In a society so damaged by polarized discourses, the grimy, tired, two-party system is now trying to encroach upon the publishing world. Of late, authors and publishers are drawing lines and picking fights with each other about how a book ought to be distributed and who has the qualifications to publish. I notice this polarized discourse has heated up in accordance with the fact that paper book sales have been flat for years and ebook sales are increasing rapidly, though still a relatively small percentage of the total book sales market. But make no mistake, now that books have their own specialized electric technology, namely e-ink pages, e-readers will do to books what mp3 players once did to CDs. (Lovers of the paperback, take heart! The paper book will thrive in a new niche!)
Yeah, Yeah, Internet…So What?
Infinite distribution through digital channels has really shaken up the media world. Back in the days of carbon paper and spiral cord telephones, big publishing houses used to hunt for an unknown talent with bated breath, slogging through piles of query letters or scouring magazines for short stories written in a resonant, authorial voice, hoping to find a diamond in the rough. They would then cultivate that author to the mutual long term benefit of both the author and the publisher. Think of authors like Robert Heinlein and Kurt Vonnegut.
…And Along Came Desktop Publishing
We are still feeling the affects of the personal computer and the desktop publishing revolution, especially since it became Internet powered. Now, making and distributing your own professional documents without a print shop or marketing division has become commonplace. Today, with the vast proliferation of amateur authors into the world of consumable print narratives, publishing houses can not afford to take the same kind of chances they once did on unknown authors. (Because if you thought there were a lot of crappy books out there when the publishing houses were the gatekeepers, there are loads more crappy books out there now, when anyone who can figure out how to string together 30,000 words can publish a “book.”) The big six publishers are large organizations with lots of overhead, and this makes them conservative in their business practices. If they can’t run a moneymaking formula on your project, they won’t pick you up. Imagine Dostoevsky trying to get published in today’s environment.
“It is unwise to adopt a polemical stance against the publishing houses, just as it is unwise for the publishing houses to threaten authors with the prospect of obscurity.”
Publishing houses now hunt around for authors who have already garnered their own following, looking for authors who have already tested themselves and sharpened their teeth on an audience. Then they step in like a venture-capitalist firm and drop some money on the project, giving it (hopefully) rigorous professional editing and big ticket mass market distribution. But they will not do these things unless you have blockbuster, or at least mid-list, potential, according to the formula, or the current trend. The big publishing houses have had to take on the Hollywood model to maintain their own sizable infrastructure. It’s not their fault, it’s just a consequence of their growth. As an artist, if you are really big or you are really small, they have very little to offer.
The Death of the Query Letter
Back in the days of typewriters and Xerox machines, the query letter used to be the author’s holy grail – the shortest, most difficult, and most important document he or she would ever have to write. It was targeted to a highly specialized audience. The pressure on that one page was inordinate. The query letter used to be the major channel for making authors visible, via agents and publishers, to the reading public at large. But agents and publishers have been affected by the Internet, also. When an author self publishes, it is the Internet era version of the query letter. Just like maintaining a blog, a networking presence, a website, and a video channel, these are all modes of creating and increasing the author’s visibility – the same role that the query letter, or the short stories in magazines, used to play. If you’re a good author, I don’t think publishers care how they find you, they just want to find you. Publishers are increasingly finding authors according to audience size, not query letter. If you make your work available online, market yourself earnestly, and achieve 100,000 or a million downloads, that’s as good as the perfect query letter. If you have enough talent to do that, publishers will find you, or they should be looking harder. So get to work.
What’s A Publisher To Do?
If publishers expect authors, beyond being good writers, to show up with an audience, market themselves aggressively, and can only supplement an author’s e-book with a print run that probably won’t sell very much, what’s a publisher to do? That is the overriding question, and don’t take it lightly. Publishers used to have all of their responsibilities laid out for them, by the very nature of the scarcity-driven analogue distribution model. They had to edit the author’s work to really make it crackle, design the cover art, schedule the book tour, print the book in an attractive format, and distribute it to a mass market. With print-on-demand, quality graphic design, and sites like Amazon, a lot of the publisher’s responsibilities have been displaced by the paradigm shift of digital infinite distribution.
“When an author self publishes, it is the Internet Era version of the query letter.”
From a writer’s perspective, one of the most important things that publishers still have to offer authors is good editing and moral support. The publisher’s previously integral role in creating an author’s visibility and cultivating an author’s talent has become a tenuous link – still important – but not nearly as powerful as in the days before the personal computer and the Internet. Believe it or not, with a little luck and perseverance, an author can even develop a relationship with a good editor without going through a publishing house, or hiring one. I am still a believer in Yog’s Law, but another idea tempers Yog’s Law: no matter how you slice it, publishing has a cost. It just depends on who pays the bill, and who’s beholden to who pays the bill. Reflect on your resources. There are many forms of currency beyond paper and coin. And the skills offered by publishing houses on an industrial scale are availible in many other places, on a personal scale.
Self publishing takes a lot of work; work outside the scope of writing a book. If you plan to self publish, do your homework. Interview people who are traditionally published or work for a legacy publisher. There are many formal elements of publishing that you must learn if you plan to self publish. Book buying customers have come to expect certain things about the look and feel of a published work, and there is no good reason to deviate from the format. You will need rigorous editing, over multiple drafts. Then you will need meticulous proofreading. You will need typesetting. You will need quality book design, so your book cover garners some attention, or at least is a good piece of art. You will need to do your own distribution, from calling bookstores to registering your own ISBN. You will need to do your own marketing, selling yourself to the reading public. You will need help. These are all things you should expect a good publisher to do. But publishers have grown large, their overhead is high, and their profit margins are diminished.
“No matter how you slice it, publishing has a cost.”
Nip the publishing dichotomy in the bud. Publishers and agents: think of Internet powered self-publishing as the evolution of the query letter, a way to get work in front of you, rather than sending you a form letter and the first 30 pages. Authors: Think of self-publishing as a viable alternative, and if your audience gets large enough that you can’t handle all of the accounting, a publisher will be happy to help. It is unwise to adopt a polemical stance against the publishing houses, just as it is unwise for the publishing houses to threaten authors with the prospect of obscurity. If someone in publishing ever does threaten your “vanity press” with the prospect of obscurity, remember that a superior, passive-aggressive tone is a fearful, defensive act, and pay it no mind.
Yes, Yes, Internet – That’s What
There is no threat, folks. No need to argue. Stories need to get out there. As Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is only the massage. (And yes, I spelled it correctly.) When I make one of my novels available independently via POD, Kindle, Nook, Koby, Sony, iBooks, or any other platform, I am not thumbing my nose at the publishing industry. I am simply increasing my visibility – to all audience members – readers, agents, and publishers alike. There is no digitally inspired war between authors and publishers. Buying into that hoopla is a self-defeating polemical dichotomy with no place in the process of getting my stories out there. What we’re experiencing is a paradigm shift.
Thanks for reading. Reading rules!