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Point, Counterpoint

When I first began The Indie Book Podcast, I thought of self-publishing was, you know, a neat thing.  An interesting alternative path writers could take.  I was excited that it was starting to be viable, but I wasn’t 100% sure it was something I was going to pursue.  After all, I figured traditional publishing had a lot to recommend it, too.

Fast forward three months, and the self-publishing revolution has become less of an interesting novelty for me, and more of a moral crusade.  As I surf around the web, combing forums and blog posts for info that might enhance the podcast, I’m just starting to realize how much I’ve switched over, in my heart, from traditional writer to indie writer.  This worm has turned.

Which doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally enjoy reading the opposite point of view.  I particularly enjoyed this post from  writer Edan Lepucki.  It’s a well-written, well-reasoned recounting of Lepucki’s reasons for sticking with the traditional path.  So, naturally, I’m going to tear it to shreds.

Ok, not really.  But I am going to address his arguments, point by point, and see how my own hold up to them.

1. I Guess I’m Not a Hater

…I trust publishers. They don’t always get it right, but more often than not, they do. As I said in the piece that started me off on this whole investigation: “I want a reputable publishing house standing behind my book; I want them to tell you it’s good so that I don’t have to.”…

I wouldn’t call myself a hater, either.  I do think publishers put out good products, and that the publishing companies are responsible for some of the value of those products (AKA, books).  I don’t think the traditional houses are valueless by any means.

And yet, I do think there is something wrong with the current royalty structures publishers offer their authors.  I’m not talking mathematically wrong, here, I’m talking morally Wrong.  There’s just no reason for a publisher to rake in 85% of the cover price of e-books—not when they’re assuming so little risk, and incurring no per-unit costs.  Signing a deal that grants you 15% of net receipts (a pretty standard e-book royalty rate) is like saying that the work of writing a book only accounts for one seventh of its value.  That seems weird to me.  No, not just weird.  Crazy.

So, no, I don’t hate the big houses.  I respect what they have to offer.  But I’d like a little more evidence that they respect what I have to offer before I throw my lot in with them.

2. I Write Literary Fiction

…Many of the writers who have found success in self-publishing are writers of straightforward genre fiction. Amanda Hocking writes young adult fantasy, dwarfs and all. ... Aside from Anthropology of An American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann, I can’t think of another literary novel that enjoyed critical praise and healthy sales when self-published. That’s not to say that it can’t — and shouldn’t — happen, it’s only to point out that it’s a tougher road for writers of certain sorts of stories…

Well, that’s a fair point.  Actually, it’s the one I find most persuasive.  Like it or not, everything is not equal among the genres, and literary authors may have a harder road ahead of them if they choose to self-publish.

The taste makers for literary books are all still very much the old guard—the New York Times Book Review, Michiko Kakutani, et al.  If they aren’t looking at self-pubbed books—and I believe at present they’re trying their best not to—it’s going to be a long time before the readers of those books discover self-published authors.

Secondly—and I say this with love—the literary genre is the genre most invested in the idea of the writer as a special, elite artist.  Out here in genre-fiction-land, we’re frequently ok with being considered working stiffs, but the same is not necessarily true of our literary brethren.  I suspect that a lot of the value of being published, for a literary writer, comes from the cachet of being accepted into The Club.  This is particularly true for those literary writers who have secondary careers in academia, another industry invested in the ideas of prestige and the elite nature of the artist.

I don’t mean to suggest that literary writers are snobs, or that they things they want aren’t worth wanting.  The fact is, every writer wants respect, and there’s no reason literary writers shouldn’t make it a priority.  But as long as the communities they belong to grant that respect only to the traditionally published, literary writers will have a long row to hoe when it comes to self-publishing.

3. I’d Prefer a Small Press to a Vanity Press

…The conversation about self-publishing too often ignores the role of independent publishing houses in this shifting reading landscape. … These presses are run and curated by well-read, talented people, and they provide readers with the same services that a large press provides: namely, a vote of confidence in a writer the public might have never heard of…

So, ok, I sort of object to the term “vanity press—” from my point of view, I’m not vain.  I’m entrepreneurial!

But, nit-picking aside, Lepucki makes an interesting point here.  The self-publishing conversation is often framed as an either/or—throw in with the Big Six, or go it alone.

