Saturday, 10 January 2009

Publishing On Demand: Sales the Only Quality Control?

I have a feeling that there are going to be fewer postings on this blog in 2009 than in the past. Though, if, as I anticipate, I lose my job in August and my house in December (possibly sooner) then I will have a lot more to write about the difficulties of finding work and renting again after reposession. The newspapers are jammed with information about collapse and especially unemployment. Having lived through the 1980s, the one thing I must say is that at least the government is making some efforts to ameliorate the situation with schemes for the unemployed, especially the young who are over-represented and trying to kick the banks into freeing up credit flows. In the 1980s, the government did nothing except worsen the situation, such as by shutting down the coal industry. We were told it was 'necessary' and that to complain about it we were naive or foolish and if we were out of work we were lazy. Of course the people saying that were in good jobs and saw their salaries rise. I do not think the government will achieve much in countering what is a global problem but at least this time we will not be made to feel guilty for the foolish policies of bankers and/or the government. I just wish the woman in my house, like many others would refuse to discuss it. She complained last year that I was overly gloomy when I simply predicted a slight fall in house prices and now when things are many times worse than I said they would be she still complains that I should not discuss the impact on this household. Effectively I need to move to the Midlands where there is work in my field and hanging on while my company sheds more and more jobs is short-sighted and will lead to more upheaval in the end.

Anyway, this was not meant to be a posting about the economy, you can find enough about that at present at every turn. Instead I was going to look at a trend which anyone who has been interested in writing fiction will have been aware for the past few years: publishing on demand. Living in Milton Keynes it was a trend that was apparent locally because we had a big Amazon warehouse near us and the online booksellers Amazon, is the major outlet for published-on-demand books. Now, I am not really certain what the difference between published-on-demand and vanity-published books is. Someone I know who is about to publish-on-demand recently condemned another author had had published that way as simply spent on vanity publishing, so it seems that even authors operating in this field are uncertain about the boundaries.

Vanity publishing was around certainly throughout the 20th century and probably for much of the 19th century. You paid a fee to a disreputable publisher, equivalent to some thousands of pounds these days and they told you your novel was wonderful and published it, but did nothing to market it or promote it. To some extent with the cost of promotion and the uncertainty of sales, many mainstream publishers have sort of moved in this direction anyway. They would not charge you a fee, but if they accept your book as being worthwhile publishing, they will do that but then leave most of the marketing and selling up to you. They do take the risk of publishing the books but reduce their overheads by adopting this approach. To some extent it fits the standard publisher's view that the author sells their book rather than the book selling the book. Intriguing authors can make sales of poor quality books and boring, mudane authors will bring down the sales of even the best written or interesting book. Having publication by a proper publisher, however, for you as an author is nice, because you feel that your book has been approved on the basis of quality. In addition you have not had to pay the vanity publishers' fees, but, even so, your book may rarely appear in any bookshop and its sales may be very low.

Technology shifted the balance in the 2000s. With the computerisation of printing it was possible to simply run off a single copy of a book rather than spend time and effort resetting the printing presses for each one. It did mean that unit costs do not fall the more you print, it costs the same per unit if you print one or ten thousand, but it did allow publishers, and increasingly authors to match supply more closely to demand rather than filling up those remaindered bookshops which still seem to be present in every town with unsold stock. I suppose it is better for the environment too. Perhaps, also, publishers will be willing to take more risk and publish books from different genres that are less mainstream, less worried that they will be left with loads of unsold books if a gamble does not pay off.

With publishers expecting authors to do more of (or entirely) their own marketing, some authors have moved towards a much more direct connection between themselves and their reader/buyer. Back in the early 2000s I attended a talk by a man who had retired early and had gone on various travels around the World, increasingly sponsored for charity and he had begun writing up his exploits as books. He had paid to have these published-on-demand and what he was doing was going around the UK to individual bookshops and offering to signings and talks. There he would take orders and then telephone his publisher and run off just as many books as he needed. He of course had a few samples with him and he would pay a fee to the bookshop for hosting him. He also spoke at other venues like writers' groups, book groups, womens' groups, etc. which had lower overheads for him. In return they got an entertaining speaker. Now, obviously not all of us can tramp around the country selling our books in this way, but it is the path for some. The way more people can do it is via the internet. It is not difficult to have a website set up to sell your books. You can even simply sell them through eBay if you like. There are overheads but they are comparatively small and no doubt you will soon get a feel for if your book is going to sell.

The relationship with publish-on-demand publisher is not free. You pay a fee but usually of only a few hundreds of pounds, well below the old vanity rates. In addition, the more you are willing to do yourself, such as typeset and design the book cover, the cheaper the rate is. The best thing, though, is to make sure you get a page on Amazon because they you become open to the global, English-speaking market. Of course you may never sell thousands, but for the average author even knowing one hundred people have bought their book and are most likely reading it, is a huge step forward from just having it read by friends and family. Of course, you do not even have to have a paper copy, I came across a woman who writes Jane Austen pastiches, who just sells e-books of them off her website. Now, presumably there is sufficient demand otherwise she would not have kept bothering. She still seems to be there even seven years since I first ran across her.

