Ebooks at the New Year

A funny thing happened to ebooks last year – they became legit.

Last January, right after I got my kindle, I started noticing stories about Amanda Hocking and a few other ebook superstars in places like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.   The articles had a semi-surprised, “look at this,” tone.  No longer.  Now an ebook author doing well raises no more eyebrows than John Grisham writing another best seller.

Even though I was paying attention, I don’t quite know when the shift in attitude happened.  It was a done-deal by October.  That’s when a local member of the California Writer’s Club asked advice from the group:  his manuscript was ready.  Should he submit it through traditional channels or go the ebook route?  Everyone in the room, with no exceptions, recommended the ebook option.

As recently as twelve months ago, people still talked of ebooks as “self-publishing,” a phrase that carries a touch of “vanity press” stigma.  That has changed.  Now we speak of “traditionally published” in contrast to “independently published” authors.  Listen to the words:  traditional vs. independent.   Which one has more panache?

Not long ago, approval by traditional agents and editors signified quality.  I think the rapid loss of brick and mortar stores was a factor in changing that.  When Borders folded, half the gates that gatekeepers kept disappeared.  As the industry scrambles to find new ways to stay afloat, literary quality may not be so big a factor in the mix.  Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords put it like this:  “The cachet of traditional publishing is fading fast. Authors with finished manuscripts will grow impatient and resentful as they wait to be discovered by big publishers otherwise preoccupied with publishing celebrity drivel from Snooki, Justin Bieber and the Kardashians. 

When you consider more serious fiction, odds seem to favor established names more than ever these days, in stores both large and small.  I stopped at an independent bookstore last fall in a small town.  It has been around for a while and continues to thrive.  There were lots of attractive craft and gift items – pens, handmade notebooks, and things like that.  The books were shelved by genre, and carefully chosen to reflect popular titles and series.  It was easy to find something good to read, but almost all the choices were books by established authors.  I’d do the same if I was the owner and wanted to stay in business, but that’s bad news for authors just starting out.

This is where time enters the equation for everyone, especially for older writers.  The man who asked the ebook question at CWC was about my age and put it like this:  “I don’t have forever.”  Mid-list titles, which authors used to be able to sell while learning their craft are an endangered species.  “Their demise has been predicted for years,” said agent Donald Maass.  “This time it’s true.”  As all these trends converge, the attraction of the ebook publishing has exploded.

One thing I notice consistently in the ebooks I have enjoyed is a certain playfulness or quirkiness,  a willingness to step off the path of genre convention.  I’m reminded of fantasy fiction in the ’80’s, when getting published wasn’t such a nail biting affair.  The stories were full of surprises.  Writers took more chances than those I see today at Barnes&Noble.

Recently, a well-meaning writer friend warned me that, “Editors don’t like colons.”  That’s the second time someone has said that, and I’ve heard exclamation points are out of favor too!  The only kind of writer who’s going to remember tidbits like that is one who is contentious, dedicated to learning her craft, and interested in giving her peers a leg up.  And yet…isn’t that kind of “wisdom” going to backfire?  Where is my imagination when I’m trying to remember which punctuation marks are okay to use?  I’m not going to be fully engaged in telling the best story I can, especially if runs afoul of news of “what editors are looking for now.”

Everyone has to come to their own conclusions about what to read, what to write, and what to do with their writing.  I find myself ever more grateful for ebooks and independently published authors.  I plan to champion more of them this year.

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9 Responses to Ebooks at the New Year

  1. Adam says:

    I’m split about the Ebook revolution. On one hand, I like the fact that it’s making it easier for people to publish their own books, on the other hand, the lack of the “gatekeepers” worries me. While publishers are quick to publish books by every random B-list celebrity out there, they also stop most of the really poorly written novels from reaching the public. If there is a gatekeeper of sorts, I at least have some reassurance that the book is a quality book.

