Self-publishing and ebooks do not create a level playing field for writers

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It’s all kicking off in the world of self-publishing and ebooks.

The Kindle is now very affordable and the iPad is like the sexiest book in the world apart from a real sexy book that’s littered with filth and stinky sex talk. The times, quite frankly, are a-changing.

And I’m down with that. I really am.

In fact, I want to make it clear that this episode is in no way intended as an anti-self-publishing diatribe or a whistful longing for tradition. No. It’s about technology and pragmatism. That’s all.

Let’s get real

It’s hard to move around the blogosphere and Twitterverse without bumping into some post or another about the rise of ebooks and the changes taking place in the publishing industry.

I picked out a couple of articles on my other (brilliant, go and subscribe) blog, Broomeshtick.

Writing for Newsweek, in an article called Self-publishing: Who needs a publisher anymore?, Isia Jasiewicz quoted author, J.A. Konrath as saying:

“It’s an even playing field for the first time,” says J. A. Konrath, a thriller author (Whiskey Sour) who plans to release all his future novels as self-published Kindle books. “The gatekeepers have become who they should have been in the first place: the readers.”

And that phrase jumped out at me – level playing field – because it’s one I’ve heard a few times over the last couple of years as the e-revolution has gathered momentum.

This was my response:

I’m sorry, but I don’t think it’s an even playing field at all. It’s only even if all writers have the technical will, knowhow and time to transform their manuscript into a sexy PDF. And then market the hell out of it. Some people, you know. Some people just want to write.

And I stand by it. In the UK we have 10 million people who still don’t have internet access. Of course, most of those are likely to be elderly, living in difficult circumstances or simply not interested.

But I bet some of them are writers.

My point is this: a level playing field is a place or environment where no one person or group of people has an advantage. In the world of e-publishing, e-people have an advantage. And a huge headstart.

The came Seth

You may have heard, but marketing guru and he-of-extremely-shiny-head-fame, Seth Godin, decided this week to only publish ebooks from now on.

Everyone was, and still is, talking about it and making some very good points. But my favourite article was this one: Publishing is dead, long live publishing by Shiv Singh on Going Social Now.

Here’s what he wrote:

Time will tell whether other leading authors adopt a similar model [as Seth Godin]. For an author, nothing is better than being able to get closer to your reader. The question is whether this model will work and whether other authors have the personal brand, the distribution platform and most importantly the courage to try something like this. I’d argue that if book publishers followed the model I outlined in this deck, they’d be less worried about what’s happening around them.

Leaving aside the fact that Seth Godin has a huge audience and the kind of platform that the rest of us can only dream of, I responded to Shiv’s article by saying:

There’s been an awful lot of fuss made about Seth Godin deciding to go digital only. In fact, advocates for self-publishing have been completely cock-a-hoop about it, heralding the move as some kind of tipping point for the publishing industry.

This article by Shiv Singh on Going Social Now brings a bit of sanity to proceedings, while still recognising Godin’s decision as significant, which I think it is.

However, for the overwhelming majority of writers, self-publishing ebooks creates more obstacles than clears paths.

Far from create the proverbial ‘level playing field’, it generates a whole new set of skills, both writing-related and technical, that the writer must have.

And that’s fine. One day we’ll all have those skills. Writers will know how to create a PDF. They’ll know how to set up a blog. They’ll know how to market their work through social media.

But this is a time of change. For the moment, we are learning. And we are not Seth Godin.

Which led me to this

So with all this in mind, I decided to talk a little more about this subject in this week’s episode. It’s a really interesting area and I think we should all be excited about what’s happening.

As I say at the end of this video, I think we online writers, those of us who already have technology as part of our everyday writing lives, have a responsiblity to help those writers who don’t.

Only then, when we’re all equipped with the necessary techno-knowledge, can we think about calling the playing field, or whatever the metaphor might be, level.

