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With Publishing Tools Like These, Who Needs Enemies?

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Indie authors seem to be living in an age of wonders. They can upload a PDF and sell it instantly on Kindles and tablets. They can print-on-demand like merry little Gutenbergs, slinging their wares from India to Indiana. They can raise an army of fans to crowdfund their latest opus. But all is not rosy in the world of indie publishing. The tools – the things that were supposed to turn us all into one-(wo)man vanity presses – are abysmal and no one is fixing them.

First, according to The Digital Reader, Google has closed down its Play Books publisher portal in order to revamp the submission process. Why? It had essentially become a haven for pirates who uploaded versions of decidedly non-indie titles – Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers is one – as well as legitimate indie books. The uploader claimed to be the author of these titles and sold them on the store.

Furthermore, with Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited deal, authors who submit their books as “exclusive” to the service can give away their titles for free, reaping $1.50 or so per download. This feature is great for users with a large following – I suspect J.K. Rowling did very well – but it essentially encourages authors to play ball by giving away their books when they could be making a smidgen more. While Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing tools are seamless and improving daily, the days of building a huge following by giving away books or pricing them laughably low – a la Hugh Howey – are sadly gone.

Finally, I’ve been working with Amazon’s CreateSpace for my new book and found their process far from the bookstore-killer I had hoped. While my earlier, text-only books were easy to upload, the latest one contains a few pictures and is a bit longer. This means my book is out of print for long stretches if, say, I want to change a quote on the cover.

The way CreateSpace works is fairly straightforward. You submit text and a cover, usually in PDF format. Normal humans will upload a Word document or pay to have their books laid out by Amazon’s service providers and folks with a bit of InDesign skill can upload a book specially laid out for their needs. However, each upload and change takes 24 hours or more to “review” and then can be shunted back to the creator with a very cryptic error. Because there is very little true instruction on the site – just a few diagrams that might be helpful for users with previous experience in book design – non-designers will end up sending and resending files ad nauseam. While most books don’t require such treatment, a few will and you’ll feel it if you ever have to deal with it. This means that authors of complex texts with diagrams and the like will have to spend money up front to have a designer create a pixel perfect version for CreateSpace and then risk endless re-dos as it is dinged again and again.

There are rays of hope. I tried something called Publishizer that promised a bit more than Indiegogo or Kickstarter in the book department but they’re still in their infancy. Other services like SatoshiBox make it easy to sell books with Bitcoin. But in the end writers don’t want much fuss and muddle. They have a hard enough time trying to make great fiction and non-fiction without having to worry about margin sizes. In fact, one author I spoke with saw the old guard publishers as the ultimate in fire and forget. He wrote his book, submitted it, and then waited… and waiting… and eventually it appeared. Publishers make a small bet on smaller books because they have blockbusters. Indie authors have to make a big bet on every book.

If I’m being a bit Andy Rooney about this there’s a reason: these tools were supposed to change publishing as we know it. Stephen King was supposed to dump his contracts and beam books right into your Kindle and Harry Potter was supposed to appear magically on your iPad without Scholastic’s Voldemortian meddling. That never happened. Instead the old walls are thrown up again and again and publishers tools are retrofitted for the new age without much thought for their limitations. It’s all enough to make you side with the benighted Author’s Guild.

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