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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Few More Lies For the Ignorant (Part One)

So, having already spoken on the Harlequin mess, wasn't I surprised to find this article over at Self-Publishing Review with a whole lot of nonsense for the price of zero (the post is a guest post, so I don't know how well it reflects what the owners of the site wish to portray, since I am not a regular reader).

I'm not going to do much to touch the author's discussion of science publishing. Not only do we not know who the author is (it just says "guest post" and unless I missed something there is no author named), but he contradicts himself (or herself) in the post by pointing to links where people have done exactly what he/she has said isn't happening (after all, Michio Kaku, one of the leading scientists in the world right now, has publicly denounced self-published science authors for producing nonsense).

Where the author really falls off his or her rocker, is in regards to the backlash from Harlequin's decision to create a vanity press. S/he goes through the four main complaints against Harlequin and says a lot of things that would sound like nonsense to anyone with a brain (or at least a brain that is flipped to the "on" position).

First point:
They are cashing in on their slush pile. The questions implicit in this is that the slush pile is of inherently less value than the accepted pile. There are plenty of reasons to believe this isn’t the case. Most novels have been in dozens of slush piles before they’ve been accepted. Does being in a slush pile mean a novel is inherently bad? Then nothing but Sarah Palin’s book would exist – hardly a ringing endorsement of editorial quality control over cynical marketing exploitation.
First off, there are loads of reasons why book queries get rejected (too many for me to list them here, but you can look that up on your own). Some big reasons are: the book wasn't right for the publisher (try someone else), the query was crap (get better at it), or the book was crap (write another one and try again). These aren't universal, but they are common reasons, and you can't assume that a publisher is wrong. Maybe your book really does suck, or maybe it just isn't a good fit.

Second, the fundamental problem with this point is that the slush pile isn't the rejected pile. It's the "to be read" pile. It is made up of manuscripts that haven't yet been picked up by the editor and viewed. Being in the slush pile means you are just one of many trying to get published by a particular publisher. That's it.

Third, this is exactly what Harlequin is doing: cashing in on their slush pile. Instead of publishing that book legitimately, they want to recommend to authors they reject from their slush piles to head on over to their vanity press and pay Harlequin for the privilege of publication. They aren't recommending the authors go to Lulu, which doesn't require you to pay anything up front for a basic package. They are recommending authors that aren't "good enough" for Harlequin's traditional line spend thousands to get published by their vanity press line, with the fake hope that they might get snatched up by regular-Harlequin in the future if it turns out alright. If you don't see something wrong with this, then maybe there's something wrong with you.

Second point:
They’re exploiting naïve authors. Um, pardon me, but book publishers are expert at exploiting naïve authors. That’s why royalties tilt so harshly to publishers, why rights are exploited, why contracts are mind-numbing. Do you really think most publishers sit down with an author and works out a custom deal while patiently explaining the ins and outs, creating author-friendly options to ensure goodwill, and conceding contractual advantages willingly? How naïve do they think we are?
Actually, royalties tilt heavily towards the publisher because the publisher puts a shitload of money into publishing an author's book. See here for the breakdown for hardcover books. Royalty rates aren't ideal, but books also are no longer the dominant mode of consumption these days, and publishers are forced by consumers to produce a lot of books in order to satiate the wandering tastes of consumers. But trying to say that authors get shafted by book publishers is hardly true of all publishers. If anything, booksellers are the ones getting shafted, since they often have to offer massive discounts just to sell the books at all, cutting into the large chunk they generally would keep at the end of the day.

On the other side of things: this is why most authors recommend you get an agent. Agents are in the business to make you (the author) more money, because the more money you make, the more money they make. This is called mutual interest.

Now, getting to the part about taking advantage of naive authors: publishers are hardly taking advantage. They don't lie about anything (well, some of them have, but this is hardly normal of the business). They tell you straight up that you will be paid for your book (they don't promise a particular rate at all) and that your book will be in bookstores. They hand you a contract that states exactly what you're getting and some of them even recommend getting an agent. Vanity presses and a lot of self-publishing houses do the exact opposite. They paint a pretty picture of their print-model business so that unsuspecting authors will flock in and fork out their hard-earned dollars to print a book that a) will not be distributed in bookstores (though many of them say it will); and b) will likely not sell many copies or make you famous (another thing that many of them say is a good possibility). Lulu is one of the few honest self-publishing firms; they have gone on record to say that they want to sell few copies of millions of titles, rather than millions of copies of a few books. Other places don't do that; they don't tell you what you're going to get for your money.

