Recently read yet another article, this time in the Wall Street Journal, describing the steady collapse of the traditional publisher-agent-author trinity that has defined the fiction book market for many years in this country.
In short, publishers don’t develop new talent in the ways that they used to do. Advances are paltry. Print runs are shrinking. Backlists of titles are being cut. From other sources it’s become pretty clear that many publishers no longer put much money into marketing writers who aren’t already established name brands. In addition to the evidence provided by typographical and grammatical errors that routinely assault your eyes when you try to read many recently published novels, I’ve been told by veteran writers that publishers are cutting back on their editorial staff, with copy editors and proofreaders in particular going the way of the dodo.
If publishers don’t provide much income to fledgling authors, don’t market unknown books to attract readers, and don’t do much in the way of editing, what’s left for them to do on behalf of new or little-known writers? Create physical books and/or electronic books for people to buy.
However, you don’t need a large publisher to do either of those things. You certainly don’t need one taking a huge cut of whatever profits you generate for the privilege of doing so. You don’t even have to lay out money up front. You can get physical books printed on demand through services such as Lulu and you can create and sell electronic books through a variety of mediums. Eventually you’ll be able to sell electronic novels directly through Apple or Amazon, dividing the proceeds in a much more generous fashion than current publishers offer. This won’t guarantee you any readers or significant profits, but the truth is that nothing else will, either. The digital age rewards creators who have already established their identities. Everyone else has to claw their way to recognition.
Existing publishers have established distribution channels, but if they don’t put their muscle behind them, such channels aren’t of much use to new authors.
What traditional publishers have going for them, to be honest, is their reputation as gatekeepers. There’s a clear sense among many established writers and a lot of potential readers (particularly in my demographic and older) that anything self-published is likely to be crap that wasn’t good enough to draw the attention or approval of a “real” publisher.Self-publishing gets stamped with the label of “vanity press” and roundly mocked.
After all, so much of what DOES get published is clearly already crap, what must lurk in the slushpile?
However, every writer who I’ve ever seen comment on the process of writing has many tales of stories that got rejected over and over before getting published in more or less the same form that they began. Those stories didn’t suddenly get better; they simply found someone willing to pay to publish them.
Having worked as a writer and an editor for years, I can say with confidence that editors are fallible human beings with distinct tastes and biases. That’s not to say there aren’t many talented editors out there. But tastes vary. Being rejected by the editors at a publisher is clearly not evidence that a given story was bad. At the same time, the long cycles of rejection common to many writers begins to seem like a form of ritual hazing, a gauntlet to be run before one gets to join the club. But when club membership can’t promise the reward of a steady paycheck, why run the gauntlet?
Moreover, publishing is just as subject to fads and trends as any other endeavor that feeds into popular culture. Success is imitated until there is a glut of vampire/young wizard school/post-apocalyptic fiction crowding the bookshelves. Maybe your idea doesn’t fit into the latest pop wave.
In any case, there’s no more reason that a self-published book can’t be excellent than there is reason to think a hand-crafted piece of furniture must be inferior to something mass-produced. It all depends on the talent and dedication of the creator. I’ve found that some of the very best roleplaying games I’ve purchased in the past five years were self-published endeavors. There IS reason to fear that self-publishing doesn’t provide a lucrative or even viable full-time career option. Then again, the world of publishing is falling short on that promise as well.
You can choose to see the current situation as a glass half-full or half-empty. As an unpublished writer, each day I see it as one that offers opportunity to strike out on my own and succeed or fail on my merits and whatever fortune falls my way.