Writing Excuses 5.28: E-publishing

Recording in front of a live audience is a treat. Doing so while interviewing one of our heroes is a rare treat. Having two of them on stage with us at once is so rare as to be a unique delight.

Dave Wolverton (aka David Farland) and Tracy Hickman joined Dan and Howard in a lecture hall at Brigham Young University during Life, The Universe, and Everything XXIX, and we managed to capture the session on a handheld recorder.

Our topic? Ebooks and e-publishing. We talk about New York publishing, syndicated comics, and how electronic publishing has disrupted these markets. Dave and Tracy both offer insights from their long careers as professional writers.

We then talk about what all this means to you, the creator. We offer advice that can be applied equally well at the beginning of your writing career and during those happy, established, halcyon days. This isn’t the be-all, end-all, predict-the-future-of-publishing podcast that the industry is hungry for, but we’re not trying to predict the future of publishing. We’re trying to help you shape your future as a writer.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Golden Queen: Book 1, by David Farland, narrated by Peter Ganim.

Writing Prompt: Write something. Oh, it may seem trite, it may seem like a joke we played on our guest, but it sprang from the mind of Tracy Hickman himself, so, you know, get on it.

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57 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 5.28: E-publishing”

  1. My prediction is that publishing companies will become marketing companies. Authors will be publishing their books via ebook or self-publishing or whatever, but they can then send it to publishing companies who will review it the same way they review manuscripts now, and if they like it, they’ll do all the marketing, for a fee. They won’t have to do any of the physical publishing, and will earn a lot less from each individual book than they do now, but it will allow the industry to still have its gatekeepers while at the same time letting authors still have the choice of doing everything completely by themselves if that’s what they want.

    Another possibility is that we’ll start to see companies who review ebooks and rank them so that people can go to their site in order to find out which books they should read, rather than randomly picking one out of the crowd.

  2. I’m surprised that any of the podcast actually got recorded. I saw the pen-sized digital recorder you used for this episode, and all the while I was thinking “this will never work. When they try to play back the audio file, all they’ll get is a bunch of static and distant voices.”

    It turned out pretty good.

  3. Ebooks is getting crazy so fast I can’t keep up no matter how hard I try, and on multiple fronts.

    You have John Locke blowing it up with his 7 books (at one point all 7 were top 100 on amazon, and I think I heard he sold 27k across all 7 books in ONE DAY. Even priced at .99 as they are that’s a ton of money for one day. However it brings up the argument of value of content, especially since amazon and B&N pay significantly lower royalties on anything under $2.99.

    At the same time, you have more and more people offering freelance services for covers, editing, etc at prices all over the place, indie favoring reviewers with followings, services like Kindle Nation Daily that’s paid ads cost a fair bit but are also driving huge sales…

    Over time I think people will start to figure out things that work, but it’s going to be a HUGE mess until it all starts to sort out. Plus people offering various services as a scam for free money until they get found out.

  4. What’s New York publishing? Is it an industry term or a publishers?

    I’m thinking it’s maybe like ‘Fleet Street’!?

    That one got lost in translation for me…

  5. Hey, could someone help me out? I just listened to the entire podcast twice, and I STILL cannot figure out whether it was Dave Wolverton or Tracy Hickman who said, in the longish speech toward the end, “Your words do not live or breathe until someone reads them and puts life to them.”

    Which one was it? I want to quote it on my blog, but I’d like to attribute it correctly.

  6. So should we even bother trying to become a professional writer? What would you guys do different if you were starting out today?

  7. I was one of those screaming people. ;-)

    I thought a good writing prompt was what Tracy said at the beginning.

    “I think that guy in the corner is dead.”

  8. Does anyone have stats on how many fantasy/sci-fi books (as opposed to books in general) are sold via e-book as compared to print? E-book seems somewhat analogous to mass-market paperback to me — you’re not putting it up on your shelf. I’ve heard of a romance e-pub doing really well…but there’s whole lines of romance that just comes out in paperback. I can see why epub can be a viable business model for romance novels.

