Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Fine Print of Online Publishing

I go through phases every time I encounter yet another false statement on the internet about publishing. First, anger. How dare you say something so ignorant! Second, bargaining. Please, Look at these links of important articles that prove what you said is wrong! Last, sadness. I find it unfortunate you must insist on this false statement, I guess there isn't a choice.

I usually keep the first two phases in my head. After all, I'm not god. I'm not some kind of supreme expert on everything and don't have the right to verbally dump on anyone. More often than not, I grit my teeth while counting to five, then move on to the last phase. Of course, if you catch me at the wrong moment you will see my wrath.

I've thought about writing an article about the history of publishing many times, with the perspective of online publishing, in hopes of getting online authors to understand. Each time I thought about it, I would change my mind. What's the point? I would ask myself. Some people get it, and some just don't. Book spammers will spam, trolls will be trolls, haters will hate. Why bother?

Well, today, I've decided to post an article. I don't expect to revolutionize the world. At the very least, all facts are compiled in one article. It's the least I can do.

I realize this is a long article (three pages) but I hope you'll read everything.

History of Printing and Publishing Houses

The first movable type European printer was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439. Americans and the Brittish were the only ones who had any interest in profiting from printed books. Publishing houses popped up in the very early 20th century, after the industrial revolution changed the face of printing. Authors paid printers themselves for over 400 years before the first publishing house existed.

Self-publishing gave birth to publishing houses. Traditional publishing would not exist today if it weren't for 400 years' worth of self-published authors.

If an author who had paid a printer found they couldn't sell any copies, mainly because it was a bad book that no one wanted to read, then they didn't pay for another print-run, because they didn't make a profit. That bad book was forgotten and lost in history.

Traditional Publishing

Penguin Books was the first traditional publisher to do a print-run of paperback books in 1935 and revolutionized the concept of publishing for commercial profit. Traditional publishing, in the course of printing history, is brand-new. Some publishers are older, and many are very young. Either way, it's traditional publishing that's new.

Traditional publishing is based on a specific model, or formula if you will, that became commercial fiction. While I have read, and continue to read, many good commercial fiction books, I also see the disadvantage of using commercial fiction as a business model. It's been too long, using the same formulas over and over. Stuck in rut. Each book utterly predictable. Readers just aren't buying it anymore. Unable to change because they don't know how to make money using any other business model. Authors losing money and support.

In many ways, I feel sorry for those involved in traditional publishing. Things will have to change, but there's no way change can happen, at this point in time, without a massive financial loss. Of course, the ideal saving grace would be to start accepting totally different books that already have an established fanbase guaranteed to buy millions of copies.

Traditional publishing has been making the effort. Fifty Shades of Grey is traditionally published and it initially started with a massive fanbase. A brave attempt and a big gamble. The whole thing could have easily backfired and everyone involved would have been left with eggs on their faces. But that didn't happen. Instead, it worked and a lot of money was had.

It's not the first book. Traditional publishers have been “buying” fanfiction authors with an established fanbase for over five years now. I won't name anyone and I won't provide any links. That's up to the authors and it's none of my business. I'm only mentioning this fact in case anyone wondered where the influx of low quality traditional books came from. It's just marketing, designed to feed the fans. If the fans don't have standards, neither will the book. That influence has negatively affected many aspects of traditional publishing, and the readers see it.

I will, however, state for the record that just because an author starts out writing fanfiction does not automatically make them a bad writer.

To be honest, I don't believe for one second that accepting derivative fiction inspired by fanfiction will save traditional publishing. I honestly feel that some of the supposed success stories we're seeing now are nothing more than the dying end of an era. Too many people scrambling around and throwing all eggs in one basket. It's guaranteed to implode, if it hasn't already, but perhaps it will last just barely long enough for people to enjoy it within their lifetime. Like watching a dying sunset.

I know that traditional publishing will always exist. There will always be people who try to make money from fictional stories on a commercial level. It's not an either/or situation. The idea of choosing this side over that side is false. An illusion created by those who know nothing about the history of publishing. Traditional publishing just hasn't figured out a new model yet that would guarantee a specific long-lasting revenue in order to survive this century. Maybe 400 years from now things will be better.


A myth. There are no gatekeepers and there never were any gatekeepers. If your book doesn't fit that century old commercial fiction model, if you don't have connections or a fanbase, you will be rejected. Is this a bad thing? No. Traditional publishing has never been the only way to get a book out there and make money. It's just one way. It simply means the model isn't for your writing. Proceed to the next possible way of getting your book out there. There's always another way and always has been, ever since the first European printer was invented in 1439.

I cringe every time I see people moaning online about the mythical gatekeepers. I'm going to be brutally honest. The only gatekeepers I see are authors determined to sabotage themselves.

Print on Demand

Or POD, as many people call it. POD is the only thing that's new in publishing, for the first time in centuries. It's a good business model and it makes a lot of sense. Instead of paying a printer directly for a print-run of 5000 books, the cost of printing is deducted from the sale of each book. A fantastic business model. However...

Print on Demand is not self-publishing.

It's a tool, just like a printer is only a tool. How that tool is used is the sole responsibility of the author. Many vanity presses also use POD,  America Star Books formerly PublishAmerica being the prime example. Of course, that's a scam and no one deserves to be victimized by a vanity press. Regardless, POD will never do everything for an author. It's a tool to enable authors to share their work in a cost effective manner, in the exact same way a kitchen knife is a tool when preparing a dinner. But a kitchen knife will never cook a whole meal for you. POD is an aid, but it's by no means a substitute.

In early 2000, POD companies popped up online and authors started using these companies to publish their work. Lulu Press Inc. was one of the first. It was a difficult time. Uncommon and it wasn't taken seriously apart from authors' friends and family. Too new for school. Almost fifteen years later, it's not only become the norm, it's been completely misconstrued. I miss the time when authors would say, “I decided to publish my own book using this print on demand service.” Just like paying a printer. Self-publishing.

Contracts weren't involved back then. The author had full control over everything, ranging from cover design to prices. But they didn't have control over the online retailers. It was embarrassing for many and made it very obvious this is a self-published book. It made it look like it wasn't a real book. And of course, only friends and family would even consider buying a book that had nothing more than a grey background and a silhouette of a human head as a cover.

That problem doesn't seem to exist anymore. I couldn't even find an example. Things move really fast on the internet. It wasn't that long ago that google blogger didn't have a spellcheck.

The relationship between PODs and retailers remained tentative until Amazon and B&N started offering their own POD service. During this between time, those who had published with a POD company had to price their books very high to see any kind of royalty, after retail mark-up, taxes, cost of distribution, etc, etc. It wasn't until the Kindle was introduced in 2007, providing a means for retail distribution so the POD books could be read, that this relationship began to work. Not that long ago, all the things you can now get for free via CreateSpace, you had to pay for indiviually.

POD never saved publishing. It saved the online retailers.

Print on Demand is wonderful, but it has one fundamental flaw. There's no longer a deciding factor for bad books, indie or traditional, it doesn't matter, and they can't be forgotten anymore. The proof is in the pixel.

All Hope isn't Lost

Things are still changing. We all just have the unfortunate luck of existing right at that time, where we can watch the changes as it happen right this second.

Get informed. Learn the full history. Don't take anything for granted. Don't fall for online unsubstantiated rumors and misinformation. POD will continue to be a viable tool to publish a book and so will traditional publishing. Be smart. Get second opinions. Take full responsibility for yourself and your work, as an author.

Always read the fine print.

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