Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Weeping Crocodiles, Little Pigs and Big Bad Wolves

Ebooks Fortnight on Vulpes Libris.
Today, we welcome guest blogger Catherine Czerkawska.

The backlash against eBooks in general – and Amazon in particular – has been rumbling along, sotto voce, for some time, but recently, there have been howls of anguish in both US and UK media. (An American bookseller recently called Amazon ‘The Big Satan’!) The Little Pigs are besieged and Amazon is the Big Bad Wolf, come to blow their houses down. Traditional publishers are what they always have been: honourable gatekeepers, there to nurture, protect and promote writers. They are, in short, the fount of all virtue.

This would be just a little more believable if the last decade or so hadn’t seen mainstream publishers presiding over the slow decline and eventual death of the mid-list, that fertile centre ground of publishing, encompassing everything from well written genre fiction to literary novels, with all kinds of fascinating stuff in between. And for a very long time, they have managed to persuade mid-list writers like myself that it was all our fault. This centre ground used to be the seed bed from which the occasional (generally unpredictable) blockbuster success would spring. Sometimes – if the publisher got lucky – it might be an author’s first or second book; more frequently it would be their fourth, fifth, or even sixth book. And if a book did become a bestseller, some of those profits would be ploughed back into nurturing the other seedlings in the mid-list.

Then, slowly but relentlessly, everything changed. No matter what big publishers may say in their own justification, the experience of many writers – even those with agents – is that editors are now ruled and overruled by their marketing departments, and those marketing departments are looking for instant gratification in the shape of a quick and easy bestseller.

They find those bestsellers in ghost written sleb memoirs or autobiographies of sportsmen and television chefs. And cookery books. Such bricks and mortar book chains as remain are crammed with these glossy invaders which have ousted any fiction which doesn’t slot neatly into a set of increasingly narrow genres. It ill behoves publishers to wring their hands and weep crocodile tears over the death of the book, when they have effectively spent a decade or more kicking it in the teeth. Just about every writer of my acquaintance – and I know a lot of them – would tell of rejection letters all saying the same thing: ‘I love this, I think it’s wonderful and well written, but in the current climate, we can’t publish it.’ In other words, it’s a mid-list novel and the marketing department doesn’t know how to sell it fast enough. Editors have – privately, of course – named various wonderful novels of previous decades which ‘would not now find a publisher.’

Even more gobsmacking is the reiterated threat that ‘writers will have to get day jobs!’ I can count on the fingers of one hand –  minus my thumb – the professional writers I know who actually make enough money from published books to be able to support themselves. Almost ALL writers have day jobs. They teach creative writing, run courses, lecture at universities, or – like myself – work at completely different businesses in an effort to buy time to write. How could it be otherwise, when you can be offered £1000 or £500 or a big fat zero advance (and a small royalty) on a book which has taken you a couple of years to research and write.  The Passive Guy, whose consistently interesting blog ( ) tackles these issues in the US points out that ‘one of the strange aspects of publishing is that although it constantly requires new products, it is a large business that seldom develops any of its own.’ Looked at from this angle, it is the writer who takes most of the product development risk but reaps only a small reward. Even the ‘web marketing assistant’ within a reasonably big publishing company will be paid £19,000 – £22,000 per annum. The suppliers of the product, without whom none of the other jobs would exist, seldom find themselves so well remunerated.

eBook publishing often involves a ‘slow burn’ with sales taking off some time after publication. By contrast, conventional publishing nowadays demands the immediate and astronomical rise in sales and the ridiculously swift slide towards the remainder pile. With a few lucky exceptions, most writers will have been made to feel guilty about their inability to meet the unrealistic targets set by their publishers, and this with well written, well reviewed and popular books – just not instantly popular enough.

So what if there is a lot of dross out there? There’s plenty of mainstream dross as well and good books are hard to find, even in the real world. In fact good books are arguably even harder to find in the real world. In a virtual world, shelf space is unlimited but people are already hammering out ways of finding what they want. Writers are co-operating with each other, engaging with readers via blogs and review sites such as this one and the more eBook targeted ‘Indie eBook Review’ site. (  Besides, your dross might well be my good read.

