Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Truth, self-publishing and the Amazon Way: A conversation with author Hugh Ashton

Armed only with an iPhone and curiosity to learn more about the self-publishing world, Our Man in Abiko thought he'd do a quick Q&A with self-published author Hugh Ashton. After three days of virtual tennis he found their e-conversation had ended up becoming a 4,000-word mini-book of its own. He is proud to present the whole conversation here - partly because it is full of useful tidbits, book-talk-a-plenty and only a little shameless self-promotion - and partly because he couldn't face doing any heavy editing when he has a novel to finish, an ebook to format and a cover life to maintain. So here it is, warts and all. But he did colour-code it for ease of consumption - red text for Our Man and black for Hugh. Enjoy.   

Our Man in Abiko: First off, this email you gave me has a publisher's domain. What gives? I thought you were the self-publisher's self-publisher?

Hugh Ashton: My first three novels were indeed self-published through my own imprint -- j-views. However, I had a short story that caught the eye of a small independent publisher, Inknbeans Press of Los Angeles, and we made an informal arrangement to publish it, and a few other stories, some time in 2012.

After our Cluedo game and conversation with Rod, I wrote "The Odessa Business", a Sherlock Holmes story -- in one day. Jo at Inknbeans liked that a lot, and asked if there was any chance that they could publish it together with a couple more, if I could come up with them. They offered much better terms than a traditional publisher, and they are "boots on the ground" in my primary sales market -- the USA -- so I said yes. And with luck, this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Col. Mustard in the library with the candlestick. I know that ending. What interests me is the beginning though... you seem to have got in to self-publishing before ebooks were all the rage. What's your take on print versus ebooks, and print versus print-on-demand?

I don't really regard e-books without a print backup as "proper" books. It's snobbish of me, and
illogical, but I think you can draw a distinction between print books versus ebooks, and MP3s versus CDs. In the latter case, if the MP3 is produced properly, there's very little difference in quality between that and the physical disc. Essentially, other than the album art (and I still miss 12" LP covers and inserts), you have the same product presented in the same way (through headphones or speakers).

With an ebook, you have the same content, but the presentation is different. I have a Kobo e-reader, and I love it. But it's not print. One of the great things about real, physical books is that they are all

Blaming Amazon

for all the woes of
the book business
makes as much
to me as
for the 
of the horse
and trap

Our Man in Abiko
different. The size is different, the paper is different, there are differences in typeface and design. I have a very visual memory, and I can remember that a certain fact appeared in the third paragraph down of a right-hand page about a third of a way through a book. That's not really possible with an ebook. Yes, you can change type size and face to differentiate one book from another, but all the ebooks are basically the same thing. A paper book has one or two other differentiating factors. For example, as you work your way through the book, you can feel the left half getting thicker and the right getting thinner. And there's a cover, and you can stick an old train ticket in there as a bookmark and five years later ask yourself what the heck you were doing in Saitama that day.

But ebooks, especially non-fiction, have their uses. Searching, indexing, instant cross-referencing and footnoting -- and that's before you've even started on the multimedia enhanced book functions. And it can be updated, like software, as corrections and addenda come in. In fact, I think an ebook version of a non-fiction work is worth more to the user (note "user" rather than "reader") and could be priced accordingly.

And print-on-demand versus offset. I don't think there's any argument there. For smaller runs, such as the majority of self-published/independently published books (and let's remember that something like 80% of independently published books sell fewer than 100 copies during their lives!), POD makes perfect sense. No more boxes of hundreds of books lying around - no returns from the sellers (they order on demand) and the title is always in print. When you're talking about a run of a couple of thousand or so, and you know that the copies are going to shift -- that's a different matter. The important thing, though, is to make sure that you get it right to start with -- a crappy Word file, no matter how beautifully it is printed, will still look crappy. Justification, hyphenation, choice of typeface, etc. are important to set the mood.

Our Man knows what you mean. Getting an embossed printed copy of Quakebook in my hands was a whole different experience from just downloading it to my Kindle. Though, I must admit, seeing Reconstructing 3/11 on Amazon felt pretty real too. For all the love of the physical, just me being able to release something at no cost to myself (other than time) that anyone, anywhere in the world can read at any time of day or night transcends the joy of a good album sleeve, for example. Hmmm. Eighty percent of self-pubbers sell fewer than 100 books you say? Why is that? Poor quality writing or poor PR? Too many fish in the pond?

