Handing You Off to Charlie Stross Today

On account that Charlie is going to school you on the matter of How Books Are Made, because, as Charlie notes, the idea that the only two people needed to make a book are the author and the consumer is a bit of contemptible nonsense:

This is a bit like saying that in commercial air travel, “the only two people that matter are the pilot and the passenger (the rest add cost)”. To which I would say: what about the air traffic controllers (who stop the plane flying into other aircraft)? What about the maintenance engineers who keep it airworthy? The cabin crew, whose job is to evacuate the plane and save the passengers in event of an emergency (and keep them fed and irrigated in flight)? The airline’s back-office technical support staff who’re available by radio 24×7 to troubleshoot problems the pilots can’t diagnose? The meteorology folks who provide weather forecasts and advise flight planners where to route their flights? The fuel tanker drivers who are responsible for making sure that the airliner has the right amount of the right type of fuel to reach its destination, and that it’s clean and uncontaminated? The designers and engineers at Boeing, Airbus, Embraer, or the other manufacturers who build the bloody things in the first place …?

I’d personally use an even simpler formulation, which is that there a lot of people who seem to think that all you need for a book are a reader and an author, but no one seems to think that all you need for a double cheeseburger is a hungry dude and a cattle rancher. For that matter, no one ever seems to tell a cattle rancher that in the glorious future he’ll be able to do all the steps of cheeseburger production himself, either. Possibly because a cattle rancher can instigate a stampede. Do not enrage a cattle rancher.

Anyway, head over to Charlie’s, he’ll get you in the loop as to what actually has to happen to get a cow novel from a cattle rancher an author to a hungry dude you.

54 Comments on “Handing You Off to Charlie Stross Today”

  1. As with many things, the appropriate response to anyone who suggests that making and distributing a quality book by one’s self is easy is: “Okay. Try it.”

  2. The last part made me laugh. My family used to be in the cattle business, and one of our sayings from that industry is that for cattlemen there are two meanings to the word of “service”. Which one are you providing? ;-)

  3. An appalling number of people think that anything they don’t understand must be simple. This is just one corollary to the underlying rule, of course, which is “most people are stupid.”

  4. He does an absolutely marvelous job of explaining why I’ve never quibbled over paying paperback prices for my eBook library. And even as I’ve never quibbled, I wasn’t aware of even half of what actually goes on behind the scenes.

    Great post!

  5. Charles Stross is the only one who can answer Jeopardy! clues without it being in the form of a question.

    Charles Stross can initiate nuclear fusion with his mind.

    The universe is expanding at a faster rate not because of dark energy but because Charles Stross makes it expand faster.

    When Charles Stross attends a science conference, Nobel prize winners step to the side.

    (note to Charlie Stross: These are done with affection, not mocking, because not even Chuck Norris would mock Charles Stross).

  6. As some of your readers, like myself, might be inclined to believe something along the lines of “the idea that the only two people needed to make a book are the author and the consumer”, I’m not sure what the upside is for you to call it “contemptible nonsense.” I’m not trying to engage on the topic of how many people are essential to the book-producing process. I just wonder why you’re turning the heat up so high on this topic. Why not just “completely wrong” or “for many reasons, impossible”? Contempt? Is that really the word you’d like to use?

  7. Bill Sullivan, when I, a successful professional writer of 20 years standing, need your input on which word I would like to use, I will be sure let you know.

  8. I think Jay has hit on what I’d like to say much better.

    That is, these “book = cheeseburger” or some other manufactured product that everyone recognizes bother me a little. The thing about making a cheeseburger: if you follow all the accepted steps in a competent manner you’re likely to end up with a cheeseburger that someone will want to eat.

    In making a book, you can follow all the accepted steps in a competent manner and still not end up with something people want to read.

    Or maybe I’m over-romanticizing the creative and literary processes.

  9. I suspect it is in our nature to over simplify things.
    Every trade I have ever done has turned out to be much more complicated than it seemed from the outside.
    I would only add that if writers thought they could do the job by themselves and keep all of the money for themselves don’t you think they would of already done it?

  10. Personally, if I, as an uneducated layman held an opinion that experts in the field in question considered to be contemptible nonsense, I wouldn’t get huffy at the experts for calling me on it, I’d be ashamed.

