Friday, June 4, 2010

WSJ checks out the digital-age 'Vanity' Press

Increasing attention has been given to the unexpected success of several authors who have chosen to "self-publish" via digital text platforms such as Amazon's and are finding it much more rewarding than waiting for a large publisher to notice their work.

The Wall Street Journal's Geoffrey A. Fowler and Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg report on the "technological disruption that's loosening traditional publishers' grip on the book market—and giving new power to technology companies like Amazon to shape which books and authors succeed."

  As in reports described in the earlier articles linked to above, they note the success of writers such as Karen McQuestion who decided to publish her own book online through Amazon's digital-publishing area and has sold, through Amazon's Kindle store, over 36,000 copies of "A Scattered Life," which has a film option with a Hollywood producer.  Amazon's imprint Amazon Encore will publish a paperback version along with a new Kindle edition in August.

  Publishers have been wary of the new power of technology companies to shape which authors and books succeed, circumventing the publishing establishment.

  This month Amazon is increasing the authors' take to 70% of revenue, and both Apple and Barnes & Noble have jumped on the digital self-publishing bandwagon.

  The WSJ story, which is quite thorough and very balanced includes a look at the field of competitors (photos included):  Smashwords (Mark Coker); Lulu (Bob Young); FastPencil (Steve Wilson); Scribd (Trip Adler), and Author Solutions (Kevin Weiss) as well as Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos of course.  It also includes a couple of videoclips, including Fowler "joining the Digits show to discuss how this is threatening the traditional book industry." and WSJ's Marshall Crook offering "a brief history of the book."  The article itself has its own introductory or overview video.

  After the latest look at the e-book pricing battles, the article focuses on Joe Konrath (AKA Jack Wilson) who, along with Karen McQuestion (and Boyd Morrison), often share the spotlight on their unanticipated but impressive success stories.
' Mr. Konrath says he's already earning more from self-published Kindle books that New York publishers rejected than from his print books. In the past 14 months, he has sold nearly 50,000 Kindle e-books, and at the current royalty rate, he makes $58,000 per year from his self-published works. When Amazon royalties double this summer, he expects to bring in $170,000 annually.

  ...the success of Ms. McQuestion's debut self-published novel, "A Scattered Life," illustrates perhaps the biggest long-term threat to traditional publishers: a replacement for their ability to curate and market books.

...CEO Jeff Bezos says Amazon wants to be a partner, not a threat, to publishers. "I think the real risk is that there are a multitude of publishers. Some of them are really forward leaning, and are really going after this new e-book area," he says. "If you are not one of those publishers, then I would be worried." '
They include a discussion of what would work best for authors and publishers in this new high-tension, competitive environment with large stakes for all.

A really interesting read.  More here...

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  1. I'm a professional library cataloger who has handled and used thousands of books in my long career. I've cataloged many self-published books, from crude-looking books assembled at Kinko's to the more slick products from I'm also a published author.

    There is a tendency to assume that publishers provide nothing but marketing and distribution. Not true. Publishers provide editing and design services that are light-years ahead of what most authors can provide on their own. There is nothing more eye-opening than sending a "perfect" manuscript off to a publisher and having it come back with hundreds of copyediting marks in red pencil, identifying real problems you never knew were there. Professional editing vastly improves books; they look better and read better. Publishers also have graphic designers that can produce a striking, artistic cover.

    People say this stuff doesn't matter -- that MS Word's grammar/spelling checker is enough, and grabbing a public domain photo off the web takes care of the cover. But having worked with all kinds of books over the last 30 years, I can tell you that it definitely matters. A Lulu book may superficially look okay, but once you dig into it, you start to feel that something about it is "off." Dozens of subtle flaws keep pulling you out of the book. It doesn't disappear in your hands as a professionally edited and designed book will.

    Incidentally, Lulu does offer thorough design and editing services, but the price goes WAY up. The same is true if you hire a freelance editor or designer yourself. It will cost thousands before your book has sold a single copy.

    These issues don't go away with digital publishing. Almost every Kindle owner has had the experience of downloading one of those free public domain books and discovering that it's an unreadable mess.

    Of course, a lot of self-published authors are never going to care about this stuff. I'm convinced that 99 percent of people who go the self-publishing route just want to dazzle their friends and relatives by saying "Got a new book coming out" at parties and family gatherings.

  2. Anonymous, I enjoyed your note up until the last disdainful sentence about 99% of those going the self-publishing route.

    It's attitudes like those that have led to the situation that is upsetting the traditional larger publishers.

    Yes, intelligent, serious authors will need to pay to get their books edited and to get help with the design, etc. As we've seen the Amazon setup also gives unusual exposure that is not possible unless you are accepted by a large publisher and they have been known to reject author works that have gone on to better things via another route.

  3. I apologize for offending you with the last paragraph. I was certainly exaggerating when I said "99 percent."

    The reason I have this attitude is because I've met quite a few self-published authors, and with one exception (an academic who had trouble finding a publisher for a book on a controversial topic) they are essentially amateur writers. When these folks tell me about their new novel and urge me to order a copy, I ask, "Who's publishing it?" Then they pretend that they don't understand my question, or become very evasive or irritated.

    I think self-publishing operations like Lulu are very useful for certain types of books; for example, local history or geneology books with a limited audience, textbooks for specialized college courses, or books that have gone out of print because the publisher has lost interest and the copyright has reverted to the author.

    However, I also think that selling a fantasy to aspiring writers is a BIG part of Lulu's business; that fantasy is "never mind those mean old big publishers; just give us your credit card number and we'll make you a bona fide published author just like Dan Brown." Lulu wouldn't survive without those customers. SF writer Ann Crispin has written frequently about this problem on her blog and has repeatedly urged serious aspiring writers to avoid self-publishing. Garrison Keillor recently wrote an editorial about this too.

    I agree that the major publishers are in trouble, but it's not because people are publishing their bad novels on Lulu.


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