So, When You Say “Press”…?

Posted: January 23, 2009 in books, Braak, crotchety ranting, future
Tags: , , ,


the-translated-man-cover-picOkay, I have an announcement.  As of today (technically, as of Wednesday), Threat Quality Press is, technically, an IMPRINT.  This means that you will now be able to purchase books, written by your two favorite internet diarists (I like “diarist” better than “blogger” because it sounds about a million times classier).  The first book, my novel The Translated Man, is now available for purchase on our second new page “The Press.”  For obvious reasons, you should buy it.  But let’s also take a minute and talk about self-publishing, because I have a feeling that this is going to be a significant thing in a few years.

Now.  No one, at all, takes you seriously if you are a self-published novelist.  Saying “I am a self-published novelist” is basically the same thing as saying, “I wish I were a real novelist,” and probably rightly so.  The whole point of having publishing houses, back in the Olde Days, was so that the quality books could be sorted out from the shit books, and that way people would be able to read good stuff.  It worked for a while, and worked especially well when books were still the preferred tool for mass communication, though it (weirdly) also produced a lot of crap.

Why is that?  Well, when I was trying to get my novel published, I read a lot about what other people did in order to get THEIR novels published.  I figured, “Hey, why reinvent the wheel,” you know?  What I learned from them is that there’s nothing to learn from them.  Writing a query to a literary agent is like pulling the handle on a slot machine.  Sometimes you get cherries, mostly you get a handsome row of delicious rejection slips.  Some writers lucked out, because they were friends with literary agents.  Some became friends with literary agents so that they could get their shit published.  Jim Butcher says that he went around to Science Fiction & Fantasy conventions around the country, and hung out with literary agents until one, deciding that she liked him as a person, figured she could represent him.

Discerning reader that you are, you’ve probably noticed two serious problems.  First of all, who the hell has time to do that?  I have a job.  I have bills to pay.  If I spend a hundred bucks on a trip to Colorado (assuming I could get to Colorado for a hundred bucks) to go to a con, that means I can’t pay my damn electric bill this month.  Ostensibly, I could give up my house and just start living in my car as a kind of convention gypsy, constantly harrassing agents until they either a) decided to represent me, or b) filed a restraining order.  Of course, this whole plan hinges on the likability of the author.  I’m sure Jim Butcher is a very pleasant person to be around.  I am not.  I’d end up headbutting someone for saying something retarded, and getting officially banned from every convention, of every kind, everywhere.

The second problem is this:  what the fuck?  Really?  You didn’t want to represent his books because you didn’t know him, but now you do?  Your job is to find good books to represent, to help good books get published, and your qualifying criteria is whether or not you’re friends with the author?  Oh, sure, you lucked out with Butcher, but how many other dipshit writers are getting published because they bought someone a drink, instead of because they wrote good books?  There is only ONE RELEVANT CHARACTERISTIC of an author, and that is:  can the person write?

The answers to the raft of questions posited in the above paragraph are, respectively (not counting “what the fuck?  Really?”):  yes, yes, and most of them.  That’s why the bookshelves are filled with crappy books.

Bear with me, I’m getting to my point.

The point is this:  publishing houses served a purpose.  They were superior to self-publishing, because they  were making books available in large numbers when they weren’t before, because they provided advances to authors to live on so they could write more, and because they ostensibly sorted out the good stuff from the drivel.

But.  Now with self-publishing tools, Random House’s ability to print huge numbers of books is actually a liability, because it means they can’t help but print more than they need.  Now that runs for books are smaller (especially genre books) advances are smaller, and writers can’t live on that shit, anyway.  And, apparently, the process for selecting books to publish is more to do with connections than it is to quality.  The three things that made a big publishing house worthwhile as a tool for producing books are obviated.

I don’t want you to think that this is a question of sour grapes.  Like, maybe I’m mad because no one likes my book, and so I’m just resentful of the industry or some shit like that.  Maybe you think I must be some kind of jackass–if two hundred agents aren’t interested in my book, it must be pretty shitty, right?  I’ve got a whole pile of rejection slips at home that ought to be ample evidence that I should rethink my career choice.