  1. “One day we’ll all have those skills. Writers will know how to create a PDF. They’ll know how to set up a blog. They’ll know how to market their work through social media.”
    If a writer – whether traditionally, self- or currently unpublished – doesn’t have those skills right now, they’re in some serious trouble.

  2. There’s one possibility that you haven’t considered: someone comes along and removes the need to be technologically savvy.
    Blogs were – for the longest time, hard to use. Then Blogger (and later Tumblr) came along.

    We’re building a WordPress.com for books, if you will. The level playing field can – and with a little help – will exist.

  3. Perhaps everyone should just stop writing or publishing anything until everyone is absolutely equally equipped, trained, educated, motivated and talented.
    Would that work for you?

    Helping other writers is a good idea–I do it all the time. Most writers do it all the time.

  4. This is a much more balanced view than many, but I still have a lot of buts.
    1. Tech and the level playing field. 99 percent of this discussion makes me steaming mad because it reinforces the absolutely parochial view of the world we writers have and it’s a parochial view that THE INTERNET HAS MADE MORE PAROCHIAL. This is one of THE big lies we’re sold – that the internet has leveled the playing field. That the only thing remaining now is to level the skills gap. At least the publishers of old had the decency to admit in rare moments of sobriety they were an elite. I’m sorry, but whilst vast swathes of the population – the potential creative pool – don’t have access to drinking water let alone blogger, claims of a level playing field are frankly ridiculous. The internet doesn’t link everyone. It links people lucky enough to have access to it. But because it’s not geographical it gives the illusion of being everywhere. And that’s a dangerous thing.

    2. Ebooks have changed very little. They’re a different package for the same olf same old.

    We have new toys. What we haven’ figured out yet is how to do new things with them. The really innovative fiction I’ve seen recently, and the really exciting businesses, have all been lower tech than traditional publishing. Not higher. The publishing world’s problem is that it’s reactive (it’s not to blame for it – it’s the way it is – and as long as it holds to to the ridiculous notion that paying advances is the right thing to do it’s the way it’s got no choice but to be). And reactive businesses are magpies – they are drawn to the shiny, drawn to the buzz – NOT creating it. And tech is buzzy and shiny, so publishers are drawn to exploiting it. That’s the wrong way round for REAL innovation. We need to stop saying “ooh, look at this. How can we shoehorn ourselves into it?” and start saying “Wowsers look at this incredible new wave of storytelling. What can we do to get it out there?” Because, at the end of the day, the public will opt for the latter. But from everywhere I’ve seen, the exciting stuff is happening in pamphlets left in telephone boxes, on underpass walls and impromptu zine fests held in murky basements.

    Thank you for sucha a balanced view, whcih will allowthe conversation to spurt off in all kinds of directions. I’ll follow with fascination.

  5. I have engaged an editor and I must say that having a pro comb through my #wip is nothing like the editing I could have done myself. I think the world still needs editors and publishers to ensure the standard of writing is high. SEth Godin is godlike, a digital deity, so he’s allowed to go digital-solo. Yes I am a writer but I am not an editor, and I do have internet. A thought provoking article, thankyou, as I am embarking on the publishing journey now

  6. There is certainly a long way to go before all writers get to take advantage of the new technology – we try and make it as easy as possible for people to create books on our website (you can upload with Word rather than having to convert to PDF) but there are still people who don’t have access to computers or the web that we obviously can’t reach.
    I think this initiative is a really good one and worth checking out if you feel passionate about helping others to take advantage of the web – Race Online 2012 is being run by Martha Lane Fox with the aim to make the UK the first nation in the world where everyone can use the web. http://raceonline2012.org They have some useful resources on there.

    On the plus side, the barriers to entry when it comes to reaching your audience are so much lower now, both technically and financially speaking, than they used to be. I agree that we are not there yet, but we are a lot closer!