This is what Harlequin is doing by making promises it can't keep, by saying that maybe, just maybe, your book that you paid them loads of money to print will get picked up by the big boys and published. That's a promise that a lot of people in self-publishing have latched onto, but the reality is that of the hundreds of thousands of self-published authors out there, maybe a dozen of them will make it anywhere at all. That's reality. Harsh? Yes, but reality is rarely full of puppies and flowers.

Point Three:
They’re flooding the market. The market is already flooded. There are more books published by traditional publishers than anyone can stock, review, read, or list. Publishers have not been an effective check on the promulgation of unread works, unsuccessful novels, or unappealing books. In fact, the consignment model makes the flooded market more wasteful and expensive than it needs to be by creating waste from the outset.
Why do you think traditional publishers are producing so many books? A random idiotic desire to flood the market? No. They are doing it because of consumers. Consumers want books, but they also are hard to read. Publishers have to compensate for the wandering tastes of consumers by producing many books in the same genres. Some of them do well; most don't. That said, this point isn't actually all that wrong. Harlequin is flooding the market by going with its vanity press, but the argument stands that the market is fairly saturated anyway, but in a good way. Books are selling quite well, with an understandable lull due to the economy. Personally I think publishers should pull back, but publishers are interested in the average consumer, not me.

Point Four:
They’re diluting their brand value. Well, temptations to joke about Harlequin’s brand value aside, most publishers have an inflated opinion of their brand value. Do readers really care that Random House published that novel? Does that make it more interesting, even if the topic, genre, author, and cover are revolting? Not at all. There is little brand value to dilute. For Harlequin, the cleavage of the heroine and the chisel of the hero are probably more important for sales and reader interest.
Actually, if there's any brand that people do care about, it is the Harlequin brand. When people talk about romance novels, the first thing that comes to mind are the Harlequin romances. We can have a long argument about the quality of such novels, but the entire Harlequin company has developed itself as a romance brand of many shapes and sizes. It has a lot of value that will be lost in attaching vanity press work to its label (even if they changed the name of their vanity press).

Consumers are not as stupid as this point tries to make them out to be (in fact, consumers should be insulted by the assumptions made here). They've been eating up Harlequin books for decades and are well aware of what Harlequin has to offer. Once Harlequin starts releasing work that can be printed by anyone with a big enough pocketbook, then you run into the problem of the name losing its value to consumers. There's a reason why the shoppers at this store frequently ask the store owner if certain titles are self-published: because they actually do care about who prints the books they buy and the quality of those books.

Harlequin has made a name for itself by producing books that meet the quality standards of its target audience (or audiences, since they publish a wide range of work). Now they're telling consumers that they'll let anyone with a few thousand dollars hop on in and poop out a book, even unedited, and that there's nothing wrong with them, a major mainstream publisher, doing so. Well, consumers will notice, authors will notice, and so will Harlequin when the brand starts falling to pieces. It's already on its way down, with multiple author's associations culling the publisher from its ranks.

This isn't the end of the things I have to say about recent discussion about self-publishing, but it's a start. You're welcome to vehemently disagree in the comments. I'm used to it. Death threats can be sent to my email.

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  1. I wonder what it is about the world of self-publishing which leads to so much rubbish being talked in it.

    Some self-publishers are great: they write great books, publish them well, and know what they're talking about.

    Others talk nonsense, and then get all angry when anyone dares to disagree, or when anyone points out the many downsides to self-publication: and their combative attitude reflects badly on the good guys of the self-publishing world.

    As you can probably tell, I, too, am used to people vehemently disagreeing with me.

    (Good article, by the way.)

  2. Jane: Absolutely. I have read some fantastic and some just decent self-published books and will continue to support those authors. My problem with self-publishing has always been with the misrepresentation and the intentional or unintentional lies propagated by some of its supporters. Authors needs to go into self-publishing being properly informed, not with illusions and fantasies.

    Those who really do embody the good side of self-publishing, though, aren't the ones doing the right kind of defending, or the ones with the right voice. It's sort of like Christianity. The radical Christians are the loud-mouthed ones, and often the ones that are flat-out wrong. They paint a horrible picture of Christians in general precisely because the ones that aren't calling for the downfall of society are not all that vocal.

    I think more of the good self-publishers need to come out and start talking truth. Otherwise, all that's happening is that a lot of people with loud mouths are perpetuating the stereotypes.