Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Publishing plan



After having spent the past few months preparing for the process of landing an agent, I've decided instead to go the digital publishing rout on Amazon and other online bookseller sites. It's a decision that stems from having followed developments in the publishing industry for the past few years, as well as the successes of other writers I know. At the moment, it seems as though a profound shift is underway. One that is fast approaching its tipping point.

E-book Sales Up 164% as Other Trade Segments Fall

Orbit acquires self-published ebook bestseller

In some ways this shift feels similar to the advent of iTunes--the arrival of a virtual marketplace where indie artists can have their products on the 'shelves' right next to those of major corporations, and potentially enjoy access to global audiences with some savvy self-marketing. Likewise, it's happening at a time in which the traditional brick-and-mortar arm of the industry continues with its decades-long decline.

For me, the future of literary publishing looks like it's going to be 1) find success in online digital venues such as Amazon.com, Barns and Nobel Online, Apple's iBook Store, 2) get picked up by a major publishing house for hardback copies. The paperback novel will most likely continue its decline, with only book lovers actually purchasing physical novels to put on the shelf at home. This is a process that will likely accelerate once easy-on-the-eyes ereaders drop below sixty dollars.

What this process does for book publishers is it allows them to put the risk of taking a chance on new authors on the writers themselves. Right now, most novels never make a profit, and most promising new authors never earn out on their advances. That means that publishers lose more often than not when placing bets on promising new talent. Picking writers who have already made a name for themselves with the reading public reduces much of that risk. It's is also being driven in part by new sales-tracking services like BookScan, which have made sales figures less opaque.

For us writers, digital publishing is a mixed bag. On one hand, it means that we can bypass the industry's gatekeepers. In science fiction there are thousands of on spec novels written each year that chase after fewer than two hundred or so publishing slots with the print houses. Landing one of those slots means reaching an editor who already has several proposals from established authors on his or her desk, and a couple of office interns who are each buried under a slush pile of a dozen unsolicited manuscripts on any given day. Even for those of us who are Writers of the Future winners, the odds are slim in the current environment.

The direct audience access made possible by new digital publishing venues and the accompanying ereader platforms is something like connecting a lake to the ocean through a water main rather than a straw. Even better, we writers keep 70% of the sales price, as opposed to the 14% that is the norm for works in the medium of print. Then there is the fact that Amazon is a global market for English readers, while getting picked up by a major publishing house means just Canada and the United States. Publishing in the age of globalization and the internet remains something like collection of feudal kingdoms that are starkly delineated by geographic borders rather than being intercontinental nodes of interaction.

There are downsides of course. Opening the floodgates of aspiring authors has meant unleashing flood of badly written science fiction and fantasy on the markets. So it will be difficult to stand out. Quality and intelligent self promotion will be key, and the latter will likely resemble a hybrid of traditional social networking and online search-engine optimization schemes. Eventually it will also probably mean active selection and promotion on the part of digital publishers like Amazon, as well as the rise of a new constellation of book bloggers whose tastes are more inline with the reading public's than the New York publishing industry.

The current plan is to have the following three works for sale on the sites of major online book retailers next month:

Phase Line Escher: An approximately five-hundred page military science fiction novel, in which a young, idealistic covert operative pursues the world-weary captain of a smuggling vessel, who has accidentally acquired a bleeding-edge experimental communications device meant for use in the shadowy world of espionage. Lot's of juicy combat, human mind augmentation, and alien intelligences, as well as questions of perception and the complex nature of human sapience. US $2.99.

"Lisa with Child": My winning Writers of the Future post-human love story of trauma, symbiosis, a pregnant robot, and the hard road to back to emotional sanity. US $1.00.

"Ashfall": A novella in which the astronaut who was to have been the first man on Mars helps to lead an expedition across the post-supervolcano United States in the year 2048. Bandits, environmental devastation, a sense of community, and the accidents of history fuel a plot of sacrifice and heroism. US $1.00.

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