All of the above. It's far too easy to publish now. By which I mean that you can simply upload a stream of consciousness as a Word file, and call it an ebook. Hey, I'm a published author! And there is an awful lot of crap out there, as people are tempted by the high "royalties" offered by the self-publishing media. But remember, there is a reason why publishers give only 10% or less of the cover price as a royalty, compared to the margin that Amazon or Smashwords provide to self-publishers. It's because publishing properly is an expensive game. You have to edit (and finding editors who will work for free is not an easy task). Books should be designed (yes, even ebooks). Covers have to be designed. You have to promote the thing (more of that below). And, even if you do all these things correctly, your book may not sell. Or if it does, the profits made from it will have to subsidise the other titles in your list that aren't selling.

By the time you've looked at the "royalties" provided by the ebook distribution channels, and you've factored in the costs that you've incurred along the way (excluding the time that you spent in actually
writing and rewriting the book), you may find that you're actually worse off than if you had gone with a traditional publisher. Or, if you've really worked hard, and you are really lucky, you may make a profit. Some people have actually been really lucky, but you can almost count them on the thumbs of one hand.

But there are too many fish in the pond. To take my most recent Holmes books -- in Amazon's 4-for-3 category (most trade books), there is a Mystery & Thrillers & Sherlock Holmes category. There are many books even in this narrow category, and I have been in the top 10 of this category almost continuously since the release of the titles. But it doesn't add up to thousands of sales. Low hundreds, yes, but not thousands. You are really fighting for the readers' wallets against a multitude of competitors. There really are too many fish in the sea, and in order to get noticed, you have to fight like crazy. How do you promote? If you're living outside your main market (as I do, living in Japan, but not writing for the Japanese market), that's hard. Basically, you have to make a nuisance of yourself on Facebook and Twitter. Selling books here in Japan is hard work.

So the answer to your questions is "yes".

Have faith in
yourself and
your abilities,
for a start. 
There's no point
in even thinking
of going into this
seriously if you
don't believe
in your own
ability to

Hugh Ashton
Yes, lots of the self-pubbing zealotry seems to forget the tadpole critique of capitalism -- we only see the frog but forget the million tadpoles that didn't make it. But I'd like to think a well-written, well-edited, well-designed book was within the abilities of a seasoned self-pubber. And that selling a couple hundred copies of a book will be enough to make some kind of a living, when an author builds up a catalogue of dozens of what used to be called mid-list books, with the theoretically possible lottery ticket of a book that becomes a bestseller, no matter how improbable that might be.

That's Our Man's plan, but he's expecting overnight success to take around 20 years at least. He's looking forward to the day news organisations and the PR world recognise that self-pubbing is legit and stop sneering at it as if it were vanity publishing. Is that day near -- the day that the self-pubber gets respect? Do your Sherlock stories get the respect they deserve, or are they dismissed as fan fiction?

Yep, that's a nice analogy, the tadpoles and the frogs. I am not saying that all self-published books are badly written or unedited or badly designed. Mine aren't, anyway! Seriously, there are some excellent books out there that have never seen a large commercial publisher. They are the equal of any commercial book. I'm helping to prepare one for the press right now -- Tell A Thousand Lies by Rasana Atreya, set in South India, which I think comes very close to Vikram Seth in quality, if not the overwhelming scope of A Suitable Boy.

A couple of hundred sales won't make a living, though. You can get by with giving Amazon 20% if you work through an independent production process like Lightning Source. If you are making (say) $3 on each sale, you're doing pretty well. A couple of hundred per month, with four or five titles out there... Maybe. But you'd be very good and very lucky to get that sort of response. Some people do, though. It's not impossible. And 20 years may be a realistic timescale -- if the idea of a book survives that long (paper or ebook).

The PR world is changing somewhat as regards self- or independent publishing. People like Barry Eisler are changing perceptions. But it's a slow process.

And your last -- do my Deed Box Holmes tales get the respect they deserve? How much respect do they deserve? Don't know, but they're getting really great reviews from people I don't even know. These aren't family and friends puff jobs - these is 5-star praise from real Sherlock buffs.

What advice would you give to the aspiring self-pubber?

Have faith in yourself and your abilities, for a start. There's no point in even thinking of going into this seriously if you don't believe in your own ability to communicate. Whether it's fiction or non-fiction, you must be pretty certain that you can put over your message.

The next piece of advice may seem to contradict this, but I think it's equally valid -- don't trust your own judgement. Get "beta readers" whom you can trust to give honest brutal opinions on your work. You may even have to pay them to do this.

