When are you ready to e-publish?

When are you ready to e-publish?

That’s the big question that came up recently over at Dean Smith’s blog.

I’ve wrestled with this question for at least ten years — because in the not so distant past, e-publishing was the same as vanity publishing, only less expensive because anybody with an ISP and a home page could take their stories and stick them up on the web to read. No guarantee of any money coming in, but also no New York hurdles to jump through and no pain and anguish of constant rejection letters. And also nobody to take you seriously, because back in the day, vanity publishing was a joke among professional publishing circles.

So what’s the difference between today’s e-book and electronic reader publishing — perhaps most loudly exemplified by Joe Konrath and his adventures in lucrative self e-pub — and the disreputable vanity publishing of old?

If I had to pick just a single word, that word would be: practice.

The reason vanity publishing — writers paying a printer to produce copies of their books — had such a bad name was because so few people doing vanity publishing were any good at telling stories. Vanity became code for ‘crappy writing’ because most vanity stuff was crappy. The author hadn’t worked hard enough on craft issues, the book was painful to read, and anyone who’d spent any time honing their skills could tell the difference between a professional author and a vanity author in probably one page or less. Proficient readers could tell this too. So vanity was relegated to the same side of the publishing business as for-pay “agents” and for-pay “editors” and book doctors and everyone and everything else that is a no-no in the world of bona fide publishing.

But now comes e-publishing and the various electronic book platforms, such as Kindle and iPad. Reputable midlist authors (such as Konrath) actively exploit the new mode, turning heads and softening the wall between the “badness” of self-publication and the “goodness” of traditional New York publication.

Is vanity publishing finally going to have its day?

According to Dean Smith, no. Because new writers who jump immediately to e-publishing as a way to shortcut around New York are also liable to shortchange themselves when it comes to the so-called Million Words rule — that all writers have to produce roughly one million words of fiction before they’ve practiced enough to be “entry level” proficient at writing and telling stories in a manner comparable to professional publication standards.

I tend to agree with Dean, and I am glad I resisted the (sometimes, very strong) urge to throw my fiction up on my web site(s) and give New York the middle finger. It sucked waiting so long for my craft to get up to pro snuff, but being able to say I’ve broken in via “traditional” mode is a big kick in the pants, and I do think the struggle and the work was good for me, from a proficiency standpoint.

To quote Dean:

You are [ready to e-publish] when [traditional New York] book editors start giving you personal rejections regularly, and when you have sold some short fiction to good markets, meaning [Ellery] Queen or Asimov’s or Analog or major mainstream markets. Then your overall writing is up to craft quality … But if you get just form rejections from short fiction editors, have never gotten a personal rejection from a book editor, and have only written in your entire life less than 500,000 words total, I’d say stay away from self publishing. You are not ready. — Dean Wesley Smith

Me: Personal rejections from New York book editors? Check.
Me: Sold to mainstream short fiction markets? Check.

So, as I’ve said for a few weeks, beginning when I get back from Writers of the Future at the end of this month, I’ll be launching a serial novel through this blog and my regular web page. To be published weekly. Both as a way to maybe drum up a little e-cash, and also as a way to begin sticking my toe in the electronic publishing game which seems to be rapidly rising in importance and prominence. If nothing else it will allow me to “flex” on the kind of project I’ve been dying to do for a long time, but am never sure any New York sci-fi house will touch right now: good old fashioned operatic military action science fiction. The kind of stuff I devoured when I was a new reader, and the kind of thing that still seems to grab readers; presuming such a project can be pushing through the doors in the Big Apple.

Oh, no question, I am still going to be sending to the traditional markets and editors. Right now I plan to have at least three books circulating through New York by the end of this year, and a total of a dozen new short stories. Next year? More of the same. Three new books for the traditional mode, and another dozen new short pieces. Plus, I will e-publish my completed serial to Kindle and iPad and whatnot, and probably begin work on another web serial; possibly even a sequel to the first, if reader reaction and traffic indicates it’s a good idea.

I still worry that such a project — either via serial on the site or when published to e-book next year — will sink out of sight due to massive influx of ‘crap’ from all the vanity writers who see e-publishing as the big end-run around the mean old editors with their mean old rejection slips. But as Dean pointed out, audience reaction doesn’t lie. The crap from writers who aren’t ready, will not sell. Sooner or later the readers will figure out who produces good work, and who does not, and word of mouth will be its own best insurance against e-novels getting buried in the junk rush.

