Sunday, December 8, 2013

To Self-Publish, or Not to Self-Publish?

The Ultimate Editor?
These are crazy and confusing times in the publishing business.

In this fiercely competitive era, when publishing houses are becoming increasingly selective, many aspiring authors seek their salvation through self-publishing. Just imagine: no one will tell you what to do. No one will have the gall to tell you the market for your genre is already oversaturated, or that you use too many split infinitives. You can do it yourself, bypass the evil arrogant editor or corporate executive, and release a book on your own terms. Power to the people, baby!

Before we go any further, let's define some terms: By "self-publishing," I mean a broad range of services whereby the author pays any type of advance fee to a vendor. Or in a newer twist, a company (such as Lulu or Amazon) that requires no payment up front but will print (or e-publish) just about anything you send them. The variations are endless.

A recent development: Just a couple of months ago, novelist John Locke (not the old British philosopher) sold his millionth e-book on Amazon.com. He is the eighth person in the history of the planet to accomplish this feat, joining an elite company that includes such notables as Nora Roberts and James Patterson. What makes Locke special, however, is that he got there without the benefit of an agent, publisher, or publicist. He wrote the books, converted them into digital files, and uploaded them into the Amazon website – all by himself. 

Mr. Locke’s David-vs.-Goliath story, defying convention at every turn, seems to validate this new business model, inspiring legions of aspiring writers who long to follow his against-all-odds path to success. The balance of power is shifting! The business is changing! It’s a new day!

Hold the hosannas. Yes, this is a noteworthy achievement, but what does it really mean?

Let’s read the fine print: Whereas most e-books retail for $2.99 to $9.99 (and deliver a 70% royalty), Locke set the price for his nine novels at a paltry 99¢ (and a mere 35% to the author). It almost seems like that impulse-purchase bubble gum on the counter at the corner market; you buy it because it’s cheap and convenient, and even if it’s lousy, do you really have the time to go back and ask for a refund of your nickel?

I haven’t read Mr. Locke’s books, and I mean no disrespect; but contrary to the wishful thinking of many, his story doesn’t seem to portend a new paradigm. For each of the past 100 years, the book business has always produced a come-from-behind unlikely hero, often through innovative untested marketing/publicity/distribution methods. Every few months we see a breakout novel from a hitherto unheralded scribe who may or may not continue into lasting greatness. He finds his voice, he strikes a chord, he finds his moment and gains a loyal following. (Translation: I could be next!)

And then just as quickly, he sinks back into the obscurity from whence he came, never to be heard from again.  I have every confidence that this pattern will continue for decades to come. Mr. Locke (and others like him) got struck by a bolt of benevolent lightning, but it’s not necessarily because of their polished prose or brilliant strategy. Lightning strikes where it pleases, not where you tell it to.

Indeed, the blessing of these new technologies, is that anyone can get published. And similarly, the curse of this new model, is that anyone can get published. The consequence is that the market is now flooded with tens of thousands of titles that never had to pass any test of quality. Such works don’t have to be good; they don’t have to be coherent; they just have to be. If you can write a check, you can write a book. A book that no one will buy.

Such authors are seduced by promises of empowerment, but that “power” is a double-edged sword: The real-world tradeoff is that their books never have to undergo tough-love from an experienced hand. This sense of liberation is almost always illusory; in practice, the only real power in this business rests with the retail consumer. Sure, you can bypass that high-and-mighty corporate gatekeeper, but at what cost? What little real "power" the inexperienced authors do in fact possess, is like a loaded gun: it's dangerous (or at best, useless) in untrained hands. What they gain in control, they lose in editing, marketing, quality control, and general market savvy.

I participate in several online discussion groups that attempt to dissect every conceivable aspect of the publishing business. For the most part they’re populated by discouraged writers who have never managed to make their way past an editor or agent. Yet somehow they speak with the confidence of seasoned experts, decrying the unfairness of it all. Could it be that their writing is mediocre, or worse?  No, that couldn’t be it. Could it be that they haven’t bothered to educate themselves in how to work the system? Perish the thought. No, the only conceivable reason for their (to-date) failure, is the narrow-mindedness of those awful editors and agents who don’t recognize a good thing when it’s staring them in the face.

Like millions of frustrated would-be authors out there, I own a collection of hundreds of rejection letters from publishers big and small. Sometimes they say it’s because “we’ve never done this kind of book before.”  Sometimes it’s “we did a book just like this, last week.” Or my book is either too short, or too long. The reasons are endless. I feel their pain.

Often, however, this pain is self-inflicted. Every publisher and agency has limits to what kinds of books they will handle, and they dictate the process by which they desire to receive submissions. All you have to do is ask. Yet as I survey the agents and editors I know, they ALL tell me that most of their submissions fail miserably out of the gate. Houses that handle only poetry, get pitches for cookbooks. Those who publish only romance novels, get proposals for theological works. Some (like myself) who require an e-mailed one-page query as a first step, often receive 500-page manuscripts by FedEx instead. Do I really owe this person a rejection letter, and must I tell him why?

