A Big Idea Reminder for Authors

It is: I’m getting a lot of authors in the last couple of months asking whether I’ll take e-book only or self-published works. The short answer is no; the slightly longer answer is to read the Big Idea submission requirements here.

As for why I have those submission requirements, there are two primary reasons:

1. So that people who are interested in a book featured in a Big Idea have a reasonable chance of walking into a bookstore or major online retailer and finding it immediately;

2. Because I don’t have time to read every single book that people propose for Big Ideas, and I so use publishers who service bookstores on a returnable basis as a filter for which books to consider, particularly from authors who are new and/or of whom I have not previously heard.

Yes, there are good books that are distributed by e-book-only publishers and/or are self-published. However, I generally don’t have time to read those books to make sure. Life is unfair sometimes, and this is one of those times. If the general submission criteria change over time, I will post them and let you know. But for now and the forseeable future, the current submission requirements will stand.

37 Comments on “A Big Idea Reminder for Authors”

  1. How the hell do you even find time to read all the qualifying books?

  2. My attitude about e-books is kind of like my attitude about “the cloud”….maybe it will amount to something, but not for at least another 2 years. And I’m unlikely to embrace e-books as long as publishers can reach my reader and remove or alter things without my permission, and without notice. Regular books do not have that “bonus feature”.

    And yeah, half the books you feature I check the library for, first. I can’t afford to buy books too often, so I go with the “read it, then decide whether to own it” plan.

  3. I haven’t read a dead tree book for over 8 years now. If it isn’t available as ebook it doesn’t get read. So from my POV the “available as dead tree” filter doesn’t make any sense.

  4. @duskfire: I only buy ebooks that I know I can format shift into my format of choice and archive (which fortunately includes kindle books).

  5. Thorsten:

    “So from my POV the ‘available as dead tree’ filter doesn’t make any sense.”

    The “dead tree” aspect is less important than the “bought by a reputable publisher so it’s likely to have a base level of competence” aspect, and books shipped on a returnable basis is a decent enough indicator of that.

  6. A new book that comes without an ebook version is a waste of time for your readers who only read ebooks. A year ago this might have been a small minority, but not today. Of the 5 most recent big ideas, one came without an ebook. I don’t have a problem with excluding ebook only titles, but I suggest you should also exclude paper only titles. Can a “serious” professional author publish only in paper today? Perhaps they are stuck in a contract with a ruinously behind the times publisher, or a publisher with an “ebook after paper” policy. Either way, they need to get into the 21st century sooner rather than later.

  7. Because I don’t have time to read every single book that people propose for Big Ideas, and I so use publishers

    Holy crap, I missed that the first time, but this time around, my brain is going over those four words like a broken record(*) trying to parse it into something.

    (*) Do kids these days even understand that reference anymore??? Man I feel old…

    Anyway, the dead tree filter works like this: Someone thought the book was good enough to fork many thousand dollars up front to get a printing press to run many thousand copies of the book off. They thought it was soooo good in fact, that they will “sell” them to bookstores, with a caveat that if the bookstore is unable to find buyers then the book store can rip the cover off and send it back to the publisher for a “refund”, and pulp the coverless, naked book.

    Which means someone thought it was good enough that they would sink a boat load of money into the book, up front. And if they’re wrong, they lose that money. And this is what they do…. for a living… so if they’ve been in business for any length of time, they mathematically have to be right more often than they can be wrong… or they wouldn’t be in business.

    Print On Demand and e-books do not require a publisher to sink hardly any money into the book up front. IF they’re wrong, they don’t lose anything.

    So traditional publishers publishing a book is sort of like you’re at the bookies office (just doing research on bookies, ya know, not gambling or anything), and a weatherman comes in a puts thirty grand on a bet that it will ran this weekend. Wheras, POD and epub is like an unidentified person comes in and bets a quarter that it will rain.

    If you don’t know anything about meteorology, but you happen to be in a position where you get to see who is placing bets on it raining, then you probably don’t need to know anything about meteorology.

    But it’s always a good idea to keep an umbrella in the trunk anyway…

  8. “and I so use”. I focused on that because I thought it was the most rarefied thing from Mr. Scalzi, a typo.

    So by returnable you mean the publisher can return it? As a reader can we return drivel?

  9. AlanW@8:

    A new book that comes without an ebook version is a waste of time for your readers who only read ebooks. A year ago this might have been a small minority, but not today.

    I’m really curious about this. It would be interesting to know what percentage of John’s readers, or science fiction readers in general, are ebook-only. Does anyone have data on this? The best I can find is a report from the Pew Internet Center. They found that ebook reader ownership in the U.S. went from 6% to 12% between November 2010 and May 2011–that’s a doubling in six months! However, it doesn’t appear they asked if subjects had stopped reading paper books altogether.

    (Personally, even though I do read ebooks, I can’t imagine ever abandoning print books.)

