The dangers of ebook world domination

Although it seems to have maintained a persistent online presence in recent months, today I felt as if the stars aligned to bring to head the ebook/self publishing debate.  Everywhere I looked, it was bam! bam! bam! with pro ebooks, boo ebooks, pro publishers, boo publishers.  My brain had to switch to autopilot just to get through the day without having a nervous breakdown from opposing information overload.

I wrote an article last year on the traditional vs new forms of publishing debate, but back then most of the talk seemed to centre around whether or not traditional books would survive this new age of online publishing.  Apparently we’re over that now, with many, myself included, agreeing that ebooks are here to stay but also that books are not likely to become obsolete any time soon.  There are too many of us bibliophiles out there to allow such a travesty to take place.

The debate no longer doubts the obsolescence of books, but the bypassing of and questionable necessity of the publisher.  Not only that, but there seems to be some concern over exactly how beneficial this new age of self publishing is to the reader.  Let’s not forget about him, he’s pretty important.

So what seems to be the problem, officer?

Well, first of all I bring to your attention this article published on the online Guardian newspaper today; Now anyone can ‘write’ a book. First, find some words…

I suspect the reaction to the title of this article went something like this:

  • YES! I have words! Now I can finally get published! (99% of readers)

or

  • Great….now my carefully written, scrupulously edited, well developed ebook will be lost in the masses of crap published by any Tom, Dick or Harry. (1% of readers)

Herein lies the crux of the problem.  Where although it might be argued that publishers have in the past held an unseemly amount of authority over what does and doesn’t get published, publishing what a few well-paid people deem to be a ‘bestseller’, and claiming a contentious amount of what some would claim to be the author’s earnings, they have nonetheless provided a benchmark for the quality of writing being released on the bookshelves.  Although many excellent writers suffer from this system (the downside), whether it be from seeing their publisher’s pockets grow heavier than their own, or from not even being able to break into the publishing scene, it has nonetheless been of benefit to the readers (the upside), who could purchase a published book with the assurance that it had been proofread, edited, proofread again, and above all, selected by a group of ‘professionals’ as being worthy of their hard-earned cash.

Now, I’ve never been one to overlook both sides of the argument, and I realise the publishing gods have not always done us proud.  I, for one, can count on more fingers than I actually own, the number of books that a big respectable publisher has deemed deserving not only of publication, but of at least $25 out of my wallet, only to find that I had paid said amount for a bound collection of paper better employed as kindling for the fire.  Undoubtedly, it’s at times like these that aspiring writers such as myself scream at the heavens “Why! Why do you torment me publishing Gods?! My writing is a kajillion times better than this piece of crap!” Followed by a few angry stamps of the foot and an angry punch to the air.

Cue the invention of ebooks and online book sellers such as Amazon, who, like the aforementioned article claims, allow for anyone with words to publish a book, within a matter of minutes.  MINUTES?!  Yes, minutes.

With my recent purchase of the Scrivener word processor, I soon discovered it had a function which gave me the opportunity to publish something I had written, in a number of ebook formats.  Me? Publish an ebook? Pfft! I scoffed at my machine.  But the curious girl that I am, I Googled ‘Scrivener tutorials’ and watched a brief video on how I could transform a story into an ebook.  Within 20 minutes (Shock! Gasp!) I had a short story on iBooks and was reading it on my iPhone.

Now, for those of us who like to think our writing is worthy of publication, this is fantastic news.  We bypass all the middlemen, do all the marketing ourselves (which, let’s face it, we probably would’ve had to do anyway), set our own price for our baby and watch the profits roll in.  If this is you, writers, then read the following excellent article/interview with bestselling author Michael Levin, and jump with joy at this publishing revolution, because now you have not only the resources, but the power to become a published author.

Are Publishers Stupid? Interview with Bestselling Author Michael Levin-Part 1 What do YOU think? Are publishers stupid? Send this link to writers you know and come back tomorrow for Part 2 of Michael Levin’s interview! … Read More

via Bo’s Cafe Life

Readers, cower with mercy, since it is ye who shall suffer.