    But really, I think a lot of the problem with contemptible nonsense being spread is that there are pseudo “experts” who’re really just celebrity loudmouths with a quarter of a clue at best. Take the anti-vaccination nonsense. Scads of idiot celebrities spread that pernicious, dangerous nonsense all over the internet. They’ll find a few fake experts to support their claims, and those will be the only ones who’re cited as relevant sources by the anti-vac crowd.

    So, when “experts” in online development who brought us the idiocies of the dot-com bubble get recycled, they start mouthing off about publishing, and how the cost of publishing an ebook is so amazingly low, so therefore prices should be amazingly low.

    Nonsense deserves contempt when, after being corrected multiple times by educated professional sources, it’s still held up as the truth.

    If you’re such a sensitive special snowflake that having an opinion you hold being called contemptible nonsense is a crushing blow that makes you unable to consider the truth of the matter, you should learn that someone calling your opinion contemptible nonsense isn’t the same as calling you a contemptible person.

    Wow, that was cleansing.

  11. Bill, it’s contemptible to behave as if the work of skilled professionals is unnecessary or can be done just as well by trained monkeys or any hobbyist with a spare afternoon. It’s contemptible because many of the people espousing it know better, and are just trying to manipulate people into demanding lower-than-reasonable prices for e-books (among other contemptible goals). It’s contemptible because it really doesn’t take much looking to realize that it’s nonsense.

    John squelched you, quite properly in my irrelevant opinion, for suggesting that he just didn’t pick the word he meant. But I want to point out that it really is contemptible.

  12. John 17: Well, you could have been clearer what it’s about by picking a more descriptive title…

    …oh wait. :-)

  13. To me the question is less “how many angels dance on a book cover?”, more “what’s a fair price for their services?”

    Should I pay them a flat fee or license my prose to them to do with–or not do with–as they please until long after I’m in the ground? From my perspective, a flat fee is looking better than the alternatives. Your perspective may be different (and valid)…and it be different again in thirty years.

  14. Lynn,

    A fair price is what the market will bear. Within limits, the market works well for that kind of thing. Same for all of the services involved and the final product.

    What’s valuable about Stross’ post isn’t the pricing issue, it’s the explication of all of the various steps between a manuscript and a ready to read book of ANY format. Sure some of those steps involve printing, but even if you got to the ‘hand off to printer’ step and then branched into ‘produce electronic versions’ there’s a LOT of stuff that happens before that without which we’d have a much less readable book. It’s not frill, it’s not unnecessary, it’s part of the publishing process. The problem is that too many people think you can eliminate those steps or skim over them (having a friend scan for typos is NOT copyediting), convert the Word file to ereader formats and you’re done.

  15. Xopher @ 20:

    Well, that’s Josh for you. Perhaps we can weep on each other’s shoulders. I didn’t even get to post my version.

    (Hell, I even quoted Harlan Ellison.)

    Of course, anything after John’s response was gilding the lily. But ain’t Josh’s gild shiny?

  16. As with many things, the appropriate response to anyone who suggests that making and distributing a quality book by one’s self is easy is: “Okay. Try it.”

    I did. Didn’t work and for exactly the reasons you and Charlie and every other pro who knows, has said.

    Sure, I can make an object with a reasonable likeness to a book.* But marketing? Distribution? Haven’t a clue. It was a fun experiment but not one I’ll be repeating. My next book will be professionally proofed, edited, and distributed, because I’ve learned the hard way to respect the professionals and want to be counted among them.

    Anyone thinking you can self-publish at a professional level, learn form my mistake. Put that energy into writing the best book you can and leave the rest to the pros.
    * As in, it has printed words on paper between a cover. The cover even looks about as good as a professional cover (better in some cases) but are the words under the cover all in the right order and spelled correctly and proofed and as typo-free as humanly possible? Sure, for a book I edited myself. Which means, no not really.

  17. For the sake of fairness, I’d like to point out that there is a relevant question lurking behind the scenes of this debate — “Just how much of this process can be removed and/or automated in the foreseeable future?”

    That’s not an easy question to answer, of course. It depends on a whole host of factors, few of which tend to align with predictions: consumer trends, software development, the flexibility of the market to transform, etc. etc.

    I’m of the mind that we’ll just have to wait and see what happens, but it never hurts to be fully informed, eh? Good article by Stross. Thanks for sharing.


  18. It is looking very good already, and it’s only just begun.

    As to the contemptible nonsense: yes, but kind of, but no-ish.

