Thursday, April 14, 2005

ePublishing and Self-Publishing

An interesting discussion has developed in the Comments section of the Publishing in the 21st Century blogbit. Rather than replicate the entire thing here, I'll just refer you to the Comments thread in that item for the background thus far. The essence of it is that ZZTop has asked the question, "How can we as writers make money e-publishing our own work?"

This is an idea that has long fascinated me, and not only that, is one I've been experimenting with for at least 7 or 8 years now, ever since every last major publisher in North America assured me that my Cyberpunk novel is unpublishable as-is. (For reference, I will hurt the next editor who tells me, "It's a great story, Bruce, but you've got to make it more like The Matrix. Stick in lots of that wild VR stuff.")
At first I only sent the book file out to people I trusted, and as a result it took a good two or three months before the entire text showed up on usenet. Next I went to a rudimentary form of encryption, freely allowing downloads but only sending out the key after I received payment, and again, the updated file was soon on usenet. (Admit it: isn't cracking other people's encryption half the fun of the whole computer geek experience?)

After that I toyed briefly with the idea of embedding an ID code in each copy sold, so that I could trace it back to whoever was reposting it, but that idea quickly fell apart. Once you've identified the person who's decided to give it away to the world: what then? It's not like you can whack them with a rolled-up newspaper. "Bad reader! Naughty reader! I'm never going to sell you another book again!" Yeah, like that will discourage them.

So in the end I wound up posting the book on my site under the terms of a Shareware license -- I'm one of those strange people who actually pays for shareware he likes -- and actively encouraging people to repost the file on their own websites and servers. The ratio of payments to downloads is still running at right around 1%, but I figure I'll make that up on volume.

Yeah, right.

The problem I see with e-publishing is, the vast majority of the world's computer users see ink on paper as something that might be worth a few coins, but electronic files as intangible items that can be swapped freely without harm to anyone. Educating people in creator's rights isn't working (see Copyright, Copywrong); absent an obnoxious and intrusive digital rights management system, how do you sell more than one copy? If you've got an answer to that, I advise you to forget writing fiction, contact a patent lawyer, and get rich selling your idea to the RIAA and MPAA.

...which brings us, by skipping several steps in this already overlong explication in the interests of brevity, to self-publishing. I've long considered self-publishing to be only a short remove from self-pleasuring, but both technologies have come a long way in recent years. Lately I've been fascinated by, mostly because a co-worker's 11-year-old kid published his magnum opus via IP, and in all honesty the production quality of the book is as good as anything I've seen from a "real" publisher and better than many "small-press" publishers.

In the latest SFWA Forum, meanwhile, writer and sometime small-press publisher Darrell Schweitzer has a long rant about the evils of self-publishing as being the last refuge of the pathetic and talentless, which segues into a hymn of praise for small-press publishers. He then goes on to extoll the joys of taking his pay in the form of contributor's copies, which he hawks at conventions and on his web site. If I could abide Darrell's presence for more than a few minutes, I would ask him: what exactly is the difference between what you're doing and self-publishing?

The floor is now open for discussion.