Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Defense of Traditional Publishing

Gutenberg's press

Quick question: How many industries can you think of, that could put out a better product if they only removed all experienced professionals from their design and manufacturing process?

Much has been said in recent years, about the changing nature of the publishing business. Today, aspiring authors have so many options: No more gatekeepers, no more agents, no more editors, no one to tell you what you can and can’t do. No one to tell you that you’re not good enough. Only a na├»ve amateur, stuck in the past, would ever choose a traditional publishing model. Power to the people, baby!

Perhaps what we need here, is a bit of perspective. This is what “publishing” used to mean:
You write a book, and send it to a publisher.
They love it, and they send you a contract.
You return the contract, and they send you a check.
You do the happy dance all the way to the bank.
They edit and design your book, along with a killer cover.
They print and bind your book.
They construct a marketing plan and promote your book.
They ship it off to the four corners of the earth.
You sell thousands of copies, and everyone rejoices.

This might have been your first book, but they aided you at every step with experienced professionals who had worked on hundreds of books before yours. Proofreaders, designers, artists, marketing folks. They made you look good. For about 100 years of American history, this was what it meant to be “published.” It was truly an achievement, because the publisher turned down hundreds of other writers to choose you. (Sure, the vanity presses have been around for almost as long, but no one took them seriously.)

Today, this is what “publishing” (often) means:

You write a book and upload it raw to a book sales website.
You wait for the money to roll in.
The book sells 50 copies, and you’re heartbroken.

You signed a contract without understanding it. You settled for a lousy cover. You had no professional guidance in your writing, editing, designing, or marketing. And yet, you truly expected to have that same warm-fuzzy sense of accomplishment. So you want to blame someone else, anyone else, for the failed enterprise.

At this very moment, there are tens of thousands of self-pub writers trying to sue their publishers. Many of them might soon end up merged into a handful of class actions. Their grievances are pretty much the same: their books failed because publisher didn’t do enough to sell them.

But here’s the thing: Most of these service providers aren’t truly “publishers,” in any meaningful sense. Actually, they're little more than book printers. Generally that’s all you get; it says so in the contract, in plain language. (The incessant sales calls, begging to upsell you into the Gold or Platinum Package for only a few hundred dollars more, might have been a hint.) I’ve personally counseled dozens of people who were disappointed in their self-pub results. I ask them to show me the contract. Yup. There it is.

But most self-pub authors don't like that label. So they call their vendor an "indie" publisher, and themselves "indie" authors. (Never heard of such, until a couple of years ago.) I find that strange, because for about 100 years of American history, an "indie" (independent) publisher meant a traditional house that wasn't among the international conglomerates (Random, Macmillan, etc.)  Examples of “indies” would include Kensington, Sourcebooks, or Algonquin.

 So you think you can upgrade your stature, just by changing the nomenclature?

I attend book fairs often, including the largest such event in the country. I meet hundreds of authors each year this way, and almost all of their books are from the self-pub companies. I open the book to a random page, and read a couple of paragraphs. These books are lousy, by every measure: spelling, punctuation, sentence structure. (Can’t tell about the plot, in such a short excerpt.) I make conversation with the authors and ask why they chose the self-pub route, and they all say the same: empowerment.

They paid a high price for that liberation.

Having said all of this, do I believe that the self-pub vendors are evil? Of course not. They provide a service in exchange for a fee, and it’s not their job to hold your hand. Self-pub makes perfect sense if already have substantial platform. That is, you’re already famous, and have a pre-established following. Or you travel often for your business, and can sell books in back of the room. But among the million-plus self-pub titles out there (really!), these cases are rare.

For some reason, publishing seems to be the only business in the world where so many untrained amateurs claim to be experts. Somehow, they believe they're better off to exclude any and all input from experienced professionals. And yet, somehow, they blame someone else when they fail.

Remember that philosophy, next time you book a cheapie airline flight.
Sure, I can land that plane. Sure, I can adjust them wing flaps for ya. 

No, I've never done it before. But really, how hard can it be?

1 comment:

  1. It's worth the wait. I haven't read one self-published book that didn't need more editing and slashing. And I've read quite a few. It took me nine years and three manuscripts before a publisher offered on my work. But God didn't waste one minute of those years. I learned the craft, built my platform, continued to develop in my proficiency in biblical studies. It was a long journey (which I am still on, by the way) but in the end produced a far better product than I was offering in those early days.

    It's all a process, which we should embrace, as hard as it is to wait. It's worth it.