It’s no surprise that many of indie publishing’s most enthusiastic proponents are older writers with a good, even award winning, track record (and a big back list) like myself, who have encountered obstacle after obstacle – as opposed to youngsters who have not yet had time to become jaded with the system. It would be far more helpful to ‘start-up writers’ to debate grown-up topics: the desirability of honing your craft, the importance of your cover image, of engaging professional editorial help, the need to get your head down and keep writing rather than resting on your laurels after one book – all these things are useful. Elitist hand-wringing is not.

Recently, I found myself reading two non-fiction books by the same writer. I bought one in paperback but because I wanted to consult the second in a hurry, I downloaded it to my Kindle. Both were published by a major publisher. The paperback is fine. But the formatting of the eBook is atrocious. It is clear that this large and successful company has no idea that when you convert a document into an eBook, there are certain conventions that make the whole thing look right (quite simple things such as page breaks between chapters) and that you have to check for the coding glitches that will inevitably occur. The whole thing looks amateurish and unprofessional.
All of which helps to explain why, for so many of us, the publishing industry has lost credibility as the keeper of culture it still imagines itself to be. I neither want, nor need to be nurtured. Nurturing is for babies. Being treated in a professional, businesslike manner would be good enough. And guess who does that most convincingly at the moment? I do believe it might be the Big Bad Wolf himself (aka The Big Satan). This may not always be the case, of course, but for now, I’m trying to build my house of bricks while he’s still in docile and co-operative mood.

Catherine Czerkawska

16 comments on “Weeping Crocodiles, Little Pigs and Big Bad Wolves

  1. Phillipa Ashley
    May 28, 2012

    What a brilliant and insightful post. Thank you, Catherine, for telling it like it is – in a balanced way – for so many ‘midlist’ authors, which in effect is about 99% of us.

  2. Linda Gillard
    May 28, 2012

    Can you hear loud cheering from the Black Isle?… A brilliant & incisive post, Catherine.Thank you on behalf of indy authors. We’re lucky to have you as an example & spokesperson.

  3. Dan Holloway
    May 28, 2012

    This is a fascinating and well-reasoned post, Catherine. As a writer, it’s been several years since I even thought about publishers, but as a reader I will admit a growing respect for a certain kind of publisher, ones whose influence I hope will start to rub off on the bigger names. I’ve been flying the flag for the in-translation presses Peirene and And Other Stories for a couple of years now, and they continue to go from strength to strength bringing the very best contemporary fiction from overseas in formats that UK presses wouldn’t dream of looking at – not only novellas but collections. Their releases are uniformly superlative, and their reputations are growing, which I hope will finally cosh marketing departments over the head with the dispelling of that myth about the public not wanting novellas (and yes, these novellas are proven successes from overseas, but many of them were debut novels in their home country so someone there took the risk). And no press has done more for adventurous and hard to place titles than the ever-excellent Melville House. I picked up Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra in blackwell’s last week and devoured it in one sitting on the bus home – a mix of Banana Yoshimoto and the very best late Kundera (of his Slowness and Ignorance phase) all whisked up with the South American zip of the recent cinematic resurgence led by the likes of Nine Queens and City of God, it’s a book that will haunt me for months to come. And the actual text can have occupied no more than 65 pages. Had that been submitted to a UK agent or publisher direct, the attachment would never have been opened, and *that* is my real problem with publishers. I can only hope they are starting to learn. And in the meanwhile those of us who write stories that just happen to take 20,000 words or be inconvenient in some other inconsiderate way will take them elsewhere.

  4. Hazel Osmond
    May 28, 2012

    Lots to think about in that article. Thank you.

  5. I picked this up from a friend on Facebook and i have to say “well said.”

    I’m not one of those midlist authors. I’m a bottom of the list author, traditionally published a few times, with little or nothing to show for it. I’m not doing anything mega in self-publishing, but I’m doing better than I did with publishers.