    If my memory’s accurate, I think I remember Brandon saying that Robert Jordan sold 3x in hardback as he did in paperback. I know I like having big, fat, gorgeous fantasy books sitting on my bookshelf. I guess it really boils down to…are a large portion of sci-fi/fantasy novels being bought as e-books? Is this a good way to sell books in SF/F? I know I tend to read books at the library first, then buy them in hardcover if I loved them — I’m not buying just to read the story (did that), but to have it on my shelf/re-read/loan to friends.

  9. I’m thinking that ebooks are definitely the way of the future, and that the “gatekeeper” role will be handled by the cloud at large. Physical books have to be a luxury at some point, as they take up physical space and have an inherent cost in terms of trees to make them.

    Megan makes a good point to them filling the role previously held by the mass market paperback, since those were relatively “cheap” to produce in terms of material and effort to distribute them.

    Honestly, if this podcast were done even a year ago (wasn’t it, kinda?) the overall takeaway from it would have been different. Ebooks weren’t seen as the juggernaut that they’ve so quickly become.

    I see a future where the “long tail” has a place, and where the statements last week about writers losing their income because their genres weren’t popular anymore won’t happen. They’ll still be able to publish, and enough people will be out there looking for that sort of thing to at least make them some sort of money.

    As for the gatekeepers, they’re pretty much why I have a difficult time finding decent science fiction these days; they’ve decided to focus on fantasy and relegate steam punk to the YA market. I’m quite happy with the epic fantasy that has been coming out, but where are the Asimovs of today? There are far fewer of them than I would like.

    It’s weird, to me, that we live in a world more advanced than some science fiction of the past even imagined, and we don’t get that sort of thing nearly as often anymore.

  10. My name is Lauren Newburg and I’m an Illustrator about to graduate from the Academy of Art University. On the subject of hiring illustrators, a dream job of mine is to do book cover illustration. I’m very experienced with graphic design, illustration and how to grab attention quickly and effectively. You can visit my website at Archetypeangel.deviantart.com. Feel free to check it out!

    Lauren Newburg

  11. By far the most daunting and worrisome podcast yet.

    Still, lying about the state of the industry would be worse.

  12. Danget! “me” already stole my writing prompt.

    Hmmmm, now there is an idea. I’m going to write something on someone stealing my writing prompt.

    Awesome podcast. I wish this could have been a double length one. I wanted to hear more about what you guys are doing in epub right now.

  13. Thanks particularly for this one (and you had two of my favorite guests, as well). I’m not sure how reassuring you guys were, but you can’t be, because things are still shaking out. Fascinating to watch it happen.

    I heard someone say that more authors will reach an audience, but fewer will be able to make a living at writing – which is good news for the part time writer who always expects to have a day job, at least. And I think it’s always a good thing when a wider cross section of humanity gets a say in what’s successful, as opposed to a narrow group with a similar mindset.

    There could be a huge variety of gatekeepers besides word of mouth. On line reviewers, forums. Perhaps some top free lance editors could act as mini publishers, selecting books they want to be associated with, taking higher fees or even percentages, depending on their contribution.

    As someone who hopes to start querying in the next year, I still don’t know what to do. I’ve decided that whatever choice I make, it will be the wrong one, at least for the short term. ;-)

  14. Gawd, I love you guys. You said such WONDERFUL things about the importance of a good cover, and for that alone, I could kiss you. On the mouth. With tongue.

    But seriously, it’s a constant struggle to get paid more than $50-$60 per cover, and that barely covers the time spent. I hope as e-books grow, so too do the values of good cover artists.

    Great podcast as always!

