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[GUEST POST] J.M. McDermott Says Our Digital Future is Already A Few Months Behind Us, So What Is It, Exactly, and What Should We Do About It? (Part 2)

J.M. McDermott‘s first novel was plucked from a slush pile and went on to be #6 on’s Year’s Best SF/F of 2008, shortlisted for a Crawford Prize, and on Locus Magazine‘s Recommended Reading List for Debuts. His short fiction has appeared in Weird Tales Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, Apex Magazine, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, among other places. He has a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston, and an MFA in Popular Fiction from the Stonecoast program of the University of Southern Maine. By night, he wanders a maze of bookshelves and empty coffee cups, and by day he wanders the streets of Atlanta, where he lives and works. He tries to write in between.

[Continued from Part 1…]

More Than Just Small Success… There’s Something Exciting In That Dark Amazonian Water

Amazon is a gorilla that would think nothing of ripping your arms off and beating you to death with them if it meant they could control more of the market share of the publishing world. Make no mistake about that. But, instead of ripping arms off, they have a different tactic in their quest to reach the top that is sneakier by far. Firstly, they have infinite shelf space. Secondly, they have magnificent accounting.

Here’s the thing that really got my attention when I self-published a novelette on the Kindle, the Nook, and Smashwords: With this project, DEATH MASK AND EULOGY, I am not at risk of a death spiral. When I first put the work up on the Kindle, I worried because sales were slow. Then, it occurred to me that there were no real consequences to slow sales. I could take the time I needed to build an audience, even being patient and letting an audience find the book without too any effort on my part at all beyond writing more books if I wanted to pull a Thomas Pynchon in the eBook realm. I have time for this eBook to find an audience, because I am not locked into an aggressive consignment contract that will pull books from the shelf in three-six months as a mark against future orders. My project can reasonably last on the shelves as long as there are software stores that distribute eBooks for a portion of the sales and no meaningful upfront fee. As I own all the rights (until Amazon and Nook decide to battle out over them with updates to their terms of use, which would be evil and wrong and therefore feel inevitable to me) I can walk at any time, and find another distributor on-line that behaves properly towards me and my content. (For instance, the lovely Weightless Books…)

Unlike most software, a text file is not really going to go obsolete as long as it can be reformatted for new text readers.

This is nice, of course, but the other thing about eBooks that has me really excited is the accounting. This is the big thing that drives me wild about books as software artifacts instead of printed artifacts: I get paid on time. Even if it isn’t much, I know what I am owed before it arrives and when I will get paid, and it even magically arrives on time without angry letters, or fuming or moaning or begging or threatening… It just arrives. On time. No reserve against returns. No mysterious accounting puzzles to figure out every six months, because I can watch the sales happen daily, in near real time, myself, and I know exactly what to expect when it arrives. My god, man, that is just glorious. I’ve been freelancing for nearly eight years, in various ways, and I can honestly say the only time I’ve ever worked for such a reliable payer was when I was doing pity projects for my parents who didn’t want me to starve and invented work for me a few times. There has been some serious grumbling under the surface of the public internet about late payments, slow payments, and worse. A name or two have even been named openly. I won’t go into detail, because it’s out there if you just google it or scan backwards in time through the SFWA website. Anyway, getting paid is one of the things that freelance writers always need to think about when they are dealing with clients and publishers. (One time, with this one client, it took me almost two years to get about 20 dollars in cab fare reimbursed. Long story. Also, they still owe me money.)

Without consignment contracts, and with accounting systems that pay on time, without any reserves or returns, the future of publishing has never been brighter. This could be the end of the death spiral, right before our eyes.

Go back in time to a few Year’s Best anthologies. For every Gene Wolfe and Ursula LeGuin there’s two or three people who haven’t been doing anything, lately, and probably don’t even register as names though they were once good enough to be in a Year’s Best Antho. They wrote good books, too. They could have been great authors. Instead, they wrote a few books and disappeared into the bowels of the industry, devoured in all likelihood by the death spiral or the grind of living from one shrinking advance to another. eBooks have the power to alleviate the career-ending things like the death spiral, the late payments, and the miserably poor accounting.

