Sunday, September 25, 2011

Separating Ego from Work

I’ve recently had a couple of online encounters where artists were personal and passionate about their work. One was an established author disgruntled because readers would come up to him and say they didn’t like this or that about one of his books. The other was a young interior designer upset because clients and contractors were letting considerations of time and money interfere with her artistic vision. In both cases, my reaction was that way too much ego is going into the work here.

Artists are, of course, notoriously self-involved. We are passionate about what we do. We invest time and energy—often more than will be rewarded to any reasonable extent—into making a single chapter or character, a color combination or a design element, work just right. We are constantly dealing, on both the grossest and subtlest levels, with issues of value, judgment, and perception that are always open to question and reconsideration. In the end, our only recourse is to claim, “This is my book, my vision, damn it, and I get to do things my way!

If it was our own garden, planted and watered with our own hands, enclosed within a high wall, and maintained for our own personal enjoyment, plus perhaps that of a few invited guests, then this might be so. But it’s not.

The interior designer is putting together a room she will not live in, because it remains the client’s room in the client’s house. Ten minutes after the painters and upholsterers walk out, the client’s children may spill chocolate pudding all over the color combination and so make it peculiarly their own. And if the client values having $300 in her pocket over the glories of a linen-covered soffit, well, that’s the choice of the woman who has to live there.

An author is in an even more precarious position in declaring the book to be “mine.” Any story made up of words is a collaboration between the author who imagined the scenes and characters and structured those words, and the reader who brings an understanding of the words and his or her own imagination to the reading, so that they come alive in his mind. Readers put more effort into the experience of a book than they ever do into watching a movie.

When readers travel the path laid out in a book, they do not think, “Ah, the author has made the character say that.” They ask, “Why does the character act that way?” Readers of David Copperfield don’t ponder the motives and emotions and literary antecedents of Charles Dickens.1 The readers “suspend their disbelief”2 and participate in the story as a “found object.”3 They like Micawber, despite evidence the man is a fool. They hate Steerforth, despite that young man’s trappings of nobility. Any work of fiction is an emotional investment for readers, and they’re bound to experience things they might wish had happened differently. For a reader later to go up to the author and express these disappointments is really a sign of how deeply invested he or she became in the work.4

Artists may feel passionate about their work for many reasons. First, they selected and dedicate themselves to that art form. I became a writer because I loved words and language and was fascinated by the process of painting pictures and making characters and actions come alive out of nothing more than a flow of words. I may appreciate music or painting as an outsider looking in, but I’m passionate about how words can be used to create alternative realities.

Second, we’ve taken pains to learn the norms and values of our craft. No one can really teach you how to write. No one can give you the vision and taste to imagine how a room might be remade. Teachers can only show you different methods and let you select for yourself what works. They can also critique your methods as a person viewing them from the outside and suggest what may or may not be working in any particular case. But in the end, the artist puts together a unique toolbox of techniques and the experience of using them.

Third, as suggested above, we’ve struggled with this individual creation, this book, this visual treatment of a difficult room. We’re applying what we’ve learned about those values and norms to a particular set of ideas. To some extent, any artist is applying certain known formulas and tricks, like a carpenter tacking up bits of scrollwork or a child doing paint by numbers. The world of choices in any situation is sometimes limited. But to a larger extent—especially if the story or the design is to “come alive”—the artist is watching this particular work evolve. The structure, the choices, often come from the dark gray place behind our eyes, perhaps even behind the back of our heads, which is the subconscious. We don’t always judiciously choose what happens next; it simply occurs to us, it comes to us in a flash, and it feels innately right.

An author is both the calculating architect of a story, placing this piece of action to extend the story line and crafting that speech to cover needed facts, and also the unknowing conduit through which the story coalesces out of the atmosphere of our internal awareness, realizing suddenly that this character must intrude at this point and change the story’s direction. Similarly, a designer may space the sconces along a wall according to a mathematical formula, but know only through some inexplicable insight that the sconces must be a certain shade of blue glass and cylindrically, not teardrop, shaped.