  10. Can a “serious” professional author publish only in paper today?

    Given that, as you note, four of the five recent “Big Idea” books do not have an ebook version out (at least not yet), it would seem that the answer is yes.

    Telling Scalzi to shun paper-only books is as silly as telling him to shun hardback releases on the grounds that most people buy paperbacks.

  11. CLP, while I doubt anyone is really TRULY ebook only, I am close. I only buy new books in kindle format now, because living in Japan it is by far the fastest, cheapest and most efficient way for me to get new books. But older books, I still buy on paper due to the lack of e-edition availability; I read what I want to read. I don’t really have anything against paper books…well. except for the size and weight (I’ve moved a lot, across three continents, and I live in a Japanese apartment so space saving is something I am serious about) but ebooks just make sense for me.

  12. CLP @12 Like JimR, I’m an ebook convert. I now almost exclusively buy ebooks. I only buy Hardcovers from my favourite writers, for the series that I have already started in paper. I occasionally (once or twice a year) buy paper books, but find them cumbersome even to read.

  13. John, that’s your choice to make, and I understand both of your reasons.
    In addition, since you have enough matter for your Big Idea posts, why would you want to change your ‘procurement’ system ?
    Given your stated goal, it seems your filter does the job for you.
    For people wanting “indie/self-published” equivalent posts, perhaps they can turn to other blogs with distinct filtering criteria.
    Does anyone have good pointers for some ?

  14. CLP@12:

    Personally, even though I do read ebooks, I can’t imagine ever abandoning print books.

    Looking over my list of the books I’ve read this year, it’s split at exactly 50/50 ebooks and paper books. I’d rather buy ebooks, but I’ll get paper books in the following circumstances:

    The ebook isn’t available (quite common, especially since I’m in the UK).

    I want to let my other half, brother, or mother read it after me.

    Someone wants to buy it for me as a present (as far as I’m concerned, if it can’t be wrapped, it isn’t a present!)

  15. Ozzie@10 yes, a bookstore can return books that it didnt sell back to the publisher from whence those unsold books came. And get their money back. or more likely, get credit that goes towards the next batch of books.

    as for readers returning drivel, I think that depends on the store.

  16. and so I use vs. and I so use… hmmm, could be a typo or a Scalzi-listic thing suggesting a relationship in which he benefits from the unintentional filtration provided by publishers. A stretch, but also a good example how important word order really is.

  17. I realized I’d fully converted to eBooks when I tried to reread my original hardback of Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind (a huge book). After 20 pages, I gave up and purchased the Kindle edition. But I think the rules for Big Idea are wise — I have no interest in reading someone’s self-published eBook.

  18. Mythago@13

    I believe AlanW’s post read that 1 out of the 5 (and not 4/5 as you mention) were not available as an e-book.

  19. SFReader @ 17 – POD People (podpeep.blogspot.com) is a review site focusing on indie / self-published books. We also have a blogroll of other similar sites.

  20. Mm. I buy physical books if I think there’s a chance I might want to lend them to friends. Can’t really do that with Kindle books .Yes, I could break the DRM, but then the friends would need Kindles as well — or they’d have to read them in some other electronic format whivh many of them fing uncongenial.

    E-books still have a major problem for me, especially when they’re mysteries. One thing that’s hard to do with them is to flip back through them (“Now where did I miss that clue? Oh, yess, on the middle of page 31, where she took off her gloves to shake hands… “).

    Another problem is that when they’re most convenient, they’re too damn expensive. Right now I’m a third of the way through Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. I bought it in boards. At nearly 1200 pages, it’s too heavy to read in bed, on the Metro or on the john, and the Kindle edition would be perfect for all three venues. But I already own the hardcover, and at $18.99 the Kindle edition is 36% more than Amazon charges for the paperback. Sell the e-book in a reduced-price package with the physical one, and I’ll be there in a flash with the cash.

  21. Am I mistaken or didn’t JS get his start via “ebook” or story posted on the web? I would not invalidate ebook writers/publishers completely. Yes, there is a lot of junk but then again I think a lot of professional books written by professionals are junk as well, including I hate to say one or two this blog’s author (but most are awesome!). My point is that I understand why JS has decided not to support the ebook/self publish crowd but I hope others do not take that as a reason to write them all off.

    I would be remise in my non-conformist mentality if I did not ask JS if this was related to contract deals, kickbacks or some other type of deal…..?

  22. Huh:

    I’m not at all aware of saying that ebooks are uniformly bad or don’t deserve promotion; I’m saying I don’t have time to do it and use a publisher’s return capability as a filter. Note this is not biased only against ebooks; it’s also biased against print publishers who don’t service bookstores on a returnable basis, which is quite a number of them.

    Re: Kickbacks: Oh, please.

