Every now and then somebody says something outrageous that you just blink in astonishment. Did they really say what you just heard coming out of their mouth?
Just recently The Guardian, which used to be one of the respectable British newspapers, published Self-publishing is not revolutionary -- it's reactionary
, which tries to claim that the rising trend of independent publishing is in fact a step backward which helps neither writers nor readers.
When I first started getting serious about writing, you had basically two choices -- traditional publishing, or vanity publishing. And the latter term pretty much speaks for itself -- if you were to turn to one of these presses, paying them for the privilege of seeing your book in print, you were obviously doing it solely to tickle your vanity. You thought so highly of yourself that either you couldn't bear to lower yourself to submitting
it to a publisher and accepting their judgment of your work, or that you couldn't accept their determination that you weren't as good as you thought you were. In either case, your book and you as author would bear the ugly stigma of Loser, and quite possibly of Poseur.
Truth be told, by the latter decades of the twentieth century, there was a very good reason to place a heavy stigma on subsidy publishing, and not just on the grounds that it represented a failure of proper humility on the part of the author. Although there had been a time when it was perfectly respectable for an author to pay to have a book published, and many gentleman hobbyist writers of the Victorian Era and Gilded Age got their works in print in this way, during the twentieth century a large number of unscrupulous actors entered the industry, preying on the hopes and dreams of unsuspecting writers. These predators would acquire large numbers of books with little or no editorial oversight and do the minimum legally required to be able to fulfill their contracts. Often the quality of the books were grossly inferior to industry standard. Sometimes the wouldn't even bind all the books the author paid for unless additional fees were paid. There was no effort on the part of the publisher to actually market the book, and the author generally ended up with a basement full of books and had to hand-sell them -- which generally meant bugging friends and families or haunting flea markets with a pile of unwanted books.
There was a sort of third path of genuine self-publishing, in which the author did all the layout and design and contracted the production of the actual books with a print shop. However, that required skills that most authors didn't possess, and it still required the author to do all his or her own marketing. So it was really only a viable option for a book that had a clear niche market, such as how-to books or histories of very small organizations (frex, veterans writing up the history of their unit). For fiction your only real choice was still to struggle through the endless rounds of rejections and probably end up with a huge pile of trunk stories that had worn out their welcome everywhere. After a few rounds of that it becomes harder and harder to convince your family that your writing is anything but a hobby for your spare time, as opposed to something that should be taken seriously and given time. Lots of promising writers became discouraged and wrote only for their own amusement or gave up on writing altogether.
By the turn of the millennium, the growth of the World Wide Web made it possible for ordinary people to create webpages that could be accessed by anyone, anywhere that had Internet connectivity. The old barriers that made it almost impossible to market your work without a publisher's access to distribution channels began to crumble. But the old stigma remained -- if you were sticking your writing up on a website, you were obviously doing it because it wasn't good enough to make the big time, and therefore you were a loser. Aspiring writers were warned not to kill their careers before they began by marking themselves out in this way.
And then something happened. A lot of the midlist writers who'd once been publishing houses' small-but-solid sellers but were squeezed out as the industry moved to a "bestsellers only" model discovered that used copies of their books were selling quite briskly on Amazon and ABEbooks. Obviously there was still a market for their writing, if they could just re-tap it, but the big publishers didn't want to reprint anything that wouldn't sell millions. So these authors began bringing their books out on their own, either through various small presses and co-operatives or entirely independently. Some made electronic editions, and others used xerographic-based print-on-demand systems such as LightningSource to create hardcopy editions. And since these were books that had already gone through the editorial vetting process but had just fallen out of print, a crack appeared in the wall of stigma against self-publishing.
That crack widened when established authors began releasing new books through these channels. Some of these authors had been squeezed out altogether by the publishers because their sales numbers, while decent, just weren't growing fast enough to keep the bean-counters happy. However, some were authors that were still enjoying success in traditional publishing, but couldn't get this particular book
to sell. Editors would tell them that the book was wonderful, but nobody in marketing knew how to sell it, because it didn't fit neatly in any of the established genre slots.
And guess what -- the books didn't sink like a stone on the marketplace. In fact, some of them quickly rose on Amazon's best-seller lists and became rousing successes. It became obvious that no, self-publishing a work of fiction was no longer the kiss of death, the admission that you were a Loser who simply couldn't hack it in the real world of publishing and had to pay someone to publish your lousy, boring tripe.
At the same time, I can sort of understand the sour-grapes sentiments that underlie these attacks on the new dawning of independent publishing. I've spent the last several decades struggling and straining to get my novels and stories accepted through the traditional publishing system, and now, just as I'm beginning to see a glimmering of success, the brass ring for which I've spent so much time and energy striving seems to have been rendered worthless.
And then I remind myself of the days when I wished there were some way to use the Internet to reach readers directly instead of having to jump through the gatekeeper hoops of getting published, and being told that it might be possible Someday, but that would be a long time down the road and right now I needed to buckle down and focus on doing the things that were necessary to make my works acceptable to the gatekeepers, even when it hurt.
And now Someday is here, and quite honestly, the crumbling of the stigma and the growing success of self-published writers took me by surprise because I was still operating in circles that assumed you had to have that imprimatur of a publisher's acceptance to be any good. So it's frustrating to have so much catching up to do, to shift gears from shopping stuff around in hopes of finding someone, somewhere who'd like it to getting stuff out there in front of readers in this brand new marketplace and trying to get it on their radar so they'll Find It, Like It and Buy It.
It's a whole different ballgame, and I've just barely begun to get into it with A Separate War
. There's a whole lot more I still need to do -- and I'm feeling like I'm torn a dozen ways with all the projects that I've had lying around in various states of completion while chasing the ever-shifting editorial whims of publishers.