With this level of involvement in the work, it’s difficult to remove our egos and admit that the reader’s experience counts, that the customer will actually live in the room. But if the artist can’t do that, he or she is likely to create a work so intensely private, personal, and … strange … that no one else can penetrate it. And without that penetration, without the participation of the reader or viewer or listener, art has not been achieved.

Think of the poor tattoo artist. Yes, he was born to draw tigers—fierce tigers, with blazing stripes and devouring fangs and eyes that smolder green amidst the orange fur. But this customer wants a rose, a delicate rose, an ephemeral red rose, with a drop of dew. This customer will wear that rose—stare at it, dream of it, treasure it—for the rest of her life. The tattoo artist must not give her one that looks, even a little bit, like a tiger.

Any piece of art—a well-written book, a well-designed living space, a well-painted portrait—is really a gift to the person—the reader, the viewer, the customer—who will live with it. An artist does not want to compromise on craftsmanship, on the elements without which, or when done wrongly, he or she knows the book would be unreadable or the room awkward and unlivable. But the artist must ultimately stand aside from the object and let it simply work for those who receive it.

1. Or, at least, readers for pleasure don’t ponder these abstractions. Literary critics and English majors may so ponder, but they—like other authors reading Dickens—are looking for insights into the experience and craft of writing. Pleasure readers just want to experience the story.

2. To paraphrase Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

3. To paraphrase the New Criticism—which by now has been so overwhelmed by deconstructionist theory that it feels like medieval scholasticism.

4. Of course, if the reader experiences a piece of faulty craftsmanship—a character whose actions do not ring true, a plot turn that damages the reader’s innate sense of plausibility—then the author needs to listen to the criticism.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Future of Publishing 4 - eBook Publishing: The Author’s Toolkit

Now that I’ve described my views on how ebooks are changing the world of traditional, Gutenberg-style publishing,1 what does it take to become a self-published author in the new digital ebook market? We’re going to take as a given that you’ve already written a book, fiction or non-fiction, and you have some idea of the kinds of readers it will attract and what they will expect.2

The first challenge is to obtain some basic editing, and that starts with unbiased feedback. This can be as simple as joining a writers’ group3 or maintaining an “I’ll read your book if you’ll read mine” relationship with a fellow writer whose skills and taste you trust. Don’t depend on sending your book to family and non-professional friends.4 They’ll try to be nice, and what you want is a critical reading by a professional who tells you where he or she stumbled, got the wrong idea, got lost, or got mad at the author—and ideally they can help you fix the problem. Criticism is good. The critical reader, like a skilled editor, is your “eyes behind,” watching your back as you navigate the story.

In addition to critical feedback, it can be immensely helpful to learn to edit your own work. This takes iron will and concentration. First, you have to let the story get cold—become a “good forgetter” after the heat of writing—and then approach it dispassionately. You must look only at the words on the page and what they will mean to a neutral reader coming upon them for the first time, rather than the visions that ran through your head as you were writing those words. The self-editing process involves a bit of benign schizophrenia, because you have to keep asking yourself: “How would I (the reader) know this if I (the author) haven’t explained it yet?”

After the book is structured and you think you’re finished, you probably still need professional help with the editing in terms of spelling, grammar, punctuation, paragraphing, and all the technical details of manuscript preparation. If you’re already a trained copy editor, then get the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style and begin dispassionately whacking commas and adjusting capitalization and spelling choices. Otherwise, be prepared to pay someone else for this service.

Paying a Professional Editor

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the digital publishing revolution is still in its infancy. Most of the freelance editors at work today either hire out to traditional publishers or market themselves to hopeful writers who can’t find an agent or publisher. The usual pitch in the latter case is that a publishing house will only consider a fully edited manuscript. This is simply not true. While obvious sloppiness is a turnoff, acquisition editors really aren’t looking for perfect grammar and punctuation and won’t expect the author to be following the publishing house’s own peculiarities of style. Acquisition editors expect to commission the final editing process once they’ve contracted for the book. The publisher’s first consideration is market potential, and a freelance editor can’t build that in or guarantee a publisher will find it.

