Comic Con asked me to moderate a publishing panel for the online version of the Con this year. So I got on Zoom with 5 bestselling authors to talk about THE FOUR QUADRANTS OF PUBLISHING: The Big Fix/Six, Traditional Small Press, Print on Demand/Ebook Press, and Self-Publishing and the Pros and Cons of each. The ensuing discussion should be useful as you consider the career you want to pursue. Enjoy free below!
There’s always going to be as many different approaches as there are different types of writers. It’s a fact one must accept, despite any strong opinions an author my hold on various publishing & writing related subjects. The furor this past week over the whole “paid reviews” scandal and John Locke’s How I Sold One Million E-Books In A Month is just a sign of the realities. For many authors, writing is an art and integrity is the goal and of high importance. For others, those who buy into the fairly common myth that all authors are rich, writing is a means to fame and fortune. They want to get rich. Writing a quality book is secondary as long as people buy what the put out there. Others lie somewhere in between. Wherever you are on that scale, it’s easy to be frustrated by the many pitfalls and struggles one faces on the writing journey. And when someone seems to take an unethical short cut to get there, it can make you mad.
Paying for reviews has been around for a while. Library Journal, Kirkus, and Publisher’s Weekly allow people to pay to have books reviewed under certain circumstances: 1) it’s three months past release date; 2) it’s self-pubished. There are others which you can find on their websites under Review Policies. But there’s a big difference between paying for their time and attention to your book (they are not cheap in what they ask, mind you) and paying for a guaranteed outcome. Paying for five star reviews is something that’s about dishonesty and cheating. Paying for the time of respected review sites which are swamped and by which association–good or bad review–your book will draw more attention, that’s the reality of the marketplace. So while paying for reviews isn’t new, the trend toward buying success definitely is and it’s quite disconcerting.
Reviewers, like editors, bookstore staffs and publishers, are gatekeepers. What happens when it becomes public knowledge that the keys to the gate can be purchased? For those who count on gatekeepers to weed out the wheat for the chaff, how will they know where the lines of quality expectations are drawn? Admittedly one of the issues with the rise of self-publishing and POD is that sometimes really good books get mixed in with a whole lot of low quality crap. There are no gatekeepers and it’s way too easy, so some people write their book and rush it onto the market with no money or time spent on editing, quality art, etc. These are not artists, these are capitalists. And so the reader and book buyer is left looking for a way to be sure they spend their limited budget wisely, especially in the current climate. And gatekeepers provide one trusty way to at least cut down the odds that you’ll be buying crap. There’s no guarantee that you’ll like every book you buy from such professionals, but you can at least be sure someone who makes their money warding the gates took a look and signed off on it. You can expect certain standards of editing, layout, art, etc. And for many, those things are indeed a comfort.
So the saddest possible outcome of scandals like this “buy a good review” outbreak is the loss of trust readers may develop in gatekeepers which, in the age of self-publishing and POD, are becoming even more important than ever. Book bloggers are going to play a big role in the future as the publishing industry model changes. This is especially true for independent authors and small presses who don’t have mega-corporate budgets for marketing and must rely on word of mouth. You need reviewers in whom readers place their trust and confidence to help spread the word about your books. If readers begin thinking all reviewers can be bought, you’ll be in big trouble. This is something you should think about long and hard before buying a review. Because the long term impact on the market could be staggering.
But another sad reality is the pressure some may feel to compromise their integrity and beliefs because “that’s what you have to do to make it.” From fellow authors to small presses, if the trend continues, pressure may grow to participate in buying reviews. As New York trade houses cut their staffs and buy less books by new authors, newcomers may find POD and self-publishing is the best way to open the door. But without marketing, they stand no chance to succeed. If buying reviews is the only option or what works, many many put aside their ethical questions to “go with the flow.” And that would be unfortunate, because such decisions can lead all kinds of places, most especially to regrets about what one can never undo.
I think integrity still matters in life and in writing. Readers who know you continue to sweat over your words and put out quality stories, characters, etc. will wait, despite the length of your process, anticipating your next book with excitement. The integrity of your process may frustrate their patience but it won’t disappoint their sense of respect for you as long as the books are worth the wait. There’s still value in remembering who you are doing it your way. No matter what pressures arise in a culture of cheating like the one that seems to be arising around buying reviews and all kinds of other aspects of publishing. If it truly gets to the point that people of integrity have no place in publishing or in society, we’re in big trouble. We’ve already seen major repercussions of that around the world.
So despite the claims of those who would buy their way to the top, I would still remind and urge fellow writers to Do It Your Way, be yourself. It’s okay to say “No, that’s not for me.” It’s okay to separate wrong from right. It’s okay to pursue dreams with a moral compass and do the right thing. It’s still okay to believe in art.
