazon by yourself – no reason to give Smashwords a cut.
You will want to price your book on Smashwords at between $2.99 and $9,99 – this is not because of anything to do with Smashwords itself, but because Amazon price-matches with other sites, and that’s the price range in which you get the best royalties on Amazon.
Smashwords is a great service, but has two major disadvantages. The first is that they pay quarterly in arrears – so if they receive money from a sale on Apple’s store in February (and Apple take their time to pay Smashwords), you won’t see it until June. The second is that for non-USians they require you to jump through a lot of hoops in the US’ insanely complex tax system if you don’t want to lose 30% of your money, and this takes time. The combination of these two things mean that even though I’ve had books up on Smashwords for a year, I am yet to see any money from them. But when it does finally arrive it’ll be a substantial chunk.
Finally, you’ll want your book to be available on the Kindle. This is the simplest of all these options by this point. Take your Smashwords-formatted .doc file, remove the line about ‘published on Smashwords’ that you inserted to meet Smashwords’ requirements, add page breaks at the end of each chapter (Kindle like page-breaks, Smashwords don’t). Then create an account at kdp.amazon.com and upload your files.
Amazon will try to get you to join a program called KDP Select with your books. DO NOT JOIN THIS. It is a very bad deal for actual writers (as opposed to delusional fools who want to strike it big with a single bestseller), it limits what you can do enormously, and some of its provisions (like turning the money made from lending into a zero-sum game in which you have to compete with other authors) are actively evil.
You should price your book between $2.99 and $9.99, as outside this price range you only make a 35% royalty, but you get 70% if your book’s in that price range. Some people will advise you to sell your books for 99 cents to ‘get noticed’. This was possibly good advice two years ago, but when there are literally millions of books selling at that price (and people giving books away as part of the KDP Select programme), any advantage the low price may have had is gone, so you might as well charge an amount where you’ll see some money. (99 cents is, however, a fair price for a short story if you’re publishing those).
Do not enable DRM – all DRM does is put customers off, it doesn’t deter illegal copying. Enable text-to-speech unless you hate blind people and want them to suffer.
Finally, get an Amazon Author Central account. You will, in fact, want to set up two of these, one on the US site and one on the UK site. From a reader’s point of view, an authorcentral page allows you to see everything an author’s written in one place, as well as a bio of the author (see my page for an example of how this works) – useful if you’ve written multiple books and people want to find them all. From an author’s point of view, it gives you some extra tools to manage your books.
And that’s it. Once you’ve done this, post a link on your blog or website saying your book’s out, then forget about it until the money comes in, and write the next one, and the one after that.
I recently took a minor part in a discussion on Amazon’s Kindle forums. This started because some of the people on there were looking for a way to filter out self-published authors (like me) and only see ‘proper’ authors. This would obviously not be something I’d be keen on.
But the thread I was drawn into was started by someone – another indie writer – complaining about this. And these were some of his complaints:
I’ve also read thousands of pieces of literature, mainly trad. published, and I’ve seen all types of mistakes in the writing — spelling errors, bad sentences, bad grammer, plots that didn’t add up . . . all and all, for me personally, I’m not a nazi, it’s no big deal, it’s just a story . . . when you see a play or a concert or some type of live show and the performer is a little out of key or makes a mistake, is it that big of a deal? So why are people so hard on indie writers?
This is an attitude I see all the time. There are two parallel lines of thought among self-published authors, both of which are pernicious but which when combined come close to being actively evil.
The first is “Those evil traditional publishers are just trying to keep us indie authors down, with their pesky rules about ‘writing good English’ and ‘not plagiarising’ and ‘bothering to be vaguely coherent’. Real talent like mine doesn’t need those things.”
That is then coupled with an attitude that can be found on the Kindle author boards, which says that anyone giving a self-published author a bad review is ‘jealous’ – or in extreme cases that bad reviews are obviously the work of the evil publishers, trying to knock the competition, and that the last thing you should do is pay attention to those nit-pickers who point out problems with your work.
Let me put this as simply as I can:
If you are charging for your work, you have an obligation to be professional.
