Self-Publishing's New Frontier

I admire Sherry Jones' work and that I think that she made some salient points in her October 11th piece on the Huffington Post: Self-Publishing: The Elephant in the Room. However, I also think she missed some major ones by a mile. Since the creation of “vanity” presses, there has been a discomfort associated with self-publishing, the notion this is the last-ditch realm of those not good enough to get published the traditional way. Dealing with the waves of rejection before getting your work published was an important right of passage and a way to hone your work, as it was for Jones. There were many good reasons to dismiss self-publishing back in 2006, as she said; it meant an arduous and expensive process that had little hope of doing anything but draining an author's pockets.

But things have changed.

In her dismissal of today's self-publishing possibilities, Jones seems to be taking for granted the idea that good-quality, worthy writing is what makes it through the tortuous publishing process, and bad writing (however you'd like to define it) gets culled along the way. Does anyone actually believe this? If they do, they haven't worked for a publishing house that has spent mind-bending amounts of advance money on bad knock-offs of whatever vampire/ Nazi/ cozy mystery is currently setting the trend, and they have not lived amongst writers and seen some of the most loathsome get book deals while immensely talented and worthy ones are ignored for being 'too niche' or what have you.

What I imagine Jones is partly responding to here is the common fear that as the structure of traditional publishing crumbles further there will no one to gate-keep, no one to curate the experience and help shape novels through the editing process, no one to perform all the very vital functions that happen between author and reader.

As you might have guessed, I have a dog in this fight. I used to work as a publicist for one of the Big Six and now am with a freelancer's collective in Seattle called Girl Friday Productions. One of the areas in which we are focusing our efforts is on how best to help our author clients take advantage of the dazzling and dizzying new options available in a way that ensures that they're putting the best work possible out into the world. We also fill in the gaps for authors whose publishers aren't able to give them the support they need to make the book a success, which is more and more frequently the case.

I'm also a novelist. I came to the game a bit later than Jones, in late 2008, just as the economy was beginning to tank. I had a fabulous agent from Writers House and we shopped my novel to lots of good feedback, one very close call, and, ultimately, no offers. I went back to the drawing board and wrote another novel. My agent had left the business by the time I was finished with it. I started searching for a new one, but found things had gotten even worse. One big reputable agent told me that she liked my novel a lot and thought I had a perfect voice for women's fiction but that it was just so hard to sell any fiction that didn't have an historical or magical element these days. I knew it was time for a break when I briefly considered working a warlock into the story.

This past fall, I decided to dust off my first novel and run it in serial on the women's website I write for and publish it as an eBook. Because of the low cost and ease of this, I could do it without the pressure of having to put up a bunch of money or knowing a publishing house had done the same. I wanted to see what this new world of publishing was all about and figure that the worst that can happen is I will learn a lot that will be useful both to me and to my clients down the road. I didn't bypass the editorial or copyediting processes; I got help with those, as I think any author who is self-publishing should.

Do I think traditional publishing is obsolete? Absolutely not. I just think it needs to get with the program, and fast. The talent within these houses is immense and their usefulness to authors is incontrovertible, but the system itself is broken. Between the Vegas-style gambles with huge advances, the insane retail model, and overhead costs, how anyone could think it has a sound future is beyond me.

Because of the system of returns (wherein retailers send back books that don't sell) in publishing, publishers have to focus on pushing a book as hard as they can after the on-sale date to make it work. And the overhead for publishing a book, between printing and shipping costs, staffing costs, office space in Manhattan in most cases, is immense. It's a pressure cooker in which publishers only really make money from break-out bestsellers and lose money on most books. So they're stuck trying to predict what might be a huge seller and take accordingly Vegas-style gamble with advance payments--most of which are never earned through.

I think its incumbent on all of us who love books to think up new and better ways to find and nurture great talent and help bring it to readers, however that happens in publishing's brave new digital world. And people are innovating: from Seth Godin's domino project to Red Lemonade to Emily Books to self-published authors like John Locke and Amanda Hocking who are making huge waves.

Like Jones, I learned a lot from going through traditional channels, just as I learned a lot from my time working for a big New York house. But this would all be useless to me if I wasn't willing to embrace the new frontier of book publishing. Because it is coming, whether we like it or not.

The old system worked well for Jones; it did what it was meant to by keeping her out when she wasn't ready and giving her a leg up when she was. But to pretend that the chief function of people who work in publishing is to help authors reach their potential is to disregard all of the real financial concerns that hang over the heads of publishers. But now, books can be shared and read inexpensively and if an author works hard enough to find an audience, they can become a success with or without the gatekeepers. And I think this can only be a good thing for writers and readers.