But in the digital self-publishing market, readers will expect your book to be as carefully crafted as one from a big publisher. So editing is important. I think of the editing job in two ways: copy editing and structural editing.

Copy editors work with things that are obviously wrong in terms of standard English: punctuation, typos, capitalization, word usage, awkward sentences, consistency and continuity (“This shirt was a sweater on page 98”) and other obvious errors. A copy editor might also offer observations about areas of confusion—such as to who’s speaking which lines of dialog—but will change it only if the fix is obvious (add “Jane said” here and “Clyde said” there). But if the book is going off the track, like not showing how or why they got to Rome after dining in Paris, or whole passages of dialog are banal and obvious and don't move the reader forward, or the ending is really no good—then you need something stronger.

A structural editor looks at the book as an artistic whole. This is what a traditional publisher’s acquisitions editor does, generally working with an author whose book the house has already decided has a potential market and should be published. The structural editor guides the author through a rewrite, rather than taking the manuscript in hand and fixing things automatically, like a copy editor. “You tell us Jane’s a kleptomaniac and has no control over her urges, but it would be helpful if you actually showed her in the act and examined her feelings through internal dialog.” Or, “We already know Jane’s a kleptomaniac, so the fourth trip to the store starting on page 57 is really unnecessary.” “I find the character of Benjamin inconsistent: he says nasty things at the party, but we don’t know why. Then everyone says what a good guy he is. We need some insight here.” “Your ending would be stronger if, instead of Carmen just walking away when Camille kills the dog, Carmen took some action that the reader can identify with.” The structural editor will suggest improvements in line with your original or perceived intentions, but won’t rewrite the book for you.5

Right now, it’s hard for self-publishing authors to describe and then find the kind of editing help they’re looking for. I believe, however, that as the digital revolution takes off, more and more good editors and sensitive agents—perhaps unable to find work in traditional publishing—will offer their skills on line and through talent brokers. If there’s a marketplace of authors seeking specific kinds of help, there will arise a mechanism to provide it. And once again, word of mouth from satisfied customers will be the best marketing.

Other Things You Need for Publishing Yourself

Usually your book will require some kind of special coding before you upload it on the digital distributor’s system. Some distributors will take and convert a Microsoft Word file, but Word creates so much hidden coding and formatting that results can be unpredictable. A manuscript in portable document format (PDF) is a bit more stable, but the coding may still confuse the upload. I’ve found that the only format that works consistently across the three platforms I sell on (Kindle, Nook, iBooks) is the epub standard.

ePubs are based on the same HTML coding that goes into creating your author’s website. The chapters are essentially HTML or XHTML files coordinated by specially structured files that define the contents of the book and their order of presentation. You can create all this by working from models and using a basic text editor. A good source for learning about the standard and obtaining the model files is JediSaber’s ebooks tutorial.

There are professional services that will code your manuscript as an ebook, and software like Calibre ebook management will automatically code an epub from most word processing formats. However, being a bit technical and picky about the details, I prefer to work on coding the manuscript myself.

As a publisher, you will need to obtain an international standard book number (ISBN) for the digital version.6 Not all distributors require an ISBN, but enough do that it’s worth the investment. In the U.S., ISBNs are provided by Bowker, the provider of bibliographic information who used to publish the annual Books in Print catalog. Other services can obtain an ISBN for you, but the source is still Bowker. You’ll pay about $100 for each book number, depending on the level of collateral services and support you need.

It also pays to copyright your work. In the U.S., you do this through the Library of Congress and its Copyright Office. You can apply on line ($35) or with a paper application ($50). The process is easy, and the government website will answer all your questions, especially as to what can and cannot be copyrighted. One thing to note is that there are no “copyright police.” Obtaining copyright simply establishes your ownership of the work beyond the simple act of creation, which is covered by common-law copyright. But you have to defend that right if someone copies or infringes on your work.7 This involves legal action and can be expensive. Pick your battles.

