Publish And Be Damned

I don’t really have a huge experience of the nuts and bolts of publishing. My first four collections for Abelard came out as hardbacks in print-runs of a few hundred, and I had no contact at all with the production or sales process. The next book I had out, The Villages, was print-on-demand and I was similarly isolated from the process of production – although I’m sure someone would have explained everything, had I asked.

The most hands-on I’ve been with a piece of my own work was earlier this year, when I self-published a short story called ‘Lord Huw And The Romance Of Stone’ for the Kindle.

I originally started writing the story for a friend who was putting together a collection of erotic fantasy. Now, two of the things I’m really, really bad at writing are fantasy and erotica. I have experimented with erotica, and all I wound up doing was howling with laughter. But I’d been reading George RR Martin’s Ice And Fire books almost continuously for a year, so I sort of had fantasy in my head, and I figured I might get away with the erotica bit if I just suggested everything, so I had a crack at it.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m a staggeringly idle writer, and so it was here. I overshot the deadline for submissions by about four months, and wound up with this very rum little story which I was unlikely ever to be able to sell anywhere and which would probably sit on my desktop for the next decade until I’d written enough stories to put together another collection.

And sit there it did, for a while, until one evening I was talking to someone about Kindle Direct Publishing and it occurred to me that it was a way of publishing individual short stories. A bit like putting out a single. I got a bit intrigued by the nuts-and-bolts of all this, and with a bit of help and advice I put out ‘Lord Huw’ as an experiment.

It hasn’t earned a lot – maybe a tenner – but it’s more than it would have earned gathering dust on my hard drive, and I was rather heartened by that. It’s something I’ll probably have a crack at again.

Epublishing is, of course, a brand new Thing. And, as with all brand new Things, there’s still a lot of settling down to be done. There seems to be an awful lot of debate about it, not least in terms of pricing. I recently heard about what seems to have been a slightly contentious discussion at the Theakstons Crime Festival in Harrogate, during which a panel discussed epublishing. As I understand it, the discussion centred around pricing of ebooks and whether selling an ebook for, say, 20p is ‘selling out’ and in fact devalues a writer’s work. You can read about that panel here.

I’m still not sure about this. On the one hand, it’s not unreasonable to want fair pay for a fair day’s work, and I think there is some traction in the argument that people will be less willing to pay full price for a physical book when ebooks are cheaper, and indeed sometimes free.

On the other hand, it makes books easily available to people who might be unwilling or unable to pay full price. If I sell three copies of an ebook at £5 apiece, is that worse than selling one copy at £12?

I’d like to suggest that the importance of epublishing is that it represents a new era of democratisation for writers who would otherwise find it difficult or impossible to be published. If I can self-publish a short story I would have found difficulty selling, anyone can.

A little while ago, David Allen Green published this rather interesting piece about the original meaning of the phrase ‘freedom of the press.’ Basically, it predates Fleet Street and originally meant the right of the general public to have access to a printing press in order to publish. David’s piece relates chiefly to blogging and social media, but I think it could just as easily apply to epublishing. It puts the publication of pretty much anything in the hands of the populace – and in the case of KDP it’s free.

Obviously, there are some drawbacks with this. To an extent, traditional publishing acts as a filter. The vast majority of manuscripts submitted to publishers never see the light of day, for good or ill. Those that do are edited and proof-read and generally buffed up to a greater or lesser extent. Removing this filter will, inevitably, mean a flood of work published for no other reason than the author – or their friends and family – think it deserves to be, and no one can stop them.

This kind of thing has always gone on, but back in the day our author might, in their extremity and having been turned down by bigger publishers, turn to a vanity house. That was kind of self-limiting because not everyone has the money to shell out a couple of grand to a vanity publisher for a few hundred copies of their magnum opus. With epublishing, that limiter has been removed.

I’m kind of relaxed about this. I think natural selecti0n cuts in here; the howlingly awful vanity projects will sell a few copies to the author’s family and friends, and drop quietly out of sight. Word will get around about the better stuff and it will take off. Hopefully.

But as I said, I think it’s too early in the evolution of epublishing to say which way things will go. I doubt whether it will wither and die completely – it’s made too much of an inroad for that – but whether it goes on to become the industry paradigm, or retreats to be the territory of the vanity author, only time will tell. Personally, I would hate to see printed books go out of production, but it’s hard to see how the current pricing policies – ebooks being offered more cheaply than their printed counterparts – can go on for very much longer. I would expect to see, with more and more people using Kindles and Nooks and their phones and so on and a market establishing itself, ebook versions creeping back up in price in a year or so until they reach parity with printed ones.

Where we go after that is anyone’s guess.

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