And on money -- be prepared to spend money on editing, proofing, layout, design, etc. I think that if your book is worth anything at all to you, you should be prepared to create a paper version of it as well as an ebook. After all, what looks better to a possible reviewer -- an URL, or a paper book, signed, with a customised bookmark or name card tucked into it? If you're prepared to spend about $200, you can probably come up with an excellent product. You're not prepared to spend $100 on your work? Ask yourself if the book's worth putting out anyway?

And you've got to work -- promoting, talking, carrying a few copies of your books round with you all the time. Mention the fact you're an author (and if you have printed books with your name on them with you, most people will believe it). Don't be shy. No-one else will sing your praises -- they're too busy singing their own.

Next... Amazon. A force for good or evil? As a self-pubber, seems tiresome to have multiple formats for multiple, tiny markets. Why not just go with Amazon?

Oh, now you've got me on my hobbyhorse. I think Amazon is a destructive force for books. They have worked hard to bring down the retail prices, which means in the case of books published by traditional publishers, forcing the books to be sold to them at ever lower prices. I'm not going to defend traditional publishers too hard, but they are being forced to the wall by the tiny margins that Amazon demand. Of course, that's very nice for the customers, and I am a happy Amazon shopper. It's bad for the publishers, and ultimately for the authors published by them.

Woah, Hugh, hold your hobbyhorse. I may have to disagree a little more with you here. I know you are no big fan of the traditional publishers... but Amazon a destructive force for books? The biggest seller of books, the populariser of ebooks, the company that single-handedly created a viable market for self-publishers... is destroying books? Legacy publishing maybe, but books? Really? What's the problem?

The problem is that in America, and I see this a lot, books are now being purchased on price (I'm talking ebooks here). Suppose you're a vampire fan and you want vampire books. There are traditionally published books in that genre going for, let's say $10. And then there's a whole lot of self-published stuff at 99c or even free. And people aren't buying the $10, because they've been conditioned by the Wal-Mart mentality to buy at lower prices. Now, some of that 99c stuff will be OK. But I'm willing to bet that most of it isn't. People don't care. And in any case, if the book's garbage -- never mind -- throw it away and start the next one. Just like Wal-Mart cheap Chinese crap. Amazon is probably making the same amount of money on $10 and 99c books, but it's easier to pull in the semi-vanity self-publishers and build up a list of millions of titles that way. Especially since the big publishers are still  unsure as to how they should handle ebooks.

Hmmm. I take issue with two generalisations you seem to be making: the first that people are stupid and unable to make their own decisions; and the second that it's a zero-sum game. Sure, there may be readers who don't know quality when they see it, but if they have been burnt on 99-cent nasties on their Fire, they will surely be prepared to search out more compelling writers, at a price they are happy to pay. If they are only willing to download stuff for free or at low cost, that's their business and they probably wouldn't have paid $19.99 for a book in the good old days anyway, so who's hurting? We as authors can either cater to them or cater to a different type of reader. What else you got?

Digital Rights Management and proprietary formats? Amazon isn't unique in this respect, but I think both these are a Bad Thing. EPUB is an open standard, supported by many readers. It doesn't need DRM to work (neither does MOBI, the Kindle format, of course). The best iPhone/iPad EPUB reader outside a retailer was Stanza. Amazon bought it and they're killing it off.

Agreed. But I think DRM is dead in the water as publishers fear Amazon more than piracy these days. See the Harry Potter books that are being sold DRM free. I don't know about Stanza, but if what you say is true, it sounds little different from the activities of every successful company this side of the Berlin Wall. That's all you got against Amazon? What else?

What else? OK... The Kindle Select program, where you enter a lottery, and give Amazon exclusive rights to your book. Is there any other industry where a retailer gets exclusive rights to a product? Free giveaways? In the end, some people seem to benefit from the free giveaways, but it's crazy to expect an author who's spent a year or more of her life to produce something just to give it away, even for a day or so. I tried it, and 6,600 people downloaded Beneath Gray Skies when I made it free for a couple of months -- end result? No increased sales of it or any of my other titles that I am aware of. Oh, and a couple of 1-star "reviews" from people who hadn't even paid money for it. Oh, and the $2 "free" Whispernet delivery to many countries outside the USA? And paying non-US authors by cheque? There are good financial reasons for the last, of course. Authors don't cash their first (possibly their only) cheque from Amazon, given the cost of paying it into an account in many areas, but frame it. And even if they do cash it, there's about two weeks where Amazon gets the interest. Again, not saying that traditional publishers and agents are always better, but Amazon is meant to be a large Internet-based company, not a stuffy Victorian-era operation.

