My Own Personal Grey

Not the Whole Enchilada


E-publishing, and specifically self-publishing e-books on Kindle, is a hot topic right now what with the interesting juxtaposition of Amanda Hocking’s Big 6 print contract and Barry Eisler’s ship-jump from print to Kindle only. In the meantime I’m also engaged in a contract negotiation and the issue of e-books is, of course, a major one. E-books have been an increasingly large issue since I first got into the business and while it may appear that I’m ignoring it, mostly I’m keeping my impetuous trap shut and observing and thinking a lot.

Over the past two years, I’ve been asked with some regularity when/if I will engage in electronic self-publishing (with varying degrees of “and get out from under the thumb of those evil money-grubbing publishers” implied or actually stated) or why I haven’t yet when I’m obviously doing so well for myself. But the truth is, I do not do it myself. And having once been an editor, I do not wish to because I have learned to my sorrow that I simply cannot see the trees for the forest.

When I complete a manuscript, even though I know parts of it are rough or rickety, I tend to look upon the finished draft as a beautiful woodland perfect (or mostly) and delightful. I cannot separate from the relief of completing the task enough to see all its flaws or–worse–how the flaws form a pattern or create other holes and problems; I simply don’t see the dead trees and rabbit burrows and trash heaps. I only see my beautiful forest of literary endeavor and think “Isn’t that lovely? That should be good enough to satisfy anyone.” And then I press “Send” on the e-mail and… a few weeks later my editor returns it saying it’s a lovely woods, but… this tree here is dead, and that hummock over there is, in fact, a trash tip, and the lake is much too shallow and… would I mind terribly cleaning this up just a touch before company comes to visit…? For this reason I would be a terrible candidate to “go it alone.”

Among other things, I’m extremely lazy and this just doesn’t look like fun:

Joking aside, one of the points that Ms. Hocking brings up–and which is for me a large one–is the need for editing and other editorial, design, marketing, promotion, and sales help. There is also the market penetration issue and the associated and often forgotten one of market breadth and reach. At the moment, people on the internet are deeply in love with their electronic realm and forget that, in fact, it is not the whole world. E-books are a very nice thing, but at the moment, no matter how impressive the growth rate, they represent less than 1/3 of all books–fiction, non-fiction, textbook, etc–sold in the US.

I personally do not wish to throw away 2/3 of my reader base or make the demand that they convert their reading habit from pulp to electronic. It is not my place to tell them they must pay for an e-reader or an application, that they must marry their book-buying to a particular vendor or format, especially since we are still engaged in the format wars which will, eventually, fall out with two or three formats being the victor–that’s the way systems like this tend to work. Right now we have 5 or six major file types vying for readers but that won’t be the case forever and I don’t want to be in the Sony/Betamax position of having chosen a standard I prefer only to see it fail and vanish. Nor, I think, should I ask that of readers. Appearances to the contrary, I am not, in fact, a multi-million volume seller, making $100,000 a year and up. I make the kind of money I used to make working as a contract editor at Microsoft, but without the benefits, and with considerably more expenses and higher taxes. I cannot afford to throw away 2/3 of my readers.

So, if I want to continue to reach those readers, I need to stay in physical print–in books made of paper, or plastic, or magic bean paste as it may be–so that they can find my books at their local supermarket or independent bookstore or chain or… wherever they get their books. That’s what I mean by “breadth and reach.” Because we spend so much time on the internet, I think we lose track of the number of people who don’t. According to Neilsen 74.9% of US homes with a phone line have internet access (note they don’t say anything about homes without phone line), but of those, less than half have broadband and of those, about 10% use their internet for e-mail and routine communication only, not for shopping or surfing the net–and certainly not for reading or buying books. So, that boils down to roughly 33.7% of US homes have the capacity for e-book downloads. Now, some of this will also be compensated by cell phones with reasonable data speeds and applications, but not a massive percentage. So, for now, e-books are not on the cutting edge of taking over the reading habits of Americans.

And I don’t believe they ever will. I think there will always be a place for the lowly cheap paperback, the impulse buy at the checkout counter, the shiny cover that catches your eye on the bookstore shelf. And from the work point of view, I’d much rather write than edit, design, typset, format, package, market, promote, and sell my books. Not only am I not as good at those as I am at writing, but I don’t enjoy them and they take time and effort I could spend on my writing and the rest of my life–which I would like to enjoy as much anyone else.

For me, self-publishing is not a business model I’m yet comfortable with. It may never be and until and if it is, self-publishing would mean spending a much greater amount of my time or money on the business end and less time on the writing end. And as I am not, at least yet, God–

I don’t have all the time I’d like to do all the things I’d like–much less to do them perfectly. Until that day when the reach of the e-book matches that of the lowly paperback, I think I shall continue to watch and wait and spend my time writing.

Which would you rather do? Which would you rather I do?

***After I wrote this post, several people had additional questions which I tried to address in an additional post.