David Dvorkin had been known to me through my writer friend Leonore Dvorkin (David’s wife), though without any direct correspondence of mine with David for a long time. But his life-long passion for writing and his enviable commitment to writing and publishing has been on my mind, a source of inspiration and encouragement for a long time. As David’s writing page tells, he connected with the artistic spirit when he was a toddler. But it was many years later, after he was married to Leonore, that David took up regular writing. Today, David is the author of several books – mostly novels – stories, and essays.
Here’s my very first e-interview with David, who is now turning to e-publishing instead of the more traditional form of publishing through literary agents.
Ernest: Hello, David, it’s a pleasure to be speaking to you. How long have you been publishing and what have you written about mostly?
David: My first short story publication was in the early 1970s, and my first novel came out in the mid-70s, so it’s getting close to 40 years now. I’ve sold very few short stories. Most of my publication, and most of my writing effort, has been in the area of novels – generally science fiction, horror, and mysteries. The science fiction includes three Star Trek novels, my only experience with work-for-hire fiction. I also published a non-fiction book about solar energy about 30 years ago. I don’t plan to do any more book-length non-fiction, although I do enjoy posting small essays about various topics on my Web site and my blog.
Like most authors, my favorite novel is the one I’m working on now. But if I try to put that irrational attachment aside, my favorite among my novels, and the one that was the most important to me emotionally, was Business Secrets from the Stars. It’s a comic novel that satirizes the publishing industry, writers, American politics, and the corporate world. In it, I created a protagonist who possessed many of the personality traits I dislike most in myself, but magnified enormously for comic effect. I had a wonderful time writing the book, and by the end of it I had managed to overcome many of the inner demons that my protagonist has surrendered to. It’s an entertaining novel that provided effective, free therapy to the author.
Ernest: You turned to e-publishing finally and feel happy with it. What are the main charms of e-publishing?
David: For e-publishing generally, there’s the speed of getting the book out and its availability to anyone with a computer or e-book reader and an Internet connection. It bypasses the monopoly that distributors and Barnes & Noble exercise over bookstore availability in the US. There’s also the book’s lifetime. In theory, an e-book should never be out of print or out of stock.
But I’d like to emphasize that what I’ve turned to is e-book self-publishing. In so doing, I’ve also bypassed the roadblock of traditional publishing houses, who think they’re the gatekeepers of literature when they’re really the gate blockers, limiting what the reading public even gets to see to a narrow, blandly written, highly commercial slice of the true literary spectrum. By imposing their requirements on how commercial fiction must be written and packaged, they have stifled the change and growth and creative energy that characterized fiction throughout most of its history. I’m writing now with an artistic freedom that I didn’t allow myself before. It’s wonderfully liberating.
Ernest: Do you feel that self-publishing e-books is empowering authors against the editorial processes involved in traditional publishing?
David: Very much so! Publishers impose their own narrow rules and preferences upon their authors. This is limiting and stifling, and it’s not even based on anything. For example, it’s widely accepted in the publishing industry that commercial fiction, and especially genre fiction, should avoid multiple points of view. The story should be told through the eyes of one point-of-view protagonist, and the point of view must never switch characters within a scene. Tell that to Anthony Trollope, one of the greatest and most important and influential novelists in the history of the English language. Modern editors would slaughter his prose and reduce it to bland, tasteless gruel.
Publishers impose this nonsensical rule about point of view because they’re convinced that that’s what readers want. How do they know that’s true? They don’t. They assume the mantle of authority and assert it loudly.
To large publishers, books are commercial products. A successful book is one that sells very many copies. The prose, the packaging, and the marketing of a book are all integrated toward that goal. Any element that someone insists will interfere with achieving that goal is removed. The resulting bland, depersonalized product is then presented to the public by a bland, impersonal corporation.
But what about a writer who really can’t write? Doesn’t his work require editing by a publisher? I say, no. When I read a book, I want to know that it was really written by the author whose name is on it. I want the author’s personality to come through. Let him learn grammar, spelling, and punctuation on his own time. Even if he can’t master those basic elements of writing, let him go ahead and self-publish his e-books. Perhaps he’s still a great storyteller who will provide hours and escape and enjoyment to readers.
Ernest: And what are some of the main disadvantages associated with e-books?