  15. Hmm, I’m not an expert, but I don’t know if I agree with everything in this week’s episode. It was a great podcast (as per usual). But I don’t think self publishing ebooks is going to become a viable, mainstream way for new authors to establish themselves. I spoke with several agents and editors at World Fantasy and none of them seemed too worried. I asked them about the ebook craze as it’s my personal belief that ebooks will push out paperbacks. I think hardcovers will remain viable option because there are those that still prefer the physical book and there are many that like to have signed copies of their favorite authors. (I’m speaking mainly of fantasy/sci fi fans as we tend to have a passionate community surrounding our authors)

    Anyway, they all agreed that ebooks would start to take up more market share, but none of them believed that it would take away the NY publishing houses. Why? Well, first off, they all agreed that paperbacks and hardcovers weren’t going anywhere. They all agreed that *most* readers purchased authors from particular publishing houses. They pointed out that from a marketing perspective the NY publishing houses offer a hefty leg up on self publishers. One agent in particular went off on covers, ebook format, hardcover covers, marketing in bookstores, book websites, other author blurbs, audiobooks, etc. All of these would be hard for a self published author to accomplish on their own.

    I don’t agree with everything they say. Since October I think ereaders and sales have taken off. I do think it’s possible for some authors to successfully self publish. (I’m looking at you Howard :-) ) But I think it’s telling that even authors that start off putting their work out on their own (Scalzi, the author WE had on that wrote the Monster and specialized gun books)…all of them took publishing deals as soon as they became availiable.

    Finally, I don’t like everything about the Gatekeepers, but unless there are rave reviews about that one exception in the myriad of people who have just written their first, unedited novel and published it because they’re the next Stephen King, I don’t see me wasting my time with self published authors. There’s enough bad authors who somehow land publishing contracts. We don’t need to wade through ten thousand others as well.

    Like I said, enjoyed the podcast guys. I liked the professional comments and I found it very laudable that you guys make sure to pay (and pay well) the people assisting you on your works. It’s a good lesson for us aspiring writers to follow when we make it.

  16. @fireflyz: One thing to keep in mind regarding disruptions of the marketplace is that members of the establishment (defined as “those who have been making money for years under pre-disruption models”) rarely see either the threat or the opportunity correctly until they have been displaced.

    This is probably because that behavior serves them well when pseudo-disruptions take place — events that look like disruptions but which don’t pan out. Cassette tapes are a good example of this. Cassette technology fostered doom and gloom from analysts who said that once people could record music from the radio they’d stop buying LPs. The record companies ignored foretellings of a cassette-apocalypse, and turned out to be right.

    Then the record companies ignored MP3 technology until their only option (as they saw it) was to prosecute file-sharing as a crime. They saw only threat, missing out on huge opportunities. It wasn’t a record company, it was an MP3-player vendor (Apple) who capitalized on the opportunity and upturned the entire market.

    Record companies are still in business, though, and New York Publishers are taking their cues from that. If the record companies have survived this long, how bad can the e-reader disruption possibly be?

    Answer: It can be a non-event, or it can be infinitely worse. Predicting beyond the disruption is difficult. All we can do is be prepared to thrive in a variety of environments.

  17. Good points, Howard.

    Also keep in mind, fireflyz, that things are changing at a remarkable pace. The landscape looks different every month. However, things have been trending more more and more toward ebooks becoming a predominant force for at least a year now. A year from now, I think it’s likely to be even more true.

  18. I feel a little better about my chances at breaking into the industry after reading the comments here than I did after listening to the episode. The market has to stabilize somewhere, so I suppose there will be opportunities wherever “somewhere” happens to be. And thanks Howard — your most recent comments were most enlightening. I guess we all have to be cockroaches and just roll with the punches.

