Interview With Lee Goldberg About E-Publishing

This is the fifth in a series of interviews with authors about their experiences dipping their toes into the epublishing pool.

Spinetingler Magazine: The publishing industry has changed dramatically over the past few years. For you, what’s been the most surprising change? What changes are having the biggest impact on your career?

Lee Goldberg: Obviously the biggest game-changer has been the Kindle…and Amazon’s willingness to open up the sales platform to everybody, not just publishers. Not only has the Kindle changed the way people are buying and reading books, but it has also transformed the self-publishing industry… and for the better, all but eliminating the opportunity for those predatory and dishonest vanity presses to exploit the desperation and naivete of aspiring writers.

For mid-list authors, it has given new life to out-of-print books and finished novels that were dropped by publishers in a brutal wave of corporate belt-tightening. It’s certainly been true for me. For example, my novel The Walk was published in hardcover by Five Star back in 2004. It got almost no notice, pitiful sales, and quickly fell out-of-print. I thought that was the end..and, at the time, it certainly was. But then the Kindle came along and my friend Joe Konrath convinced me to make my book available for the device. I did it as an experiment, figuring I had nothing to lose, since there were no out-of-pocket costs involved. The Walk was an immediate success, much to my astonishment and delight. In the last 17 months, I have sold nearly 20,000 copies…and am now earning almost $2000-a-month in royalties on that title alone (and in response to repeated requests from readers without Kindles, this month I made the book available as a trade paperback through CreateSpace, a print-on-demand company, and have sold 100 copies, earning me another $400). The Walk has sold far more copies, and earned much more money for me, than it ever did in hardcover. But no matter how much or how little I make, it’s all found money on a book I wrote seven years ago that was dead and buried. Naturally, I immediately released my entire, out-of-print back on the Kindle, hired experts to reformat the content and design professional covers, and the earnings have made me rethink a lot of my previous, strong-held beliefs about self-publishing.

For an established mid-list author like myself, it certainly makes no financial sense anymore sell a book to small presses like Five Star, Severn House, or Poisoned Pen. I’m not even sure it makes sense with the big houses, either. I will keep writing my Monk books for Penguin/Putnam as long as they continue being successful…but I honestly don’t know whether I will take my next original novel to a publisher, unless my agent can convince me that the book is a game-changer that will be a break me out of the mid-list.

If you’d told me a year ago that I would be contemplating by-passing publishers and self-publishing my next novel, I would never have believed it.

On the other hand, the one-click ease of self-publishing has released a tsunami of incoherent, unreadable slop on Amazon. Smashwords, etc. that I think is going to turn off a lot of readers and make them very reluctant to sample, much less buy, self-published work…and steer them back to familiar names and publishers they can trust. Just because you can quickly and easily self-publish that doesn’t mean that you should.

You’ve already explained why the Kindle is truly a double-edged sword. As you said, it’s simplified self-publishing, and hindered predatory presses that exploit aspiring authors, but it’s also helped open the floodgates to unedited works that could deter readers from purchasing self-published works.

This raises an obvious question. If Lee Goldberg was starting out today, had no substantial publishing credits to his name, what should he do? Is it likely writers who don’t have the prior approval of established publishing houses can make a name for themselves and achieve the level of success you’re presently enjoying?

I wouldn’t self-publish. I understand it’s a huge temptation right now…but also a huge mistake. Who wouldn’t want to bypass all the time, hard work, and frustration involved in finding an agent and getting published? But self-pubbing is not a short cut. As my friend Joe Konrath says:

Just because it’s easier than ever before to reach an audience doesn’t mean you should.[...]But most of all, being a professional means you won’t inflict your shitty writing on the public. Self-pubbing is not the kiddie pool, where you learn how to swim. You need to be an excellent swimmer before you jump in.

If I were starting out today, I would submit my work to agents and publishers. The Kindle isn’t a short cut.

Whatever success I’ve had self-publishing has been, for the most part, a result of the platform I already enjoy from the dozens of books I’ve had published (and, to a lesser degree, all the TV shows I’ve written & produced). I would even take a bad deal from a reputable, established publisher over gambling on Kindle success. Why? Because the benefits that come from being published far outweigh whatever short-term financial losses you may incur. You can always go back and self-publish, but you can’t always get the editing, marketing, distribution, media attention, and professional recognition that comes from being represented by an agent and published by an established, respected house…not to mention the greater likelihood of foreign sales, movie & TV options, major media reviews, etc. You will be a better writer… and a better-known writer…by getting published.

