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.