Here’s the deal:  no one’s rejected my book, because no one’s actually read it.  My innumerable rejection slips just prove that I can’t write fucking query letters.  And I promise you right now, whatever else The Translated Man is, it is definitely not a book full of query letters.  Neither of us would enjoy that.  So, no one actually doesn’t like the book, they just don’t think they can represent it right now (I assume; they’re all clearly form letters–maybe the real reason is that I’m not buying enough people drinks?).

The big industries still have huge advantages.  They can print volumes for cheap (believe me when I say that most of the price of my book is printing costs; if I could sell you the thing for five dollars then I would).  They have media outlets that they can send their work to and are, bizarrely, still trusted as arbiters of quality.  They’ve got the inertia of…I guess something like two centuries of business behind them.  Two hundred years is a long time to have a habit, and it’s not going to completely break down any time soon.

But the big industries are also firing people.  They aren’t making the money that they used to.  They’re closing imprints (Bantam.  Fucking RH folded up Bantam).  Thousands of small presses are cropping up and churning out more books.  More and more people are turning to self-publishing, which means self-publishing is going to become cheaper and easier.

I’m waiting, actually, for a self-publisher to dedicate itself to producing cheap cheap paperbacks.  Like, dirt cheap, that you can get for four dollars.  What’s this trade paperback crap, anyway?  Nevermind, that’s a different argument.

Anyway, here’s my prediction for the future:  the publishing houses are going to either fold or transmute.  Everyone’s going to be able to publish anything they want, and the system is going to switch from a material issue to a communicative issue:  that is, Random House, if it doesn’t fold, is going to change its focus from deciding which books deserve to be printed to deciding which books deserve to be read.  The industry of reviewers and recommenders will move into prominence.  And how will those guys decide which books will go on their “must read” list?  Probably by who they’re friends with, in which case I’ll still be fucked.

I am making plans to be a janitor in my retirement.

  1. Lisa says:

    I have to tell you Chris – I’ve read a self-published book (well 2 actually, more after) recently that I absolutely loved. Lance Carbunkle’s (the title is way too long to remember accurately) story about a road trip there & back again to find the protagonists beloved basset hound is hilarious & veru fun to read. I’m throughly grateful to have had it suggested to me.
    The other I mention is actually quite famous & I’m sure you know about it already but just in case… Christopher Paolini’s parents helped him self-publish Eragon while he was still a teenager – sometimes these things have a way of working out.

  2. threatqualitypress says:

    Yeah, the thing about self-publishing is that there’s nothing about a self-published novel that precludes it from being good. I think Phillip Pullman self-published The Golden Compass before he got a contract. And, in fact, in the 18th century self-financing the first edition of your book was a perfectly reasonable way to get started.

    It is entirely possible that has dozens of masterpieces of the written word in its online marketplace. The question is, how do we sort them out from all the dumb shit?

    I don’t know. I don’t know anything.

  3. Jeff Holland says:

    Like a blind man at an orgy, we’re going to have to feel our way around this one.

  4. Josh says:

    Dude, this is awesome. I was actually thinking of writing my column this week about publishing, so I may link to you. Also, I will probably order a copy of the book, even if I do already have one on this very computer.

  5. threatqualitypress says:

    Hopefully, it will be just as much fun.

  6. threatqualitypress says:

    Woooo! Respectability, here I come!

  7. Hsiang says:

    Ok, I’ve just ordered the print version. Trembling with anticipation. If I enjoy it I shall recommend it to both of my friends and all the imaginary pixies at io9. If not I will hunt you down and tie your shoelaces together.

  8. threatqualitypress says:

    The stakes have NEVER BEEN HIGHER.

  9. threatqualitypress says:

    (Also: …thanks.)

  10. Hsiang says:

    You don’t wear loafers, do you?

  11. threatqualitypress says:

    I have special boots made out of Yeti feet.