Yeah, the jury is still out on KDP Select. I would just say though it's an exclusive contract with Amazon for 90 days only and also, you don't have to partake if you think the benefits are minimal. Certainly, Our Man is not keen on giving his work away for free, that seems to defeat the purpose of being professional, but as a marketing tactic, it's a weapon in the arsenal. It's the nuclear option, for sure, but since I as an ebook self-pubber have no access to bookstores, I'll pack whatever firepower I can. If I were a bookstore owner, I might feel differently. Can bookstores compete?

Let's not even start on the squeezing of the local competition -- which has resulted in the closure of many bookstores, so that Amazon has had to think about opening its own bricks and mortar operations because people actually want bookstores -- some people aren't happy about clicking on the Web, and Amazon will never make sales to them that way. Now there's no alternative in many places. Amazon's killed one golden egg-laying goose there.

I'm not sure you can blame Amazon for the decline of the bookstore. Before Amazon it was Barnes and Noble, the discount chains, the recommended retail price, Tesco, Wal-Mart, reading standards, the decline of the newspaper, the rise of computer games, TV... shit, the list of culprits is endless... Anyway, what's the problem if Amazon does it better than anyone else? They give me a fair price. I can even do print on demand with them. What's wrong with putting all my eggs in the Amazon

Createspace for printed books? Another Amazon product -- I am not happy with production, distribution and retailing all being eggs in the same basket. Very dangerous to my mind. Piss off Createspace somehow (apparently relatively easy to do) and you've lost your title as a product.

But the thing that worries me most is that Amazon isn't a bookstore. Their revenue probably comes from non-book sales more than it does from books now. They are remarkably secretive about their finances -- no-one knows for sure. The book marketing strategy is apparently determined basically by one person heading a small team. To me, who works at times in bank audit, this raises a red flag. A little secretive group playing with strategy is a danger sign. They're swallowing up competitors, selling some products at a loss (Kindle) -- and by the way, I see a big reputational loss there as reports of just-out-of-warranty broken Kindles spread after Amazon has told readers that they were the future of books. Incidentally, their sales reporting system -- indeed, their computer system generally apart from the customer-facing side, seems odd and often buggy to me. Amazon is also evading US states' sales taxes and blackmailing affiliates over this issue.

Gee. They sound like Apple. Or Google, or indeed any successful global company. Of course, Our Man loves paying taxes, ahem.

There are two companies that spring to mind as comparisons with all this. One is Microsoft, found guilty of unfair business practices and abusing its monopoly position; and the other is Enron. I am *not* accusing Amazon of cooking its books or any fraud on an Enron scale, but I think the profit margins are slim, as a result of the desperate attempt to provide the lowest price to customers. It took a long, long time to bring Amazon to profitability, and it's been done at a cost to the publishing community. Wal-Mart can source from China. Amazon can't, when it comes to books -- so it does the next best thing -- it plays on the vanity of author wannabes. It's not a traditional vanity press operation, but it fulfils the same need and plays to the same market. These authors are subsidising Amazon with the non-writing work they put in "for free" to produce their books -- work which would otherwise be done by the traditional publishers, and which Amazon would have to pay for. If this model disappears or becomes unprofitable, will Amazon continue to sell books? I wonder.

I dunno. Seems to me a better company analogy would be from another era... blaming Amazon for all the woes of the book business makes as much sense to me as blaming Ford for the decline of the horse and trap. Don't like the dominant player? Think they are not serving their market well? Step right up and offer a better deal. I've yet to see publishers or bookstores do that. When they do, I'll happily shift my business from Amazon. But I don't see it yet. And, you know, Ford isn't the only car company now. Anyway, how do you think publishing will change in the future?

OK, you may be right about Amazon. From the point of view of the customer, they're producing a really good deal, I have to agree. From the point of view of the producer, though, I think they are a long-term disaster promising short-term instant gratification, just as Wal-Mart have been a disaster for many American manufacturers and smaller retail outlets. The difference between Amazon and Wal-Mart is that Amazon have developed a cheap source of product inside the country of sale and haven't found cheap Chinese ebooks to sell (yet!). I just have a very bad gut feeling about the company, which isn't altogether rational. By the way, more on taxes and Amazon.