    Yes, because as a backroom boy in another sphere, I just so love it when people assume that contribution is directly proportional to visibility.

    Kind of, because a book isn’t the fundamental unit of communication between storyteller and audience – who are the indispensible poles between which all else flows, all else being the story itself. A book is one, highly collaborative, way of packaging it. i like books a lot, and I have a lively appreciation of most aspects of them. This leads naturally to an appreciation of the other people involved in the process.

    And the weakest degree of no – only in that there are other ways that story might have been transmitted. There might have been a completely different set of people along the way, but two must yet remain.

    The dumb rude way of looking at this is that only two are ever important.

    The better view, as I see it, is that it is worth thinking about which others will, or even should, be important tomorrow. Including, emphatically, the ones who are not yet important at all.

    I speak as a man of small means whose day job would be very difficult, but possible and maybe worthwhile, to make obsolete. I believe I add a lot of value now – within the context of a system I believe sucks value like frozen stars.

    I look forward to Charlie’s continuing to enlighten us on how far such situations find an echo within publishing. Also, I’ll note that his formidable clarity on the nuts and bolts of things is, in general, helpful pretty much independently of the degree to which one cares for the conclusions he draws from them.

    Major kudos to our hero for providing a most timely public benefit.

  19. This is the thing.

    If people want free content directly from the creator without any of those annoying editors or designers or publishers or distributors, they can get it right now.

    There are kajillions of books up for free on the Internet. Go read them. Some of them are long in the public domain (I recommend checking out R. Austin Freeman if you can get past the crazy racism, classism, and sexism to enjoy the sheer machinery of the plots); others of them are by people who can’t get haven’t been published by a commercial publisher.

    Enjoy! There’s enough free content out there to last you a lifetime.

    Oh, wait. You don’t want that content? You want John’s content or Charlie’s content or Nalo Hopkinson’s content or Mary Robinette Kowal’s content or Ted Chiang’s content or Alastair Reynolds’s content or Jay Lake’s content or whatever?

    Well, that content is available, too. But John and Charlie and Nalo and Mary et al. get to decide how they want it to be available.

    People who think information wants to be free are indulging in the pathetic fallacy to the extreme.

  20. Sorry, I forgot that the strikethrough doesn’t work here. I was being snarky about “can’t get ^H^H^H haven’t been published by a commercial publisher” but I do want to acknowledge that there are people who choose to share their work for free for reasons other than not getting a slot on a publishing house’s list.

    Open-source publishing is a place where you can find some really helpful information, especially regarding very focused interests. It’s not a place where most people find the fiction they love best.

  21. Of course one could argue that the relevant part of the cheeseburger is the cow. (grin)

    Or that a cheeseburger analogue done on the cheap would be a Ritz cracker with a piece of bologna and some aerosol cheese. (double-grin)

    Actually, the piece itself is excellent. It’s just been a long day and I’m hungry…

    Dr. Phil

  22. Charlie did later note, however, that his educational rant had taken 3,000+ words away from the paying words he should be writing, which is bassackwards from the way the writer-part of that particular process should be doing things. :)

  23. I’ve been really interested in the posts by John, Charles Stross and others on the sausage factory aspects of how a book is made.

    Coase (Nobel Laureate in Economics in 1991) attributed organizing activities within a firm as opposed to between firms to transaction costs. If the brave new digital world is reducing transaction costs over time, then I would expect the role of large monolithic publishers to decline over time.

    We might see the rise of a la carte publishers where authors can pick and choose from a menu of services. I think Netwerk Records is an example of this in the recording industry.

    Anywho, thanks for the really interesting posts.


  24. Tim,

    That’s a fairly obvious possibility as more of the information moves around as bit vs atoms. But what’s the real advantage of doing that? Each of the professionals noted in Charlie’s post could be an independent contractor but then you have transaction costs at each step. What organizations tend to do then is either insource those people so they become employees because that’s more cost-effective or the work with the same stable of contractors with minor additions and subtractions here and there. Setting up all of the relationships from scratch each time you need to publish a book would be insanely wasteful so people don’t do it.

  25. Lynn Abbey @22

    I take your point about the choices writers make but many, many people are grossly ill-informed about what publishing really involves. Consider this comment from Chris Clark on an earlier thread:

    ‘I would be VERY happy to send my money directly to YOU, or the other authors, in lieu of the publishers (via the retailers). Making an ebook is a very very easy thing. Setting up 3 or 4 format’s or ebook would take less than a day, and the money you would make would be virtually pure profit.’