The digital platforms all want you to upload cover art as a way to differentiate and promote your book. If you don’t know any artists who will read your book, paint an inspired picture from some detail, and sell it to you at a reasonable price, there’s still a good way to get art. I favor Getty Images® as a source of relatively inexpensive photos and artwork. You can buy exclusive rights to the image for a lot of money (generally known as “rights managed”) or you can buy the right to reproduce the work (“royalty free”) under certain conditions. With a strong, thematic image in hand, you can then design a simple cover—book title, subtitle, your name—in Photoshop and save the file in the format(s) the distributor is looking for. Be sure to pay for any art you use and apply the appropriate copyright notice when displaying it, usually on the copyright page of your book.

Promoting Your Work

Once you have a book available on the digital platforms of your choice, you’re back to every author’s first chore: getting known outside your ZIP code. There are many ways to do this—all still in development, as the digital revolution devours traditional publishing.

First, you will want to develop and maintain an author’s website. The site is an exercise in shameless promotion: all about you, what you’ve done, why you’re an interesting person, skilled writer, and expert in the field into which you’re trying to sell your work.8 You can have a site professionally created and maintained, but updating it by working through others can become frustrating and expensive. The alternative is to get some good web editing software, buy a domain name, contract for webhosting services, and learn enough HTML coding, picture management, and other skills to work the site yourself. (And yes, there’s a Dummies book for learning all this.)

When you produce and distribute a new book, be sure to create a special page on your site that features the book itself. Then, when you announce the book in various media, you want to link directly to this page, so that interested readers don’t have to search for it among all the other nice things available on your site.

Many authors keep a blog, so that they can generate continuing interest in their views, their area of special interest, their careers, and also their new works. The blog can be on the author’s site or hosted by a service like Google’s BlogSpot.

Many authors use social media sites like Facebook, Linked In, and Twitter to introduce themselves, discuss their work, and announce new projects and book titles. This is a delicate business, because the first purpose of these sites is social, not business. It pays to be an active participant, “liking” friends’ posts that reflect your taste and core values, and commenting intelligently on them so that potential readers will understand what a wonderful and thoughtful person you are. Once you’ve established yourself as a person, you can sparingly introduce and discuss your books and link to your website and special book pages. But if you’re too heavy-handed and commercial, people will avoid and even “defriend” you.

There are also paid advertising opportunities, like Google’s AdWords and Facebook Ads, that can target readers who might be interested in your book. In my mind, the jury is still out on how effective this will be for a new author with not much name recognition. If you keep a large mailing list of postal friends and acquaintances, you can also commission and print postcards about the new book and send them to your list.

Marketing is going to be key to getting your book known and start generating word of mouth, which is the best advertising. But this is not a new problem for authors: It’s been a long time since traditional publishers paid for expensive promotions and book tours for all but their bestselling authors. And, in the case of self-published ebooks, time is on your side. The ebook will stay in print, available to your growing circle of fans, virtually forever.9 You’re not running ahead of some publisher’s deadline for when the inventory of paper must be pulped and copies remaindered at the bookstore.

Time to build your name and following means everything to a new or returning midlist author.

1. See eBook Publishing in Various Art Forms.

2. Yes, even as a self-published author you need to consider the market in order to know how to promote your book. If you didn’t want people to read it, why go to all this trouble in the first place?

3. You have to be wary of writers’ groups, however. Writing is personal, and you will meet many people with firm opinions about structure and technique who will try to impose standards that may be wrong for your own style, voice, and content. You will also meet a lot of frustrated people whose only joy left in life is verbal assault and battery in the guise of being helpful.

4. Your mother loved your first book, didn’t she, even though it was written in crayon? She will love everything you do. This is not helpful.

5. The acquisition editor’s call for rewrites is one reason—along with the outmoded practice of buying an outline and sample chapters before the book is complete—why publisher’s book contracts usually divide the advance between “on signing” and “on delivery of an acceptable manuscript,” sometimes with a third split to “on publication.”

6. The book itself carries the ISBN, which is used across all distribution platforms. If the book previously or subsequently appears in paper or aural format, those versions will need separate ISBNs.