  7. Thanks for all your comments so far. I’ll try to answer as succinctly as I can while being menaingful!
    RJ Keller – But I reckon the majority of writers don’t have those techno-skills at the moment. I think those of us used to having the web as part of our every day life forget that, for a lot of people, the internet is still a place of mystery.

    Merrilee – Thanks! That’s what I was going for.

    Eli James – Hey, a WordPress.com for writers sounds great – keep me updated won’t you. And you’re right, it’s getting easier and that’s great. The fact that the Kindle and iPad are easy to use is part of the reason it’s taken off. No one was interested when you had to read an ebook on your desktop machine.

    Texanne – I’m not sure where you’re coming from. I said that people are talking about it a lot, not that they shouldn’t be. In fact, I’ve added to the discussion here, no?

    Dan – Thanks for the comments. All very interesting and your first point covers much of what I was getting at. Us tech-savvy writers take our internet connection for granted sometimes, I think.

    Bangalow Accommodation – I purposely avoided talking about the merits and otherwise of self-publishing, but indeed, I think there’s a lot that gets forgotten when discussing the traditional method of publication. My agent has helped me improve my novel tenfold.

    Anna – Hi Anna! You’re absolutey right, things are getting much easier and eventually the skills gap won’t exist. It might not even be that far away. By the way, the company I work for produced the Pass IT on concept and website in conjunction with Race Online. True story!

  8. Ian, thanks for your post, which is well presented and that provoked interesting comments. I think, by “level playing field,” what pundits really mean is that the wall to publishing, which has gotten higher and more difficult to surmount during the previous decade, is being dismantled by authors’ ability to successfully publish and market on their own. The gatekeepers are quickly becoming obsolete, and it is technology has that given writers and small-time publishers an edge they never had before. In that sense, e-publishing and print-on-demand have given us a level playing field, or at least more level than it has ever been.
    This change in the publishing world can probably be compared to a political revolution that changes the government from a ruling class and a serfdom, to a democratic government where everyone gets a vote. (That might be stretching it a bit, but I think you see what I mean.)

    Certainly, it’s true that not all writers have access to internet technology — yet. As someone pointed out, new technologies will make access easier over time. So this is a path we’re on, not the end of the road.

    I also agree with the writer who mentioned the need for an editor. Just because we can publish whatever doesn’t mean we should . Ultimately, the readers will be our judges of quality and deciders of what is worth reading, not the publishing gatekeepers. And I think that’s a good thing.

  9. This is an excellent article, thank you. A very balanced view. I agree that those of us who do have the technical knowledge of how to get around ebook publishing and self-publishing should share our knowledge with others. I know I wouldn’t have made it as far as I am without help from others. I’m currently doing a series of posts about my experience with self-publishing, and it’s nice to see some readers come out of the woodwork and say they’ve been thinking about self-publishing and ebooks, but were feeling a bit lost. I hope I can help in a small way. Thanks for all of this! It’s certainly no level playing field yet.

  10. I must agree with you. As an author moving from hardcopy trad publishing, to e-publishing, is one of the hardest and easiest things I have ever done.
    Hard because I do not like, and am not good at, most kinds of marketing.

    Easy because I could set up an electronic site myself and post my first chapter the same day I made the decision.

    Hard because I don’t have enough readers yet to make a living by donation. I need to sell other stuff related to my books… and ads… to make it work.

    One reason I and a bunch of other weblit authors are putting together a marketing support group.

    Here’s to the changing face of being a storyteller!

  11. You are correct. I have just finished writing my book and now I am expected to learn a whole set of new skills in creating a PDF and then there is ebook covers, a separate website to advertise etc etc etc. All well and good but all I wish to do is write, I really do not want all this to do as well. I am not sure where to start. I do not know how much to charge and the list goes on. If any of your readers can point me in the direction of help which is reliable I would be so grateful.Marilyn

  12. Yes, my thoughts are mostly the same with yours.
    Even if ebook and self publishing is the way of the future, I wouldn’t go with it yet. There more than just the technical details, more than just creating a book and sell it on your website/kindle/whatever platform. Even if we can reach a global market through internet, we’d still need a strategy. Seth Godin most likely has one good plan, I couldn’t say the same for me. I’m still figuring out what’s my best way to get people to read my blog/twitter.