  19. I have to admit, I find myself reading from my phone more from paper of late. But I think that might just be because I have been reading short stories more and listening to audiobooks and podcasts. The last three “novels” I have read were paperbacks that I kept in my coat pocket as I work.
    Now as far as self publishing and ebooks go, I do have to put in a plug for Tracy Hickman’s Dragon’s Bard project. http://www.dragonsbard.com/
    Here is a great model that authors can look to. He sold subscriptions to a novel he was writing. The chapters came out a week at a time, in electronic format. Then, at the end, once the story was complete, he printed out and mailed to all those who subscribed, the hardbound, (numbered and signed by him and his wife/co-author) book.
    While the first one did not sell wildly, he did cover his costs in advance, (subscription price) and didn’t have to sit on a ton of self published books to wait on people to buy them.
    Howard has learned how many books he needs to print to keep his out of pocket costs down and still keep his fans in books. Howard’s model is an odd one, as he is giving his content away, then those of us who have loved it buy print versions of the very thing he gave away to us, which include bonus material and an easy to read through format. After all, turning the page is much easier than having to click the next arrow after each strip. Plus, for an additional fee, he signs numbers and sketches in them for us, if we pre order. Again, like Tracy, he gets his cost covered up front, or shortly after he has put his out of pocket, out. However, Howard has done his market research and knows his audience. Much like Larry Correia, mentioned in previous post, he knows his audience and how to sell to them.
    Then, there is the model that Mur Laufferty is using. She is using Kickstarter http://www.kickstarter.com/ to pre-fund the printing of one of her books http://murverse.com/2011/03/12/heaven-to-go-to-ebook-and-print-with-your-help/ The great thing about Kickstarter, if the funding level is not reached, non of the funders have to pay out any money, but if the goal is reached, the project gets launched and everyone gets there piece. As in Mur’s case, it could be a copy of the book, a thank you mention in the book, or other bonuses, all the way up to one person who will get a one of a kind hard cover novella written just for them by Mur.
    So there are many ways you can make self publishing and epublishing work for you.
    But most of all, the first thing one must do is write, and learn to write well. Then, do your research, grow your fanbase and you too could become the next digital master of the publishing world.

  20. @Howard

    You’re right of course. Agents and editors do have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Thought of that after I posted haha, ;-)

    That’s a very good point about the mp3 changing the music industry. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms before. The best thing about my Kindle is that I can ready some very hefty tomes without having to lug twenty of them with me whenever I leave the house. I do think ebooks will soon account for the majority of book sales. I just don’t think we’ll see a huge jump in (successful) self publishing. Time will tell.

    Thanks for the insightful reply Howard, much appreciated.

  21. Extending the analogy…what do people mostly listen to on MP3 players? I imagine it’s often the same things that are on the radio and sold as CDs in the local department stores. I don’t know Amazon’s numbers, but I imagine Way of Kings sold a lot more e-books than most self-published fantasy e-books. I can see e-books become more and more popular, but I think most of those sales will be from publishers, and most of the rest in niche markets.

  22. @Megan: The very top sellers (Brandon, George RR Martin, etc) are still doing stupidly well, but there are self pubbed authors who are making pretty damned good money in the genre. The two biggest that I know of (note I’m talking more traditional fantasy and not including paranormal romance) are Dalglish and Michael J Sullivan, both of whom are able to live off their writing income from self pubbing (though Sullivan recently signed a deal with Orbit, but last I’d heard he and his wife actually expect their income to lower from this deal).

  23. @Patrick — Thanks for the names! Maybe one day I’ll leave the dark ages and find e-books…but I do love physical books. I thought it was interesting to see the Michael Sullivan used to work in advertising, bringing that skill set to being self-pubbed. More food for thought. I should probably stop thinking and go write…

  24. Epublishing doesn’t have to replace the hardcover, or the paperback for that matter, to turn publishing into a completely different market. Apple launched iTunes in 2001. After ten years, they now sell 25% of all music and a huge majority of downloaded music. A quarter is a big slice of a market, but it still means that most music isn’t downloaded. iTunes completely disrupted the music market by changing the way a quarter of it works.

    The disruption wasn’t because MusicLand got replaced, though. Apple was selling the same songs record stores were selling. Apple was selling them one at a time instead of an album at a time – the way people wanted to buy songs – and with ratings and comments right in the catalog listing. That changed the way people found songs.

    Big publishers aren’t going to go away any more than the record industry has gone away thanks to Apple. They’re not just gatekeepers. They’re also curators. But they’re going to face competition from vastly more directions than they have in the past. There is an important difference between music and books here. Apple isn’t very indie/self producer friendly for media. They play with the big producers. Amazon, BN, Smashwords, etc. are working a lot harder to court indie/self publishers.