Not long ago, I attended a book fair in Southern California. They must have had about a hundred exhibitors on hand, eager writers promoting their wares. In the course of the day, in-between various events,  I managed to make my way to almost every table. I made conversation with each author, and opened each book to a random page. In almost every instance, within two paragraphs, I found a typo. Or a series of incomprehensible run-on sentences. Or a long sequence of improperly formatted dialogue that was difficult to follow. (One adorable young woman, after hearing that I don't handle material with explicit sex scenes, shoved her book into my briefcase and begged me to read it at my leisure. I got as far as page 3: long graphic scene of incest.) After a while, it dawned on me: ALL of these books were self-published. Every one. Some of them might have been good stories, even great.

But I couldn't tell, because the authors were so proud of their editorial self-sufficiency.

In 2008, American publishers churned out 289,729 new titles, more than ever before. This is good. But now let’s compare that to the estimated six million manuscripts, proposals, and queries that are circulating among American publishers and agents at any one time. Can you suggest a better way to sift the handful of diamonds from a vast coal mine? 

Or put yourself in the shoes of the average consumer: Let’s suppose that your local bookstore suddenly offered ten times as many titles for sale.  Would you, for that reason, buy ten times as many books in the course of a year? Even if they were free, do you really have the time?

Me neither.

Mind you, for some people, self-pub makes perfect sense. If you have a business where you travel the country making speeches and can sell books in back of the room -- or you're already famous and have an existing base of followers who frequent your website -- you can set your own price and make a much greater profit. But these cases are rare.

In my capacity as a literary agent, and as the director of a writers' conference,  I often hear from new writers who want to know the secret to success in publishing. I tell them to take a class, find a mentor, attend conferences, buy a few reference books, join a writer's group, invite brutal critiques, retain the services of a professional editor and follow their advice. Then when they a have a decent manuscript to offer, start pitching agents and publishers according to their prescribed guidelines. Pay your dues, then pay it forward.

But few people are satisfied with that answer.  That's because what they really meant in their question was, "How can I get around that process? What are the shortcuts? How can I avoid the hard work?" At many conferences, the most popular workshops are the ones about marketing, the quickest (apparent) route to riches. The writing and editing classes go begging. They're not interested in actually learning how to write, they just want to sell the stuff they already have.

Writers of the world, be advised: It isn't about you; it's about your reader. It isn't about making you happy, or making your dreams come true. The publishing business, like any other, is driven my the vicissitudes of an ever-changing marketplace. She's a fickle beast, and she only eats what pleases her. Identify your target audience and anticipate what they will want or need to hear, not just what you feel compelled to say.  Leverage every rejection into an opportunity for education, not an excuse for bitterness.

For most people (including almost all writers), their only experience in the business world is a job where someone else has already done the heavy lifting. The corporation has been formed, the office space has been rented and furnished, the factory already hums, and the bookkeeper writes the paychecks every week. All they have to do is show up and perform their assigned duties. Far too many writers fail to understand that writing is a business, that they are themselves the owner and bookkeeper and chief marketing officer of an enterprise that will live or die, struggle or thrive, on the strength of their own efforts. There's no labor union, no minimum wage, no paid holidays, no overtime, no forum of appeal for lousy medical benefits or unsafe working conditions.

Gatekeepers are good. Quality control is good. Sensitivity to the demands of consumers is essential. Separating sheep from goats is a must. (These are skills that very few novice writers possess, and even fewer even desire to learn.) Offering false hope to naive mediocre writers is exceedingly cruel. So until such time as the Almighty himself reaches down from heaven with that celestial red pen to draw that line, fallible humans must fill that void. Sometimes they will make mistakes. But do you truly have a better idea?

I didn’t think so. All hail the gatekeepers.
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5 comments:

  1. Very informative, thank you.!! I appreciate all of the insider information, please keep it coming

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  2. Cuts like a knife, but thank you for this. I've got more work to do.

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  3. Absolutely true. Five years of gnashing teeth between self-pub and reality was so far nothing more than an expensive education.

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  4. I found this piece interesting and informative. After reading so many ebooks, novels, and such, published through Create Space that makes one wonder if the writer had more than a fourth grade education. They are really bed. When people read these, some assume, "Golly, if that person can publish a book, I can too," causing a proliferation of poor writing. I have often wondered why Amazon doesn't set some kind of standards that writers must adhere to before they are allowed to publish - a gatekeeper of sorts. If they did, perhaps people would have a little respect for our language and its usage.
    You have a great blog here.

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    1. Patricia, thank you for the kind words.

      I share your concerns there. However, the CS business model is based on the presumption that you do all the work. If they hired gatekeepers, they would have to recover the cost somehow. Either by imposing service charges on the authors, or raising the prices of the books.

      Which would you choose?

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