    To answer your question: I think it’s always a writer’s choice to go either way. No such thing as a level playing field anyways, as long as everyone who wants to learn has a way of learning. Me? I’m basically a geek, so I think I’m good on the technical issues. I still need to learn a lot about the selling aspects.

  13. Sorry,
    I completely disagree. You have a sound argument. It looks like you’re informed. I respect that. I respect how you delivered your message.

    I’m just sitting on a different train car.

    It IS a level playing field. “Writers just want to write” doesn’t cut it in today’s traditional publishing market. There aren’t many promotional dollars given out by traditional publishers unless you’re a celebrity touting your memoirs.

    People better learn how to make their manuscripts into fancy PDF’s or learn Amazon’s DTP program, or perish as a writer.

    Do not, and I cannot say this loud enough, DO NOT go traditional. You sign away the rights. The Big Six publishers don’t market you. You worked all those years to write and edit just to hand your magic over for them (Trad. Pub.) to make money. Random House is topping their e-book royalty at 40%. That’s less than half the 85% at Smashwords.

    There really is no argument, no debate.

    Self-publishing is the only way in the new digital world and I respect anyone who says different. I just feel bad for them because in 2-3 years they will rue their belief.

  14. I am only just finishing writing my first book and struggling with separate chapters and making one TOC across multiple word documents for the editor to read. I am also struggling with plot and “proper” characterisation, so for me to embark into self-publishing would be a technical & literary nightmare for me. Funny though, I do have a technical background in IT but when it comes to “writing” I seem to fall back onto traditional methods of editing ie print out the words and edit by hand with a biro. I agree with Daryl that if we “makers of magic” don’t figure out how to get ourselves marketed online *ourselves*, that we open ourselves to be sucked for all the e-profit there is, leaving us writers dry. But the problem Daryl is that we are not all marketing savvy. I am not a blogger. I know IT from a technical point of view, but I am a total novice when it comes to marketing online. If this (marketing online) was easier to do, and the path was more obvious, then we’d all jump on board the self-publishing train for sure! But for example I have been trawling the net for 3 weeks now on how to make one TOC across multiple word documents(chapters) and besides using the old RD fields (which are not working for me for some reason) then I will still need an editor and also someone to help me compile the beast once it’s written. Sorry to write such a long comment but I’m sitting on the fence deciding which way to jump (traditional pub. or self. pub). I can see the merits of Daryl’s argument, and I am nodding intently, but the reality for someone like me is “where do I start”? I wish there were better resources online for writers to do their own thing eg make book covers, make a TOC, the simple basics need to be easy and in one place before self-pubslihing can really take off. It’s the same scenario as the Kindle, no-one was interested in eBooks on the desktop until nce the iPad/Kindle came along, now eBooks have taken off. Same thing here, once there is a central resource for writers, then self-publishing will take off. I’m not the one to provide this resource as I am just starting out as a writer but maybe one of you guys that understands the whole publishing journey and has successfully published(you are the rockstars in my eyes) can put a central “writers resource centre” together and charge us lowly amateur writers for the use of this resource center? Business idea anyone? I’m sure these resources are all “out there” in bits and pieces, but most of the time it doesn’t work for me, or worse, I don’t know what resource I am looking for, or what I should do next…. Maybe I’m totally dumb and have missed a resource all together, if I have someone please put me out of my misery and point me to this resource centre or shoot me. If not, then I for one would love to see writer’s resources online more accessible. I still need have the need for an editor or a mentor, or at least some online “guidance”. So I for one can not go the self-publishing route alone. Francesca (aspiring writer)