7. The current ereader services I’ve dealt with will usually enable a “rights managed” function to protect your book against unauthorized transfer and copying. And most platforms make it difficult for you to access the reading device’s memory, extract the book content, and send it to your 3,000 best friends in an email. (Although, with some, you can “loan” the book to another reader through a security function.) Frankly, in terms of stealing ebooks wholesale, I worry more about Google’s apparent efforts to digitize every book ever written and make them available through its own search services.

8. Needless to say—but I’ll say it anyway—you want to create an attractive persona for a wide audience. That means avoiding discussion of your radical political opinions—unless they are central to your work and readership—as well as your nasty personal habits, gossip about and disparagement of your family and friends, and any detail of your life you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of tomorrow’s paper. Websites are terribly public places and attract all kinds of notice: to your benefit but also to your harm.

9. Or as long as that particular distribution platform remains popular and relevant.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Where Were You When …?

What is it about an event that makes us fix the place, the time, the things we thought, even the images of whatever we happened to be looking at—everything about a moment—so firmly in the mind that we remember it a lifetime later? Is it simply strong emotion, the reaction to triumph or tragedy? Or the numbness of shock? Or the flash of intuition that our world has changed?

In October 1957, I was at recess in grade school when someone—it must have been one of the children outside with me—said the Russians had launched a satellite. I remember looking through the windows into my classroom, then being inside looking out at the grass when the teacher confirmed the story. That night my brother and I listened to the radio in our bedroom after lights out. Usually he tuned in X Minus One, the science fiction radio plays, but now we were listening to a rebroadcast of Sputnik 1’s tiny, cold voice: “Beep … beep … beep …” as it went around our world.

In May 1961, I was sitting in English class when the school office put on the public address system the nationwide broadcast of Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 launch and down-range flight. I knew by then that the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had already orbited the Earth, but I don’t remember how or when I learned about that. It was Shepard’s 15-minute suborbital flight that stuck in my mind. I remember looking at the clock in the room as they counted off the last seconds before liftoff.

In November 1963, I was sitting in study hall in a different high school, doing my homework, when the PA system came on to announce that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. That was all they knew at the time: shot but condition not announced, although of course he was killed instantly. I still remember the pattern of black-and-white ceramic tiles in the floor of that room.

In March 1989, I was getting ready for bed, and we had the television on for the ten o’clock news. The lead story showed what looked like a steel bar in a beaker of boiling water, and the announcers were talking excitedly about cold fusion. A nuclear reaction was happening right there in the beaker, with people standing around and the video camera recording it all, amid the neutron flux. I remember being struck by the wonder of the thing: a complete reversal of my current understanding of nuclear physics. At the time I was working at a public utility with a major investment in a nuclear power plant, and I remember thinking, “This changes everything about the energy business.” But, of course, not all world-shaking events are real.

In September 2001, I was climbing into the vanpool that would take me to work at the biotech firm when the driver told me, “They just flew an airplane into the World Trade Center.” At first I thought it was a terrible accident, like the airplane that crashed into the Empire State Building in the fog in 1945. Then, as we listened to the van’s radio, it became apparent that this was a planned attack using our own jetliners loaded with passengers. I remember thinking, “This is an act of war. Now we are at war.”

I’ll carry these memories, like shiny new dimes among the dull gray metal of my usual pocket change, for the rest of my life.

Ten years after that morning in 2001, I still don’t know if my initial reaction—“Now we are at war”—was prophetic or just a fatuous overstatement, like my “This changes everything” response to cold fusion.

Certainly, in the time since then, we’ve declared two wars on Islamic states, Afghanistan and Iraq, for varying reasons. We won both of those wars easily, in terms of routing their armies and toppling the sitting governments. But in neither case has the follow-through—the cleanup, the peacekeeping, the bringing-about-something-better—been completed successfully.1 And now the Afghan war seems to be spilling over into Pakistan in a reverse-domino effect.

It has taken us ten years of dogged intelligence work to penetrate and eviscerate the clique of rich, sophisticated, disgruntled terrorists who planned and pulled off the September 11 attacks. It took ten years to track down and kill the mastermind behind it—a man whose virtual absence from the world stage, despite his many opportunities for international bragging and nose-thumbing, had by then firmly convinced me that he was already dead.

