Thursday, July 15, 2010

About That Long Tail . . .

When I was a journalist, occasionally we’d get a book in the mail. It was mailed to us by some obscure author from some obscure, distant place, in the hopes that we would read it, like it, publish a review and soon have the local populace beating a path to the author’s door. I read the books; I worked at a twice-weekly paper in a small town with really nothing going on, so I had the time on my hands. Rarely liked them. And we never published any reviews.

More than just occasionally, a zealous local author would call or barge into our offices, freshly-printed copy of their book in hand, and insist we publish a story about their book and about their achievement. Again, I worked at a slightly larger paper in a slightly larger town with slightly more news occurring, so I read the books. I had the time on my hands. Unquestionably, we wrote and published the stories. Local Author Makes Good, we’d say. And, because we’re not grossly stupid and wanted to preserve our readership, our well-standing in the community, and because the author’s puppy-dog eyes were focused so appealingly on us, we said nice things about their books. Even if they didn’t really deserve it.

We were their marketing. The really zealous ones got their books in the local bookstore, back when it sold books. Others tried all sorts of gimmickry, from advertising book-centered websites by stringing up banners on highwayside bales of straw to setting up booths a local street festivals, stacks of books on hand, eager pen ready to sign autographs.

We have one local author of note: Jack Weyland, of “Charly” fame, who went the route of publishing fiction through a niche publishing house which markets to a strictly niche audience.

The rest, well, they’re in that long tail of published authors that no one has ever heard about, and for good reason: They’re not very good. I include myself – unpublished – in their company.

I don’t want to be there.

Like many authors, I believe what I’ve written to be pretty decent. Fifty thousand, six hundred some-odd words of – and I’ll be honest here – first-draft prose. I know it has its faults. First drafts, and tenth drafts, and hundredth drafts, always do.

I am exploring my options. I have looked into self-publishing, you bet your boots. And prices in the self-publishing realm are going down. A few years ago, a run at self-publishing would have put me back about $1,000. Thanks to my brother-in-law over at The Lithium Press, I now know of fastpencil.com, where the prices – for an e-book at least – have plunged to a mere $150. That’s less than a day’s wages; much more manageable.

But at what cost?

Assurance of resting in that long tail. Forever.

Assurance of haybale URL marketing.

Assurance of going, hat and book in hand, to the local news outlets. The local bookstore.

This is the bone I have to pick with self-publishing: Despite the promises of liberation, of more control, more profit, more this and more that – you get less. Far less than taking the long, certainly mostly fruitless haul of trying to find a literary agent interested in your work. They send out, hat in hand, to market your book – your far inferior book – while they come at you, hand out, waiting for the fee.

Going the self-publishing route and want someone to edit your book? Yes you can. For a flat $199 fee, fastpencil.com will provide “a professional copy editor” to review your book “to give you invaluable advice.” Who are the professionals? Schlubs like me. Parlaying their career as journalists and technical writers into freelance editing careers. It’s Russian roulette – what kind of editor will you get? And what will that valuable advice entail?

Not satisfied with that? For 76 cents a word, get an advanced editorial review – “a tailored review of story ideas, plot development, suggestions for improvement of the work as a whole.” They even toss in copy editing! And for a book of 50,600 or so words, that comes out to a fee of $38,456.

Gulp.

All that, and you’re still in the long tail.

See? There are reasons books cost a certain amount at the bookstore, coming from a traditional publishing house. They may be inefficient, slow to change, cantankerous, railing at technology – but they filter. They help an author hone and caress, mill and shape as part of the package. They put in an investment they hope they can get out. And if they don’t see the potential, they’ll tell you. Bluntly. And as often as it takes to get the message through your thick little authorly skull.

I know this, and I haven’t even gone through the process. And maybe after this long process, if you make it through, you’re still in the long tail. But at least you paid in sweat equity, not cold, hard cash.

Self-publishing is tempting. But you get what you pay for. Self-publishing – until their prices to hone and refine come down to what the market will bear – will be like going to the lumber yard and coming home with a tree.

But – but – what about that organic collaboration I blogged about earlier in my post on the Creative Commons? Well, the self-publishing industry, as it stands now, makes that approach even more appealing.

We must hang together, or assuredly we will hang separately.

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