Thursday, November 3, 2011

On Writing: A Cooperative Solution for Indie-Publishers

      Bringing up Israel and Palestine is likely the only way more sure to get people muttering/tapping the hilts of their daggers than talking to Internet full of writers about self-publishing vs. going with so-called legacy publishers. In this age of the Web, the debate is ever-more hot, with writers on either side biting their thumbs at the other. In this post, I'm going to look at the three biggest points of contention in the debate, and offer a solution. (Donations and thank-you gifts can be sent via PayPal.)

     At its base, self-publishing is a cinch: Start an account on Amazon (or any of the many services), upload your work, set a price, sit back, and relax. Huzzah! No matter what you pounded out on your Mom's old laptop, you are a published author. Go to Amazon and do a search for “Writer'sCramp, Volume 1” by Rob Greene. I made it available to your Kindle on May 18, 2009, just to show one of my Creative Writing classes how easy it was.
     “And with a click,” I told the rapt students, “I am a published author. Fear me.”
      To date, not a single copy of “The Cramp” has sold, despite its low, low, low price of $1. (You cannot see me, but I am smiling every time I type “Cramp”; it keeps coming out, appropriately enough, as “Crap.” Maybe it's really a work of genius; I don't know. I wrote it, but I've never read it.) I put the book together in about 10 minutes from random Word documents I found on my thumb drive. I've done nothing to market it, nor should I. Do NOT buy this book. It was just a class exercise I did to engender discussion about new media.
      So, Problem One: Any yahoo with an Internet connection can be a published author. Furthermore, by marketing the hell out of it, or just spamming the Twitterverse, he or she can con some lit lovers into downloading the book. The Result is a lot of self-published books, with no guarantee of quality. If the book sucks eggs, the disillusioned bibliophile will be less likely to try another self-published author, even a good one, which makes the whole cottage, sticking-it-to-the man industry suspect. Meanwhile, the scofflaw author (or maybe he's just deluded by his sales and Amazon reviews into thinking he can write) goes on to barf up another volume.
       Problem Two: There is gold in them there hills. Self-publishing cuts out the middleman, so more of the books' proceeds end up in the author's pocket. Established authors, like Barry Eisler, have figured this out and, based on the assumption that readers buy books more on the basis of the writer's name than the prettiness of their covers, are striking out on their own. Like Radiohead with “In Rainbows.” This kind of thing gets easier and easier as more and more people get e-readers for Christmas. Why buy a low- to middle-brow airplane/beach read when you can download it? NYT best-selling fantasy writer Tracy Hickman has gone one better: You can buy his self-published work as an e-book, and then, if you like it, shell out for a limited-edition print copy as a souvenir of your reading journey. The Result (especially if it continues to catch on) is less money for legacy publishing, which means it gets harder for writers who want to go the more traditional route. Plus, it kills kittens and, potentially, the House that Hemingway Built. 
        Problem Three: Legacy publishers exist to make money. Sure, they serve as the gatekeepers of literary quality, keeping the reading public safe from the vile verbiage of literary wannabes, but, at the end of the day, they are out to make a buck. As such, they're not always good at taking risks. Want better odds of getting a book published? Write a dystopian YA, a novel about a woman taking a road trip to find herself in wake of infidelity, a forbidden love story between a human and some type of monster, or a “tell all” about your drunken debauchery and inability to keep your pants on. There's gold in those hills, too. You'll get an advance and, if your book makes money, you'll get a piece of it. The Result is, for unknown authors with new ideas, can be an uphill climb. (Some of my favorite books were put out by legacy publishers. Actually, all of my favorite books were. When the time comes, I'm going to attempt that climb. I want the branding, and I am perfectly willing to let someone help me with the math.You hear me, legacy publishers? I love you. Call me?)
      What it really comes down to are questions of quality control, and what pockets the money ends up in. Independent types can solve both problems with some type of writers' co-operative. Here's a model I'll call The Gamble Group: A bunch of people with writing credentials (published works, MFAs, editing backgrounds, laptops) get together and send out an RFP (request for proposals). As all the indie writers polish their drafts for the deadline, the Gamble Group creates a vast network of media contacts, Twitter followers, etc. The submissions roll in and the members of the Gamble Group pick a few with promise. These experts help their chosen writers edit and fine tune the work. They help them design book covers, prepare press releases, etc. When the work is perfect, the writers can then self-publish their books, complete with the Gamble Group stamp of quality. In time, the Gamble Group stamp will come to mean something and readers will know that a book endorsed by the group is a guaranteed good read. The writers get the lion's share of the money (with a percentage going to the Gamble Group for their time and effort) and the readers of the world get quality work. To adopt more of the co-op model, the Gamble Group can sell shares and anyone with a share gets a vote on what projects the group undertakes. Share dividends are paid in free books, autographed copies, special author access (prom dates), literary panache, etc.
       Legacy publishers can get a piece of this, too, by creating their own in-house cooperatives to find and develop talent, and then serving as more of a producer role. They won't need to make the books, the co-ops can do that. They can focus on distribution, printing, and marketing.
       Many of these ideas are likely already out there (Yes, Jason, you are very smart. Good boy.) but – and I am aware that I am patting myself on the back for my own brainstorm – they are worth discussion. So, there you go: my obligatory post on the issue. Don't ask me about Israel v. Palestine; I don't need the flamers.