We still have unfinished business with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Our enmity began with the embassy hostage-taking following the revolution in 1979. The struggle continues as the Iranians support terrorism in the Middle East and prepare to acquire for themselves a nuclear weapon. We can only hope that possessing such a weapon leads to a moment of clarity that will keep them from ever using it. For every bomb they make, the Western world still has a thousand. That kind of imbalance just has to sit uneasily in even the most fevered mind.

From one point of view, these are the further steps in a world war that’s been going on, with varying degrees of intensity, since 732 AD. In that year the Franks beat back an adventurous, expanding Moslem army at Tours. Islam’s invasion of Europe was followed by Europe’s invasion of the Holy Land during the Crusades, and it’s been forward and back ever since. In the latest move, Islamic immigrants are flooding into and starting to change the culture of Europe, while oil-rich sheikhs and the Saudi Royal Family promote schools of fundamentalist religion and activist cliques like al Qaeda.

From one point of view, a resurgent and revitalized Islam is making its final grasp for world domination, the universal caliphate, and the West is too trapped in its own colonial guilt and multicultural distractions to notice. But from another point of view, a weak and fractured Middle East—riven by violence between Sunni and Shia, mortified by the rise of a Jewish state in their midst, impoverished by generations of corruption and neglect amid all that oil wealth—struggles for identity while the aggregators of that wealth play the Israeli card, the Great Satan card, the Caliphate card. The powerful few who have risen to the top dream of glory while supporting futile attempts to break the West’s true strength. They may hope that a return to medieval religious purity will win the world, but the West has already shown that liberal measures of education, personal and creative freedom, scientific inquiry, and open exchange of ideas as well as goods and services have unleashed such a power that it can never be extinguished.

If we are at war, then it’s a ding-dong battle2 between old men in dark robes quoting scripture and young men and women in white lab coats unlocking the secrets of the universe. If we’re at war, it’s an unequal contest between professional soldiers armed with the most advanced technology and children soaked in dreams of paradise. If we’re at war … then the nicest, kindest, most charitable thing we in the West can do is try not to hurt them too badly as they lurch furiously after their fantasies.

Islam is not the problem. Belief systems may provide a pretext for violence but they are seldom the root cause.3 The real problem in the Middle East is public anger and frustration at being left behind by a larger world the people no longer understand. And now small groups of potential tyrants are using that anger to engineer a shortcut to power through chaos. But eventually wiser heads will prevail and begin to figure out a workable path to the future. And then we in the West must be gracious in offering them a helping hand in developing modern, enlightened states that provide real fulfillment and opportunity for their citizens.

1. See When a War Is Not a War from April 10, 2011.

2. To steal a phrase from Frank Herbert’s Dune.

3. Consider that every successful religion is a means of processing a wide range of human experiences. Religion must offer its adherents a method for achieving salvation amid the difficulties of existence, a route to peace and stability. War against unbelievers—which has been a facet of almost every religion (except Buddhism) at some stage in its development—is always a short-term measure among young, expanding belief systems. But what happens after you destroy or convert your neighbors? In the larger world, every mature religion eventually reaches a point of stability with competing and incontrovertible belief systems.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Future of Publishing 3 - eBook Publishing: No Inventory, No Logistics, No Middlemen

As I described last week,1 traditional book publishing based on Gutenberg economics has had a bad effect on authors. It has expanded the number of middlemen they and their work must meet and satisfy: agents, acquisitions editors, booksellers’ buying agents, and sometimes even movie producers.2 It has turned the act of writing a book and reaching readers into a high-stakes literary lottery, with blazing success as the only viable option—but only if you are willing to let outsiders and their first-impression opinions direct your creative process. In this environment, new fiction authors and returning authors with less than stellar sales face immense hurdles in getting their book before readers. Agents languish with stables of once-profitable authors who can’t make a sale, and so they won’t consider and take on new clients.