    How much do you think that Chris Clark would be prepared to pay for your e-books, given that he thinks it would have been very, very easy to get Closed Circle up in less than 3 days, allowing for the input from CJ Cherryh and Jane Fancher as well?

    And that it would be virtually pure profit for you?

  26. Carrie V @ 13, I don’t know whether you’re over-romanticizing the literary process (aside: when I process literature it’s not particularly romantic), but I do think you might be undervaluing and appreciating all that goes into getting that cheeseburger.

    “…if you follow all the accepted steps in a competent manner you’re likely to end up with a cheeseburger that someone will want to eat.”

    Well, sure. But folks are presumably building in assumptions about competence in all facets of the bookmaking, too, eh? They just don’t understand the number and fineness of the facets, or what constitutes competence.

  27. Julia (#29) – I’ve read a lot of free content on the internet (In my own defense, I think for a living, sometimes I like a little break).

    Sometimes, it’s reasonably good for what it is, but overall, it has convinced me that copy editors are a gift from a beneficent deity.

  28. Julia 30: Sorry, I forgot that the strikethrough doesn’t work here.

    It doesn’t? Struck text.

    It does, but you have to use <strike> and </strike>, not <s> and </s>. I know it doesn’t work at all on BoingBoing (they do say they’re going to fix that at some point), but it does here.

  29. Xopher

    What do we need to do to put a link as a red underline rather than simply giving the URL?


  30. A red underline? It doesn’t show up that way on my browser. But if you want to link text, you do it like this…say your URL is http://whatever.scalzi.com/ (why you’d want to link to the front page of Whatever from a Whatever thread is beyond me, but work with me here). You’d write this:

    As John Scalzi says on <a href=”http://whatever.scalzi.com/”>Whatever</a>…

    (Do not forget the quotes!) And it displays as:

    As John Scalzi says on Whatever

    Does that give you what you want?

  31. Opher

    Thank you! Your advice is absolutely spot on, Opher; I will try it out after I have had some sleep.

    All those nights of watching from the other side of the pond has taken a toll on minor details such as the requirement to sleep…!

  32. stevie 42: Thank you! Your advice is absolutely spot on, Opher; I will try it out after I have had some sleep.

    You’re welcome.

    All those nights of watching from the other side of the pond has taken a toll on minor details such as the requirement to sleep…!

    Did it also break your X key? I’m not sure what that’s about.

    Julia 43: Glad to help.

  33. @24 — RickWhoIsNotThatRick

    Again, it may be perception, but there’s a difference between pricing and rights/licensing.

    The current model can take nearly a century to amortize one-time services…and the contract that governs it is definitely not an agreement between equals.

    Some of the people I value and respect most in the publishing industry are being squeezed as hard as authors are…maybe worse. They’ve got very valuable expertise. My crossed-fingers hope is that some of them are going to re-imagine the publisher’s role in the process and create something that is so different and equitable that it’s also irresistible.

  34. Stevie @36

    Good points.

    If CJ, Jane, and I had been willing to pay for the necessary expertise, three days is probably an accurate measure of the time it would have taken to get Closed Circle up. This self-publishing thing requires skills I hadn’t planned to acquire. Pre-Internet, my opinion of self-publishing was that the worst thing that could happen was success…and may still be right.

    The profit margin on backlist, especially backlist that began its life on a computer rather than a typewrite, does approach 100%. On new stuff, I think it’s going to be quite a bit less, and that’s relying on the Internet itself for advertising/marketing.

    As for finding Chris Clark’s pricing “sweet spot…”
    The first 12 volumes of Thieves’ World have been scanned and stashed on Russian (I think) servers since 2001. People who don’t want to buy, aren’t going to buy, and haven’t needed to for a decade. At Closed Circle, we’re betting that there are enough people out there who want to pay a fair price for authorized product to make all the effort worthwhile.

    Of course, it’s one thing for established authors to decide they’re going solo. If we’re successful, the real challenge is going to be giving the next generation the hand’s-up we got from traditional publishers.

    We’ve scarcely begun to uncover the questions, much less find the answers.

  35. Fan-friggin-tastic. I always love getting to read these little insights into the publishing industry. Facinating stuff. Hopefully I’ll be joining in on the nightmare fun in the next couple years. :D

    Sleepy time…

  36. The problem with downloading books from Russian servers is that you don’t know what ELSE you might be downloading from Russian servers (viruses, trojans, malware of all sorts).