David: Visibility is probably the main one. An e-book will never show up on a bookrack somewhere, to be picked up and possibly bought by a curious passing reader. Readers have to be looking for the book specifically on the various online bookselling sites. But that’s a general problem with books not written by famous authors and/or published by major publishers. Printed books from small publishers also don’t show up on bookracks, and readers have to look for them specifically, usually online. Getting the word out is very difficult for most of us, whether our books are e-books or printed.
The second main problem I can think of is resistance to the very idea of an e-book.
Some people can’t read for long on a computer screen for physical reasons, such as eye problems. The ability to change the size and color of the font, as well as the color and brightness of the screen’s background, should actually make reading on a screen easier for such people than reading printed material, where the appearance is fixed. But I don’t think that people with such problems are likely to try extended reading on a screen, no matter what they’re told about how customizable e-readers are to their needs.
There are also people who prefer the feel of a printed book and have a philosophical aversion to e-readers. Perhaps some of them will change their minds with time. There are still authors who refuse to write on a computer and insist on using a typewriter. The passage of time keeps reducing their numbers, and the same will surely apply to the percentage of people who reject the very idea of an e-book.
Ernest: How do you plan to market a self-published e-book? Is it exclusively online marketing?
David: Yes, all online. I’ve tried other types of advertising in the past, and it seemed to do no good.
I’m active in a number of online discussion forums, so I’ve posted about the new e-book there. After those postings, there have been a few sales. It’s impossible to know if the postings led to the sales, but I can say that the sales for this book have exceeded the sales for the old ones following the paid ads I used to try. I’ve also been looking for review sites or journals that review e-books, and I plan to contact those. I would welcome any suggestions.
I’m assuming that word of mouth is even more important for e-books than for printed ones, precisely because readers won’t come across e-books while browsing the racks.
Ernest: E-books generally sell for less than print versions. Do you see it as a weakness of e-publishing industry?
David: No, I see it as the arrogance, or perhaps just the overblown costs, of the traditional print industry. Barnes & Noble pays the publisher only half the cover price for a book it carries in its stores. All bookstores can return just the covers of unsold paperbacks for a full refund from the publisher. Publishers are minor arms of major conglomerates that require hefty quarterly profits from each pawn in the corporate empire. Huge advances are paid to a few superstar authors. Editors aren’t paid much, but top executives at publishing companies are as obscenely overpaid as top executives everywhere else. That’s the overblown cost side. As for arrogance, major publishers know that no small competitors will get space on the racks at Barnes & Noble’s superstores or on the racks at supermarkets. So they can push up the cover price of a mass market book to absurd levels.
E-publishing bypasses all of that. Big publishers are still trying to charge absurd prices for the e-book editions of their print bestsellers, but I hope that the availability of cheaper (and, of course, better written) self-published e-book alternatives will undermine them in time. That fight is still underway, with overfed major publishers on one side and with readers and Amazon on the other.
Ernest: Okay, do you think we can be as proud as e-book authors as when we imagine ourselves authors of traditional print books?
David: Certainly. After all, it’s the content that counts, not the format.
But at the risk of being hyperbolic, I’ll go beyond that.
This is more than a change in method of presentation, or an increase in the convenience of reading a book. I think we’re seeing a transformation comparable to papyrus replacing cuneiform clay tablets, and paper replacing papyrus, and print replacing laboriously handwritten copies, and the advent of the cheap pocket book. Each of these advances had a powerful effect on civilization. The e-book revolution makes every book of which even a single copy exists available to people of every class and location. It also makes publication available to millions of people who could never have published their writing before. Those of us who publish our work in e-book format are at the forefront of a profound revolution. That’s something to be proud of!
Ernest: Please tell a little about your next book.
David: It’s titled Chains and it’s essentially a mainstream novel. It’s set in the present and the near future. There are some futuristic, science-fictional elements, but the focus is on a small group of characters and their relationships and problems with each other and the world. The science fiction is in the background and affects the characters without their paying much attention to it.
This is a change for me. In the past, I’ve written more traditional science fiction and horror, in the sense that the science-fictional or horror elements of the story were always in the forefront of the plot and of the characters’ thoughts. I’m enjoying this more mainstream approach to the story.
I don’t want to say more except that I’m happily breaking the rules of the publishing industry. For example, there are multiple points of view in many of the scenes, and the reader finds himself jumping from the mind of one character to that of another. I think that improves the story, and I think that the fact that it does shows just how wrong the traditional publishing industry is in its view of how a novel should be written and just how artistically superior the new e-book self-publishing venue is.
Ernest: Thank you, David, for your time and sharing your thoughts on e-publishing!