Gutenberg economics have also had a generally bad effect on readers. Popular culture now passes through the filtering lens of more and more middlemen to reach fewer and fewer actual decision makers in big conglomerates. They all look for obvious successes and promote them feverishly at the expense of riskier projects. The result is a lower volume of new titles with far less originality, as every hopeful author strives to copy a known successful formula that will run this gauntlet.

All of this is driven by the physical fact of the book: a wad of paper with ink marks on it. Such an object can only be economically produced in large volumes through the one-time act of running a press. Then those wads of paper must be warehoused, accounted for, shipped to the bookseller, sold or not—and if not, then shipped back to the warehouse and accounted for again—with inventory costs and tax effects looming over the whole process.

Enter the Digital Book

Digital publishing—made possible in various formats by the recent successes of Amazon’s Kindle ereader, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, the Apple iPad’s iBooks app, and other digital readers and print-on-demand strategies—now changes all that. As an author, you still have to write the book as an up-front investment, and it helps to invest in having someone edit and prepare it professionally. But after you have coded your epub or MOBI or RTF version, prepared an eye-catching cover, and obtained an international standard book number (ISBN) and copyright protection, the rest is automatic and electronic.

You, as the self-publishing author, go on line with Amazon, B&N, Apple, and other distributors, sign a non-exclusive contract, and upload the book’s content, cover image, description, and other details. You establish your rights (worldwide or specific to markets like the U.S., UK, or Germany) and set a purchase price. Most of these services offer royalties ranging from 35% to 70% of the book’s retail price.3

There is no press run to pile up copies, no physical inventory to warehouse or tax. There is virtually no distribution cost other than the space allotted on the booksellers’ computer server (usually less bytes than a high-resolution photo would occupy) and adding a couple of lines to their sales and accounting database. Then the electrons go out as readers order the book, and the money comes back in the form credit card and PayPal transfers.4

Traditional paper-based publishers have been wrangling with authors and agents over digital rights to their books for ten to fifteen years now. Publishers have long known that, once some kind of digital tablet established an ebook market, readers would choose the digital book over paper in large and growing numbers. But the power of the traditional publisher was based on Gutenberg economics and the investment in making physical books on a printing press. Over the years, the book publisher has accrued other powers: acting as a filter of potential authors and guaranteeing quality and taste to the reader; promoting books in the marketplace; and providing advance payments that support the author during the production period between manuscript completion and the book’s arrival in the marketplace.

Without the investment in a press run, what does an author—or the reader, for that matter—need with a publisher? The guarantee of quality and taste is really a guarantee that the book project will have enough mass market appeal to attract big sales and support a big press run. On that basis, lot of tripe gets published in pursuit of the reader’s bucks. The promise of promoting books has, as noted in my previous blogs on this topic, gone mostly into marketing to buyers at the big chain bookstores. Reaching individual readers is usually left to the author, through arranging his or her own readings, signings, convention appearances, and postcards to fans and friends. The offer of an advance, while nice, is hardly necessary when the production period between finishing the manuscript and having it appear is the time to upload on the distributor’s server.

You as the author/publisher still have to get your name in front of the readers, but the power of the internet helps you there, too. It costs very little in terms of money to set up an author’s website; the real investment is in terms of the time you spend to keep it fresh and interesting so that it will attract new readers and reward those who return. It takes the same or more time, but no extra money at all, to blog as a way to show potential readers how interesting and talented you are. The new social media like Facebook, Linked In, and others provide ways for you to keep in touch with friends and colleagues—and by extension their multiples of friends and colleagues—about your book projects.

You can also take out ads and send copies of your book to online review services. The marketplace for advertising, like Google AdWords and Facebook Ads, is still in its infancy and sure to develop in response to authors who self-publish. Most of the online booksellers now offer a reader review feature that lets potential buyers see what others thought of a book. Online services to market the book (for the author) and review the field of current books (for the readers) will spring up to guide the public’s attention. These independent, internet-enabled services are already functioning in nascent form.5

As to revenues, new authors wonder how they can make money by charging a low price—averaging just $2.99—for a new ebook. But if the ebook distributor pays 70% of that declared price directly to the author, the book nets about $2. If a traditional publisher gives you the usual 10% royalty (and I’ve gotten a lot less), you don’t make that much money on a $15 trade paperback. I think for the mass of authors the ebook market will be very good—provided they can step up and market themselves.