Even publishers will be better positioned to meet their contractual obligations and pay authors when they don’t have to worry about returns and the accounting foibles that come from complex consignment arrangements. They’re still experiencing growing pains, if rumors are to be believed, but these pains can be overcome.

Time is Actually An Author’s Friend, in the Digital Future

This is the thing about digital publishing that really excites me: The real question in digital rights negotiations during contract negotiations is time. How long will the publisher hold digital rights before they revert back to the author? Publishers want them a long time, probably forever, because that’s where the money is in digital publishing. Instead of hares racing against a death spiral to move books, we can all be tortoises doing sustainable marketing activity that may not lead to huge, immediate sales, but can realistically and reliably drum up sales (or not) over the course of years. It’s the end of the death spiral. There’s no need for anyone to hurry or act rashly shoving buttons and flyers at unsuspecting bystanders in bookstores and conventions. We all have the time to try out different things and see what works for us, or if anything works for us at all. If we fail, we have time to try again. We don’t have to be assholes trying to convince our family members and friends to pre-order things the moment the sales page appears on the Amazon website.

Unless, of course, these things work for us and we can do them without being obnoxious.

Basically, author self-marketing is actually not as important as you’d think. It’s necessary only to continue writing, and to find the level of activity that works for you.

Right, So Back to the Question At Hand: To Self-Publish Digitally or Not

The accounting on software files is so much better than the accounting on consignment artifacts, in particular, when you work directly with Amazon, Smashwords and Nook. (It has been rumored to be a different story when dealing with eBooks through a publisher… I’ll leave that one to Rusch.)

Publishers are wonderful to have, but they aren’t perfect. Ask me in private sometime, at a convention, and I’ll tell you all the funny business I’ve encountered even with just two books out these last three years and three more coming. Contract wording matters. A lot. Even when people agree to terms, and sign based on the agreed upon terms, contract boilerplate can throw a massive wrench in the gears from which there is no recovery. Publishers do sometimes behave badly because it is convenient and profitable to do so, or because it is convenient and easy to overlook. People are operating in the best interest of their own careers, instead of the authors’ careers. Sure, there are good people out there doing right by their clients and partners. There are also about as many bad people who abuse the trust of their clients, whether knowingly or obliviously.

As an established author who has worked with two literary agencies, had huge distribution through Random House, strong support from the midsize Indie house with Nightshade, and a keystone presence with up-and-coming Indie Apex, and as someone who has dabbling in eBooks alone, I feel like my perspective on this whole thing is a pretty good one. Please correct me if I’ve said anything that feels crazy, or zany, or inaccurate. I’m still learning, too. Change is happening fast enough that it is hard to keep up with it while writing and working. Inform me. Where have I whiffed things?

Anyway, at this point in time, with what I’ve experienced and what I know, I feel like there are projects that I’d rather do with a publisher and projects I’d rather do without one. There are projects that benefit from the things a publisher brings to the table, which are not small things in the slightest, and things that will matter a great deal in years to come, when the larger publishing houses can stand up against Amazon and eventually win. But, the slush pile will fade into the digital stacks. There will be more indie authors than ever before, because that is where we will have to be to publish our early books, find an audience, and establish ourselves on the scale worthy of the attention of publishers who need slam dunks to stay in business until the new business models necessary in the changing digital now have established into profitable patterns.

Like in the music biz, the best stuff, the most interesting stuff, will probably not come from major labels from now on. The Gillian Welches and Amanda Palmers and Jonathan Coultons of the world, in all their varieties and outliers and energies and vandalisms, will make a conscious decision to cross over into the studio system, or not, and the best of the bunch will probably be too busy at their art and their own particular vision to bother with major label contract negotiations and the over-polishing of distinctive soundwaves into marketable commodities, when these same creators do just fine on their own in control of their product, tours, digital distribution, and workload. Right now, today, publishing is in the early days of a business that will be more like the music industry and less like publishing as we have known it for the last century.

