Love for Sale

There can be little doubt that these are turbulent times in publishing. With Kindles and iPads making a real, tangible impact on the book-buying market, the issues surrounding digital rights are getting ever more fraught. Literary agent Andrew Wylie's stab at the big-name publishers caused a stir a couple of weeks ago. It feels like everything is up for grabs, like nothing can be taken for granted - even the publishing deals an author might already have. 

It's starting to look like the relevance of the author him or herself is fading fast. The big deals today are about distribution and rights, not about the quality of what gets read in the end.

So, let's return to an ugly tale that doesn't quite feel finished, and have a look at what happened next - and what it might mean for 'niche' publishing today... 

Over the last couple of months, we've occasionally touched on the (let's be kind and call them) issues surrounding Night Shade Books and a couple of their authors - notably Liz Williams and Daniel Harms. Those links will take you to those authors' blogs, where they outline some of the problems they had been having. We should make clear that those problems now appear to be resolved, at least for Liz, but not necessarily in an ideal way. 

Nightshade's defence was that they were so successful, so busy, that they just couldn't find the time or manpower to deal with basic publisher stuff like talking to their authors, answering their mail, or sending out royalty checks. You know, the little things. Somehow, during all this, they also managed to find the time to make money by selling things that didn't belong to them. Their statement at Publishers Weekly tells their side of things, in a rather breathlessly "oh my God, you wouldn't believe it!" way that really doesn't excuse the treatment Liz and Daniel and others received. 

Anyway, we're not here to kick Night Shade. It's what happened with Liz Williams following all this that I want to focus on, and to ask a few questions about the life of a writer and the state of publishing today.

First up, something that isn't new. For some time, Liz has been advertising a one-on-one writer mentorship service through her blog. She - like many, many authors - has also taught at various writing courses around the country, so this isn't really too surprising. (Disclosure: I attended an Arvon Foundation course led by Liz and Graham Joyce, and they were both exceptional tutors.) What's perhaps a little strange is the 'direct marketing' approach of advertising this mentorship service on her blog. 

Although the contents of authors' blogs varies wildly, you generally expect to maybe read about how the work on their latest novel is going, maybe how the last one is selling, and maybe what they think about the hot issue of the day. Very, very rarely do you see an author advertising themselves. All right, maybe you get a tangential advert: "I'm appearing at this convention/going on this book tour/teaching on this course..." But not so much with the "Here's a service I offer. Who's interested?"

More recently, and following the Night Shade farrago, Liz has advertised something else on her blog: a limited-edition short story sale, in which she is selling subscriptions to short stories, one chain of which will feature her Inspector Chen character. These will be emailed to the buyers as Word or PDF files, with some sort of hard-copy collection following for long-term subscribers. 

This, ladies and gentlemen, is self-publishing. I can hear the gasps of horror from the galleries! Maybe it's my age, but self-publishing exists only within the realms of fanzines, community newsletters, and risibly bad historical romances on Lulu.com. Right? Right? 

For those to whom crisp paperbacks and creaseless spines are sacrosanct, for those who laud The Book as a form, it's hard to stomach the idea that a woman who, not long ago, was tipped as a future Booker winner on Radio 4 is now resorting to the crass 'desperation' of self-publishing. But, really, what is the big deal?

What matters when you read a book or a short story? It's the words. You know it is, I know it is. OK, we all love a good book, the physicality of it, the smell of it... But all that dissolves when you're drawn into the world created between its covers. And in an era where the delivery of quality fiction is no longer limited to bound-and-covered paper and ink, shouldn't the quality of the words matter more than the medium through which they're read? 

Which brings us back to the mess the publishing world finds itself in right now. Will e-readers win the battle, will they beat The Book? That seems to be the big question publishers are wrestling with, and it informs just about every decision they seem to make. But in worrying about delivery, are they forgetting what really matters? The words themselves? 

In this crazy melee, is it any wonder that people like Andrew Wylie and Liz Williams stand up for themselves (or their clients) and say, basically, "Look here. Let's just get some good writing out there, while the big boys rub themselves raw over their digital aspirations." (There's more to it for Wylie, of course, but still at heart his message seems to be: "Publishers, you can scream and shout as much as you want, but let's not forget what this is about." In his position, he can use some heavyweight authors as ammunition, but the core truth is still visible: good writing matters and publishers need to remember that.)

So, in her latest short story sales, Liz Williams has taken the publisher out of the equation. And can you blame her, really, after that treatment from Night Shade? In fact, chuck out the publisher and - in an ideal world - you need two, maybe three, people to deliver quality writing. An author. An editor. And perhaps a copy editor, depending on the skills of the other two. And, quite honestly, the work of the editor and copy editor can be undertaken perfectly well by intelligent friends of the author. 

There's also another undeniable fact. With the nosedive decline of SF and fantasy fiction magazines, there are very few arenas for the paid publication of new short stories. Liz isn't the only person to self-publish, self-promote and self-sell a work that has no obvious market. Science fiction author Robin Sloan recently made $13,500 by selling the chance to read his latest novella - and when was the last time you saw a major publisher bring a novella to print? And I promise you, there is no way on earth an author (short of your Browns and Rowlings) would get paid that much for a novella, even if it did get taken up. 

It's frankly a little empowering to see authors take their work and make a market for it. Publishers are notoriously wary of short story collections and of novellas - but Liz Williams and Robin Sloan are making money out of just those things. And the publishers aren't seeing a penny of it. 

It's partly a thumb of the nose, partly paying the bills, and partly - possibly even mostly - a love of their work itself. This is the author owning their work, in just about every sense of the word. 

In defence of the publishers, it can't be fun to be them at the moment. I don't think anyone knows right now which way the public will jump. Yes, e-readers are gaining momentum, but will they truly become the future of reading? And if so, when? And how else might the digital medium change our reading habits? What will sell, at what price, and to whom? 

Perhaps it's no wonder that some publishers seem to have lost sight of what their business is actually about. And perhaps we shouldn't be shocked that some authors and their agents have stood up for themselves and said, "You know what? This work is mine and, just this once, so is the money."

Whatever happens to Liz, whatever happens to Night Shade, whatever happens to the big publishers and their many, many authors... These matters are coming to a head. Fiction is being democratised. And, quite honestly, who knows where this will end.