    The idea of the publishers rejecting a book because it’s too unique is one that doesn’t sit well with me either. Just because a book does something unique doesn’t automatically make it a good book. The best example I can think of for this is Norman Mailer’s book Tough Guys Don’t Dance. The book had a wonderfully unique take on a mystery, where the main character was a suspect of the crime he was investigating and he didn’t know if he was guilty or not (he blacked out from being drunk the night of the crime). While the premise was amazingly interesting, I thought the book was absolutely horrible.

    The problem with Ebooks is going to be finding the few gems throughout all of the dross. I read a lot, and there are so many good books out there, I don’t want to have to wade through the slush piles of books that wouldn’t get purchased by a publishing company. It will be interesting to see where this goes in the future, but while it’s a very exciting new medium for an author, as a reader it’s kind of terrifying.

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    • You make a lot of good points, Adam. Here are a few things I was mulling over as I worked on this post:

      First, I think traditional gatekeepers now focus on quality in parallel with financial viability. And I don’t just mean the poor downtrodden author of the next Finnegan’s Wake. I mean like last summer at the local Barnes & Noble, when the mystery section got cut in half. That pretty much just left room for known series authors. Or six years ago, at a conference, hearing a sci-fi editor tell the audience, “We are not able to risk publishing a novel by an unknown. At a minimum, you have to get some short stories in print.” Those are two instances of the existing system breaking down in terms of serving the next generations of writers and readers.

      You’re absolutely right about the bewildering array of new titles available. I have no sure fire way to navigate the maze. On Smashwords you can often read up to half a novel, but one could still burn up hours just sifting the first few pages of the various offerings. I’ve heard predictions that the hundreds of thousands of new ebook titles are likely to drive us more firmly back to the few authors we know we can trust for a decent read. Way too often I’ve regretted the expense of my $0.99, thinking, “Darn, there goes half the cost of a cup of coffee.”

      The one thing I know is this technology is not going back in the box. I guess I’m enough of geek to still have an, “Oh wow,” attitude toward it all.

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  2. Debbie says:

    Thanks for tackling and exploring this trend, Morgan. I’ve been on the fence about e-books for a while (guess I don’t want to be a “pioneer,” ha!). Still, when you delineate the differences between traditional and independent, it’s pretty obvious which is the way to go. I just can’t see where our world can benefit from more celebrity tell-alls!

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    • My intent is to discuss the choices available, not come down as an advocate for one side or the other. It’s worth remembering that Amanda Hocking signed a large contract with a traditional publisher, saying their editorial and art departments would lift some of the detail work and give her more time to write. Ironically, good ebook sales have become a second avenue into traditional publishing. I’ve heard several agents say the same thing.

      So everything is in flux, and there are no hard and fast rules, but I think that means we also get to make new choices.

      Thanks for your comment.

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  3. Rosi says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful exploration of this topic. I, too, don’t have too many years left to reach my goal of getting my books out to the public, but I haven’t quite let go of the idea of traditional publishing. Not just yet, although I think more about e-publishing with every rejection. Food for thought as always with your posts.

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    • I don’t see that anyone needs to make any rapid either-or choices. Plus you’ve had contact with some really good editors, so your sense of what they are looking for represents much more research than many have done. The last thing I ever want to do is imply to anyone what their dreams ought to be. I’m trying to talk about choices and pros and cons as they evolve.

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      • I know. My TBR list is out of control, but I dropped it while reading this one. To actually implement some of these suggestions will require another reading of key chapters.

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  4. Sandra Sullivan says:

    As I come to the rewite/polish on the last few chapter of my novel, I contemplate how to publish. I get readers feedback about my work and think, “I do have something good enough to publish traditionally.” But I’m realistic enought to realize I’ll end up in a slush pile because I’m a new author. This is a hard reality to swallow though, especially when I read, or try to read something new that was put out by a mainstream publisher and wonder, “How did this c*&% get published? In the end I’ll probably go e-book.

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