  12. Jeff Holland says:

    To balance things out, I have special yeti feet made out of boots. SO YOU CAN CALM RIGHT DOWN, PETA!

  13. Erin says:

    The publishing world is a mess right now. It’s next to impossible to get anyone to respond to a query unless you’re already famous. Self publishing is a gamble, because you’re opting out of the traditional path. That said, successfully launching a self-published book is a good way to get noticed. Several books started as self-published then got picked up by major publishers. It can work. But it’s tough, since you need to market and distribute your book. Honestly, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to take it to some conventions and try to shill it there. If you can convince enough people you’re worth reading, they might pick up your book. Then, with luck, it’ll spread through word of mouth, and – possibly – an agent or publisher will hear about it. What are the chances of that happening? Maybe one in a thousand. But that’s no worse than the chances someone will reply to a query letter.

    Anyway, I, for one, happen to KNOW you’re a damn good writer. I just ordered my copy. I’ll let you know what I think when I’m done.

  14. Erin says:

    Oh, almost forgot: I like the cover.

  15. braak says:


    It’s the best possible way to judge the book.

  16. […] In the meantime, those of you who luuuurve your “real” books should check out commenter Braak’s new novel, which I can personally attest to being a Work of High Quality. And he is absolutely not paying me […]

  17. MCM says:

    It’s good that someone else has come to the same conclusion I did. My imprint is releasing its first book next week, and I’m trying to wrap my mind around the whole “publishing” thing. One area that continues to be a problem is the review process… a lot like getting an agent or a major publisher, “respected” reviewers won’t touch your book if they smell “self-published” on you. Marketing is a tricky thing without a review to point to, so in a lot of ways you’re spinning your wheels hoping for a few positive Amazon reader reviews. But all the same… congrats! I will go buy a copy of your book, almost entirely based on the comment thread on this page.

  18. threatqualitypress says:

    MCM, thanks!

    I guess that means I owe ALL these guys beers…

  19. SurfaceEarth says:

    Our thanks to you, and MCM as well! We have just started on the path to self publishing. Blissfully, we are told, unaware of just how daunting the task is.

  20. […] is why I find this Threat Quality post on self-publishing so interesting.  I’ve mainly thought of self-publishing as a way to make my own aesthetic […]

  21. I just saw this story on the NYTimes front page and thought I’d pass it along:

    I’m interested in hearing more about the process of writing, revising, and publishing of your book. I was wondering about copy editing. Did you bounce ideas off friends, family? How did all that work? You may have answered these questions in another blog posting, so I’ll go hunt through those.

    Congrats on publishing and on getting mentioned on IO9. Getting mentioned on IO9 is how I found out about your book.

  22. katastic says:

    Lookit this timely Gawker post, braak!

    I just threw you a shout. Don’t say I never gave you nothin’.

  23. Braak says:

    @Robert: Copyediting is still a kind of a snag. Fortunately, I know a lot of readers and grammar-nazis; my circle of friends is composed almost entirely of such, so when I send my book around initially, I get a lot of good copyedit feedback.

    Still, there are bound to be mistakes in the copy that goes to print–the good news with Print On Demand is that every time I found more mistakes, I can just update the product on the marketplace. It’s not ideal, because god knows I don’t want a hundred comments saying “Oh man, I can’t believe he misspelled [x] on page 80!” But it’s definitely better than having to print ten thousand copies up, only to discover the typos then.

  24. MCM says:

    I was thinking about this post and the related links, and it got me to thinking about the nature of “pro” vs “amateur”… I went a bit off-topic, but I thought it might add to the discussion. I’ve run into a lot of resistance in terms of being taken seriously as a writer because I own my own publishing company, and it’s starting to make me cranky, I think.

    Anyway, my thoughts are here if you’re interested:

  25. Jeff Holland says:

    @Robert: Ahh, copyediting. The bane of my existence, and the talent that makes me my money.