If you’ve read the article, you might have already read some of the comments, or should I say concerns, below the text.  Correspondingly, the earlier Guardian article touched on the same unease, pointing out the following statistics:

…Nearly 2.8 million non-traditional books, including ebooks, were published in the United States in 2010, while just more than 316,000 traditional books came out.  That compares with 1.33 million ebooks and 302,000 printed books in 2009.

With such an extraordinary number of ebooks being released at an increasingly rapid rate, how exactly are the poor readers supposed to navigate this tsunami of books to get to the good stuff?

Although I’m sure that a great deal of new publications are from writers who probably deserved to be published a long time ago by the publishing gods (here I have to mention Angela Wallace, whose ebook Phoenix Feather I read recently and is an example of how exactly the ebook revolution can benefit magnificent writers with remarkable stories. Check it out here), I’m just as sure that a great deal of these new publications are absolute rubbish, or worse, plagiarised.  Without the middlemen, where lies the quality control?

Again, from the Guardian article:

It’s only when one peruses the cornucopia of literary productions available on the Kindle store that one detects the first scent of rodent. One of the most prolific self-publishers on the site is Manuel Ortiz Braschi. When I last checked he had edited, authored or co-authored no fewer than 3,255 ebooks. Mr Braschi is clearly a man of Herculean energy and wide learning, who ranges effortlessly from How to Become a Lethal Weapon in Two Weeks (£1.40) to Herbs 101: How to Plant, Grow & Cook with Natural Herbs (£0.70) while taking in Potty Training! The Ultimate Potty Training Guide!(£0.69).

Having inspected Mr Braschi’s The Miracle of Vinegar: 65 Tried and Tested Uses For Health and Home! (which, at £0.69, works out at about 30p per screenful of text), I can testify that he is no Delia Smith. But at least he appears to write – or at any rate compile – his own stuff. In that respect, he represents the quality end of the Kindle self-publishing business.

I’m sorry, what? The man has authored/co-authored 3,255 ebooks?! I’m doubtful at the quality, but as the article states, at least the writing appears to be his own.

Ultimately, how are the readers expected to have confidence in anything that sits in the midst of such questionable standards?  I feel that I am considerably immersed in the world of readers, writers and books, and yet still I struggle to determine what in the ebook world is worth reading.  Word of mouth is clearly a well-founded prerequisite to marketing your ebook, but I wonder, just as the works of great writers are lost amongst the less-worthy publications, won’t such be the case also for self promotion of the same.  With everybody shouting the loudest, how can we possibly determine the Rowlings from the Manuel Ortiz Braschis and his 3,255 books?

Sooner or later somebody is going to realise that no matter how high those ebook figures rise, no matter how many outstanding writers self publish their bestsellers, if the readers can’t navigate the market, if they don’t actually make a purchase, or rather, spend their money where it is least merited, then readers, publishers, writers alike…everybody loses.

What are your thoughts on the ebook/self publishing debate?  Please, add to my brain hemorrhage and discuss.

~storytelling nomad~

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27 comments on “The dangers of ebook world domination

  1. Thanks so much for the mention, Katy! :-D Obviously, I was thrilled to find out how easy it was to self-publish because then at least *someone* is reading my book and it’s not just sitting in some dark corner of my hard drive.

    However, I have tried to enter the “indie” community and support other indie authors, but after downloading a few samples (thank goodness for those), I realized exactly what you said: I had no time for this hapless navigation. The books I tried even got good reader reviews, which just leaves me wondering what people are reading in order to have that level of standards.

    But, as you also said, printed books have the same problem. The entire business is subjective on both the publishing and reader side, and I guess that’s why it’s so popular/easy–there’s always an audience (however small) for everything.

    • This is true, and the unquestionable benefit of ebooks is that at least someone is reading your work and not, as you say, sitting in the dark recesses of your computer. I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who finds the ebook community a tad overwhelming/intimidating. I really just don’t know where to begin. I have enough trouble in bookstores, but compared to the number of ebooks available to peruse, it seems my bookstore woes are fairly insignificant.

  2. I have read a lot of really bad books produced through traditional publishers– to the extent that I have lost all faith in their ability to identify a good book. I’ve read some great ones too, but, as they say, one bad apple spoils the bushel. I don’t have an ereader, so I can’t comment of the quality of what’s out there, but I have no trouble believing that there are many bad self-published books available. That said, books are entirely subjective. What I think is crap someone else might find really good. (Take, for instance, Twilight– which I hated, but millions of people would call me crazy.)