  37. The Huffington Post actually posted a rebuttal to all the “ebook for cheap, who needs editors” revolution nonsense they’d been rehashing. By an actual editor from Knopf.

    And of course, there was a followup comment about how publishing houses would never publishe some of the greats of history today, so that proves that there are countless amazing writers out there who’re being skipped over because publishing’s version of The Gnomes of Zurich or the Zionist conspiracy just won’t see their greatness.

  38. Actually, not that it’s not true the whole “it could be so simple” thinking is worse in literary matters (and believe me, as a translator, I know how bad people take anything related to language for granted), I do think there is also a side of this that goes in the trend for a re-simplification of production/economic structures. And your example of the cattle rancher is actually pretty bad, I think, because food production is in fact a main area for this trend, with organic, local buying schemes developping in many places where people buy directly from small producers who raise and condition their own crops/cattle. And while I do agree that these complex schemes of production certainly have reason for existence, it doesn’t mean that questionning them and their usefulness and trying to establish simpler, more direct schemes is a fool’s errand. But of course, that takes a minimal level of understanding of the complexity of our world, which some people certainly do not have. In many, many areas…

  39. Swampmaster:

    “And your example of the cattle rancher is actually pretty bad, I think, because food production is in fact a main area for this trend, with organic, local buying schemes developing in many places where people buy directly from small producers who raise and condition their own crops/cattle.”

    So these small producers create cheeseburgers from cow and grain on demand for anyone who rolls up?


    Point stands, I think.

    Your larger point that there could be some simplification/streamlining of the production process is not a bad one, however, although I’m not personally convinced that eBooks will axiomatically simplify or streamline the production process.

  40. I could, if I wanted, go buy beef from a local producer and make myself a burger with it. (When I lived in Minnesota, this was the way nearly everyone in the town I lived in did it!) I would not charge myself to cook the burger nor would I consider it unusual to do so…

    I could also, if I had a writer friend who wanted me to read their latest book, get a copy they had printed on their own computer of it and read it, or read it from a text file from a CD they burned. Again I would not consider this unusual… and I have bought stories directly from the writers, and even books directly from the writer/publisher (Howard Tayler most recently, a collection of Schlock Mercenary).

    Certainly there’s a difference in the experience than going to a McDonalds and getting a burger, or going to a Barnes and Noble and getting a book… but it’s not that different, it’s clearly sort of similar.

    Nearly half my reading nowadays is of things I got both legally and free online. It is not all so dire in quality as some seem to think.

    It should be pretty easy to differentiate how much value added there is, though.

    Just offer both versions.

    Try different price points and you should be able to obtain the data you want as to how much value is added by the editor, copyeditor, cover artist, etc.

    Offer any given book two ways:

    – with all additions at price x+y
    – as you sent it to the publisher at price x

    then with different sizes of y, you will determine when people would rather buy the former than the latter.

    If for example the processed version sells for $20, you could sell the unprocessed version for $15 see how it goes.. then try $10… or $18… when you are making about the same amount of sales of both versions, you have determined your added value.

    Then you could look at how much your actual contract pays you, and whether it’s greater or less than what you figured out the real worth to be.

    If you wanted to break it down further, you could offer partially processed versions too. With cover/layout but no editing/copyediting; with editing/copyediting but no cover/layout… the options are pretty obvious so I won’t belabor it any more than I already did.

    I think it’s clear that the work on the book that is done between the author and the reader has value. But I think some readers are coming to value it less as the direct product becomes available and they are able to make comparisons. Others are getting the opposite impressions.

    Some people would really rather only get fresh produce and meat at a farmers’ market, and fix all their own meals. Others would really rather go out to a restaurant every night and not think about the animals their meat came from, or anything else in the preparation. Most are somewhere in between, probably. Analogies can only be stretched so far, too.

  41. Dana:

    “I could, if I wanted, go buy beef from a local producer and make myself a burger with it.”

    Heh. I think people are at this point intentionally not getting the simile in order to be contentious.

    “Just offer both versions.”

    Just do more work! Yeah, because that’s what I want to do.

    Mind you, I don’t have problems with people taking on as much of the work as they wish to do. But I know what my competencies and interests are, generally speaking. And I’m mostly interested in the writing part, not the rest of it.

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