Amazon.com has taught readers that they do not need bookstores. Now it is encouraging writers to cast aside their publishers. (1)
Somehow I don’t think this is gonna be a hard sell.
I’ve heard so many horror stories from authors who’ve tried for years to get an agent, who then tries for years to get an editor’s attention, who then tries for years to convince his or her bosses to actually publish the book. The house of cards can and does collapse at any one of these points, with the author left S.O.L. and clutching their precious manuscript, right back at square one. Is it any wonder so many potential authors cringe away from subjecting themselves to such an agonizing experience?
I adore “real” (paper) books and bookstores, especially independents like my local and beloved Changing Hands, but traditional publishing’s MO and business model make no sense to me. Finding a publisher for a book is less than half the battle. Convincing bookstores to buy and keep the books on their shelves is yet another skirmish. Then consider a bookstore gets to return any unsold copies of the books with little to no financial penalty, all of which counts against the author’s sales totals, royalties, and ultimately, their chances of ever getting another publishing contract.
The odds certainly seem stacked against our valiant author, who just wants to tell an entertaining story.
Sure, the traditional publishing route offers some pros – like an established distribution network, monetary advances, and the superficial appearance of professional acceptance – but today’s publishers offer very little to a start-up author in the way of promotion, marketing support, or any guarantee of long-term business relationship. Even with an agent and editor, an author still has to do all her own marketing and self-promotion. And with royalty rates of less than 10% (traditional hardcover or paperback) compared to 30-70% (self-publishing ebooks), why should an author give anyone else a cut of her meager earnings? Does she really get her money’s worth?
“…[P]ublishers [are] in love with their own demise.” (1)
Whether this is true or not, many traditional authors I’ve met are in a full-blown panic. Traditional publishing houses are dropping midlist authors and refusing to take risks on new, unknown writers. If you’re not Stephen King or a cast member of the Jersey Shore – even if you’re an established, published writer – good luck getting a book deal.
Some are even dropping print format entirely. Reports of publisher bankruptcies and authors subsequently left high and dry without earned royalties being paid are becoming disturbingly commonplace. Getting the rights to your own work back from these publishers in such dire straits is an expensive, time-consuming, agonizing process.
[T]he landscape [is] in some ways changing for the first time since Gutenberg invented the modern book nearly 600 years ago. “The only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and reader,” [Amazon executive Russell Grandinetti] said. “Everyone who stands between those two has both risk and opportunity.” (1)
And this is the crux of why I’ve decided to self-publish electronically.
Electronic publishing still seems to be in its infancy. Authors, publishers, and readers alike are yet feeling their way. Who owns what rights? What precisely does a reader purchase, and will he or she be able to share an ebook with a friend as easily as a printed one? Which electronic format is best? Nobody seems to know all the answers yet, but I think the possibilities, the dynamic flux is exciting.
Ebooks certainly seem like the way of the future, and I doubt there’s any turning back. It’s so seductively easy to download a book in seconds, on a whim, for pennies compared to a hardback, and carry around a slim, lightweight e-reader wherever you go. There’s a huge savings not only of the consumer’s cash, but an environmental one as well: less paper means less deforestation, and no physical shipping of inventory around results in a far smaller carbon imprint for every book published. And don’t discount the privacy factor: no one else on the bus or in the coffee shop has to know you’re reading a trashy romance just by looking at the bodice-ripping cover design!
New, unpublished authors like me are seeing this paradigm shift as a fantastic opportunity to connect directly with the people who might enjoy reading our stories. I don’t have to write to impress a gatekeeper anymore. I can write what speaks to me and share it with likeminded readers, no middlemen involved.
Some claim that editors and publishing houses are a necessary quality filter. Maybe so. There is inarguably a steaming pile of self-published schlock available now. But I’ve read some utter crap that presumably was signed off on by an editor, too. A publishing contract doesn’t seem to guarantee a writer any kind of minimum quality control anymore.
Nor does self-publishing carry quite the stigma it used to. Examples like Amanda Hocking and John Locke have proven that monumental success is possible without the backing of a publisher. And I’ve heard anecdotal reports of self-pubbed authors with decent sales attracting offers to publish current and future manuscripts from digital publishers interested in cashing in on their established readerships. Self-publishing is no longer a one-way ticket to obscurity or disdain.
Maybe it’s conceited, but my experience with writing fanfic has taught me that there’s an audience for every niche, every voice imaginable. Through fanfic reviews and contest feedback, I now know there are people out there who appreciate my voice, my creative output, and they’re not just my friends and relatives. Why should I go through the agony of finding the one agent, the one editor who agrees and is willing to take a risk to publish me and reach them? Why not just go directly to my market?
I’m not likely to make self-published millions like Hocking. I’m not likely to be the next J.K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer, either. But that’s okay. Some people will read my stories and find enjoyment in them. And that’s all I could ever ask for.
(1) All quotes from “Amazon Signs Up Authors, Writing Publishers Out of Deal” by David Streitfeld for NYTimes.com on October 17, 2011. You can read the entire article at NYTimes.com.