  15. The playing field is not level, but it has tilted, and yes it has skewed towards those technically savvy enough to download a plug-in to print a pdf and then upload that to a website.You make the statement that is cheap to pop a manuscript into an envelope and send it off to an agent – and that’s all there is to it. It’s a bit more complex though isn’t it?
    First there’s the waiting. Time is money, right?
    Then there’s the 300 stamps and envelopes and reams of manuscript paper that you need to find THE Agent.
    (Toss in there the damage to the environment).
    And when you’ve done all of that; then the publisher says, “So – Mr. Luddite, this book of yours is great. Love it, NO, we ADORE it, yes. Now let’s talk Author Platform…”

  16. Creating a PDF is a easy as saving a Word document, so I don’t understand why this is such a topic of hot debate.
    Also, if writers/authors who self-publish can earn as much as 80% of royalties vs. the traditional earnings of 7-8%, then why can’t they hire someone who is tech. savvy to set up their manuscript/document?

    I think there are minimal learning curves to overcome in order to make gigantic steps forward and anyone who is unwilling to endure this awkward transition is really missing out on a lucrative investment.

  17. The horror of all of this is that it takes time away from writing itself. Proust wrote a masterpiece with a cheap school dip-pen. He didn’t have to worry about marketing or technology. I believe that the new technology, let alone the new need to be a marketeer,distracts a writer, saps crucial energy from the one and only important task: writing. I won’t even get into how depressing it is to read something on an e-book or computer, the words dematerialized on a screen surrounded by plastic. And finally: so much trash will be “published” without editors. The reading public, in a world where anyone can be a writer, will have to sort through a universe of electronic text to find what is worth reading. The boundaries of literatures and cultures will ooze away and we will be faced with egocentric logorroeah.

  18. I have to agree that self publishing isn’t anywhere near making it a level playing field. We publish a PDF magazine 4 times a year and it takes a team of people with a range of skills that includes proof reading, graphic design, Internet Production and social media, Illustration and photography are just a few of those skills required to produce an issue.
    Unless a writer has some of those skills to hand, he/she will have to out source those skills, which isn’t an easy task. What self publishing through sites like Lulu or similar outlets is to make access to self publishing an easier route for writers, but its not a level playing field.

    At Irregular we don’t have the marketing budget on the same scale as professional competitors have, in fact we have a budget of zero. All of our marketing is done through digital means via forums, social media sites and industry related news sites, and our readership is around 4,500 + per issue. A level playing field would mean a national distribution deal, a budget allowing us to publicise in other media formats etc.

    With a budget of zero, but with concentrated and clever digital marketing we have built up a strong readership over the last 18 months, but a level playing field would have made our lives a lot easier, but probably not quite as fun.

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  20. […] Starting a blog, or as we writers of fiction are told to call it, having a presence, is a massive time suck. It requires patience, energy and typically more technical skills than you’re ever led to believe. […]

  21. […] when I have concerns about the average writer’s technical skills, or when writers are encouraged to write novels in no time at all, it’s because I think the […]

  22. Do I really care who Seth Godin is and what he’s doing? Answer: no. I subscribe to William Goldman’s axiom that ‘nobody knows anything.’ And that includes all the people out there blogging their butts off about what they think they can tell you about the big bad world. If you’re good, put it out there any which way and if people like it, it’ll catch fire. The real problem with publishing is not the level playing field argument (since when has the world ever been a level playing field?) but getting past the fossilised gatekeepers who think they’re qualified to know what the public want to read. (many of whom lurk in organisations like the society of authors and the writers guild who pretend to support writers but are only interested in a very small elite cadre). My advice: ignore everybody and study the manufacturing process, then go to market. Incidently I am a fan of Gary Smailles and Bubblecow, which has some interestingand neutral material for writers.Wolf Taylor

  23. […] understand that the skills required to self-publish a book might not come easy to everyone, and I know that some people will appreciate the opportunity to learn those skills in a closed, […]

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