For what it’s worth…
On my Facebook page, the other day, I lamented the fact that lost in the present debate over PC terminology surrounding the Self-Publishing v. Traditional Publishing debate are some good points about contracts, quality and other concerns. This led to a discussion between fellow author David Boop and I about what distinguishes good from bad and the key element mentioned was editing. Self-Publishing authors, even Print On Demand presses, who do not approach publishing with the same professionalism as traditionally published pros in regards to edited, polished presentation of their work are the ones who tend to cause both readers and fellow authors a lot of frustration and concern. Of course, editing standards and taste do vary, so people might still find nitpicky complaints, but at least the polish and shine would be evident and the resulting works would meet a higher standard more comparable with other items you see coming out of more traditional presses.
But then someone jumped in with this comment, which really concerns me:
Regarding SP crap and typos, maybe there is a new day coming. Imagine, as John Lennon said, a world in which new authors are routinely forgiven, not condemned for typos and a few lapses in story development. Instead, readers seek out and find authors who have something new or entertaining to say, not giving a thought to the odd error here or there, because readers understand newcomers have little help, just their native storytelling ability. Don’t forget, it’s really all about readers and what they think these days, not publishers.
The commenter here is a writer and scientist. Although I have not read his work in either area so can’t verify credentials, let’s just take him at his word and instead address what concerns me about the comment. (To be fair, he now says he agrees with me on quality that he did not mean to imply that at all but I am still discussing this because the notion of authors being forgiven for lowered standards still disturbs me. And this quote is verbatim though I shall not name him.)
I hope that era never comes. Quality matters. Professionalism matters. Presentation matters. Grammar matters. Clear communication matters. It’s not just about ideas. It’s about craft. It’s an art. And I don’t believe it will ever cease to be an art nor should it. There will always be discerning readers and undiscerning readers. But any writer who is not concerned with growing and constantly striving to do better is short changing themselves and their readers both. There will also always be people who don’t care about such things but I hope they remain the minority because the lowest common denominator is no standard I want to work by. Do readers matter? Of course they do. The consumer always matters in a business. But taste is very subjective. And what helps you appeal to the broadest base of consumer has always been putting out consistently quality merchandise onto the market. The day quality stops being a concern because “people don’t care” would be a sad day for the literary arts and would ultimately lead to its destruction. Because the day people stop caring about making quality work is the day we begin to not care how our work engages, challenges, teaches, touches, and interacts with our audience. And the minute you start down that path you aim yourself at a standard which eventually means nothing you produce will be worth consuming.
The commenter’s point was he got ignored by traditional presses, self-published, got Hollywood interest and success so who needs them. My point back was that he’s an exception not a rule and one case does not a pattern make. In other words, he got lucky. It doesn’t negate concerns of quality nor the validity of traditional publishing as a route to success. I personally think any author who fails to educate him or herself about the business and every possible option to sell his/her work as well as how to achieve professionalism is playing the fool. If you don’t care enough to make your work the best it can be and to utilize all options to make it available, why should someone else care to go out and find it and spend money on it?
Books have gotten expensive. So have movies. I care very much about where my limited money goes in regards to such entertainment and I think I’m in the majority not the minority on that. If I pay $10 or more to see a movie and it sucks, I get pissed, which is why I don’t go to movie theaters as much any more and when I do go, it’s to matinees because they are cheaper. It’s why I don’t buy unknown hardbacks but instead buy paperbacks because until I know a book is worth adding to a permanent library with investment in a hardback, I am not risking my hard earned money on one. There are authors whose quality I consistently trust. I’ll go straight to hardback with them every time. I have rarely been disappointed. And that just brings me back to quality again. The only reason I know those authors’ work will be quality I can trust in is because they care about professionalism in how they prepare and present their work. I would buy work by any of these authors regardless of the publishing medium–traditional, self-published or POD–because I know their standards for themselves and their work and know that I will be getting a quality product in any of those cases if their name is attached. I won’t have to forgive lots off typos or gaps in story development. Those things won’t exist to distract me from the work itself. (Put aside for a moment the fact that I have yet to buy a single book where I can’t find at least two typos–that’s a lapse in copyediting practices and the nature of the beast rather than a failure to seek quality. And editing is far more than just grammar and typos–eliminating cliches, knowing tropes, positioning a book within the genre or market–there are so many factors an editor can bring to awareness and help polish).
I don’t buy the argument that newcomers have little help and that’s an excuse to put out work that doesn’t meet professional standards. There are editors and others who are available to work with anyone who is willing to invest the time and money to get it right. No one can really say those things are not available to them. They may be too lazy to look for them. They may not care (for more often the case, I fear). But they could achieve professionalism if they really cared about it and wouldn’t necessarily cost them an arm and a leg.
If the day comes when we don’t care about such things, it will be a great loss for all of us and for our society. We will have lost not only an opportunity to achieve greatness in literature (or at least try) but an ability to communicate well. And any society without good communication is doomed to ridicule from other societies which hold higher standards (they will always exist) and from future generations who recognize the failure, the trap it leads to, and how destructive it was. It’s a denigration of our legacy, in a sense. And that’s something I care not to be a part of. So, my commenting friend, I do hope you’re very wrong indeed.
For what it’s worth…
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming in Summer 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.