“But I Like the Feel of Paper”

Right now, the market for books—and especially novels—is in furious transition. Readers who claim they like books are discovering what they really like is stories. Yes, the beloved physical book is a familiar object, but it’s also heavy, troublesome when you want to take four or five of them on vacation, awkward when you’re finished and want to store it on your already bulging bookshelves, and increasingly expensive. The average novel in hardcover lists for $20 to $35—so expensive that bookstores now routinely discount them deeply. In paperback, the price is $10 to $20, and also discounted.

By comparison, the digital version that goes out on the distributor’s ebook platform (Kindle, Nook, etc.) is usually half to a third of the paperback price. It is immediately downloadable (no trip to the store or UPS delivery from Amazon), virtually indestructible (break or lose the tablet, and you still own the book on the distributor’s server), easy to carry (those memory chips can store a whole library), electronically searchable and navigable (“Where have I seen this character before?” Search back through the text), and adjustable (scale the type size for aging eyes). The book automatically keeps your place, right up to the last page read, and with the right apps can duplicate this service across a variety of platforms (e.g., with a Kindle or Nook app on your iPhone and iPad). This convenience, along with the knowledge that your purchase involved cutting no trees to make paper and burning no diesel to ship books, is a clear win for digital editions.

Readers also get a much wider selection of authors, styles, and views of the world—more potential books that they will find are written exactly to their taste—and the personal pleasure of discovering a midlist or little-known author who can reliably create the magic for them. What Gutenberg did to quills and parchment,6 ebooks are doing to presses and paper: changing the manufacturing process and expanding the world of reading a thousand-fold. The power of the publishing conglomerates to dictate literary winners and losers is broken.

Will the printed book entirely disappear? Of course not. Some people will always love a book so much that they want cherish a copy on good paper bound in cloth or leather. Others will want to send favored books as gifts. But for general reading, to satisfy the hunger for one more story, paper books will go the way of newsprint as an archaic medium. We’ll get our daily fix of science fiction, romance, mystery, and so on by electronic presentation.

As the market turns to digital books, the current crop of heavy-hitters will still thrive on name recognition. Dan Brown and other bestselling authors will still lead sales. But the gates will open for other authors who can tell an interesting story and satisfy the reader’s urges but have been kept out of the market because their work did not have bestseller potential. The market will recognize many new “goodselling” authors as well as quirky, niche authors who may attract only a thousand readers worldwide, but those will be the most loyal buyers of all. These new authors will also have time to make their names known and reach their intended readers, because the ax of being remaindered need never fall on a digital book.

The gates will open, also, on a flood of truly incompetent authors who can’t tell a story and don’t even know that they can’t. But that’s where word of mouth—the only marketing mechanism that most readers really trust—will establish quality and originality, or their lack. But quality in the marketplace is always in the eye of the beholder and buyer.

1. See Through the Eye of the Needle in Various Art Forms.

2. Especially in the context of media tie-ins like the Star Wars or Star Trek books in science fiction, where a studio owns the creative rights. It can be creepy to have movie producers—who traditionally disdain to read lengthy, detailed pitches and treatments—call for changes and even third-party rewrites in a novel-length book.

3. This compares favorably with the 6% or so royalty in traditional paperback publishing and 10% in hardcover. And, if you are represented by an agent, he or she takes 15% off the top of that royalty.

4. There is no real need for issuing a new edition, either, except for clarity or to reboot sales. If the author discovers an error or typo in the current text, fix it and upload again; future buyers—or those who archive the book away from their readers—will get the corrected text. Similarly, while the author can withdraw a title from sale, it remains available to past purchasers because they have bought the right to read the text in perpetuity.

5. For example, see the goodreads book recommendation service.

6. You can still get nice calligraphy done: diplomas and certificates and cute mottos to hang on your wall. You just don’t try to read the latest thriller in parchment.