Right now, if I had a project that I was doing that I believed would sell less than 10000 copies, in the best of circumstances, I would do it myself as an eBook. (In fact, I think I just did that, last week. There’s a giveaway of a sample around here somewhere. It’s probably not your thing, because it is a strange thing, but it might be your thing, and I hope it is interesting to you even if it is not a plucky steampunk adventure yarn which is your favorite thing right now, or you do not want the whole of this thing after reading some of it.) Also, I continue to work very hard to fulfill my publishing contracts, with a trilogy emerging from Nightshade, selling pretty well, and in need of at least one more book under the terms of that contract, not to mention the launch of Apex books with national distribution and my novel MAZE a proud part of that launch next year. I continue to pursue projects that could realistically acquire publishing contracts even in the narrowing market through my agent, with a lovely steampunk novel taking shape along side a murder mystery and a few other things too early to even mention, because these times are changing fast, but they are still slow to change and publishers are part of the now, and part of that future, still.

At the end of the day, if I want my books in libraries, on the shelf of stores for bookshelf browsers, and in the hands of the major reviewers, awards-nominations, and all that stuff that comes from the clout of major publishers who can (if I am careful during contract negotiations and my agent is careful and my legal adviser is careful) lead to great and successful outcomes in the future. At the end of the day, as well, when I want to minimize the drama in my life, and control the project, and protect my work from the homogenizing influence of too much unwanted editorial input and make sure that what I am doing is a work of art before it is anything else, I will probably do what film directors and producers and musicians have been doing for years since at least the 1970s: staying independent of the studio system, while hopping in and out of the system depending on the current project’s business and artistic goals.

There used to be one path to success. This is not true anymore. The same could be said of film and music at some point in the last thirty years.

One More Thing I Love About the Digital Future

Also, and the last thing I’ll say about the benefits of eBook self-publishing: Never before have authors had so much power to walk away from signing bad contracts.

I’ve signed one really bad contract, and I did it knowing it was bad, and believing I had no other choice to get my work out into the world in some meaningful way, on the scale that was being offered. My agent at the time (who is no longer my agent, or even working as an agent) advised me to sign it even though it was nutty, because I was a new author, and the distribution push was huge and the marketing push was huge and it was my chance to “break out” and make a name for myself as an author. (You might have realized this already, but I did not, in fact, do that much. I had some successes, but the publisher folded in a matter of months and all the hoopla and noise dissipated before I finished reading the press release that announced, to me, the end of my beloved imprint.)

Well, the contract stank. It’s a dense morass of legal nightmare speak. I actually got lucky when that publisher released me from it and folded. I did experience bad outcomes because of that contract, which I won’t talk about here, but I was hardly the only one involved, and it was a mess and continues to be a mess and nobody can really do anything about it. We’re just lucky it’s a small mess.

Today, I don’t have to sign a bad contract. I don’t, for a minute, believe there is only one way to succeed. I don’t, for a minute, feel like I need a publisher to achieve the sort of distribution that I need to achieve to be successful. I, as an author and creator, am more empowered than ever before to choose my contract and terms carefully. I don’t need to sign something that smells fishy. I can toe the line against a shameless rights grab. I can walk away, no matter what is offered to me, because an increasingly viable alternative exists.

I hope everyone takes advantage of that fact. If everyone does it together, we will all be doing our part for the bright digital future that is also the digital now.

Everyone Has a Job, By the Way

It is everyone’s job, whether you knew you had a job or not, to protect content creators in the future and especially in the now of digital book culture. You could be empowering creators with your buying decisions, your contract terms, your negotiation tactics. You could be strip-mining creators, or allowing yourself to be strip-mined. Strip-mining is bad. Don’t do it. Everyone has to do their part to protect creators. That means, if you are a creator, toe the line and make your potential business partners remove bad contract nonsense or refuse to work with them. If you are a middleman, do what you can to treat creators justly with your contracts and negotiation tactics (many of you are doing this, despite the doomsaying above and kudos to you!). If you are a book buyer, try to do your part to deal with creators honestly, paying for content as you are able, and purchasing your content from places that treat creators justly.

Amazon is… for now. This may change faster than we can reject the new Terms of Service.

