11 August 2014

The More Things (Appear to) Change...

Once upon a time, I remarked on the disturbing tendency of advocates of self-publishing ("boosters") to, well, lie about the track record of self-publishing. As it's now been a decade, it's time to revisit that posting... unfortunately.

For printed books, nothing has changed for the better; if anything, boosters of POD-only self- and vanity publishing have gotten even more deceptive in their disturbingly generic approach. Probably the worst offender — and now nearly a monopolist — is Author Extortion$olution$, which is now a wholly owned division of one of the Big Howevermanythereareleftbythetimeyoureadthis commercial publishers in NYC: Penguin. (Which is, sad to say, essentially a wholly owned division of another media conglomerate itself.) In a sense, A$$ is the reductio ad absurdum of almost everything that is wrong with the business model of commercial publishing in the twenty-first century... combined with almost everything that is now and has been wrong with the business model of vanity publishing since the early eighteenth century. The considered advice that I have is to stay away. Stay away for original works; stay away for "affiliate" programs through purported "writers' organizations" that are making more money from your "publishing agreement" than you are; stay away from A$$'s competitors, who are merely slightly less bad deals. It's actually unfair to compare these vanity publishing con artists with actual self-publishing vendors (key test: if the publisher/vendor has legal title to the individual copies as they come off the press — whenever they actually do — it's not self-publishing). Unfortunately, thanks to the rapacious venture-capital approach that took over in about 2006, that's really all that's left...

...except, that is, for the boosters, who sound more and more like convicted felon Kevin Trudeau every time I see one of their pitches for their "self-help" conferences and "self-published" books (that, with only one meaningful exception, are actually distributed through commercial publishing channels, which should tell you everything you really need to know). I continue to stand by my 2004 analysis, which was remarkably generous to the purported "self-publishing success stories" debunked there. For example, I didn't point out that three of the purported "success stories" were successful only through commercial publishing... and went through bankruptcy with their self-publishing efforts. I didn't point out that two of the other purported "success stories" later repudiated both self-publishing in general and their own experiences with it (and one of them even repudiated the work in question). I didn't point out that one of the other purported "success stories" has long run a bookstore stocked almost entirely with commercially-published books — even in the noncommercial category of his "success story."

Things are slightly different, however, concerning electronic self-publishing. I'm going to pause for a moment while you consider Victoria Strauss's restrained, eminently reasonable, absolutely essential evaluation of electronic self-publishing in mid-2014. OK, you're back? You've actually read Victoria's piece (instead of just bookmarking it for "later," which usually means "never"), and in particular carefully determined that you're not kidding yourself? The key thing to remember about electronic self-publishing is disturbingly simple:

Some grade-school phenoms get rich in the NBA, but that doesn't make the expectation of future NBA riches a good business plan for even a highly talented seventh-grader.

Indeed, if one really wants to understand this entire phenomenon, one can do worse — much worse — than spend four hours watching one of the ten best films of the 1990s and thinking about its shocking parallels to publishing, and especially to publishing fiction. There quite possibly are (and almost certainly in the future will be) some exceptions... but the existence of such exceptions does not make them valid models for a business plan, any more than that of Arthur Agee and William Gates, Jr. in sixth grade.

Commercial publishing is even more insane than it was a decade ago. The up-front cash requirements are now vastly lower for electronic self-publishing than they ever were (or will be) at any stage of print self-publishing. The hidden vanity publishing deal remains just as dangerous (and, sad to say, prevalent), and the perfidy of commercial publishers is better known. Electronic self-publishing boosters provide a much higher proportion of well-meaning, but not well-considered or -taken, advice, from people who think that somehow pasting some statistical language on top of invalid data sets will provide meaningful guidance for persons who are — almost by definition — not inside those data sets; perhaps that even outnumbers outright con artists. So far — and once upon a time (the 1980s and early 1990s), there was less spam in my inbox for snake oil internet p0rn dubious pharmaceuticals, too.

This leads to the most-important question that any not previously commercially published author who is considering electronic self-publishing should ask... and honestly answer:

Do I have one or more follow-on e-books or ancillary products of comparable nature and quality that will be ready for publication/exploitation within three to six months after I make this one available for sale to the public?

If you can't answer that "yes," that should be a big hint that you're not ready to make a planned financial success out of electronic self-publishing. Almost without exception, the non-deceptive "successes" in electronic self-publishing have come from authors with multiple, comparable products all made available within a short period of time. Some of these are republication of back catalogs by commercially published authors; others are first publications in electronic form, but at tight intervals to satisfy internet-paced memes and fandom; still others are tied to non-publishing events and circumstances (such as personal appearances). Indeed, I've been unable to verify any exceptions, although I'm still withholding judgment on several candidates.

If there's a short version of this post, it is this: Don't quit the day job until you've already proven that you actually can quit the day job. That's the same advice that authors should have heard (but too often have not heard) since the early eighteenth century; the context and details have changed, but the conclusion has not. Similarly, my conclusions regarding unethical boosterism of self-publishing haven't changed in the last decade, either — a few of the details have changed, but the primary question still needs to be "What's in it for the person offering me this advice?" On occasion, one really will find an altruist. More often, one will find a misguided booster... or outright con artist... and distinguishing among the three is a matter of degree, intent, and the dark arts of certain professions that tend to make for complete disjuncture from the writing life.