    I particualrly like your reference to “product development.” It’s an aspect I’d never considered before, but you’re bang on the mark.

    Great post.

  6. Hilary
    May 28, 2012

    Thank you, Catherine, for articulating so clearly what I’d sensed as a reader, but could not put into words. So much food for thought here, and so much encouragement to look beyond the usual publishing suspects to find good books to read.

    Another unformed feeling I had that you’ve confirmed is that, with a few exceptions that everyone has heard of, the writer, who after all is the engine of publishing, selling books and reading them, is the worst remunerated in the whole chain. It’s been obvious for a long time, but is still breathtaking when you stop to think about it.

    I agree with you too about the ineptitude of some mainstream publishers in their production of eBook editions of non-fiction. My first taste of this was reading the eBook edition of The Hare With Amber Eyes (which I reviewed for VL), where no attempt whatsoever was made to digitise the illustrations, and, worst of all, the family tree which was essential to the enjoyment of the book, to a legible resolution. Yet some non-fiction publishers (O’Reilly Associates, the specialist IT publisher – I love them to bits) really do ‘get’ e-publishing, and their eBook editions take full advantage of the medium (including an enlightened approach to DRM). So, if you want to read books on IT and computing in bed on your iPad, your needs are met! I wish all mainstream publishers would look at their model, and learn from it that it is not the road to ruin – rather the reverse in their case.

  7. Catherine Czerkawska
    May 28, 2012

    Thanks to everyone for interesting comments – the day of the small specialist seems to be here at last – and that’s a good thing.

  8. Jackie
    May 28, 2012

    Terrific post pointing out some glaring hypocrisies! At times, it seems that book stores ought to be called “bestseller” stores, since it’s growing increasingly difficult to find books that aren’t. Do we really need to see an entire table piled with Stephen King & John Grisham?
    As Hilary said, some of your points are very obvious to authors and are already affecting the reading public, whether we are aware of it or not. I agree that publishers are run by their market depts. nowadays, which is the reverse of how things should be. I’m glad that ebooks are providing an outlet for authors of high quality and niche genres where they can still find an audience. It’s foolish of publishers to so severely restrict their output & it’s turning out to be something that boomerangs back to them.

  9. Lisa
    May 29, 2012

    Brilliant piece. I really enjoyed this and commend the author for being so brave in an industry that likes to keep authors subdued and afraid. The main thing that worries me about e-publishing is piracy. Last week I was told about a torrent site that had the top 5000 Amazon e-books in one file, so that people could illegally download the file and upload 5000 books onto their Kindle in one go. I don’t know how this can be tackled. The music industry seems to be getting nowhere with stopping piracy.

  10. Catherine Czerkawska
    May 30, 2012

    Thanks, Lisa. I keep thinking I ought to do a piece about piracy, but that WOULD be brave. since it’s such an emotive issue. My son is a video games designer. His small company recently released a new game to the Android market – easily pirated, or so I’m told – and because they can track sales worldwide, watched all these thousands of downloads in China. Pirates, they said. But it’s cool. When I asked why they weren’t too bothered, they had several reasons and the more I thought about it, the more I thought they might apply to books as well. They figure – and they are all graduates of a professional postgrad Masters degree in just these topics, so are well up on recent research – that the people who were pirating would never buy the original download – costing all of 69p – anyway. So they weren’t losing sales. There is some evidence that given reasonable prices, a great many people – enough to make the whole enterprise worthwhile – are happy to pay. Pirate copies carry major risks: security issues, or simply not very good copies, with glitches. And of course, no recourse to the makers for help, if your phone is screwed up in the process! So plenty of people prefer to be safe, rather than sorry. But the prices have to be reasonable (a message for trad publishing there, I suspect), people have to feel they are getting value for money – and maybe extras, such as updates. There is a sort of mental optimum price beyond which people won’t pay for a download. With a game it’s a lot lower than a book, even though the same amount of work goes into it, but I think £4.99 or thereabouts may be the upper limit for an eBook. Within the games industry, they seem to think that it’s easier to combat piracy by offering a better alternative. Where books are concerned, would I want 5000 Kindle Books uploaded onto my Kindle in one go? No way. I can’t keep up to reading the wonderful books I’ve got on there that I really want to read, some freebies, most bought and paid for. Why would I want to wade through 5000 downloads of pirated uncertainty – in the knowledge that Amazon would probably be on my tail sooner or later (they have sophisticated tracking systems out there and it’s not a closed system either – it reports back!) So although I know it’s a serious issue, I don’t think it’s a reason for not publishing. Any more than the proliferation of charity shops with their walls of second hand books, which are recycled through half a dozen readers for every single purchase, are a reason for abandoning paper books altogether. Whoops, I seem to have written about piracy anyway. Better duck behind that wall!