    Without single-store dominance like iTunes has and with a more welcoming environment for self publishers, the mess is going to be messier as there’s less curation. But the transition is going to be faster because the strong & successful are going to have a rougher environment in which to sort out their survival. The total level of garbage out there may not go down, but as indie/self publishers figure out how to make it work, the level of noise will go down a lot faster than it has in the music business.

  25. Patrick, some other fantasy authors doing very well as indies are B.V. Larson, Brian Pratt, and Ty Johnston. Michael R Mathias is doing pretty well, too.

    I hope to enter the conversation within a year or two. I’ll publish my first epic fantasy novel in May. Wish me luck :-)

  26. @Moses: I totally forgot about Larson, the others I hadn’t heard of and I spend far too much time on Kindleboards, huh. I’ve considered picking up your preview novella but am holding off and will just get the novel when it hits.

    Actually I still need to check out Dalglish’s half-orc series, already read first book of Sullivan’s and enjoyed it a lot more than I expected.

    Too much to read and not enough time! I still have 20-30 books on my TBR pile… and that’s ONLY fiction.

    Plus I still need to get something finished that’s good enough to publish! Can I have like twice as many hours in the day?

  27. I hear you, man. What helped me a lot is dedicating at least three hours a day to writing with no internet connection available. Also, sheer obsession.

    I would definitely skip my novella for now and just wait for the novel. Thanks, btw!

    I enjoyed Michael J. Sullivan’s first book. I’ve only read book 1, and from what I’ve heard, his series gets better as it goes along.

    Here’s some big news today from Publishers Weekly:

    “The surge of e-book buying expected to take place in January following a round of holiday e-reader gift-giving did in fact materialize. According to preliminary estimates from the Association of American Publishers, e-book sales from 16 reporting companies jumped 115.8%, to $69.9 million in January. No other trade segment posted a sales increase in the month. Sales of mass market paperbacks were terrible in January, down 30.9% from the nine reporting companies, falling to $39.0 million, $30 million below the sales of e-books. E-book sales also topped $49.1 million in adult hardcover sales reported by 17 publishers; hardcover sales fell 11.3% in January. Trade paperback sales fell 19.7% in the month but remained above e-book revenue at $83.6 million from 19 houses.”

    Keep in mind that indie authors are not even included in this totals. Amanda Hocking alone would increase those numbers by a million or so (she had a huge month in January).

  28. I’m just so confused by what is going on in the industry right now. Luckily, I haven’t built up my collection of publishable manuscripts yet, so I’m really not putting much effort into breaking in right now. I have my first book, but it has enough flaws that I can’t see it selling any time in the near future. I have a feeling that when I finally break in, its going to be after the market has somewhat stabilized. So I’m not going to worry about this. I’ll just keep writing the best fiction that I can, and eventually, if I write long enough, I’m going to be able to make enough money with my fiction to support myself.

    However, I can’t help but wonder at what is going to happen. I haven’t jumped on the eBook bandwagon yet, though I anticipate doing so in the next year or two. However, I just can’t imagine not reading physical books. I love the smell of freshly printed books. I love the feel of the paper as it slides under my fingers. I love the little creak that a big paperback gives you as you open it for the first time. I love the color and texture of the covers and pictures and maps in books like Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings. I love to put books like that on my shelf and show off their beautiful covers. Moreover, I love the absence of headaches that comes with reading print books; something I am absolutely certain won’t happen with eBooks as a result of my eyes’ sensitivity to light.

    When I think of these things, I am completely incapable of imagining a world without print books, and I have a pretty vivid imagination. However, what is troubling is that there will assuredly be a marked drop in sales for printed books. The question is whether people will stop reading print books. The question is whether we will still be able to get published in print form. Will print books be reserved for the most wildly successful eBooks? The truth is that no one is entirely sure.

    What we do know for sure is that it is time for authors to take advantage of the eBook market. Such a market can be a tremendous boon for us if we take advantage of it appropriately, and position ourselves where our writing will be read. As much as the eBook changes things, people are still willing to pay to read books, and I suspect that putting the option to purchase books within the easy reach of consumers fingertips will lead to overspending. You won’t have to travel to the book store to buy a book, and then wander around for an hour trying to make a decision. You can just point and have a book to read in seconds. I can only imagine that this will lead to more impulsive spending, which should be a good thing for the market.

