The Evil Empire?

As most of my readers know, as a writer I don’t quite fit into any stereotype. My books get published through the traditional system [otherwise considered as equivalent to the “evil empire” or the dark side by some “indie” authors], but what I write doesn’t quite fit into any neat pigeonhole, at least not if one reads it carefully. I don’t have an agent and never had. But I spent almost twenty years in jobs requiring suits, and sometimes three-piece suits at that.

Before that, after college, I started out as a conventional naval officer – technically, a line officer – but quickly decided that it wasn’t for me. So I qualified to be considered for either SEAL training [I figured more than ten years of competitive swimming couldn’t hurt] or flight duty. When I saw all the running that the SEALs did, however, and considered the fact that I have short legs and small feet and that they were always running through sand, I opted for flight training, in the middle of the Vietnam War, giving up relatively safe duty for something that was anything but safe. I ended up as a helicopter search and rescue pilot, flying off of carriers, and occasionally landing on tight places on cliff-tops.

Although I’d read science fiction from my early teens on, I didn’t even consider writing it until I was nearly thirty, after I’d spent fifteen years writing poetry that only got published in small literary magazines… when it got published at all. And it took twenty years after my first story was published before I could afford to become a full-time writer.

All of that is likely why I’m somewhat surprised by an attitude I’ve seen in a certain segment of F&SF writers, who quite vocally, or rather in print, are so disparaging of “traditional” publishing. Traditional publishing really shouldn’t be called that – it’s large-scale commercial publishing. So-called “traditional” publishers are interested in selling large numbers of copies of what they print. Given their systems and cost structures, they can’t afford to sell less than roughly 5,000 hardcovers of a novel [these figures may be out of date, but the basic point remains]. They may occasionally do so, for books that editors think are “special,” but that doesn’t happen often.

A generation ago, an author who couldn’t sell that many books had nowhere to go. Happily today, with the advent of small presses, print-on-demand, and even Amazon [ another evil empire], authors who sell below the unofficial cutoffs of traditional publishing can still publish and sell their work, always assuming that they have a body of readers. To make a decent living that way generally requires a great deal of work… and the ability to turn out several novels a year. Some authors, but not that many, I suspect, who publish this way do quite well. Every year a few are even “recruited” by traditional publishers. From what I’ve observed, some gladly accept, just as I’ve seen some traditionally published authors walk away because they found traditional publishing too confining.

Yet I see comment after comment talking about the evils of traditional publishing, and even forecasts of its coming collapse. I don’t see that happening. I do see an industry in the middle of massive change. The numbers of mass market paperbacks printed and sold, once the preferred reading material of F&SF readers, have shrunk to a fraction of former sales, largely replaced first by e-books, and more recently by audiobooks. Hardcover sales, on the other hand, so far seem to be holding up.

Some readers, of course, now bemoan the costs of e-books released by traditional publishers, which, after the first year of release, are priced roughly the same as mass market paperbacks. That bemoaning, I suspect, is because self-publishing “indie” authors offer their books at a lower price. That pricing gains them readers, but the author pays for it in another way. He or she also has to deal personally with the details for covers, publicity, editing, proofing, etc., or hire others to do so… or risk presenting a technically inferior package. In effect, those writers are trading off writing time for production time.

But unlike the evil empire of Star Wars, traditional publishing isn’t out to destroy “indie” or self-publishing authors. Those publishers, like everyone else, are trying to make money. For the author, it’s much more a question of which costs an author chooses or is forced to bear, the “tyranny” of the “evil empire” or the greed of the readers in the self-publishing market, but they do have an option besides traditional publishing, unlike writers of an earlier time.

8 thoughts on “The Evil Empire?”

  1. Sam says:

    This is a mostly off topic but your reference to Star Wars “Evil Empire” reminded me of something I read somewhere a few years ago. It was something along the line that we – the audience – knew that the Empire was evil because it said so in the opening crawl of the movie.

    I’ve thought about that on and off since then and wondered how do you define an “evil” regime? As far as I am aware evils occur under every regime and are often perpetrated by those in power who are rarely held to account.

    Recently here in Australia we have had to contend with the news of war crimes perpetrated by our soldiers in Afghanistan over the last decade. For a long time these crimes were either covered up or neglected due to a culture of wilful ignorance.

    Agents of a regime such as police and soldiers often perpetrate acts of brutality with seeming impunity regardless of whether or not said regime is democratic.

    Of course I favour democratic institutions over monarchical ones but if I had to choose between a President Trump or an Emperor Obama I might be tempted to change allegiance.

    1. Tim says:

      The first emperor in a dynasty is usually there for a reason; but as it is the successors you need to worry about (such as the sons of several ‘good’ Roman emperors).

      Whereas US presidents are elected and can be removed.

  2. Robert_Hinshaw says:

    I just recently dove into the self-publishing segment of the F&SF market and I wouldn’t mind a dose of “evil empire”! It has been a learning experience in the growing power of indie advertisement in the self-publishing part of the online marketplace.