You and I can argue about the cheap book thing for a long time. My fear is that it might put some  people off books and reading entirely -- maybe not those of us who already buy books, but those new to the book market, who are tempted by the "free" and 99c offers, may come to the conclusion that books aren't worth bothering with. If you eat nothing but McDonald's, you're not going to think much of hamburgers. A good hamburger properly sourced and prepared is a thing of beauty and a joy for ever.

Change is coming, though -- customers are starting to find that it is worth paying for quality. What will this do to the whole Amazon ebook strategy? Good question.

But the future of publishing -- let's restrict this discussion to the US and UK? There are two or three ways it might go. First, that Amazon swallow everything -- the retail market, the distribution market, and the production mechanisms. Books = Amazon. That would be as much of a disaster as the Microsoft Windows monopoly, which I think held back the development of computing by several years and cost billions in lost productivity. If (and this is a very big if for which I have no evidence) Amazon are pulling an Enron, and the company is on a financial knife-edge, then we -- the book world -- are in big trouble. But it doesn't have to even be that bad. Once one company has a monopoly stranglehold on the market, it only has to twitch, and the whole scenario changes. Apple has done this with music to a large extent, but they've been smart in that they hold the majority, but not an effective monopoly. They have done it with the iPhone App Store, though. The customer is (supposedly) guaranteed a high-quality, safe product -- and isn't ripped off by it. The developers aren't complaining too loudly, either. But I would regard an Amazon hegemony in books (any hegemony, in fact, but there are no potential rivals for the crown) as being a dystopian future.

Or, the big publishers get their act together, and they set up some sort of ebook distribution deal where they all manage the distribution medium. That cuts Amazon out of the race, except for cheaper independent publications. Maybe there's an indie cooperative in the future, along the lines of Smashwords, that will help these independent people. Amazon retain their status as a bookseller -- but much more on the suppliers' terms than their own. Ultimately, this could end up being more expensive for the customer, but it could also result in higher quality overall. And it would be better for authors in the long run, I am sure.

Or, and I rather like this future, that we move to Phase III of independent publishing. Basically what you and I have ended up doing -- small independent publishers, which don't try to be one-person players, but form alliances with editors, designers, etc. and use print-on-demand and ebooks to get high quality work out there easily with little capital outlay, even if it means abandoning the "free" model and making prices closer to those of traditional publishers. That's basically the arrangement I have with Inknbeans Press right now. Print-on-demand reduces risk. So does the use of social media and non-traditional advertising and publicity. There are too many books out there for publishers to book a Las Vegas casino to launch every book. A few words on a blog may be enough to help get the sales out there.

I'll raise a 7-Eleven red to this future. Seems as good a place as any to wind this discussion up. Want to plug a book or free download before last orders?

Of course! Tales from the Deed Box of John H. Watson MD, my collection of Holmes stories, hit #3 in the Sherlock Holmes category on Amazon US today -- not too shabby. It also hit #4 in the British Detectives category -- that's some serious competition out there, and I am delighted!
It's had excellent reviews, and the followup volume, More from the Deed Box of John H. Watson MD, is doing nicely. Go here for details, and this points you to a free online Holmes story. Next up is Tales of Old Japanese -- five short stories about the older generation in Japan. Mid-April should see it being available. You can find more of my ramblings, and links to my books, at http://BeneathGraySkies - or just search for my name on B&N, Smashwords, or... yes, Amazon. Contact me by email at

Lovely, cheers Hugh.


  1. Thank you for sharing = I enjoyed reading everything - very enlightining....from Australia... ex Africa.....lived in USA many years ago. When my book/s get published I will let you know.....yes that self confidence is what gets us out there....cheers Cherie

  2. Indeed. Self-confidence and no fear to make mistakes (as long as we learn from them, that's the hard part).

  3. Exceptional interview by a highly knowledgeable and thoughtful author. It's too long and has too much content to be addressed in a simple comment, but definitely offers much food for thought. I do think that, even if the first scenario happens and the Amazon-monopolized book industry collapses because of the collapse of Amazon, something will rise from its ashes. People are living longer than ever, with active lives into their 80s, and such people grew up reading books, so they will continue to demand books.

  4. Our Man thinks much of the fear and loathing of Amazon is generated by the legacy publishers and we indies are just suckers for lapping it up. Nothing is stopping us from setting up our own e-imprints, and using Amazon to get the word out. If Amazon stops being the go-to guy, stopping going to it, pull your books and find the next big thing... or do it yourself. Anyway, glad you enjoyed the interview.