    I think the worst part of self-publishing is pirating author’s work. Oh, and Amazon’s policy of changing prices without notice to the authors. Those are the issues that need to be addressed. And if traditional publishers want to stay in business they might consider getting in on the security and pricing end of things to “guarantee” an author that their product won’t be messed with.

    Otherwise, let me say that this post is really well written. You have a way with words, that’s for sure! :-)

    • Indeed, one person’s garbage is another’s gold, and let’s face it, publishers have to accommodate for every kind of reader; educated, uneducated, lazy, imaginative, dull…So obviously there are going to be books out there that aren’t to everybody’s taste.

      The piracy issue is a huge worry though, I agree. Also, I didn’t know that Amazon could change prices without notice?! I have no words! But such is the result of every man for himself. Amazon is looking out for Amazon, but who is looking out for the writer? Herein lies the benefit of having an agent/publisher, who would presumably campaign on your behalf. You’re right though, all of these things need to be addressed before everyone is happy.

      Nonetheless, thank you for the compliment and for taking the time to comment. I really appreciate it!

  3. It seems like one necessity for indie publishing to work longterm is some sort of reviewing system that readers who appreciate quality can trust in. It will probably be genre by genre, either on a main site with subsections or separate sites. But as more and more people clamor for a way to find the wheat among the chaff, something should come into being. I’d guess within the next year or two, we’ll see some of that separation starting to occur.

    • This is an excellent point and a valid suggestion. I’d like to see something like this emerge, and I suspect you’re right in that we might very well see it materialise within the next couple of years. There’s a definite need for it. Thanks for commenting!

  4. Excellent article. I find myself suspicious of people who can whip out so many so books in so little time. It’s taken me eight years to write a trilogy and I’m still working on the revising of it. Sure I was doing it around a full-time job but I still wonder about the quality of the work of someone who has managed to write 3,255 books. Originally, I thought e-books were a good idea but then when I tried to read them, I found, not only a lack of decent stuff to read, but that I missed being able to hold the book in my hand. Call me old-fashioned but I’m sticking with the tangible pages of a hardback or paperback. :-)

    • I absolutely agree! 3,255 books is extraordinarily suspicious!

      I believe that a love of books and a love of reading are independent concepts. I love reading, and am grateful for ebooks when I’m travelling, can’t get to a bookstore, or simply can’t wait to get to the next book in a series. But I also love books, and, like you, the tangible feel of them, which means that even when I read an ebook, it’s highly probable that I’m still going to buy the book anyway. As long as there are people who love books (not just reading), I am confident we won’t see them going anywhere any time soon. Thanks for commenting :)

  5. This topic has been roughly 90% of my recent online reading material. I am actually sitting in a cafe finishing up my blog post about it! Ha!

    I think you bring up some excellent points and I appreciate the links as more source material is always welcome for my hungry brain. Drop by my blog in a few hours and I’ll have some links for you as well. I think ebooks are here to stay. I do not think that paper books will become passe, but I do think that it is likely that ereaders will become the norm in the coming years.

    Yes we all love the smell of books and the feel of the paper in our hands, blah, blah, blah. (Seriously, if I read this one more time I might, in the semi-words of Dorothy Parker, “Throw my computer across the room with force”). When it comes down to it though people, thanks to ereaders are reading more and have access to books that they may not have had previously.

    As far as people finding decent indie authors and the question as to how we as a society will manage sifting through the manure of indie/self-pubbed authors?

    We’ll do it as it was done before the big 6 deemed what would sell and what would not. Simply because something sells does not make it notable literature. The Bestsellers Lists are typically rigged, because right now there are several indie authors outselling legacy authors.

    I would like a link to an article or report where it states the Amazon is changing the pricing of books without consent of the author. If the author gave the rights to Amazon to price the ebook then Amazon is within their right to do so, if not it would be a contract violation and this sort of news would be all over the author-circles. There are watchdog groups that monitor unethical behavior such as that.

    I won’t ramble on your comment section anymore, but I have a lot to say on this topic. Thanks for a great post today, Katy!

