Selling shovels

You will notice I haven’t been posting much at all, much less my thoughts on ebooks and publishing. Wanna know why? I’m too busy with my burgeoning business to put any thought into a) what’s wrong with publishing (because why do I care?); b) how to go about formatting ebooks (because that changes week to week); and c) wondering if I’m ever going to get my historical swashbuckler researched and written (because I’m a writer, dammit!).

In case anybody cares, these are my current random thoughts, none of which rate the time to explore in a full-on blog post (plus, I’ve said it all before):

1) Writers: You’re screwed unless you put out your own stuff and you can market it. The old days are gone. “Getting” published is fine if that’s what you need to validate your soul. If you want better odds on getting to readers and making a little money, do it yourself. But dammit, do it right!

2) Writers: Remember that the people who made money in the gold rush didn’t make it panning for gold, chasing a vein that didn’t exist. The people selling the shovels made all the money. Learn a new skill and sell some shovels. You aren’t going to make a livable income writing for da man. Just don’t make any plans to leave your day job.

3) Book designers: Stop trying to format ebooks on a print paradigm. Ebooks are not print books. They don’t serve the same function. It’s like trying to apply a print paradigm to audiobooks. Stop it. Learn how to format serviceable, good-looking ebooks and forget about Teh Fancy.

4) Editors: Go freelance. Market your name. Make the authors who hire you put your name in the book so you can establish your brand. The curation of books in the future will depend on the editor, not the author, not the publishing house.

5) Indexers: You have a bright and shiny new field to explore. Learn how to index digitally. It’s called anchor tags.

6) Publishers: Get your metadata in gear. Seriously.

7) Publishers: The first publisher to chapter-and-verse its digital textbooks/reference/nonfiction will win the prize. What do I mean? I’ll tell you. Pick up a Bible. Any Bible, any translation, any size, any publisher. Go to John 3:16. That’s what I mean. Develop a system. Patent/trademark it then license it. Make it the standard of any good digital nonfiction book, the way good indexing is. Indexers, see #5.

That is all. I have a mountain of work to get done before I leave for NY next week.

12 thoughts on “Selling shovels

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  2. Magdalen

    You make so many interesting, intriguing points that it’s petty of me to harp on one thing — even if it happens to be in bold.

    I have two dictionaries on my computer: Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate and Chambers (the British dictionary favored by word puzzle aficionados). “Curation” doesn’t appear in either one. To curate, in the relevant (non-religious) sense, means to act as a curator, which is defined as the supervisor or administrator of a collection.

    I understand what is meant by this neologism in the publishing context. At various stages of the current (and arguably outmoded) paradigm, people act as gatekeepers (defined as those who control access). Agents reject or accept writers based on samples of their work; presumably an agent will not offer to represent a writer whose manuscript seems unprofitable. Those manuscripts (plus slush pile or over-the-transom submissions) get vetted by editors, whose job includes deciding which to pursue for publication. Finally, buyers for book store chains and old-school distributors decide which books to stock on the shelves.

    These stages provide serial opportunities for a writer’s work to be judged as worthy or not. That may seem to some to be what museum curators do: in staging an exhibition, someone has to decide what goes in and what doesn’t. But apart from the fact that curators do a whole lot of things completely unrelated to that gatekeeper function, the entire museum collection metaphor fails to convey the “ordeal by market.” Most museum collections are made up of works and objects that have already been deemed “successful” by market forces. Curators rarely handle works as unvetted as unpublished manuscripts.

    The unpublished works of would-be authors range wildly in quality. We’ve heard enough stories about how Famous Author had her first book rejected dozens of times to know there are surely gems among the tens of thousands of unpublished manuscripts out there. It may seem a kindness to remove the barriers to publication and distribution for writers, but if all would-be authors chose to publish and promote their own work, how easy would it be for readers to figure out which were the gems worth reading?

    I realize you are suggesting that editors get an independent reputation for finding winners. That may work, but it’s hardly a new marketing concept. Leslie Wainger and Karen Solem are two editors whose names I know from their work with Harlequin and Silhouette in decades past. The name-brand editor is the concept behind specific imprints among commercial publishers.