  23. As one of those authors who has self-published (although I have made dead-tree version available through lulu.com), and prefer eBooks, I’m disappointed that my book can’t be part of the Big Idea. I really, really enjoy the Big Idea entries every time you put one up. It has frequently been inspirational, and also just as frequently the cause of my buying that author’s book (usually eBook, lately, since my local Borders closed).

    However, I also understand why you want that filter. Right now, it’s kind of the Wild West out there, publishing-wise, and self-published works run the full gamut of writing quality. Your website would be diminished by hosting a well-written Big Idea article for a badly written book.

    Frankly, this is the major struggle of the self-published route. Because the barriers to entry are so low, it leaves the potential reader with absolutely no guarantee of quality. Though we could debate the dubious quality of some traditionally published works, there are still some basic levels of caliber in those books.

    Traditional publishers offer two critical services that the self-publishing crowd are forced to find for themselves: professional editing and marketing.

  24. As for the question of e-book vs. traditional book readership, I have never read an e-book. Not saying that there won’t eventually come a time when circumstances cause that to possibly change, but I have no real interest in it happening.

  25. Orlean @22: you are correct, and I misread it.

    But the argument is still silly. Whether a publisher chooses to release an e-book at the same time as the paper copy really says nothing about whether the author is “serious” or whether the book is worth reading; it may say something about the publisher’s business strategy, but that’s pretty much it.

  26. People who have wonderful ebooks that cost less than $5 US, and that they want to be reviewed for an audience of some 12,000-ish people (via retweet to the slavering hordes of booktweeting followers) are more than welcome to hit me up at my Twitter ebook reviewing site, @ebookcheapskate. I don’t guarantee anything but a fair read.

  27. So when this post was first posted, I was like, “Why did Scalzi add that bit about e-books at the end? Why does Scalzi feel the need to justify or even explain his decision-making? It’s his site and he’s making this cool Big Idea feature available and he can use whatever selection criteria he likes. So why does he feel the need to justify it with extra verbiage?”

    Then I figured, “It’s because he’s a nice guy. He’s going beyond what he needs to do, because he thinks it might help some folks understand. That’s cool.”

    So then I read some of the comments, and I was like, “No. That wasn’t it at all. He just understood his readership. He added that bit about e-books at the end, because otherwise they would be all in his face about him dissing e-books by ignoring them on Big Idea. He was trying to stop the flames before they started. Too bad it didn’t work.”

    That said, I stand by my original thought, which was, “Scalzi does not need to justify his selection criteria. Period.”

    Thanks, John, for making the Big Idea available. It’s helped me find authors that I would not otherwise have found, and given me a lot of enjoyment as a result.

  28. @Nick from the O.C. On the contrary, I think it works perfectly. I don’t see that many flames here … (and only toe high at that).
    Thanks John for explaining how your “arbitrary” set of rules is designed to give you the most time to provide us a good series of “Big Ideas” posts.

  29. Hi John,

    Two points: (1) I’m happy to hear that your workday is similar to mine. I try to do all my social media and marketing in the afternoons when the muses are napping. LOL. By restricting myself to POD and eBooks (some of the reasons coincide with Konrath’s and others’), I have to market too. This is something the Big Six used to do more of and now does less, unless you’ve already made a name for yourself. (2) One aspect of the eBook revolution missed in the thread above is that there are many eBooks out there that are excellent reads and very inexpensive, a good thing for readers, not so good for authors. I am using and will use my bargain eBooks for marketing purposes–i.e. improving name recognition. My YA sci-fi thriller The Secret Lab was rejected by over 50 agents (they seem to be fixated on fantasy, mostly of the wizards, warlocks, witches, vampires, werewolves variety), so it seemed to be a good candidate for a bargain eBook. I also serialized a sci-fi thriller on my blog and intend to turn this freebie into a near freebie Kindle download.

    My bottom line: Readers rule. I don’t know how this digital revolution will shake out, but the train might be passing you by. You don’t have to climb aboard…you can always travel by horse and buggy. It’s probably not a good time for legacy publishers or authors in any media. Yet we must go on writing. I have many stories to tell. The digital revolution is a godsend for me…it allows me to tell my stories and I’m in complete control of my destiny. I might go down in flames, but I’m willing to risk that. You, however, are in a great place. Keep your readers happy and you’ll stay there.


  30. Nick from the O.C.@34, “Scalzi does not need to justify his selection criteria. Period.” was sort of my thought, too. People who are upset about how Scalzi runs Whatever should demand that he refund their subscription.

    When I think of self-published books (electronic or printed), I think of the famous “Slushkiller” post on Making Light, in which Teresa Nielsen Hayden lists thirteen reasons a publisher might pass on a manuscript. When I buy a book from a publisher meeting Scalzi’s criteria, I can be almost completely certain that the book won’t have the problems 1-7 on TNH’s list, and I can be fairly certain that the book won’t have problems 8-10. I don’t have that sort of guarantee with a self-published book.