Thursday, February 12, 2009

Why Don't I Self-Publish?

I am reminded almost daily that I am seeking to launch a writing career at what might be the worst time imaginable. Many publishers seem to be teetering, layoffs are rampant and the media is trumpeting the dawn of a new age of self-publishing. All of which inspires family and friends to periodically poke me and ask: "Why the hell aren't you self-publishing?"
Time Magazine's January write-up of Lisa Genova’s self-published breakout novel Still Alice has served to put this question in front of me again.
The recent troubles of “brick & mortar” bookstores and the teetering finances of certain publishing giants are just fuel for this particular fire. But is an industry shakeup propagated by other economic factors really the harbinger of the Big Publishing apocalypse? According to the Boston Globe, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's woes have a lot to do with the decline of their textbook publishing empire. Does that really presage the dawn of an anarchic state of self-publishing where every Joe or Jane Ink-in-my-veins is clawing for a spot on the bestseller lists? (Incidentally: Without publishers and booksellers to report accurate sales data, will there even be a bestseller's list in that future world?)
Not to understate the problems facing the publishing industry. Peter Olsen’s article in Publisher’s Weekly (aptly titled: “A Long Winter”) lays out the current woes of the publishing industry in stark detail, begging me to revisit the question: Why not self-publish? Isn't that the wave of the future? In a world where anyone really can write a book and get it published without jumping the hurdles of editors and agents, isn't the Big Publishing model doomed anyway?
I'm sure another spate of articles heralding the end of big-money corporate publishing and trumpeting the triumph of self-published rebels is due to crest the hill any moment now.
There’s no coincidence that the dawn of the print on demand houses the likes of iUniverse and BookSurge aligned with the rise of book retailers willing to stock anything with an ISBN number. A number of recent bestsellers – including Christopher Paolini’s breakout YA fantasy bestseller Eragon* – are trumpeted as the vanguard of this new march on New York despite the fact that both of these books were scooped-up by major publishers as a result of their early success.
Anyone with a computer really can put a novel out there.
The apparent popularity of Amazon’s Kindle2 further complicates this field as everyone from the big houses to the self-published entrepreneur scrambles to figure out how to make eBooks make money. (As the consumer tries to decide if they read enough books in a year to make the price tag of the Kindle break even for them.) Amazon offers to “translate” any book you care to write into their proprietary format for a relatively small fee and build upon their history of bookselling for the masses. If anything can attain the coveted title of "The Tipping Point" it may well be the long-ballyhooed arrival of the eBook in the hands of American consumers.
The one thing that really troubles me about a world sans publishing houses is the signal-to-noise ratio.
If everyone really does have one novel in them, and even a realtively small percentage have the gumption to put ink to paper... how is the reading public to find the wheat in all that chaff?
Every writer must already be savvy in the field of marketing in order to really ‘make it’ in publishing. Every publisher, every agency, every book by Writer's Digest tells you this up-front. But without a sizeable marketing budget, how could anyone break through the noise? Wouldn't that put real success out of reach for those who don't have the backing of venture capital? What's next? An IPO for Scott Perkins, Inc just to raise capital for my first printrun?
If an author has to shoulder the full burden of not only marketing, but editing, publishing, inventory management, distribution, and accounts payable... who would venture to break the mold? And if they hire people to fill those roles... don't they perforce become a publishing house -- albeit a small one?
Frustration is a big factor too. Editors, literary agents, publishers and booksellers are a daunting lot from the standpoint of an aspiring author. Lined up between them and their book on a store shelf like the defensive line of the opposing team. The songs of lamentation rise to the tune of foreheads banging against keyboards: “HOW DO I CAPTURE YOUR INTEREST? WHAT MAKES YOU TAKE THIS BOOK AND IGNORE THAT ONE?”.
I can't pretend that I haven't considered it. And I have the good fortune of having fulfilled all of the jobs I mentioned in the past for various book stores. It's certainly tempting to chuck the game and go it alone.
But the view of editors, agents and publishers as defending the goal often blinds us to the service they provide to readers. Shifting the slush pile at the bookstore, I got a glimpse of what the agencies and publishers aren't showing us. Cervantes' admonition that "no parent thinks their own child is ugly; and this self-deceit is yet stronger with respect to the offspring of the mind" has never been proven more definitively.
No reader is immune to the perplexing moment spent standing at the book tables of a bookstore, thumbing through the latest “I can’t believe someone published this piece of (insert epithet here)” and wondering what the publishing world is collectively smoking.
If you only knew what you are "missing".
It seems too simplistic to say: “Traditional Publishing –vs – Plucky Little Guy” (with his entire printrun in the trunk of his car) in a fight to the death. From my standpoint as an author and former bookseller, that a hybrid is infinitely more likely.
As evidenced by Lisa Genova’s story of success mentioned in the Time article, the old school is adapting - albeit slowly -to the new marketplace, setting aside the old prejudices of viewing any self-publisher as a ‘vanity press’. Publisher’s Weekly has announced that they will no longer ignore these titles either.
We’re told that the big publishers are looking for the next Harry Potter or Davinci Code and less likely to take big-money risks on first-time novelists or pay out the headline-grabbing advances we’ve seen in the past. The moral of Still Alice may well prove to be that self-publishing will eventually become the summer stock of the publishing industry. A place for mainstream authors to prove their mettle in the marketplace and demonstrate that they are worth big-money advances and full-tilt marketing pushes by their eventual big house publishers.
None of which is enough to make me run out and plunk down the money for a huge printrun and marketing support out of my own bank account. Not to mention distribution, warehousing and the sheer inventory it really takes to move even a midlist author out of the backlist.
This is not because I don't believe in my writing; it's because I believe strongly enough in it to believe someone else will too. I'm hoping it's someone with the wherewithal to make it happen on a scale a self-publisher cannot reasonably aspire to. Is that arrogant? Maybe, but I don't think it is, at least not in a negative sense. Writers can't (and won't) make it unless they are confident in the work they produce no matter who publishes them. I’m confident enough in myself and the marketplace to continue getting my work(s) out there through the classic channels.
And like every writer, I'm holding myself aloft on periodic updrafts of hope.
*Not to detract from the accomplishments of a 17 year-old writing a bestseller. More power to him. Nevertheless, it is my understanding that Paolini’s book was actually published by a small press owned and operated by his parents. Which goes to show that the 'Self published’ cachet seems to be a moving target these days.

1 comment:

  1. I think you make a lot of valid points, but I wonder if it won't eventually be true that certain types of books will be self-published simply because that's the best way to get them to market, even some kinds of fiction. Also, I think that technology is making some of the material logistics concerns obsolete in ways people could have never predicted.

    I think your idea of the hybrid is probably the future because things very rarely happen absolutely one way or another.


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).