So I’m a little nervous, but mostly excited. 2010 has been by far my most productive writing year in my life, and 2011 is setting up to look twice as good. Assuming the serial picks up a little attention and I sell a bit more at the short fiction level, or maybe even get a New York novel deal, I’ll be doing quite well. And if after five years I’ve managed to make all my goals and hit all my different “lanes” of opportunity in the expanded world of 21st century publishing, won’t it be interesting to see which projects have paid dividends?

But you out there, you brand new people. Yes, you know who you are. Please go back and read the Dean Smith quote, because I think Dean has it right. There is no shortcut around practice. You will be doing yourself a disservice if you think your first book or your first story is “camera ready” and rush it to e-market before your skills are at the point they can make you shine, as opposed to making you look foolish. Trust me, lancing at the New York windmill can be frustrating, but when those traditional publishing wins comes, they are enormously gratifying — and a real-world way of telling whether or not you’re finally ready to branch out a bit on your own.

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3 thoughts on “When are you ready to e-publish?

  1. Practice is obviously important for a writer, and interest on the part of major publishers and magazines is clearly an indicative factor of one’s level of practice and their ability to write a worthy story. But something I think is terribly important for someone who wishes to publish their own work successfully — something that doesn’t necessarily reflect itself just by volition of craft-level — is to have a solid, interested audience to sell that work to.

    That doubles the importance of submitting to the major ‘zines and publishers. If someone has previously read your work, published in a major venue, and they liked it, then they will be inclined to buy your e-published work, I think, exponentially more times than if they had not. Basically, the major publishers are still the very best advertising you can get — unless you are a really amazing blogger, or an incredibly involved con-goer, or something to that effect. If there’s no audience, any self-publication will ultimately fall on deaf ears.

    But, hey: you’ve broken the pro market! Your name is out there. And, in a time of media transition, I think you’re doing something really gutsy and admirable. On top of which, I’m looking forward to reading your work — and that, I should note, is built on the fact that you have a great blog. Good luck with the e-publishing, Brad. I’m eager to check it out!

    Cheers,

    -bn

  2. Ben, the issue you bring up — commonly called “platform” in the new e-publishing vernacular — is extremely important. And I don’t think everyone understands it yet. Part of the reason current SFWA president and SF author John Scalzi is who he is, is because he labored for years to cultivate a blog following. He e-published Old Man’s War before it attracted attention at TOR, which would not have happened had John not spent so much time and effort building his “platform” via Whatever. So even though John and I have knocked heads occasionally about stuff, I think he’s a superb example of how “platform” paid off huge.

    Larry Correia is the most recent, perhaps even better example of someone who turned “platform” to his advantage. Being a supreme and self-described “gun geek,” Larry had spent a great deal of time and effort working in the firearms culture, so that when he self-published Monster Hunter International he was able to use a viral word-of-mouth marketing effort among gun geeks to get lots of copies of his self-published books sold, eventually reaching the eyes of a major independent book seller, who went on to chat up Toni Weisskopft at Baen, who then went back and bought MHI — having rejected it initially. Now MHI is in its fourth printing, earning rave audience reviews, Larry is in the pipe for at least 7 novels at Baen, etc, etc. The man capitalized on his “platform” and played to his audience strengths, and is a very important success story.

    So, the question remains: how does a relatively new author build a “platform” on the scale of Correia or Scalzi? I’m not sure I really know. I’ve been blogging for about a year and a half, but I haven’t invested a ton of time and effort in “growing” the blog, only recently beginning to put more thought and time into my effort. I do agree 100% that sales and appearances in “establishment” publications is part of my “platform” plan, because I believe being able to sell routinely to Analog or Asimov’s, and elsewhere, would be a great benefit for my on-line efforts. Hopefully if I bust my ass over the next five years I can get some synergy going, between electronic pub and traditional pub. But there are so many variables involved, it remains to be seen what will work, and what won’t.

    Which is why I always talk about experiments, and why I am treating my entire “new” author effort as a gargantuan experiment. All roads are open. Which ones pay dividends, and which do not, will likely be a combination of effort on my part, and striking chords with readers and a few editors. So far, things look hopeful. But this is just the beginning.

  3. I think it sounds like a wonderful idea, Brad. At the very least, you can develop a following that publishers will be very interested in. I will certainly keep up with the posts.

    I totally agree that you need to be at a certain level before you stick your toe in the e-pub waters. You have to know what you write is quality. I’ll keep an eye out for the first of the serial.

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