To ebook or not to ebook, that was the question

To ebook or not to ebook, that was the question

David Patterson
May 28, 2013

At the 2013 Ghostwriters Unite conference at which I was a faculty member earlier this month, a lively discussion evolved around whether to self publish as an ebook or to take the traditional route of finding a publishing house and convincing it to edit, print, and market your book. I’ve written on this subject before in the article How to Publish Your Book, so don’t look for a rehash here. Instead what follows are some thoughts about the discussion.

Those opposed

Some of the writers present were so strongly against e-books that their opposition took on an almost religious fervor. They saw ebooks as the antichrist of writing and publishing. Citing sloppy writing, worse editing, non-existent copyediting, and slap-dash design they damned both e-books and print-on-demand services such as Amazon’s CreateSpace. Only a true publisher they argued could create a quality book.

Yes, a great many self-published e-books and print-on-demand books are simply atrocious. There is no getting around that. The word that comes to mind is dreck. They commit all the sins cited above. However, I would argue that the vast majority of this dreck is on the fiction side. Some amazingly bad self-published novels can be found in Amazon’s e-book lists. I think things are a bit better when it comes to nonfiction. But even if that’s not true, I ask: so what? Just because there are bad ebooks doesn’t mean all ebooks are bad. Nor does it mean that every ebook will be judged by the low quality company it keeps in the world of digital publishing.

In favor

I, and a number of other faculty members and writers at the conference, argued that the wisdom of the crowd would see to it that good ebooks rose and bad ones sank. There is much to be said for the wisdom of the crowd, but that’s a topic for another day. Besides, as much as I hate to admit it: one person’s dreck can be someone else’s hidden, rough-edged gem.

Implied in the argument that traditionally published books were guaranteed to meet certain quality standards in writing, editing, and presentation was the premise that those standards could not be met by independent creative craftspeople working in unison without the overhead of a traditional publisher. That’s just not so. Good editors, copyeditors, and designers are available for direct hire by the self-publishing author. Many are the very people who used to work in once flourishing publishing houses that have fallen on hard times.

For that matter, traditional publishing houses are failing more than ever to carry the marketing burden when it comes to supporting their lists. Publishing has always been a game for high rollers. Publishers throw a number of books up against the wall and wait to see what sticks. In some instances they predetermine what will be a best seller and then go out and make it so. As budgets tighten at publishing houses, the money to support efforts that don’t fall into their sure-thing category is shrinking to near invisibility.

Whether authors self publish or not, they will be forced to self market. Those hard times are a coming in spades for traditional publishing houses and those who rely on them. Book publishing is undergoing the same upheaval that newspapers and magazines are in. Book publishing just isn’t as far down the transition-to-digital road as its fish-wrap and birdcage-liner cousins.

By the way, there have been absolutely terrible newspapers and magazines for as long as anyone can remember, and their existence didn’t damn higher quality efforts to oblivion the way some were arguing bad e-books would rot the entire barrel of digital publishing.

And the winner is

I’m sorry but those writers, editors, and publishers fighting against self-published ebooks and print-on-demand books are current-day Luddites. They’re going to lose the battle. Better that they take their quality standards and good intent and help make the digital publishing world all that it can be.

And that brings me to my last sad point about the discussions on this topic at the Ghostwriters Unite conference. I knew that there was no logic that could prevail, when one of the traditional-publishing champions–a strong and successful writer and ghostwriter–threw up her hands and with her eyes misting over said, “If that’s what book publishing is coming to, I don’t want to be part of it. Those things are not books. They don’t feel like books, smell like books, or read like books.”

I expect Gutenberg heard the same thing.

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