This is particularly true in the case of publishing. When you put your book up for sale on Amazon, you’re in direct competition with every other work of literature ever published, near enough. That means *you have to be that good*.
You don’t have to have written the single best book ever written, of course. But there has to be at least one person in the world, who doesn’t know you, for whom your book is the single best way they could spend their money and reading time.
Can you make a convincing case that there is *someone* out there who will get more out of reading your book than out of reading Hamlet, or Ulysses, or the Feynman Lectures In Physics, or Huckleberry Finn, or Catch-22, or Orwell’s collected essays, or Thank You Jeeves, or any of a million other books? Is there someone out there who, if presented with all those books, you could tell with a straight face “you’ll like mine more”?
There don’t have to be many of them. The numbers could be in single figures. But if those people don’t exist, then *YOU HAVE NO BUSINESS PUTTING YOUR WORK OUT FOR SALE*. You are, fundamentally, trying to perpetrate a fraud on your readers. You are telling them “this is the book you should read next” when you know full well that they shouldn’t read it at all.
I don’t make any great claims for my own work’s quality, but it does meet that standard. I know it does, because people I don’t know, with no reason to care either way, have said to me “I enjoyed your stories, I hope you write some more” or “I liked the Beach Boys book, when’s volume two coming out?” or “I bought the Beach Boys book and liked it, you should all buy the Monkees book” or “I loved that essay, if you collect it in a book, I’ll buy it”. I wouldn’t be ashamed of telling any of those people to buy any of my other books in the same categories.
But the reason for this is that I *make the effort*. I get several people, with different levels of knowledge and different skill-sets, to read what I’ve written and check that it makes sense. I spend many hours proof-reading. I get good covers. I do my utmost to ensure that not a single error of fact or of language slips through. Errors nonetheless occur, of course – I am human, after all – but not one person has ever emailed me with a problem, even though I include an email address for errata in the books.
That’s not me boasting. That’s the *minimum* standard which you should be reaching before you put a book out for sale.
If you put out a book that is not the absolute best work you can do at the time, you are causing harm in three ways:
You’re harming the people buying your book under false pretences. Doing this to them is a species of fraud.
You’re harming yourself. Your reputation will suffer, as will your chances of ever having a career in writing (which presumably you would want).
And you are harming those authors like me, or my uncle, or Simon Bucher-Jones or Andrew Rilstone or Lawrence Burton or Chris Browning or hundreds of others who actually *do* put the basic effort in to make our work competent. Every time someone buys something like this or this, they are going to be that much more likely to want to avoid any further self-published authors for fear it’ll be the same. To remove excess hair, one might consider no no hair removal reviews.
And that goes double if you get involved in ‘review swaps’, artificially inflating the review scores of terrible books. And triple if you spam readers’ forums about your books. And quadruple if, on those readers’ forums, you start talking about how “we self-publishers aren’t bound by your Nazi rules of grammar, it’s all about free expression.”
Every time you do this, you’re not only sabotaging yourself, but you’re hurting everyone else, too.
There are a lot of very, very good self-published authors out there, with good reasons for publishing their own work rather than going through publication houses. But as long as we tolerate – and even encourage – incompetence, illiteracy and unprofessionalism in the name of solidarity, or sticking it to ‘the man’, or even just being kind to someone who means well and tries hard, sensible readers are going to lump everyone in together and avoid all of us.
If you read self-published books, please leave honest and accurate reviews, both good and bad, on the books you’ve read, so people know what they’re getting. The good reviews help books with no marketing budget, and the bad reviews help sink the rubbish more quickly.
If you *write* self-published books, please take the same care you’d take in your day job (or greater), and treat readers as potential customers rather than antagonists.
If you hang around on self-publishing forums, please don’t encourage obvious incompetence and laziness. Please do provide constructive – but thorough – criticism for those who need it.
If we all do this, then with a little luck the people writing drivel will realise that Amazon isn’t an infinite money-tree, and readers can get back to reading books they want to read, and writers to writing them, without having to worry about who’s self-published and who isn’t.