  1. The Gamble Group? LOL. of course I love your idea, and I bought a copy of WritersCrap. I'm now going to give it a 5 star review.

  2. It (publishing) certainly has become a quagmire ... what say we start a SNHU Reality show (Jersey Shore), do it from Shutter Island in June ... at worse we make a fortune from the tv series ... and look how well Snookey (?) did with her book!

  3. Sounds like the best of both worlds. Does the Gamble Group need another partner?

  4. Yeah, Rob...nice reverse psychology with this gem, "Do NOT buy this book." It worked. I bought one, too.

  5. Excellent post sir! Love the wry humour. Can't say more... I'm slightly drunk :o)

  6. I'm listening to Rob...I can't make myself buy a book when the author can't refrain from calling it crap. I'll hold off until I see a few of those 5 star reviews. Those never lie! BUT...I do think you're a genius with the Gamble Group. Genius I say! Call me! ;)

  7. Eh...someone said there was gonna be a political post here! :) Great post, Rob. Love The Gamble Group idea.

  8. So that's what I'm getting wrong!!! Loving the humour.

  9. Funny. I for one am tired of the debate.

    Who appointed ANYONE the gatekeepers? I don't know about you, but if I don't like a book, I return it. That's the beauty of eBooks. Or read the freakin' sample. Hello, McFly?

    Granted, editing is critical. A professional cover. This is my business, my career. I volunteer hours every day helping authors with the Indie Book Collective, providing resources for social media, promotions, advice on finding editors, formatters, cover artists, etc. All free.

    Last I checked, we all knew how to read. Lumping all self-pub'd writers together as goofballs who suck is like saying all men don't understand women -- okay bad example.

    Point is, there are exceptions.

    I'm going back to my desk to finish my 2nd book, while I watch the first maybe hit #1 for the sixth time on the Kindle Motherhood list (outranking Jenny McCarthy & Tori Spelling)...hmmm...

    Not bad for a goofball suckass self-pub'd book I barfed up...


  10. Many thanks, RachelintheOC, for bringing the Collective into the discussion. I follow the IBC on GoodReads and think you folks have a great leg up on anything that may arise from my fever dreams. I downloaded the free sample of "Snark" when I started following you on Twitter, and congratulate you on your success. With authors ranging from Walt Whitman to John Grisham, you are in good company.
    Who appointed the gatekeepers? No one, I suppose; likely the same no one who appointed me an arbiter of what Scotch is tasty (yet I podcast about it @dandyscotch), or gave anyone the ability to review someone else's work. Publishers are basically book reviewers with money, and hopes for a return on their investment.
    I love to read. During the summer, when I’m not teaching, I burn through four or more a week. I haunt the big box stores, the little indie stores, the used-book stores, even the kiosk in front of my local Hannaford’s that gives me free used books in return for donations to the animal shelter. I respect the new e-book market and its customers, but I prefer my books to have molecules. Sadly, one of the ways I “judge” new friends is by snooping their bookcases. That seems like it will become more difficult in Kindle World.
    So, I love to read, but don’t have the time to waste on books that I’m not likely to enjoy. I don’t return books I don’t like; I bought it, after all, it’s not the author’s fault it’s not to my taste. So I do read reviews, and I’m more likely to take a chance on an unknown if he or she is published by a press I respect. Now, that said, I don’t know what process the IBC uses to pick the books it promotes, but I might be more inclined to try an unknown indie if I knew the IBC endorsed it. Searching for “Indie Book Collective” on Amazon didn’t turn up anything for me but a search for “Small Beer Press,” a small-press publisher whose work I tend to enjoy, turned up every Kindle title they have.
    There’s no debate here. However it’s published, if it’s a good book, I’ll read it. Mur Lafferty popped my e-book AND modern self-publishing cherry in one go with her “Playing for Keeps.” However, faced with a limited book budget (time and money), and two books with pretty covers, as a consumer, I’m probably going to go with the one endorsed by an outfit I have some confidence in.

  11. My chum, David Rawding, author of the self-published children's book "Lucas the Traveling Crab," just picked up the "People's Choice Award" for best children's book at the New Hampshire Literary Awards. Congrats, David! Thanks for staying in touch. Oh, wait ... you don't.

  12. I couldn't agree more. I'd say more but I'm pretty sure you were channeling me when you wrote this. Or maybe we had connecting brainwaves. I am myself halfway through writing a post on how indie groups need to morph into something more like professional associations with standards so their brand can actually endorse a self-pubbed book as a cut above the rest.

  13. Ciara, I forgot to mention that the best writing co-ops will operate as psychic gestalt. Just getting in some practice.