    • About to head over and have a read of your post Kate. But I do agree with you that ebooks are here to stay. I certainly can’t deny their practicability, and when we find an appropriate way to ‘sift through the manure’, I’m sure their popularity will only grow in bigger and faster leaps and strides.

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  7. Your posting today is excellent and on time. I have been researching the ebook vs tradition book publishing route for over a year now. With many published authors of best-sellers touting its future and their choice, e-books are definitely here to stay. I believe the nature of the agent will change to help to more effectively separate the chaff from the wheat.

    I for one, since authors are expected to do their own marketing, will be pursuing the ebook route. It only makes since to pocket the larger revenues. We not only do the writing but also the marketing – truly what is the agent there for?

    For the record though, i prefer the bound book over the ebook. In 20 years I fear the actual printed word, that is ink on paper, will disappear. Living in NYC, I and most of my friends read our news papers digitally. Books are not far behind.

    • I hope your prediction of the demise of books doesn’t come to pass! I honestly think 20 years is too soon…I for one still hope to be around then, and can’t imagine not continuing to expand my book collection 20 years from now. And I know of many who feel the same. I agree that ebooks are here to stay, and look forward to watching them evolve, but I think that as long there exists those who love books, not just reading, but actual books, then we don’t have to worry about them disappearing just yet. Newspapers on the other hand, I can see them becoming redundant much quicker. With information so readily available, it seems silly (to me) to print a paper in the morning that by lunch time is possibly already old news. In my opinion, ereaders are definitely the future of the news.

      I agree that with ebooks people are certainly beginning to question the role of the agent (and the publisher!), and I think big publishers and agents alike are going to have to adapt or perish very quickly. It already seems likely they missed the ebook revolution boat. I’m interested to see how they are going to adjust to and confront the situation in the future.

  8. A great article, well thought out and structured. I found myself agreeing with so many of the points made it would be ridiculous to repeat or even list them here. In précis then, I’ve found it virtually impossible to attract the attention of traditional agents or publishers. They seem so interested in the name of a prospective client that unless you already have that name from some demeanour or press-worthy event (actually being able to write doesn’t seem to have any bearing) then you’re pretty much doomed to obscurity. So the e-book comes as something of a relief to the would-be author, a means by which they can compete on a (relatively) level playing field but there, as you point out, lies the crux of the new problem: EVERYONE has access to the same playing field. How do you stand out from the crowd, the majority of whom (go on, I can take the insults coming) have no or very limited writing skills at all? That’s not a rhetorical question, I’d love to find answers. The only one I’ve come up with for myself is to team with like-minded writers and publish through a single collective agency (in my case, Greyhart Press). At least I know that my fellow authors all write to a reasonable standard and that we, as a group, present a consistent image of quality; therefore potential readers don’t have to wonder whether the next offering is going to be worth the read (disregarding personal preferences for style and content, of course).

    So long may paperbacks reign since they’re my favourite medium, but long also may e-books (or whatever the next generation will be called) remain as a means for the non-famous to get a break!

    • It really is a bit of a double edged sword, isn’t it? Whilst would-be authors now have the opportunity to get their work on the market, they risk losing it in a sea of, well, crap.

      I would like to know the answer to your question too! I’m sure with enough people talking about it, the future may bring some as yet unknown order to the chaos, but until that time comes, I’m bracing myself for the mayhem and will undoubtedly be scratching my head for a while longer.

      That’s not to say, however, that I’m not embracing the ebook phenomenon. I don’t yet have a book by which I can make good use of this new technology, but I’m hoping that one day I will, and it’s nice to know that when I do, I’ll have the opportunity to share it with others.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting Nigel, I appreciate your observations.

  9. Hi
    I just wanted to say I normally find these ‘is publishing dead? is the book dead?’ discussions boring but you really brought it to life for me.

    I am finding the world of e-publishing potentially exciting but at the moment confusing, and maybe a little depressing. I have just completed a novel and have put it up for free because I am confused and daunted by trying to ‘sell’ it in competition with all those other millions of self-published ebooks.

    • Hi Quiet Riot Girl! Thanks for stopping by! I think your attitude towards e-publishing reflects a great deal of writers trying to get a foot in the industry. To me it seems like an overwhelming market to enter, and I’m not at all surprised by your confusion, as I feel it too!

