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The E-Publishing Dilemma
I've recently been faced with a bit of a conundrum. I've got a manuscript in hand, a novel that I have a lot of faith in. If it's not the best thing I've ever written then it's darned close, in my opinion. I've had an award-winning SF writer look at it; she thinks it's ready to sell. Others, however, seem to disagree. I've spent the last three years shopping my manuscript around to all the major houses, but not one has shown much interest. The best I can say is that one well-known house kept the thing for ten months, indicating to me that at least someone there must have liked it enough to kick it up a level or two. In the end, however, I got the same standardized rejection-letter from them that I got from everyone else.
The traditional publishing industry is in a death spiral; an author can hardly make an honest dime nowadays, not unless their name happens to be Stephen King or Dan Brown. With free fiction available via the Internet in a seemingly unlimited supply, the net-linked computer has largely replaced the paperback and the inexpensive monthly as the world's inexpensive fiction format of choice. It's not easy for traditional paper-based publishers to compete with 'free', especially as so few readers today seem much concerned with quality and literary style. One by one, old-school publishers are going broke, and the paying fiction-markets they represent are vanishing with them.
It is almost an axiom of human history that whenever problems are caused by the introduction of a new technology, this same new tech brings with it the seeds of the solutions for said problems. At first glance, it may well seem that e-publishing and e-books are the solution to the problems of the publishing industry. After all, the advantages are obvious. A book's real value lies in the information it contains, not the paper and cardboard from which it is made. Since computers are the most efficient information-movers ever known, it stands to reason that downloads ought to be replacing traditional books just as rapidly as is humanly possible. After all, is it more cost-effective to download bits and bytes via fiber-optic cables, or to run trainloads of dead trees back and forth across the nation? Is it more efficient to buy or rent space at an expensive mall to showcase a relative handful of titles, a place that a prospective customer must physically visit in order for a sale to be made, or to list everything on a nice, easy-to-navigate website available to everyone everywhere, twenty-four/seven? Is it easier to stash files on a notebook's hard drive, or to wheelbarrow forty or fifty physical books around with you continually?
The more comparisons one makes, the more anachronistic the physical book appears to be. And yet, somehow, the e-book is simply not catching on with either consumers or authors. Readers apparently find great comfort in the form and shape of the 'primitive' paper book. They like having the ability to read one in the tub, for example. Dead batteries are never a worry, nor can a paper book be erased by an accident or lost in an all-too-likely hard-drive crash. Authors, on the other hand, don't like it that bringing e–books to market is so easy. This leads to poor quality work being published by amateurs, which diminishes the reputation of all works released in this format. As a direct result, paper-published authors seem to spend much of their time looking down their noses at the e-published-only types. There is very little prestige to being e-published these days, and in the absence of significant financial compensation, why do authors write, if not for prestige? Plus, the existence of file-sharing groups where e-books are shamelessly traded without any payment to either author or publishers gives the whole industry a bad odor, from the contributor's point of view. Writing a book consumes hundreds and hundreds of hours of highly-skilled labor. Promoting it requires a solid cash investment on the part of the publisher. It's not easy to convince either party to put their investment into a format that invites such abuse.
I've actually tried the e-publishing thing, and have very little success to report. Two of my works have been carried by small, independent e-publishers who had a touching faith in the quality of my fiction, and a strong belief in the innate superiority of the computer/internet marketing model over the hardcopy/brick-and-mortar system of the past. In both cases, sales amounted to practically nothing. Partly, this was probably due to a lack of promotional backing. However, another factor was that the e-book system itself remains deeply flawed as a commercial enterprise, and is likely to remain so as long as files can be easily copied and shared.
Which brings me back to my novel manuscript. I've come a long way since my first attempts to sell e-books. I've got several solid professional credits to my name now. While the paper-publishers are still spurning me, a small-time e-book publisher has shown some definite interest in looking at my unpublished novel. Now, if this were just any old novel, I'd sell it for whatever the market offered and be glad not to have nothing. But, this novel is special. It's straight science-fiction, which I don't write all that often, and therefore reaches beyond just my normal 'furry' audience. I see this work as very likely being the best shot I will ever have at going 'mainstream'. If I e-publish it, in the current atmosphere in which 'real' writers and publishers have no respect for those who are e-published, the work will never be taken seriously. It will never be nominated for awards, or even read by those connected with such programs. Instead it will languish and, at best, be copied and recopied thousands of times by unscrupulous file-sharers who might enjoy it very much, but who are unwilling to compensate me or show any respect for what I sincerely believe may be the best work I'll ever do. I might get a few pieces of fan mail. Most probably, however, I won't get even that. File-sharers aren't particularly well-known for their gratitude.
So, e-publishing is absolutely fraught with peril, from a writer's point of view. The author can lose literally everything they have invested in a particular work. I've even personally experienced the worst-case scenario. Over a decade back, in the early days of the internet, I joined a mailing list devoted to the keeping of goldfish. One day I wrote my fellow hobbyists a humorous letter, based on fact, about the difficulties and dangers of goldfish-keeping. I'd just had a terrible time trying to build an outdoor half-barrel mini-pond for my fish, almost getting myself killed not once but several times during the course of the day's efforts, and sustaining property damage running well into the thousands along the way. So that night, while I was icing down my injuries, I typed it all up as best I could, relating the ridiculously improbable (but true!) events and working hard to extract every single laugh. It came out pretty well; an aquarium society even published the thing in their newsletter after obtaining my permission, my first real credit.
Imagine my shock when a member of my family, over ten years later, forwarded me a severely distorted version of my original goldfish letter. Apparently, it's been around the 'net thousands and thousands of times. The thing had been mangled over and over again; multiple individuals had inserted cheesy, overtold and sometimes lewd jokes into my carefully-crafted narrative; and there was very little of the original left...
...except for my name, at the very bottom.
And it's the damnedest thing. Having this piece paper-published by the aquarium society folks never gave me one iota of trouble, nor did it cause my name to be dragged through the mud. Yet the minute the thing hit the internet, look out! I don't want something like this to happen with my novel. Not in the slightest! It would hurt a thousand times worse. And yet...
If I don't e-publish my novel, will anyone ever read it at all?
Like I said starting out, it's one heck of a dilemma. I don't expect to find any easy answers, either. Nor will any other author, so long as conditions in the publishing industry remain as they are now.
Wish me luck; I need as much of it as I can possibly get!