Authors Can Be Stupid: The Self-publishing Stigma

This post was written by Michael A. Stackpole. It originally appeared on his Stormwolf website on 2/7/10, is reprinted here in its entirety with his permission, and is the sixth installment in his series on common myths and distractions in authorship and publishing. The first installment is here, the second is here, the third is here, the fourth is here and the fifth is here

There’s a stigma to self-publishing, and we all know it. Why? Because, in the past, self-published books have sucked. A lot of self-published work today sucks. And when I use that word, it’s a technical term.

Face it, most self-published books are a pig-in-a-poke. Looks good, but you can’t be sure. If it’s a physical book and has been professionally produced, it mimics the legitimacy of a commercially-produced book. It’s an ambush. You snag the book, you get into it, and it sucks. You feel you were cheated, and no one likes to be cheated. (And we won’t even touch on the topic of how many times that’s happened with commercially-produced books. Thank goodness the percentage is lower.)

Self-published work has become synonymous with “violation of trust” and buyers are wise to be wary of tossing money in that direction.

Self-publishing has long been the realm of someone whose belief in their work far exceeds the actual quality of that work, and they back their belief with their own money. The game industry from whence I come has, for the past forty years, has been a bastion of self-publishing. While there are a bunch of larger companies that publish very high quality work, the industry is open to someone whose warehouse is his garage. And the simple fact of the matter is that games by these small companies prove themselves through interaction with the buying audience, either falling to obscurity, or selling well and funding new creations by the game designers.

The same thing can, and should, happen in the realm of fiction.

In an effort to escape the stigma, the new practitioners of self-publishing have ascribed a number of different names to the phenomenon. A lot of folks call it Indie publishing. I actually prefer the term coined by Robert Vardeman: Vertically Integrated Publishing, or Vipub. What vertically integrated publishing allows is for an author to control every aspect of his work and how it is delivered. By putting in the work, he reaps the majority of the profit. It’s the equivalent of being a small winery—notice no one attaches a stigma to a boutique winery or cheese-making operation? Their products are described as “artisanal” and somehow better than massed produced rivals.

How does one get around the stigma—arising from the lack of quality of many self-published works—to attract an audience to your Vipub work? The solution is very simple: sampling. It’s a wine-tasting for your work. You, the author, publish for free or a nominal price, sample chapters from the work. You record a reading of chapters and make them available as an MP3; or using something like Second Life or streaming audio/internet radio, you provide listeners with a sample of your work. You release the entire book to a trusted cadre of reviewers and bloggers, enlisting them to spread the word about your work. You blog about it yourself. You engage the internet community and build an audience from it.

It has been suggested that my assertion that the production costs of preparing an ebook of a work, especially a work that it out of print and for which the author has no electronic copy, was “negligible.” I have had quoted to me a cost of hundreds of dollars for scanning a book, so the cost was considered substantial.

I disagree with this assessment.

I scanned my novel Once a Hero in three baseball games—I was listening to baseball on the radio, and scanned the book at the same time. Seven and a half hours, tops for that. And I spent another ten hours, roughly speaking, correcting scanning errors and formatting the book to be sold as a PDF, on the iPhone and for the Kindle. (Another hour or two will have it in epub shape, probably less.) So, let’s assume I have a whole twenty hours in the conversion process.

Scanners are very inexpensive—I used the one built into my printer. All scanners and printers come with OCR software, so there is no additional layout there. If an author doesn’t own a scanner, he undoubtedly knows someone who does. And if he doesn’t want to do the physical scanning himself, he can find a spouse, a child, an unpaid intern, or a dilligent fan, to do the scanning for him. (A fan or intern would love to have her name mentioned in the acknowledgements of a digital edition of a book she loves. And if the author feels guilty for accepting free labor like that, cut the scanner in for a percentage of the sales.)

Or, he can do what I did for my other books: I went out onto the internet, found pirated copies of my books, and ripped the text out of them for correction and reformatting. (Does that make me a digital privateer? I kind of like that idea.) I get the scanning and initial correction done for free. (Most pirates are very diligent in their production, having fewer typos and scanning errors than Google Books).