    If editors go freelance, though, doesn’t that weight the system toward those writers who can afford market rates for those services? Writing is a speculative enough endeavor; will we readers really benefit if independently wealthy writers are the ones who can best afford the most exclusive editors? The fact that agents only get paid when a manuscript is sold is at least one safeguard against their taking on writers of dubious quality.

  3. MoJo Post author

    I understand what is meant by this neologism in the publishing context.

    I’m not fond of the usage, either, but it is the one being bandied about, and since this was a random thoughts post, I wasn’t going to go into what I find wrong with the word. ;)

    It may seem a kindness to remove the barriers to publication and distribution for writers…

    First, I’m not talking about “kind.” I’m talking about equal opportunity. The barrier, in this case, has historically been expense and stigma. The expense portion of that has largely been removed and the stigma isn’t holding under the flood of digipublishers and, finally, self-publishers.

    There was a point in time (and still exists) that digital-first publishers weren’t seen as any more real than self-publishers. At least those people get their books out and gain readers, if only a few.

    Who am I to say, “NO! You can’t/shouldn’t self-publish!” Who am I to try to save people from themselves? Who am I to stare down my nose at someone who has done nothing wrong, immoral, or unethical—but is constantly treated that way?

    Trust me, nobody’s kind about it.

    Second, nobody can remove those barriers but oneself. There are none. It’s simple tradition/custom. If you’re willing to be sneered at (many are and many more don’t know they’re being sneered at), there is no barrier but your own abilities.

    …but if all would-be authors chose to publish and promote their own work, how easy would it be for readers to figure out which were the gems worth reading?

    As a reader, I’m not too terribly worried about it. I can’t say many other readers are too terribly worried about it, either. Oh, I see a few here and there bewailing having to wade through the slush, but they mostly don’t see it anyway and couldn’t find it if they tried.

    The name-brand editor is the concept behind specific imprints among commercial publishers.

    Exactly my point. AMONG COMMERCIAL PUBLISHERS. Not readers. I don’t know either of the names you mentioned and I was submitting to Harlequin and Silhouette for years.

    I know of one editor-branded experiment that failed because, IMO, she chose crappy books and edited them badly. From my perspective, it worked because crappy books failed to gain market share.

    If editors go freelance, though, doesn’t that weight the system toward those writers who can afford market rates for those services?

    The system is already weighted in co-op placement, which I really don’t see as different from being able to buy the best editors in the world. Too, you may have a struggling but talented editor who builds his/her brand slowly, over time. Good editors come in all price ranges. Don’t assume that all editors who are rock stars now (heh—like any reader has ever heard of him/her) will remain so in the future, or that there won’t be new ones coming up.

    The fact that agents only get paid when a manuscript is sold is at least one safeguard against their taking on writers of dubious quality.

    Yeah, not if Colleen Lindsay gets her way.

    In short, the “gatekeeping” function can be done if a few people are willing to do something different. Everything you’ve addressed applies to the business of publishing. Almost none of it pertains to readers who, if I am to judge from what I see on the internet, are largely unhappy with what they’re getting anyway.

    It’s about the reader.

    As to the point of “writers of dubious quality,” I say, “So what?”

  4. Estara

    Aye Aye, Sir!! Is my reaction ^^.

    I now picture you efficiently organising everything in real-time, typing this post at double speed and jumping back into whatever important thing happens next.

    Any good ideas for us reader? I feel sort of left out…

  5. MoJo Post author

    I now picture you efficiently organising everything in real-time, typing this post at double speed and jumping back into whatever important thing happens next.

    Heh. Funny enough, that’s actually how it happened.

    Any good ideas for us reader? I feel sort of left out…

    Keep up the good work!