It takes me a long time to see royalties from Monk books…once I have earned out my advances, which aren’t huge. But I will continue writing the books as long as there is a demand. Why? Because my hardcover & paperback & foreign MONK books (not to mention the audio books!) bring me far wider recognition than I’m getting self-publishing… and they bring new readers to my self-published work. But let’s not count out the prestige and respect factor. It’s not just about ego, as many self-pubbed writers, mostly those who’ve been repeatedly rejected by publishers, like to think. Being professionally published still means something… to the industry, to the media, to librarians, to schools, and to readers. And you can’t put a dollar figure on that…or on what valuable lessons you will learn from the experience, or valuable contacts you will make, or the positive difference it will have on your future sales a writer.

Is it possible for a newbie writer to achieve huge success on the Kindle and bypass traditional publishing?

Of course. But they are a tiny minority of the people self-publishing on the Kindle. The fact is, most of them are lucky to sell a dozen copies to their family and friends.

Can success on the Kindle lead to a major publishing deal?

Sure it can. It happened for Boyd Morrison…who didn’t hesitate to abandon the Kindle for the opportunities afforded by traditional publishing. That said, he’s one of the very lucky few.

Can you win a million dollars in the lottery? Or $100,000 at a slot machine in Vegas?

Sure you can. It’s happened to a few people. But c’mon, how likely is it that it will happen to you? You have to use common sense. Self-publishing on the Kindle isn’t a license to print money. Just because you put a book on Amazon, it doesn’t mean it will sell.

Since you mention your work writing for TV, I am curious about that industry. We’re getting to the point where print-on-demand can mean producing a book in a pretty short window of time, and ordering stock of items one at a time is a possibility with books. Do you think that will happen with the TV show DVD market, or movies? How do you see the TV and movie industry changing? As someone who has experience working with both platforms, do you see e-readers as a bridge to a future revolution in storytelling that allows for a whole new type of experience that incorporates reading and viewing? Or are the differences in the audiences too great?

I don’t see a connection between what’s happening with books and a corresponding change in TV. The change in books is device and platform driven… Amazon and the Kindle changed everything. Overnight. With TV, the changes have been slower and more incremental…more evolutionary that suddenly, seismically, revolutionary like it has been with publishing. For TV, it’s a combination of so many factors: the popularity of the Internet, the rise of digital downloads, the rise of basic cable/subscription TV, the switch from broadcast to HD/digital,etc. You really can’t compare the two.

You refer to Joe Konrath a lot, and he seems to be one of the people who’s enjoying a lot of success with self-publishing on Kindle. Do you think it’s fair to say he’s doing better than traditional publishers with e-book sales? You’ve mentioned yourself (on your blog) that your agent was surprised by your sales figures for some of your backlist you put out on Kindle.

I’ve often thought that publishing was just a bit of technology away from opening the door to publishing companies started by authors, much like record labels sometimes are. We’ve seen a lot of musicians start with a known label and establish themselves, and then start their own label to enjoy a greater share of the profits and artistic control, but they also sign on other artists and the label produces music by other artists. That seems to be more possible within publishing than ever before. For example, what if Dan Brown or James Patterson started their own publishing companies? Wouldn’t that be an enormous blow to their publishers, who make millions off their books?

Are the traditional publishers really as far behind as they seem to be? Do you think that publishers are going to change their percentages and dealings with authors to avoid losing writers? What do you think the publishers have to do to remain competitive and retain their talent over the next few years?

I think Joe has the ability to move more quickly to adapt to ebook marketing and pricing than a big corporation. He’s one guy, looking out for Joe. He can be nimble, he can experiment. A corporation has to look at what’s best for all of their authors…not to mention their stockholders. But have publishers been slow to adapt? Absolutely. Are they pricing ebooks too high? In some cases yes, but I don’t necessarily believe that the arbitrary $9.99 figure set by Amazon makes financial sense for publishers or authors…not while there are still hardcovers and paperbacks being published. The $2.99 price point makes a lot of sense for self-published authors like Joe and me…but does it make sense for Michael Connelly’s latest book from Little Brown? I don’t think so.

There’s no question that publishers should definitely be giving their authors a much bigger ebook royalties…and they will. It’s inevitable. But right now, publishers are in a state of total confusion and terror. They don’t know what to do…Borders is on the verge of collapse, Barnes & Noble is closing stores, ebook sales are exploding… it’s akin to what radio was facing when television came along. So they are trying to cut costs, pruning the midlist, firing editors, hunkering down and waiting out the storm. How they will emerge afterwards is anybody’s guess at this point.