While the rescanning argument holds a limited amount of validity for works that were produced prior to the last decade, for anything published since? No. Authors have short stories that will sell in digital form (I sell tons of them) inserting corrections from the printed copy to keep the digital file up to date. And authors can produce new work related to print books that not only will sell to fans of the print books, but will serve as a taste of the world for those who’ve not yet purchased the print books.

For most folks, it’s not a matter of can’t, it’s a matter of “I don’t want to.” As my partner Kat Klaybourne says, “It’s simple. It’s not easy, but it’s simple.” And I have hot flash for any author who thinks doing this is hard—it isn’t nearly as hard as actually writing a story. It’s all clerical work, and you will get paid on that work forever and ever.

Jim also notes that some publishers will charge authors a great deal of money for an electronic copy of their own book file. That shocks me. First, if a publisher doesn’t have it written into the contract that he can do that, I don’t think he can. Second, all contracts require the publisher to give the author copies of his work in any form they appear, ergo, they should turn them over in all the formats for which they are available. And, three, the pirate option mentioned above is available. Four, authors could do what Dennis L. McKiernan and other authors do, which is to input corrections into a file which becomes the final for the publishers, thereby actually having the final in electronic form. (Publishers on several books have actually required that from me.)

In the latest two issues of my writing newsletter, The Secrets, I go into a lot more depth both on market issues and the variety and ways an author can produce work that will generate income as well as build sales of already existing projects. It also goes into ways that an author can use the internet as a means to heighten his visibility with the available audience.

The thing to bear in mind is that it’s all about profit. This very post is an excellent example of how new media can be used to generate income. I don’t mind giving away ideas on how all this works, but I reserve many of the best ideas for publication in my newsletter. The two issues I mentioned above (#134 and #135) are available as part of the current subscription series. The Secrets costs $25 for 25 issues that cover topics like the current publishing situation, provides solutions to same, and shares my insights into the art of writing itself. Hit the link above, subscribe, and you’ll pull down the last fifteen issues immediately.

My store has a number of other publications related to writing. I teach classes in writing at conventions like Origins, Gencon and DragonCon. I’ll be at StellarCon March 5-7, teaching my 21 Days to a Novel workshop. In two hours I teach writers a series of exercises that lays the groundwork for them to successfully finish a novel.

Because of these posts, because of the things I’ve been saying here, there are readers who will hit those links above or will attend my classes. What did it cost for me to mention them here? Nothing. What did the preparation of those files cost? Virtually nothing and long since paid for. Sales of electronic work, once made available, continue to provide income for no additional work. A short story for an anthology these days pays maybe six cents a word (we’ll be generous here.) So, a 6,000 word short story would net the author $360. Sold at $2 per copy off your website, less Paypal fees, an author would have to sell only 216 copies to match the anthology price. Pick a property that’s already popular and has a fan-base, turn out a new story related to it, and 216 copies shouldn’t be much of a problem. (True, with Amazon and Apple taking 30% off the top, the story would net $1.40, so it would take 258 purchases to match the anthology offering.)

The whole stigma connected with self-publishing is akin to the stigma of being gay, or interracial marriage, or being a gamer or a scifi geek. It has outlived its usefulness as a predictor of problems. Sampling eliminates the risk for readers. Negligible production costs for content providers eliminates the risk of production. The only reason not to do it is because you don’t want to do it.

And if, as an author, you don’t want to make a profit, if you don’t want to have money trickling into your pocket, there’s nothing I can say that will convince you otherwise. But if your intention is to make your life better, gain more exposure for your work, and build a career for yourself as the transition takes place, then just remember:

It’s simple. It isn’t easy, but it’s simple. Do the work, make the money. It’s what publishers have been trying to do since the invention of the printing press, and now we can do it better.

Note: This is an edited version of this essay. Jim Lowder pointed out corrections that needed to be made; being quite gracious in dealing with my unintentional attribution of statements that he never made to him. As I had noted in the original, he is a very smart man, and gracious as well.

©2010 Michael A. Stackpole

Michael A. Stackpole is a New York times Bestselling author with over forty novels published including I, Jedi and Rogue Squadron. He was the first author to have work available in Apple’s Appstore. He has lectured extensively on writing careers in the Post-paper Era and is working on strategies for authors to profit during the trying time of transition.

Comments are closed.