    While I tried to peddle my novel to a few agents, and even received a few polite responses saying my book wasn’t a good fit, it quickly became clear that I would wouldn’t be able to attract an agent before the opportunity cost of not self-publishing became too high (in my ignorant opinion at the time). I’m not sure how many writers these days would be willing to sit on a completed manuscript for a few years in order to keep fishing for agents or publishing houses that might be receptive, but I eventually pulled the trigger on self-publishing after commissioning a cover.

    Now, in hindsight, I would have still preferred a traditional publisher in order to minimize the uncertainty of managing my own advertisement and sales. I had to figure out Amazon’s internal ad system relying on trial and error, and I had to figure out how to ask my book to be placed in various kindle sub categories in order to have a chance at topping some relevant bestseller lists (you can add as many as 7 after your initial 3, but they don’t tell you this). And even with all that, it is clear that some books stand a far better chance at succeeding financially simply because they are better at exploiting Amazon’s internal algorithm or have a more sophisticated sales strategy, either through aggressive marketing using reddit and google and other platforms for self-promotion or (for traditionally published works) actually having publishers push their book through proprietary outlets.

    I’d like to think my self-published book still has a shot at competing with other self-published works–I’ve averaged about ten downloads/sales a day and upward of that in KU page turns over the last twenty days–but it is clear there is an evolving hierarchy based on advertisement and branding savvy. Self-published books that fail to navigate these challenges might have an initial burst of sales that gradually tapers off. The ones that figure out the ad game or have a traditional publishing house backing them stand a far better chance of being favored by Amazon’s algorithm, and their sales figures either remain steady or even bounce higher as they hit some sort of critical mass (I’ve heard getting a hundred reviews in a few days is a good rule of thumb for taking off as a self-published author).

    Either way, as long as there is a cost and expertise to actually peddling a book (online or print), there will be room for “evil empires” to grow and promote their preferred authors. From a new indie author perspective, I’m not sure I mind all that much, since I am already seeing some self-published authors forming their own small presses where they can mobilize their readers to support works THEY pick out from the ink-stained masses.

    1. Grey says:

      I appreciate this informative post. I just went and bought your book.

  3. Tom says:

    ” … what I write doesn’t quite fit into any neat pigeonhole, at least not if one reads it carefully.”

    What do you mean by the phrase “reading carefully”?

    Pore over.
    Examine minutely.

    Perhaps something else more specific?

    Interesting information about the traditional publishers. I usually read paperbacks of authors who are new to me. I go to Hardcover editions when I intend to collect their work.

    1. Rosemarie says:

      My take on “reading carefully” is that I read it quickly for plot and understanding the characters. But then read it more slowly for the philosophy. For example, I just finished “The Magic Engineer.” In thinking about it after finishing the whole book, I realized that the “conclusion” I reached had been stated very early in the book, so I immediately started re-reading to find what I thought had been there but had “missed” on the latest reading. (I had already read it in 2016 and 2018.)

      I find re-reading them most beneficial as I am in a “different space” in my own evolution and get new insights each time I re-read.

      1. Tom says:

        Agreed that “reading carefully” implies paying attention to all aspects of the prose in order to comprehend what we come to believe the writer wishes to communicate.

        For me LEM mixes, successfully and at different times, genres of Magical realism, Political Crime/detective Mystery, Science fiction, Fable, and Suspense/thriller and he also does it with significant humor.

        My question was aimed at the “..what I write doesn’t quite fit into any neat pigeonhole ..” part; in order to understand what he thinks his pigeonhole holds.

  4. I for once know there are places for both worlds to co-exist. Rob Hayes has been publishing n ow via amazon without an enterprise behind but it took him several years (10?) to really get notice. Goodreads advert and so on really help.

    Enfin, I will not fall into e-books and I Refuse to read them. So much that I won’t but a book unless it’s a paperback. I Have more than 4000 novels (paper). I don’t enjoy audiobooks. If I wanted a audiobook I will go see a tv series or audiodrama like the ones that exist for Dr Who and so.

    One of the most absurd was the fall of masspaperback. Here is the evil empire (lol). Since I can make a paperback and people will pay more, why wouldn’t I instead opf masspaperback?

    At least the recluse novels are being published yet in masspeparback. But some companies have switch completly to paperback(the bigger) or hardback. One of the eivl empires (and you can call them that) it’s games workshop – Black Library. I have all their books because I really enjoy their world and all novels were masspaperback and cost 7/8 dollars (or pounds). Then 10 years ago they change to paperback which make some series I had with some novels in mass and others paperback. Very upsetting. Now they are trying to push ebooks and/or hardback but I believe they can’t live solely on that because, 6 months later or so they publish their paperback.

    I have a excel file where I Have the price of books back from 2009 to now and in bookdepository I usually bought novels for 4 to 6 euros. no more. Now, most novels are between 9/12€. Unless you leave them for some time and then they become cheap but never below 8€. I am talking evil empires book lol like randomhouse, orbit, voyager, tor, baen (a bit cheaper than overall), JF.

    Long story short? I will continue buying paperback books. I will not go to ebooks or audiobooks. I have much more books than I Can read lol and going 40 years old. Why buy hardback when they cost 20€ or more and are heavier, take more shelf space when you can with a good luck buy 2/3 paperback? 🙂

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