Thursday, April 28, 2011

Changes in the landscape

The world of publishing has changed, and changed dramatically, since my last book came out in 1996.  At that time the World Wide Web was in its infancy, online videos were almost unheard of, and the whole concept of "electronic rights" was barely beginning to enter publishing contract negotiations.  Somewhere in my files, I believe I have an audio tape from a Romance Writers of America conference workshop on the future of electronic rights.  Pretty much no one knew anything.

This is a major concern of mine right now.  As I contemplate a return to publication -- in the sense of putting my creative efforts out there for the public to pay money for -- I have to take into consideration how the changes in the landscape will affect my decision and in fact how those changes will affect the actual product I put out there.

Before the advent of ebooks, the only route available to the writer who could not sell to a print publisher was self-publishing.  Call it what you will -- vanity, subsidy, or self publishing -- it basically amounts to the same thing:  The author puts up the money to print and bind the books and then has the responsibility to promote and sell them.  The investment could be as little as a few hundred dollars for chapbook editions of a poetry collection, up to several thousand to produce a reasonable facsimile of a mass market paperback novel.

Epublishing, on the other hand, requires damn little investment.  Anyone, really, can put any piece of crap out there and call it a novel.  As far as I can tell, Amazon charges nothing up front for an author to put his or her work on their site and slap a price on it and collect a percentage of each copy that sells, even if the only one is to the author him or her self.

This is both good news and bad news.  It means that authors who couldn't find a publisher can now put their work out there for public consumption, and perhaps sell a few copies to a small but dedicated market that isn't sufficient to support print publishing.  But sometimes there's another reason books weren't purchased by royalty paying publishers -- the editors knew no one was going to buy that crap. 

As a writer, I saw a lot of that crap.  When I judged writing contests, when I participated in critique groups, when friends or friends of friends handed me their manuscripts and said, "Here.  Tell me what I need to do to make it publishable."  Sometimes there is NOTHING that can make a manuscript publishable.  Sometimes there's just no story.  Sometimes the writing is so poor that it can't tell the story.  Sometimes it's just dreck.

Agents and editors used to be the gatekeepers, if you will, or maybe they were the gardeners.  They kept the weeds out of the publishing garden.  They kept the manuscripts trimmed, like the trees they were made from, so they didn't get overgrown and scraggly.  Agents first and then editors maintained a place where certain flowers received lots of fertilizer and water and just the right amount of sunlight to grow and blossom profusely.  And they allowed a few others to put out an occasional blossom for the sake of variety. 

But the agents and editors -- who often made far more off a book than the author ever did -- are now faced with a marketplace in which authors are taking  over control.  As has been posted elsewhere, Amazon's Kindle pays authors a 70% royalty on books published through them.  (Royalty rate is lower on lower priced e-books, but anything over $2.99 nets the author 70%.)  What author in their right mind would -- all things being equal -- turn down a royalty rate like that when paper-and-ink publishers will only give them 8%?

All things being equal, of course.  But all things aren't equal.  They never have been.  And how an author negotiates the pathway through this garden of e-ly delights can be a real challenge.

Royalty rates are one thing.  But there are obviously other issues the author has to look at.  One of those other issues is the matter of "professional editing."  When so many people are able to put their work on Amazon or Smashwords or whatever other e-publishing site they choose, who becomes the new gardeners?  Is anyone doing it?  And if so, how?

I came across one website that reviews books,  As writers inquired about having their e-published books reviewed -- a necessity when the author is also the promoter -- the operators of Dear Author put this information on their site:

Q: Do you accept self published books?
Yes but it needs to be professionally edited.


Lynn K. Hollander says:

March 10, 2011 at 12:35 pm
‘Yes but it needs to be professionally edited.’
Could you define ‘professionally edited.’

Jane says:
March 10, 2011 at 12:36 pm
@Lynn K. Hollander: Meaning you have paid someone to edit your book, not just used beta readers.

Okay, fine.  But what does THAT mean?  If I pay my friend Karen, a retired schoolteacher, to "edit" my manuscript, does that qualify?  What would "Jane" at Dear Author consider valid evidence that my manuscript had been "professionally edited"?  Would an email note from Karen thanking me for the $100 gift certificate at our favorite coffee shop be sufficient?  As facetious as that may sound, Karen really is a pretty good editor.  Her grammar and syntax and spelling skills are top notch.  She can catch a continuity error about as quickly as anyone I know.  But does that make her a professional editor?  Or would I have to pay someone who takes out an ad in Writer's Digest, someone who may or may not have any skills at all?

Will this kind of gardening on the part of reviewer sites give rise to hundreds and thousands of online "professional editors" who may have even fewer credentials than those who advertise in Writer's Digest? 

What happens if the "professionally edited" manuscript is worse than the original?  Who will know?

Edited to add --

A post on the Dear Author website now indicates that the "professional editing" issue is one of honor: The reviewers expect the authors to be honest about whether or not their work has been professionally edited but they don't actually have to provide evidence.  I suppose the author who dares to present a book for review without professional editing must then be prepared to accept the F- or DNF or WB review rating and accompanying comments should they be the result.  And those of us who think we write well enough without "professional editing" can take our chances.

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