Ebooks: The make or break of writers?

Now I know this title may upset some people – but let me explain. I have been writing fiction for over 20 years: writing, editing, polishing, shortening, tightening, researching my market which is chiller thrillers for women. Some novels have come and gone in my life; passed through gently, kindly rejected by top agents around the world. I knew these agents’ addresses by heart. Over the years they may even have become tired of this persistent writer who regularly turned up every two to three years with a new offering. Most likely, they never noticed.

I was chiefly rejected for the following ‘reasons’: too busy; stable of writers complete; agency too small to take on more writers; our lists are full; not 101% sure of this; you write like one of our writers we already promote; don’t like the characters; don’t care for the era-setting; like this very much but juussst not quite sure; we receive over 3000 manuscripts a month (so please go away); we are no longer taking on new writers…and the fabulous, never-ending: no reply.

Now, I don’t mind about this. Really. Each rejection gave me the opportunity to re-look my work and improve upon it. I learned from reworking material over and over again. And finally I succeeded: I found a London agent who said my submission was one of the best she’d seen. Did we sell? No, but that’s another story out of the scope of this post. The point is that my writing took years to become even reasonably professional, continually refined by nip and tuck to be as best as I could manage without additional expensive help. But sadly, it seems that many e-writers today, understandably eager to get their work up on the Net, neglect this long and vital process. I read their work – and it’s often good story-telling – but the urge to re-frame sentence after sentence consumes me, and I don’t enjoy the read.

But I’m not really fussed about that either. They will have their reading market no doubt. But what does bother me is that these writers will spend considerable time putting their craft together, working on it, mulling over it, dreaming it, redoing it, enthusing, dancing alone in the small hours in a devil’s waltz with a new idea. And they will be doing all this for 99c or free. My question is: for how long?

And that is the crux of the matter. ROI. In plain business terms that’s Return on Investment. Books are hard to write. They take time – good, bad or indifferent, it doesn’t matter. Hard work for 2 or 3 years that eventually pays maybe a couple hundred dollars? That’s okay if it’s your hobby – but many fiction writers expect to earn a living. Up till now, there have been a select few who have done so. And before you shout: John Locke and Amanda Hocking at me, indie ebook success is still like winning the lotto. Except buying a lotto ticket takes a couple of minutes – not 3 years out of your life. And there’s the rub.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love the ebook revolution and the greater fairness and democracy this brings to writers. I’m right in the middle of that burgeoning tidal wave and swimming like mad, loving the excitement and all the incredible opportunities opening up for writers to showcase their work. But ironically, after the huge savings from print to digital, are we now pricing ourselves out of the market through prices that are too low? Where do we go from free?

So what I’m really saying – is that readers who to continue to expect books at prices that do not reasonably reflect the value of the labor, are possibly going to push writers out of the industry. Eventually, writers will have to think of something more lucrative to do than writing fiction. There are writers who, under proper guidance and business management (and without all the judgement calls I listed above in the form of rejections) have the potential to become excellent writers and good earners. Will they stay the course long enough to reach more rarefied places? My feeling, if the current mood persists, is that many won’t and we shall be the poorer for it. A high percentage of fiction writers and readers alike, may well find something else to do.

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5 thoughts on “Ebooks: The make or break of writers?

  1. Well, here’s the question–all other things the same, would that writer have gotten more working through a publisher and getting their percentage cut, or by selling their book successfully for $.99-3.99?

    In general, the prices on the shelves of B&N might reflect the labor of the writers, but the amount of that price that the writer actually gets doesn’t.

    • malladuncan says:

      You have a very good point. But I just wonder if some good authors at 99c don’t get the sales – we will lose good talent. I think what used to keep authors persistent in the past was the prospect of that advance and subsequent glamor of a publisher. Authors now have more freedom – and that’s great – but if 99c – 2.99 doesn’t sell, they could become disillusioned. On the other hand, if readers push for very low prices to free, life for writers – unless they sell thousands of books – could be difficult. But we’re still in the beginning of the ebook change and maybe things will find their own level. Let’s hope so – and that writers will keep writing!

      • There’s sense in what you say, but it’s just as easy to argue the very opposite.

        Just as authors who don’t sell their self-published eBooks may become disillusioned, so might those who have been pitching their novels at agents and publishers for years.

        Just as the dream of a major publishing house acceptance may keep an author persistent, so might the instant gratification of being able to see their book in e-print (and the hope that they’ll be discovered that way, a la Hocking).

        Readers will always push for lower prices, just as those who sell their wares will push for higher prices. That’s the nature of having a market economy. More to the point, there will always be a trade-off between quality, quantity, and price.

        Certainly eBooks are cheaper, but as any reader of indie eBooks will attest, those books also suffer under a (perhaps earned) stigma of being less polished and of lower quality than those books that have already been vetted by publishing houses and have their logo stamped on their binding. As respect, quality, or interest in eBooks grows, so will the prices (especially for those books that sell because they’re good). Moreover, we can’t forget that it’s the authors themselves that are setting the prices; I’ve seen eBooks listed for $.99 and $9.99.

  2. hoboduke says:

    Gutenberg technology of printing press allowed the commoners to see a book instead of the wealthy alone. ebooks may be the only hope we have for our school children to read, since books hold no interest. Those how have a tale to tell in the words we use have to adapt to use the medium that will draw readers.

    • malladuncan says:

      I agree fiction writers must adapt. And we have. I love indie ebook writing. In fact I have free books up for African children! However, writers are not printing presses – a book can take many months to write and I’m worried that ultimately the return on investment will be so little as to prevent would-be writers from taking that route – and so we may lose talent. But perhaps there is a new world ahead and I should be more optimistic.
      Thank you for contributing to this interesting debate!

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