Lifting Up the Ladder

The world of digital publishing has given great new possibilities for authors to enjoy creative freedom through indie publishing, but the Digital Book World conference revealed that it seldom produces freedom from worrying about the next rent payment. As reported in the Guardian (hence the translation to sterling from $1000US), 77% of indie authors earn less than £600 per year. Traditionally published authors fare little better, with 54% failing to reach the £600 mark. That is not £600 per book per year, that is total income. For a traditionally published author that is personal income, so that after taxes they get to keep it all. For indie authors that is income for their business, which would mean that few would ever pay any tax if they followed the advice to always have editing and cover design done by book industry professionals.

Yet so many indie authors are desperate to emulate what they see as the automatic validation that comes from being traditionally published. Read the comments to this apology by a traditionally published author to all self-publishers whom she had been disrespecting in the past. So many of these indie authors are keen to return to disrespect for other self-published authors and proclaim their own superiority. That superiority derives, in their view, from how much money they spend on pre-publication work (editing, cover design, eBook formatting). This is to separate themselves from the indie authors who produce texts with typos. Except of course, traditional publishers also produce texts with typos. In this article about why traditionally published authors are switching to indie publishing, one author cites the poor editing of a recent Tom Clancy novel. Or you can read my articles on the poor standard of the Kindle version of Snow Falls on Cedars or the continuing need to emend The Lord of the Rings after fifty years. Traditional publishers cover the expenses of editing and scanning of print backlists, but that does not guarantee that it will be a job well done. Indie authors have to cover editing expenses themselves, with the fear that they might have their book professionally edited by someone who is as poor at their job as whoever oversaw the Kindle edition of Snow Falls on Cedars. Even professional editors are complaining about the standards in their industry, such as Richard Adin's Evaluating Editors, and the comments to his article.

This raises the question of why there should be this insistence from the better off among indie authors that everyone should be paying for editing, especially as Adin demands that indie authors must expect to pay more than $200 (£125). By better off, I am referring to those who have more money than business sense. Whatever the quality editing fee would be, it would leave little, if anything, out of a sub £600 annual income. To happily pay more than a £1000 per book on editing, especially if writing more than one book per year, is simply bad business if the realistic annual business income is £500. Editors seeking a good income from working with indie authors are most likely to prosper with three groups; the tiny number who earn a lot from self publishing fiction, those who write loss-leading non-fiction to promote a career, and middle class vanity self publishers, who spend money on editing that they will never recoup. This last group are the ones that are most keen to bring in restrictions on who is allowed to self publish. The successful authors do not need to restrict others' writing endeavours, as their writing is providing them with a good income. It is those authors who struggle to cover their editing costs, who are most likely to call for a system to prevent the self publication of books that have not been edited by a book industry professional. In other words, they see the hope for breaking even (and maybe earning a living from writing) through preventing others from making any money at all. The digital self publishing revolution has opened the floodgates to thousands of new authors who had little chance of ever getting past the gatekeeping process of agented submissions to traditional publishers. These middle class vanity self publishers want to lift up the ladder of self publishing, so that only those with money can enjoy this revolution. What you might describe as a very middle class revolution and a very odd one.

Instead of trying to lift the ladder up from the working classes, these middle class authors should seek their validation in a simpler and more traditional answer; establishing a publishing house. That publishing house, let's call it Vain Publishing, would not accept any poorly edited text for publication, including those poorly edited by book industry professionals. The broader term of indie publishing, as opposed to self publishing, can still be claimed by authors working with small presses, whose number Vain Publishing would join. So instead of ladder lifting, they should get together to form Vain Publishing and leave the rest of us to pursue our version of indie authorship. Ladder lifting means that the much told story of JK Rowling writing the first Harry Potter while living on benefits, could be repeated, but the writers existing in poverty would be restricted to a traditional publishing route that is becoming harder to break into. Even that traditional route is difficult for the poor to consider, because publishing houses often expect the author to pay for their own marketing and will not consider them until they have established their own platform, and of course the agent will expect her 20% cut. Imagine the damage to the world of literature, if we return to a situation where only the privileged can get published. That is the dystopian vision being presented to us by the ladder lifting vanity self-publishers. Dear middle class ladder lifters, please set up Vain Publishing and leave the rest of us to continue exploring the digital revolution.