13 Comments on [GUEST POST] J.M. McDermott Says Our Digital Future is Already A Few Months Behind Us, So What Is It, Exactly, and What Should We Do About It? (Part 2)

  1. After I wrote this, I heard about Harper-Collins putting 5000 backlist titles up on the POD Espresso Machine for sale, and my first thought was “Wow, how do you clear 5000 contracts in the very short amount of time between the announcement of this machine and now without taking advantage of some clause in a contract that was never intended for this sort of technology in the first place?” I suspect, though I have no evidence beyond my gut instinct at the news, that this deal is not good for content creators, while it is very good for the publisher.

    In the future, and the now, it is important for everyone to do their part to help protect content creators from the bad things that could easily happen to them in a shifting climate. Good luck, everyone!

    (Thanks for letting me post, SFSignal!)

  2. Fascinating article. While I am not an author myself, I enjoy insights into the business end of books.

    I think one of the greatest benefits of ebooks over physical is flexible pricing. Being able to sell a first book in a series for cheaper or even free is wonderful. I know personally I have started reading 4 or 5 authors after being introduced to them through discounted first books.

    While it has not happened yet it seems like it will also be much easier to find older books by an author through ebooks. I remember endlessly hunting down Michael Moorcock books in used book shops back in the early 90s before the omnibus editions came out. Unless the author is a Stephen King it is often hard to find books that came out many years ago. Many older books are still not ebooks today but the ebooks coming out now will hopefully be around in some form for many, many years making it much easier to go back and read previous works by a newly discovered (to you) author. It seems like before all that kind of money was going into the hands of used book shops but now will hopefully find its way in some part to the author.

  3. Excellent article.

  4. A good follow up to the first part.

    Some of your points answers my point in the comment to part one. A happy coincidence.

  5. Jeff VanderMeer // September 28, 2011 at 5:40 pm //

    Most of this pre-supposes writers will not write full-time any more. And that they will spend about as much time dealing with this stuff as writing. I appreciate the details of the article, but it concerns me when writers seem determined to rush toward the future rather than pulling back long enough to say, “Maybe we need to think about preserving certain things as they exist now.” The rush becomes self-fulfilling, when it doesn’t actually have to be. In the process, we will probably destroy some things that really shouldn’t be destroyed.

    The other issue–and I do think this is an interesting and thoughtful write-up–is that your point of view is perhaps skewed by the fact you personally have had to go this route. It wasn’t really a choice. It’s an honorable route from a very, very talented writer who I’m glad has new material out there, but this is still bound to skew the perspective.


  6. It was a choice, Jeff. Believe it or not, I could have done other things. For instance, ten years ago, the answer would be to do nothing and sit on the project until market conditions turned around my way. 

    Destruction is inevitable, but rebuilding is not. Who do you want leading the charge if not writers and creators? Worrying our head about business stuff is part of how we stay on the edge of things.

  7. Jeff VanderMeer // September 28, 2011 at 7:40 pm //

    As I said, I think it’s an interesting post. To come back with “are you against creators tearing off the chains of servitude” doesn’t faze me or impress, though.

    I think the problem is most of the writers and creators I know are what are called “disorganized writers”. They don’t actually do this stuff well, and when forced to do so it actually tears pieces of their imaginative energy off of them. No offense to those types–I’m a disorganized writer at times, too. Those kinds of writers are more likely to become invisible in this kind of environment where there’s less reliance on, or ability to rely on, publishers. This also doesn’t really address how things are perceived or how things are done in other countries, especially countries where the penetration of ebook technology has been slower.

    There’s also the issue, or subtext, of seeing trad publishers, and the attached network–agents, editors, etc.–as somehow The Enemy. I don’t see it that way. I know too many good people, passionate about books, who act as caretakers, lighthouse keepers so to speak, and as nurturers of good writers. So, again, it’s a kind of opposition implied by your piece that I don’t see evidence of, that doesn’t resonate for me.

