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The Year of Writing Dangerously

My mother always told us when we were kids that however we behaved on New Year’s Eve, we would behave for the entire year, so for pete’s sake just behave. And so we did, more or less. As 2014 winds down I’m trying not to be too grouchy, lest my outlook get stuck in one unflattering state for the next twelve months. It’s 11 below in Colorado Springs as I write this, which doesn’t help. Maybe if I get it out of my system before midnight, next year will be better.

(Midnight? asks Shrek. Why is it always midnight?)

The worst of it is, I can’t be too specific. But I’ll summarize this way: 2014 was a real lousy year for technical publishing. I’m pretty sure it was a lousy year for publishing generally. This isn’t new news; the last really good year for publishing may have been 2000. The 90s were a spectacular decade for publishing, and although it may not be entirely fair to compare recent years to those in the 90s, the functional difference is that (quality being held constant) publishing is cheaper and easier now than it’s ever been in human history. Less remarked on, but no less important: So is reading.

Traditional publishing companies were gatekeepers because the creation of books was difficult and expensive. I’m old enough to have spent all night helping my art director finish laying out a magazine issue on cardboard sheets, to which strips and blocks of text and even isolated letters were glued with hot wax. (I also remember upending the art department wastebasket on the floor at 2 ayem and digging through typesetting discards because Karen needed a 6-point “q” to complete a spread.) As laser printers replaced typsetters, and then purely digital layout replaced laser printers, smaller and smaller groups could do better and better work for less and less money. Skill still matters. Capital, not so much. With a proven book style template in hand, I can take an 80,000 word .docx file and turn it into a printable book in an afternoon without hurrying, using a six-year-old PC and a ten-year-old release of InDesign. I don’t have to print 10,000 books to make money. I can print them as readers buy them, and recoup the cost of my time with sales of just 25-30. (This is about layout and doesn’t include the cost of writing the book, which is much harder to quantify.) Yes, it takes more ebook sales to recoup layout costs because cover prices are lower, but since it’s easier to sell a $3 ebook than an $18 trade paperback, the time taken to recoup costs is roughly the same, all else being equal, with ebook sales pulling steadily ahead.

What this means is that technology has kicked the gates down, and the gatekeepers are left beside a pile of kindling, blinking and wondering whathehell happened. Conventional wisdom holds that the fall of the gatekeepers means that a flood of worthless, badly written books is turning the public off to reading. I don’t think this is true; more people are reading than ever. The real problems are these:

  • Finding good books amidst the torrent of sludge is difficult. (This is not a new problem!)
  • Sludge aside, the number of worthwhile books is growing faster than the number of reader-hours available to consume them.

These two problems interact in an interesting way: Readers who happen on a good writer tend to stay with that writer as a way of keeping their nostrils above the sludge torrent. If you find a writer who writes a lot of what you enjoy, you don’t have to look as hard for things to read. This selects for writers who are hyperextroverted, tireless self-promoters with the ability to summon ferocious energy and apply it to their writing. Writing three decent novels a year isn’t remarkable anymore. It’s survival. You’re not competing against crappy writing. You’re competing against excellent writing in a market that is approaching saturation.

Traditional publishers are looking for writers with “platforms,” which basically means writers who have already established a following somehow. Creating a solid platform is difficult and energy-intensive, and with self-publishing as easy and inexpensive as it is, writers have begun asking whether signing increasingly dicey contracts with publishers after they’re well-known really makes sense. The platform is the new gatekeeper. The bad news is that a platform takes a great deal of time and work, much of which does not involve writing. The good news is that you don’t have to kiss publisher ass to create a platform. (My agent has written a very good if slightly scary book about creating platforms.)

This, more than anything else, is why self-publishing does make sense, and why traditional publishers are struggling. It’s not all bad news. However, it’s not all good news, especially for careful writers of a certain age who can’t knock it out quickly enough to get a platform up to critical mass.