    Anyways, enough rambling, I’m off to write something!!

  29. @Matthew

    I think you’re a bit off by saying “when the market has finally stabilized.” The only thing for certain these days is change itself. The horizon is both much closer and more distant these days; closer in that change happens quickly, but more distant in that new things are popping up so quickly.

  30. @Matthew: I used to feel the same way you did in relation to the joy of a paper book in my hands. Now? Gimme my Nook. Carrying around the 50+ books I have on the thing in such a small device, PLUS having them all available on my phone, is amazing. I still buy paper when it makes more sense, but ebooks are now my preference.

  31. @Moses: I thought Amanda sold 450k units in January, which would put her a fair bit below the million mark for the month since a decent chunk of those were .99 books, or is that the December numbers I’m remembering?

  32. It depends on how many sales were at 99 cents vs $2.99, obviously. But I think you’re right; it’s probably closer to half a million in revenue for her. Point being, though, she’s just one indie author and she alone would account for a significant enough change in the figure. Add everyone else up and that’s another segment of the ebook market that the AAP isn’t reporting.

  33. True, her numbers are beyond staggering. We all just need to be careful to not get carried away either with how crazy things are getting :).

    I know I keep seeing all these numbers and going “that could totally be me” before reminding myself you need some luck to take off no matter how good you are.

  34. @Duke: I’m not talking about an environment with no change; I’m talking about an environment where we have a better understanding of the impact of the eBook market, and the role of publishing houses within the scheme of eBooks. To me, the market right now is in the middle of an extremely volatile shift. If this were a board game, it would be a critical turn, and the dice would be shaking in the cup. We still aren’t sure how the dice are going to fall.

    However, you are correct that in the current age change is extremely volatile and nearly unpredictable, so we can’t really expect a situation that is stable.

  35. And about Amanda, Patrick, all she did was write a bazillion good books in a hot genre (PNR) and release them all within one year. If we can do that, maybe we can reach to her level LOL!

    She’s a great example of simply being a prolific, hard-working writer. She’s also a really grounded, humble person. She’s pretty amazing, really.

  36. Weren’t several of her books already written from trying to break into traditional publishing and when she said screw it she just had a bunch of already written material to publish? Which is totally smart, just harder to reproduce when you plan to go straight to epubbing right off without wasting time on NY.

    And sadly, I can’t bring myself to write in PR, so I’ll just have to aim for “merely” MJS or DD numbers ;-)

  37. Amanda recently mentioned on her FB wall that she wrote My Blood Approves when she was 24 or 25, then spent a year shopping it around. She turns 27 in July, so it’s pretty amazing how quickly this has all happened for her. Moral of the story: You’re out of excuses, now go write!

  38. I’ve just heard there’s a stink among Amazon readers who want a great big THIS IS AN INDIE PUB stamped on the ebook before they download, because the whole indie publishing problems are still there, with the much lower quality to chaff ratio. Free sample chapters should help a lot there, but it’s still the same problem with indies, and the reason indie publishing isn’t respected.

    The whole on-line comics model fascinates me – the comics artist essentially spends all his/her time on free content, advertising the book, hoping it leads to actual book sales, at least as far as the major revenue model goes. In the past, I did read the newspaper comics. Now, I have to face the vast and overwhelming internet. How many wonderful things am I missing because I just don’t know they’re there? (More than I could possibly have time for, but that’s another problem).

    My on-line critique site has a raging on-going discussion about all this. So far, the consensus is that the question of going traditional or indie depends on the person and the book (assuming the book is of publishable quality). Whether the book will reach only a small niche audience, or is something that is more likely to build an audience very slowly over a long time. Whether the author is very internet savvy, and knows how to network and use technology. Whether the author wants money, or more credibility, or just the bragging rights of saying he/she was traditionally published.

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