    Anyone who has read Booklife knows that I’m certainly not against embracing new tech and social media, etc. But I am against Certainty in most things, and on this topic I think Not Being Sure is actually the best strategy. We, each of us, only have so much creative energy in us before we die and we have to have some sense that efforts outside of that core endeavor are going to be wise for us, not just tactically expedient. I guess the point being, the market is so flooded, too, even now, that being careful about how you enter it, and where, doesn’t hurt too much. Only a handful of early adopters of anything will truly benefit from that thing more than others. And some will get hurt from investing too heavily.

    Again, interesting post. We need to think about these issues. We also need to not see an updated means of production and distribution as necessarily being truly a New Thing, if that makes sense.


  8. I said in each post that my hope was, in part, to encourage experts to arrive, and I thank Jeff VanderMeer for arriving.


    Contract negotiations are always done in an adversarial way, even when those adversaries are best of friends. It isn’t so much that anyone is The Enemy, it’s that business relationships and negotiations are, by their nature, adversarial. 

  9. Jeff VanderMeer // September 29, 2011 at 10:13 pm //

    Go in peace JM “There will be blood” McDermott. Go in peace.

  10. As one of those “disorganized writers” that Jeff mentions, I find these developments to be sobering and a little frustrating. When I get to the point of having stuff worth publishing, I am not uncertain about how I will proceed. It’s difficult to decide where to start or what path to pursue when you have the business sense of a dorky hermit who often forgets to have the right amount of bus fare in his pocket. I’m sure that experience assuages some of this, and I wish that my experience in bookselling was transferable.

  11. Jeff VanderMeer // September 29, 2011 at 11:00 pm //

    (This isn’t about Joe’s post, which I said I found useful as food for thought.)

    The most important thing is where and when writers are willing to share their experiments, that they be totally transparent and honest about the experience–the pitfalls and the successes. I know there’s a lot of exagerration and faulty analysis out there because I know through back-channels the real story. Each writer has to form-fit the experience for themselves–and, this is really important, give themselves forgiveness for *not* doing certain things if it’s going to mess up their creativity. There has to be balance, and actions in the public sphere need to have not just tactical but strategic significance, or, as always in the electronic age, a lot of people are going to waste a lot of time.

    I’m just wary of certainty–but that doesn’t mean I’m not of the personal belief writers shouldn’t dip their toe in the waters. But, you know, some writers are always going to need an editor and a publisher of some kind. There are so many different kinds of writers. Personal and professional development require pushing up against something other than a sales record or Amazon reader comments, too.


  12. This was a very interesting article, and an interesting discussion in the comments. It appears to me that there may be a need for an editing and marketing service for “disorganized writers” desiring to enter the ebook market. Depending on how the service was funded, the author would loose some control and profit, but if using such a service allowed some authors to enter that market that otherwise could not, it might be worth it.

  13. Too often in the e-book “debate” people drag out some tired argument over which is “better”: online stores or brick-and-mortar stores, e-books or paper books, etc.–but we don’t live in an either/or world. There’s just no reason to take sides over anything like that. I buy new and used tree-books from online and brick and mortar stores (and garage sales, the library sale … wherever I spot them), and I buy e-books in multiple formats and read them on my tablet and phone. I borrow books from the local library. I buy monthly comics and graphic novel collections and sometimes also borrow those from the library. I play video games both online, on my tablet & phone, and on PS3 (sometimes from disc, sometimes from PSN). I also play board games and pencil-and-paper RPGs. I watch TV live, on DVR, and on OnDemand and sometimes I buy DVDs, Blu-rays, or rent either. It’s rare that I buy a CD anymore, but I have and sometimes they’re new and sometimes they’re used and I buy them from discount stores, the lone remaining record store in my area, or online, and I buy songs from iTunes. And at no time during this process do I feel either guilty or responsible for anyone’s success or failure, and I can only wonder at all the experiences I would have missed had I taken any of these outlets off the table in order to strike some kind of political pose.

    Regardless of approach, we’re all storytellers—and I mean that in the full range between the Burroughses Edgar Rice and William S. We’re CONTENT PROVIDERS. We should be working to get our CONTENT to as many people as we can in whatever format and marketplace we have open to us, and the people who “only read hardcovers” or “only play video games” or whatever can fuck off and enjoy their 1% slice of the culture.

    End of rant.

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