      My hope is that as this medium becomes more popular, it will become clearer to readers and writers alike, what they need to do to make the most of and benefit from the technology. It was not long ago that there seemed to be a plethora of platforms and formats to choose from for ebooks, but slowly and surely this side of things seems to have become more streamlined, with most ereaders now accepting multiple formats. Perhaps if we give it some time, we will also make progress with our current concerns as we sail through these uncharted waters. We really are the guinea pigs for this new technology!

  10. Hey Katy,

    Really nice piece. I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, yep, you’re totally right: if you head into a bookstore with a blindfold on, you can generally feel pretty confident the work you end up randomly grabbing at isn’t going to be completely terrible – and will, probably, actually be a pretty good read.

    At the same time, though, just because there are a tonne of ebooks being crapped out and “published” online doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be harder to find the gold. For one thing, the algorithms stores like Amazon use are getting smarter every second. Crappy ebooks should just sink to the bottom. “Potty Training! The Ultimate Potty Training Guide!” will never show up next to the latest Haruki Murakami on the Amazon homepage (unless you’ve got a really peculiar browsing history).

    Then, of course, there’s the fact that Twitter and the “blogosphere” (ugh, terrible term) take on the role of the publisher in some ways: sifting the great stuff out of the slush pile, promoting it, and leaving everything else in obscurity. The only difference is that now the slush pile is theoretically accessible, if you really want to go looking.

    It’s one thing popping an ebook online, and another think managing to market it properly so that it actually gets found. I think publishers still have something to offer here, but I also think creating great quality work will play a huge role.

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting Connor. I have to agree with you that generally, if something is good enough, it will find a way to make itself known.

      I guess my issue at the moment is that I’ve become far too used to relying on other people telling me what’s good (often in the form of reasonably sized ‘bestseller’ bookshelves offering me a manageable selection of books to choose from), so much so that when I’ve gone online to look for a new ebook to sink my teeth into, I’ve quickly become overwhelmed by the number of choices and soon after given up. I realise that this is primarily laziness on my behalf, in that I’m not willing to put in the effort to find what I’m looking for. I definitely think that customer reviews are of service, but like someone else commented, sometimes these reviews are misleading…although I suppose that’s not much different to traditional publishing either.

      This is where my inability to decipher the problem manifests. I end up going round in circles! Ultimately though, as much as I love the potential ebooks offer, at this particular moment in time, for whatever reason, I’m finding it all a bit too hard to navigate. Sigh.

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  12. While the ease of publishing *does* represent something of a problem, I really don’t see it becoming too big an issue, as both a reader and a writer. Fundamentally, ebooks are no different that .jpegs and .mp3s. It’s never been easier to put out music and pictures, and sure, there was an explosion of people fiddling around with Garageband and calling themselves musicians online, but the quality always rises to the top. The Internet has always been particularly good at that, if you stay out of its proverbial back alleys.

    The ebook scene will mature, a lot of the mediocrity will lose interest or get surpassed and ways of figuring out what’s worth your time will emerge. The biggest problem will no doubt lie in picking a scene to follow for a while.

    • “The ebook scene will mature, a lot of the mediocrity will lose interest or get surpassed and ways of figuring out what’s worth your time will emerge. The biggest problem will no doubt lie in picking a scene to follow for a while.” You sum it up rather nicely Cory. I realise we’re still in the relatively early stages of this technology, and I still see its potential despite my current anxieties, so I’m more than happy to stick it out until the time comes when it does indeed mature.
      Thanks very much for your comments and for stopping by :)

  13. “The ebook scene will mature, a lot of the mediocrity will lose interest or get surpassed and ways of figuring out what’s worth your time will emerge.”

    What Cory said, unless the mediocrity are more persistent than the truly and usually overly sensitive, passionate writers…

    I think it will be a word of mouth thing around the blogosphere, writers helping other writers.

    • Indeed, word of mouth is an excellent source of recommendation for writers. I think the readers who are less involved with the online scene will struggle somewhat if they’re not a part of that community, but like Cory said, it is a scene that is likely to mature. Thanks for your contribution to the discussion ajbeamish. It’s nice to see how many of you have confidence in the ebook scene…It gives me hope!

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