  11. Chris Reel
    May 30, 2012

    Here’s something that might be interesting in this discussion:

    “When you’re selling a product directly online, though, and you drop the price by 75 percent, you’ll actually increase your total gross revenue by a factor of 40. You’re actually generating 40 times as much gross revenue. After you return to the sort of baseline price, sales will actually be higher … You’re actually somehow increasing the demand for your product by running the sale.”

  12. Lisa
    May 30, 2012

    Maybe that is the best way to look at piracy. No need to duck behind any walls!

    I’ve e-published too, and have loved the experience.

    None of us really know what’s going to happen to the book industry in the future, so I guess we can only do what seems right today.

    Anyway, thanks again for this piece, which was a breath of fresh air.

  13. Pingback: Publishing an Ebook – quick tips and pointers « Vulpes Libris

  14. rosyb
    June 1, 2012

    “It ill behoves publishers to wring their hands and weep crocodile tears over the death of the book, when they have effectively spent a decade or more kicking it in the teeth.”

    Powerful stuff, Catherine. I suppose many publishers might blame the pressure of booksellers and the booksellers then again might blame the pressures they were under from supermarkets and online etc. And all of that gets back to the pesky net book agreement removal again…so whose fault was that originally?

    Nice to read a very honest piece from a writer – so often they are worried to come out and say things openly. I don’t know what any of the answers are really.

  15. Catherine Czerkawska
    June 1, 2012

    Rosy – I have some sympathy for the small to medium sized publishers. But as far as the so called Big 6 are concerned, I think a lot of our problems as writers date from the time when so many traditional publishers were taken over by big conglomerates with quite different agendas. My own experience was painfully illustrative of that – one of my first novels, The Golden Apple, was bought by The Bodley Head. My agent at the time was the late and much missed Pat Kavanagh. It was a typical ‘Bodley Head’ book. What would now be called mid-list, I suppose. Back then it was perceived to be popular literary – a reasonably intelligent but accessible read. The Bodley Head was taken over by Random House in the middle of publication, and my book was ‘edited’ into a beach bonkbuster. I was far too young and inexperienced to know better. A few years later, the editor had the grace to write me a letter, apologising for publishing the novel in ‘quite the wrong way’ – but her hands had been tied. This isn’t an ‘old writer with a chip on her shoulder’ grouse – Life’s too short to agonise over might-have-beens. William Ockham, commenting on the Passive Voice blog, puts it better than I can. ‘When companies give marketing control over product design (book acquisition is the functional equivalent of product design for the publishing industry) that means they have no clue about what they are doing. It’s good to let market research have input into product design, but marketing’s job is to market the products you produce….marketing people don’t understand designing and building products.’ He points out that this applies to all ‘companies in decline’ and not just publishing. Editors should be in charge of acquisitions.They shouldn’t constantly be overruled by marketing – which is the situation we find ourselves in now. The tail is wagging the dog, to use more beastly imagery!

  16. Pingback: Alt-pub on Vulpes Libris – a round-up. | Vulpes Libris

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This entry was posted on May 28, 2012 by in Articles, eBooks, Theme weeks and tagged , , , .



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