It’s naive to think, though, that James Patterson or Janet Evanovich or authors in their stratosphere are going to be walking away from traditional publishing any time soon…they benefit enormously from the infrastructure and reach those companies provide. You can’t compare what A-list writers get from traditional publishing to what mid-list writers are experiencing. They are different universes. And it’s naive to think that big publishers, or printed books, are going to disappear. I’m sure the ebook world will, like the print world, continue to be dominated by the big publishers and the big authors (the big players in radio became the dominant players in TV, too). But there is more opportunity now for individual authors to take charge of their own careers. That said, it would not surprise me if Amazon, and eretailers like them, eventually institute some kind of filtering system to deal with the deluge of self-published work that they are being hit with. The slush pile has gone digital…and it’s going to be overwhelming, for Amazon and for readers, to wade through it all.

You’ve raised an interesting point, about how even Amazon may have to find a filtering system to weed out the garbage. I’m sure it’s possible that at some point, complaints and demands for refunds could become enough of a headache for Amazon to do something. Meanwhile, what do we authors do? What about reviewers and organizations? Since I don’t want to put you in the hot seat regarding any of the organizations you work with and what their positions might be, let’s use Spinetingler as an example. We’re having an on-going dilemma. Should we run reviews of books that are self-published? Should we consider them for the awards? Behind the scenes, the writers behind such works argue their position. We’ve only opened the e-book door to anthologies, because of the realities of the short story market. What advice would you give us about how to proceed?

Amazon is already beginning to take a more active role in vetting self-published work. I have heard from several authors who have received warnings from Amazon that their books will be withdrawn within seven days if formatting, typographical and spelling errors aren’t corrected. This just underscores the importance of having your work professionally edited and formatted before posting it. I learned the hard way myself. When I initially posted four of my early, out-of-print novels on Amazon, I apparently missed scores of OCR and formatting errors that I didn’t catch and I caught hell from readers that is still hurting sales of those books, even though the errors have since been corrected.

Professional writing organizations like the MWA, SFWA, etc. are wrestling with how to deal with the changes in the publishing industry…just like authors, publishers and booksellers are. But these are organizations for professional writers, so I don’t see these organizations simply opening the door to all self-published writers and all ebooks, any more than I see the Writers Guild of America or the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences opening their doors to anyone who has written & produced programming for YouTube or Vimeo. That said, I think it’s inevitable that the professional writing organizations will have to adapt. How they will accomplish that, while still maintaining their professional standards, is going to be very difficult and controversial.

I can’t tell you how to deal with self-published work and ebooks in your magazine…that really depends on your unique editorial mission and your editorial standards.

Okay, but surely there is also a dilemma for authors in terms of how magazines handle ebooks for reviews and awards. I see the possibility of division. If a magazine opens the doors to reviews of self-published ebooks, is there a possibility traditional publishers will stop sending them review copies?

As someone who’s both an author and a reviewer, I’m seeing this from different sides. I guess the question for you is how important are those traditional promotional venues for ebook publishing? Have you contemplated how to cross those hurdles?

I don’t see how this is a dilemma for authors…it’s a dilemma for magazines. That said, I don’t think Little Brown is going to stop sending Spinetingler review copies of you decide to start reviewing self-published books. Why would they?

Speaking as an author, I don’t really care whether magazines review my self-published ebooks… the audience for ebooks is getting their reviews from Amazon, bloggers, etc. They aren’t turning to PW, Kirkus, or the Los Angeles Times.

NOTE: Since conducting this interview, Lee himself admits some of his views about self-publishing e-books have changed. Curious? Find out more about Lee’s new position and whether he plans to shop his next book to major print publishers here.

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Lee Goldberg is the author of dozens of books including titles based on the TV shows Diagnosis Murder and Monk. He has extensive TV writing and producing credits. Check out his site for more information and his active blog for plenty of opinions and debate. He is a member of the Top Suspense Group.

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Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

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About Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

3 thoughts on “Interview With Lee Goldberg About E-Publishing

  1. Lee brings up some interesting points. I’ve downloaded two books that were pure dreck from Amazon. I read the book descriptions and they sounded like books I’d like. True they only had two stars, but you can’t always trust Amazon’s rating system. One of the books had spelling and punctuation errors and the other had no plot. Neither of those authors will get me to buy another of their books. If Amazon vetted the books on the site, this wouldn’t happen any more.

  2. I think that one thing that will grow from this is more extensive use of the sample feature that Amazon offers, which allows potential purchasers to download 10 – 20% of the book before buying. This allows people to avoid the unpleasant experience that Fiona had while still putting the onus of choice on the consumer.

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