Hence my grumpiness, which may be fatigue more than nostalgia for my days when selling books to print publishers was easy, and the process–and money–reliable. I could summarize 2014 this way: It was the year that I truly lost my taste for traditional publishing. Again, I can’t yet explain in detail, but my inner circle knows what’s going on. (Note that this is about my core competence in tech writing; fiction is a whole ‘nother world.) Sooner or later the dust will settle, and you’ll get the full story.

Beyond that, the year was actually decent enough: Carol can dance again, we took two tropical vacations, we bought a nice new car, and we’ve begun our search for the Door Into Summer During Winter. 2015 could well be a lot happier than what we’ve just been through. Granted, what I write and how I publish it going forward are still unknown. But man, 2014 has been giving me some hints.

A hearty 73 from Carol and me and the Pack. See you on the flipside.


  1. Tom Roderick says:

    Jeff, You may also have explained why my “to be read” shelf seems to be growing as some power function while my reading rate does not seem to have decreased significantly.

    There are some other factors that may be influencing Tech publishing. One is the rate of change of the Tech itself. By the time a book can get written and published the technology has moved on. There are too many, what I call “Betty Crocker”, technical books that only give you a recipe and don’t tell you why that recipe works. Another factor is the accessibility of technical information on the Internet, if you can filter the good from the bad. There ARE some good sources of Technical information and tutorials on the Internet it is just sometimes hard to find them.

    There are authors that I always looked for and still do. I bought your books and magazines and learned a lot of what got me through the transition from a mainframe dinosaur tender to microcomputers and networks, there were perhaps 6 or 10 other authors that I would buy based on name recognition alone, and you probably know who they are.

    A final thought. I went to a Maker Faire this year and saw that there was a huge demand for good accurate information on all kinds of technical subjects, so I know that there is a large unmet need out there. How to provide it and how to make it work, both for the one who provides the knowledge and the one who needs the knowledge may be the key.

    I am ALWAYS in the market for a good book on a subject that interests me in the slightest — and my long “to be read” shelf of books is proof.

    May you and yours have the best New Year and may the winter of 2015/2016 find you in temperatures somewhat above 11 degrees below!

  2. Elvis Newton says:

    Interesting observations. I’d recently read all of Den Wesley Smith’s comments on writing and publishing fiction in today’s market:

    I’d never heard of Smith but was doing a search for dealers of old pulp fiction magazines and he was on one of the links. Be interested in your comments on his ideas – he just makes it sound a bit too easy.

  3. Bob says:

    Interesting that your agent’s book is not available as an ebook. Also, the book was published over 6 months ago and still does not have a review posted.

    I don’t think that is a coincidence. Ebooks are the present and future. I am well into my 60’s but after I bought my Kindle in 2011, I never looked back and I read a lot. The only dead tree books I look at are from the library. I refuse to pay the exorbitant prices charged by the big 5 publishers for ebooks to protect their paper book oligopoly. And my library’s list of ebooks is getting larger every day despite the efforts of said big 5 to squash ebooks. Especially tech books. Safari has a great selection, maybe some of yours?

    I say embrace the change. Ditch your agent and your publisher. Self publish and keep the profits to yourself. You can hire editors, cover artists and anything else you need much cheaper and better than anything publishers provide.

  4. Thanks, Jeff. Yes, this article explains my frustration. I have a full-time job. I can’t churn out even a book a year, much less more than that. It took me five years to complete my first novel. I am a careful writer and need a lot of time for research, writing, and editing. I don’t write formulaic pot-boilers. People who have read my first novel (self-published), love it and want more. But it will be another few years before the next comes out. In addition, it is difficult finding new readers for the self-published book. Over 500 people put it on their “to-read” list on Goodreads. Only two or three have actually read it so far. Three folks won my Goodreads Giveway. Only one has read the book–she rated it but did not post a review. For years I have dreamed of being a full-time novelist. I’ve pretty much given up on that for now. I will keep my day job, which I love, and deal with the frustration of wanting to write but having limited time and resources. So sad.

  5. […] hang in there. More stuff coming. As preface, you might go back and reread my New Year’s Eve 2014 post, which will be relevant to coming entries. Ditto my series on Sarah Hoyt’s Human Wave idea, […]

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