On Warren Ellis, and His Ridiculous Self-Publishing Model

Posted: November 23, 2009 in Braak, crotchety ranting, Curse You Warren Ellis
Tags: , ,

Warren Ellis, as you may know, recently released a book of his essays (I guess?) on Lulu.  He and a friend of his knocked the thing together basically for no money, and now it’s for sale and people buy it.  I haven’t bought it, because I’m not really that excited by Ellis’ criticism, but that’s neither here nor there.

What’s here is this:  to any sensible person, this is a plan that obviously has no direct benefit to a person unless they are Warren Ellis.  And, for some reason, any time anyone mentions that, Warren et al talk to us like we’re a bunch of lazy crybabies.

“Hurrr hurrr hurrm, why HAVEN’T I heard of you?”  He says.  “I wasn’t born a famous comic book writer, hrrraaargghr.”

“Yaargh!”  Says Ariana Osborne, who designed the book, “Before Warren Ellis was Warren Ellis, he wasn’t Warren Ellis.”

And look, yes, all of that shit is true.  There was a time before Warren Ellis was famous enough to sell a self-published book on his own.  The pertinent element there, of course, is that during that time, Warren Ellis did not try to sell a self-published book on his own.  Instead, he found work with people that would do his marketing for him–which is why when he says, “We put this book together for basically nothing,” that’s not a hundred percent accurate; it overlooks twenty years of advertising on his behalf undertaken by DC, Marvel, Avatar, &c.

Now, I get this.  I get that he doesn’t really want to field a lot of whining from frustrated artists who are just using the differences in situation as an excuse not to do any work.  Hey, man, when I’m rich and famous, I’m damn sure going to pretend that I got where I was with grit and bootstraps and such, and that you yahoos had nothing to do with it.  Stop asking me for a handout, you fucking hippies.

But the fact is that some of us do work, and that the economic realities of self-publishing are worth having a conversation about, and the economic realities of self-publishing are shitty.  Warren Ellis sells maybe four hundred copies the first week his book is up, great, that’s four hundred dollars in his pocket.  I think The Translated Man has hit about two hundred and fifty copies in the last year.

Obviously this means, don’t quit your day job (or lose your day job because of corporate restructuring–good luck with that).  What it also means is that, if you’re going to self-publish a novel, you basically need to spend as much or more time marketing your book as you do actually writing it.

Which is shitty, because the “novel-writing” skillset and the “marketing a book” skillset don’t really overlap.  I’ve barely got any of the first, for example, and absolutely none of the second.  Also, I hate it!  So, now you’ve got your novel, and if you want anyone to buy it, instead of spending your time writing another novel you’ve got to spend your time telling people about your first one.

(Or, if you’re like me, spending your time watching reruns of 30 Rock and eating Cheerios.)

Now, this is part of what my ambition for Threat Quality Press is–the one thing that I noticed at Philcon over the weekend was that there was a marked tendency in authors to try and push readers to their own, personal sites.  And that’s great, but it means that every writer there with a book to sell is trying to divide the readership base up–which is crazy, because all of our readership bases overlap.

Moreover, as I mentioned on the Broadsheets project, let’s say I am a great writer (okay!), and let’s say I’ve got people coming to Threat Quality Press, where I have my book.  What happens when they’ve read all of my books and commentary?  Let’s say they even like it (not much of a stretch, I know).

How much time do I spend keeping people coming back to TQP?  How much of that time is time I could be spending working on a long-form novel, or a new play?  The website yields the same problem that marketing brings up–how much time do you spend on it versus the time that you spend on doing the work?

You can see webcomics guys, for instance, can run a very successful system of “update website, sell stuff,” partly because they’re primarily working on the same project for a very, very long time, and because there is no “other work” that they could be doing instead of the site–the comics ARE the work.  But I’m not sure that you can do the same thing with novels:  if I run the novel in pieces on TQP, would I eventually get people to buy the book?  Would they purchase it just for the value-adds?  I’m suspicious.

So, but anyway, Threat Quality Press and my ambitions:  as a group that diverts attention to one location, we all benefit from each other’s work.  I advertise my book, someone comes to the site, and they find Holland’s book, and vice-versa.  The marketing work also overlaps; with, say, ten people, each person could do 11% as much marketing, and the site would benefit from someone working at 110%.

Of course, this is no good if, after coming to the website, you find that there’s nothing there worth reading–which is why the OTHER ambition with TQP is that it is also a destination in and of itself.  Even if you never want to read the books, at least you’re hanging out in the space, potentially referring articles you like to people you know.

In conclusion:  congratulations, Warren Ellis, you published a book on Lulu.  You guys know that that’s the easiest part, right?  Any idiot can publish a book on Lulu.  Have you SEEN the books on Lulu?

If we’re going to talk about new ways to use POD tools, we also need to talk about new ways of getting those Printed-On-Demand objects into people’s hands.

  1. Moff says:

    See, here is an example of where McLuhan was just absolutely right: In his Laws of Media, he talks about how any new medium retrieves characteristics of some older one in a cyclical fashion. And your aspiration for Threat Quality is essentially that it becomes a 21st-century version of a guild.

    And, I think, that’s eventually how it’s going to work out. I mean, whether it happens with TQP specifically depends largely on you, and in part on how quickly the media environment becomes conducive to the form; but at some point within our lives, we’re going to see monolithic corporations like, say, HarperCollins (itself part of an even monolithicker corporation, of course) replaced by smaller self-organized groups of individuals. Ideally, this will bring about a more harmonious paradigm of business in which vendors are more responsive to their customers, but, y’know, I’ll believe it when I see it.

  2. braak says:

    Yes. The next phase of Threat Quality is when I start going around to authors who won’t sign with us, beating them with sticks and breaking their fingers.

    It’s Threat Quality or nothing, motherfuckers.

  3. Moff says:

    You could just try head-butting their glasses off?

  4. braak says:

    New guild rule: join Threat Quality or receive headbutt.


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