    One of the most surprising aspects of my dayjob (I write for a newsletter publishing company) is just how much frickin’ editing goes on here. I write a piece of copy, look it over for obvious mistakes. Then I send it to my editor, who catches a few more goofs/polishes it up. Then the newsletter goes through two more editors, who all find more stuff, and THEN it comes back to me, my editor, and the production editor – and usually we find a few last-minute revisions before going to print.

    That’s five sets of eyes on an 8-page newsletter.

    In other words, Robert, if you want a thorough editing job, send it to lots of people you know to be grammar-nazis. The people who gloat about finding minute errors, or mutter about the difference between “orient” and “orientate.”

    Ask them not to even bother with serious revising – plot, character, phrasing can be dealt with later. Just line-by-line checks to make sure there aren’t any stray commas or its/it’s style misspellings.

    You’ll be deeply annoyed at how many little things they catch.

  26. Braak says:

    The difference is that “orientate” is not a word.

  27. Jeff Holland says:

    Not true, Chris.

    Orientate, v.: “To place or turn toward the east; to cause to assume an easterly direction, or to veer eastward. ”

    Basically, it’s what you do when you go hiking and want to set up your compass.

  28. threatqualitypress says:

    How is that different from “orienting”?

  29. Jeff Holland says:

    Well, it’s considerably more specific, for one thing.

  30. threatqualitypress says:

    Also, how is it different from “orienteering”? I remember that that’s what we called it when I was in the Boy Scouts.

  31. Jeff Holland says:

    This is going to be a sticking point with you, isn’t it? Look, it’s in the damn Mirriam Webster dictionary, you’ll just have to cope.

    Perhaps you’d like to say something a little more on-point regarding self-publishing, and/or copyediting your own work?

  32. Josh says:

    @Jeff: Jeff, that’s Merriam-Webster.

  33. threatqualitypress says:

    I have nothing pertinent to say. Now that blogging is no longer an escape from the tedium of my horrible job, I find my enthusiasm is waning.

    I only ever blogged out of spite.

  34. […] to the end (WHY WOULDN’T YOU?) and consequently you miss this link, you should still consider buying Braak’s book. I’m going to, and I’ve already read […]

  35. JD McDonnell says:

    Loved the article. I’m going through a similar crisis of faith with the publishing industry that you can read about here (if serenely bored, it’s pretty much the same thing you’ve written sans the neat corollary between query letters and slot machines)

    Someone up above wrote something along the lines of “how do we separate the crap from the good stuff.”

    It astounds me how often this gets said, like a small brick wall that people just smack into and use as an excuse to go no further.

    The answer is the same thing that answers the question of “how do you separate the normally published crap from the good stuff?”

    +reviews – once the major review sources lift their embargo on reviewing POD books there will be no stopping the new publishing revolution. If anything, this seems to be the sole anchor that is holding the old status quo in place.

    +graphics – you should never judge a book by its cover, but we always do. And while there have been good books with shitty covers this usually comes from publishers cutting corners. The cover art of the future will need to show the love that the writer has put into the book beneath it, as will the website and the book trailer, and all the other flotsam that hooks peoples attention.

    +word of mouth – people talk about the books they love, and no coalition or writers union will be able to hold that back.

    +being picked up by major publishers – seriously?

    Yes, and this is my view of the future. The slushpile system will be abandoned and replaced by the POD sales figure round up. At the end of the day, publishers are businesses. They respond almost stupidly to sales (ex: anything ghost written for a celebrity). In the future they will watch, or have a computer program watch Amazon and Lulu for breakout novels: ones that somehow manage to sell 1,000 or more copies. Although small, it is actually a pretty astounding number for a POD book, and a loud hint that -hey- there’s something worth printing here.

    Instead of writers badgering the publishers, they will come to us with a proposition to secure publishing rights. And everyone will be happy again, somewhat. If anything, this future means more work on the part of the writer or writing team, but instead of releasing a tsunami of crap (which is what you’ll get if all you ever do is go to Lulu and ask it for a fantasy novel) it may actually open up a new golden age of quality writing. Go figure.

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