The issue that arises is about quality. Getting a book published in the traditional way you first had to attract the attention of an agent because publishers hate getting books sent directly too them. Getting an agent could be difficult especially if you were writing in a genre which was not mainstream. Then your agent had to find a publisher who would read it and even the best agents were not 100% successful in doing this even for good authors. Then the publisher had to approve your book and move ahead to publishing it. All of this could take time. There was an assumption that poor quality books would not get through, though we all know that that is not the case. Think about all the 'bonk busters', 'shopping novels', 'airport thrillers', celebrity 'auto'-biographies that get produced and sold in large numbers. In particular, influential people often write books whether fiction or non-fiction that get published with little concern for quality and anyone, like me, who has been involved in writers' groups know there are tens of authors in each county who write excellent stuff that will never be published. However, with publish-on-demand there is no quality control. Anyone who can pay to have their novel published in this way will get it out there, and this is why I feel there remain overlaps with vanity publishing.

The one element of quality control of publish-on-demand books is customer demand. If no-one buys the book, none will be printed and presumably no-one will be waiting for the author's next book. The worst of it will be that it is held in some Kb on a computer somewhere until author or publisher decides to delete it. You can argue that publishing on demand is truly democratic publishing. However, this neglects the issue about how people find out about the books in the first place. I was asked by a friend of a friend how he could publicise his gothic-style contemporary thriller more effectively. It had been published by a proper publishers, not on demand, it had its Amazon page but people were oblivious to it. He might as well have published-on-demand and had to get out there and sell it himself. So, there is a need for the kind of publicity that publishers can give. Perhaps blogging can fill in part of this role. Back in July 2009 I followed a link to the 'Eve's Alexandria' blog: which is a blog book reviews by this Eve. I read very slowly, it takes me about three months to get through the average novel, otherwise I would be tempted to have a blog which reviewed publish-on-demand novels.

Quality control by sales can be seen as a way for good books to come to the fore, if only over a long period of time, and assuming they can get equal exposure. Of course, people writing for a particular genre, might simply want sales to a particular audience, such as Goths, and for them that is sufficient. I was interested in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Competition. Last year they had 5000 entries and these were whittled down to 800 from which excerpts were exposed to public vote on a regional basis. I contributed my views on a few, but was severely put off when it came to the final 10. They seemed to be the most blandest of the bland novels and I refused to comment on them thinking of the much better ones which had fallen by the wayside. Perhaps I am out of step with current trends in contemporary novels, but I did despair that the repeated distilling of novels from local, regional and national levels simply left us with the least offensive, but also the least engaging examples that had been produced. When they emailed me to see if I would comment on any novels in this year's competition, I simply ignored it, feeling there was no point in me contributing as the things I felt that were of the poorest quality will always win.

Perhaps being too democratic leads simply to sameness and we need an eclectic mix to creep in around the sides, and maybe published-on-demand novels provide that. Given my Gothic tastes I am much more likely to see novels that interest and even, dare I say it, excite me coming through the more informal route (though I acknowledge that the cost in itself is a filter keeping back a lot of the kinds of people who would be interested in Gothic fiction). Such 'leaking in' benefits the mainstream too. I do not know the total sales for the novel 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin' by Louis De Bernieres but it sold over 420,000 copies on Amazon alone and was made into a Hollywood movie in 2001 (which he disliked, but I feel has a far more feasible, though more romantic, ending than the book). I would challenge you to name another of De Bernieres's novels, though he has written six, the first in 1990, and short stories too. 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin' was first published in 1993 but it took over two years before there were any significant sales, and then it exploded. The reason for this was recommendation through word-of-mouth rather than any sophisticated marketing approach. To some extent his example has encouraged 'viral advertising' of new books and television programmes, though this does not always work the way people hope/expect.

So, not shaking off my concerns about quality control of publish-on-demand novels, I can see they are a way to get a wider variety of writing of all sorts of quality, some really excellent, out into the marketplace. I am optimistic that there will be quality control via sales, and if people want to pay to read poor quality novels, then I guess that it is their money.

If I had not had such a tough time financially (the capital gains tax was finally settled yesterday!!!) I might have been tempted to go down the path of publishing-on-demand. However, I now know that it would be an utter waste of time. I have been running this blog since May 2007 and it has some of my best writing on it, but not a single one of my novels has attracted a single comment. Clearly there is absolutely no demand for my writing. The novel I put on Gothic Steampunk Phantastic was read by 114 people in a year and that was probably because it was free. Perhaps authors thinking of publishing-on-demand should do what I have done, first, and test the water. If, like me, you generate not an iota of interest, instead spend the money on a decent graphics package, make up your own book cover and simply put a copy on your shelf where it will get the most appreciative audience.

P.P. 24/01/2009 - If you ever had any hope of being published except by paying for it yourself, something I read in 'The Guardian' today will douse that belief. Apparently, Harper Collins, just one of numerous publishers in the UK receives 1000 (one thousand) unsolicited novels every month. On top of this must be added the ones which they commission or come through agents. Publishers refer to where most of these novels end up as the 'slush pile'. Uniquely Harper Collins has introduced a rolling system a little like the Amazon breakthrough voting system, i.e. they allow authors to upload the novels on to a section called Authonomy. Apparently it already has 12,000 subscribers who read and rate the novels. Clearly if you are short of cash and want to get fiction for free or want to pass the time at your PC it is a good place to go. Some novels rise to prominence by being voted on by readers and Harper Collins has now given contracts to three that reached the top. While it is good that these authors received prominence, you do wonder about the quality. I anticipate that the same factors will prevail as with the Amazon competition and innovative novels will sink without trace and the most bland will float to the top. Interestingly, one that has succeeded actually has already been self-published, but the author uploaded it to Authonomy to get a better profile. Knowing the level of competition that I face has made me abandon hope of ever being published. Here is likely the only place you will ever see my fiction and given the lack of response, no-one out there is interested in it anyway.

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