    Without readers, all of the above is null and void. It all depends on you. ;)

  6. Magdalen

    Brit Hub 2.0 and I settled in last night to watch “The States” (he’s swotting for his citizenship test!) and the show featuring Washington made the point that miners heading north to Canada were told to buy $1,000 in gear — and that was money in Seattle merchants’ pockets. Of course I thought of you. :-)

    Here’s what I would propose: Take all the downsized or over-worked editors from commercial publishing and encourage them to set up business freelance. They’d have a menu of services: $X to read a submission, $Y to critique it, $Z to copy-edit it. In a perfect world, editors would have enough work that they wouldn’t want to copy-edit dreck, not for any price.

    At the end of the editing process, authors have two (or more) options: Submit to agent — or, better, have the editor submit to agents as proof that the editor has worked on the manuscript — or self-publish. I think there will be room in the industry for both approaches; not every writer is well suited to self-publish and most aren’t skilled enough to self-promote. In the romance genre, there is a market for disposable books, so some writers would do best working for “da man” rather than trying to market a book that has nothing special about it. Other writers may be well suited for the broad-based distribution that commercial publishing can offer. If a writer can sell 20,000+ copies of her book through the current system, she may make more money than if she can sell 1,000 copies through her own marketing.

    I don’t see one approach being best suited to all situations. You have a remarkable, and possibly unique, skill set to do what you do. In your situation, I would not do nearly so well. The real advice, I should think, is for writers to know all their options and have the power to consider them intelligently.

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  8. MoJo Post author

    In a perfect world, editors would have enough work that they wouldn’t want to copy-edit dreck, not for any price.

    Yeah, I see the choice of what TO edit as part of a freelance editor’s gimmick, part of what makes him/her a GREAT editor on his/her way to editorial rockstardom—not just the work of editing alone.

    Aside (this occurred to me while I was waiting for the dye in my hair to set—heh, which I should probably put at the top of every such post): All my business-ish ideas are premised on skilled people who are honorable in their dealings. I’m not talking about incompetents and scams.

    You have a remarkable, and possibly unique, skill set to do what you do. In your situation, I would not do nearly so well. The real advice, I should think, is for writers to know all their options and have the power to consider them intelligently.

    Oh, I totally agree. Oddly, per my own observation, many of the really good writers I see who are most frustrated with the gatekeeping system actually do have the same skills or a better combination thereof. I don’t know if that’s correlative.

  9. Estara

    Keep up the good work!

    Without readers, all of the above is null and void. It all depends on you. ;)

    I shall do so, to the best of my ability ^^

  10. Ellen

    Moriah — Great post! Just discovered your blog and am looking forward to reading more. So much I could say about the comments here, and many of your points, but want to focus on #3: Book design.

    Having discovered Lulu a couple of years ago while prepping a how-to book that’s very niche-y (elearning development!), I decided to experiment with a new book “design” for some short stories I’ve been working on.

    A bit of background: I’m a published novelist, out of the loop for several years, now on the road full time living with my husband in our RV.

    Though many RV parks (which are a little more upscale than many campgrounds) have libraries, finding good books on the road is a challenge. So I got to thinking…

    What if I designed my short stories to be read easily on a computer screen? Most full-time RVers (my target audience) have computers. If I put them online (one option), they’d need an internet connection, which isn’t always possible.

    Long story short, I ended up formatting my stories using — believe it or not — Powerpoint. I illustrated them and used big fonts to make the wording easy on the eyes while staring at a screen.

    You can see what the result looks like here (click the Preview option under the illustration of the cover; it will take a minute or so to load): http://www.lulu.com/product/ebook/road-tales/6312335

    Here’s what I discovered:

    1. Lulu’s auto-formatting (which was perfect for my other book) added a front cover, and only provided the option of a portrait layout rather than a landscape… Not a big issue, but suggests that even digital publishing isn’t totally ready for prime time.

    2. Admittedly I haven’t promoted the e-book very heavily yet, but it’s getting almost no response. This makes me wonder — is the format too big for download? Price all wrong? Subject just not interesting?

    I agree with you: current e-books, because they’re formatted just like print books, are hard to read online. Those who bought the download (PDF) version of my non-fiction book often said they ended up printing it out to read it. That’s just too bad, as e-books should be helping the environment rather than hurting it.

    Would love to hear your ideas about how e-books could be designed for better online reading, Moriah!

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