To be honest, I don’t know enough about small publishers—what terms they offer to authors, how able they are to land their books on the bookstore shelves, etc., etc.  I’ll admit, straight up, that I could stand to learn more about this before I express an opinion of small press vs. self-pubbing.

I will say, though, that I am interested in the evolution of hybrid models of publishing.  No matter what, writers are going to continue to need services—especially editing—from people other than themselves.  I’m looking forward to seeing what kinds of business models grow to fill this need, and it could be that small presses have an important role to play.

4. Self-Publishing is Better for the Already-Published

Perhaps the smarter, and far more seductive, path is the one where the writer begins his career with a traditional publisher, and then, once he’s built a base of loyal readers, sets off on his own. The man who loves to talk smack about the publishing industry, J.A. Konrath, already had an audience from his traditionally-published books by the time he decided to take matters into his own hands. It’s much harder to create a readership out of nothing…

Well, I don’t disagree with the overall point:  it is easier to self-publish if you’ve already built an audience.  But here’s the thing:  getting traditionally published does not buy you out of the work of creating that audience.  Whichever way you go, you are going to have to blog, or tweet, or set up reviews and interviews for yourself—you’re going to have to be your own marketer.  If you’re expecting your publishing company to do this for you, well, maybe you’ll be lucky.  But very likely you won’t.

Getting traditionally published does provide some extra exposure, in terms of bookstore placement, but for many authors it comes with limited—or nonexistent—marketing.  That’s the world we’re looking at today, kids.  You can go through Door A or Door B, but you’ll still have to pimp your own book.

5. I Value the Publishing Community

… Even though my first novel was rejected by traditional publishers, one assistant editor’s notes on it — notes that were thorough, thoughtful, challenging, and compassionate — were enough to show me that these professionals are valuable to the process of book-making. I know you can hire experienced editors and copy-editors, but how is that role affected when the person paying is the writer himself? What if the hired editor told you not to publish? Would that even happen?

I’ll agree that a good editor is worth his weight in gold.  I’ll even agree that this is a real, thorny problem facing self-published authors.  Finding a good editor isn’t just a matter of scanning ads on the web.  You want someone who gets your genre, gets your audience, and, ideally, gets you as a writer.  That’s not something you find around every corner.

The thing I dispute is that signing on with a traditional publisher is a guaranteed way of finding yourself such a gem.  I’ve heard authors say they love their editor, and I’ve heard authors say they hate their editor.  It is very unclear, at present, what level of editing services any particular new author can expect.

At least if you pay for it yourself, you can exercise some control over what you get.  And if you don’t like the results, you’re free to move on to another provider.

6. The E-Reading Conundrum; or, I don’t want to be Amazon’s Bitch

… The thought of Amazon being the only place to purchase my novel shivers my timbers. I don’t mind if someone else chooses to read my work electronically, just as I don’t mind if Amazon is one of the places to purchase my work; I’m simply wary of Amazon monopolizing the reading landscape. Self-publishing has certainly offered an alternative path for writers, but it’s naive to believe that a self-published author is “fighting the system” if that self-published book is produced and made available by a single monolithic corporation. In effect, they’ve rejected “The Big 6″ for “The Big 1.”

I get where Lepucki’s coming from here.  Amazon is gaining power by leaps and bounds, and it is a hair chilling to contemplate what they might do with it in the future.  And yet, as Barry Eisler pointed out on A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing last week, it’s not as though the Big 6 operate competitively.  They are all offering the same crappy royalty rates to authors.

I am in favor of authors having power over their work, and that means we need competition—competition for Amazon, competition for the Big 6.  I really hope we continue to see such competition in the marketplace.  But at present, I don’t think I can do much to affect the future landscape of publishing.  So there’s little reason not to throw my lot in with the people offering me the best terms today.

7. Is it Best for Readers?

Our conversation reminded me of Laura Miller’s humorous and perspicacious essay, “When Anyone Can be a Published Author,” in which she reminds us that the people who celebrate self-publishing often overlook what it means for book buyers and readers. She writes:

Readers themselves rarely complain that there isn’t enough of a selection on Amazon or in their local superstore; they’re more likely to ask for help in narrowing down their choices. So for anyone who has, however briefly, played that reviled gatekeeper role, a darker question arises: What happens once the self-publishing revolution really gets going, when all of those previously rejected manuscripts hit the marketplace, en masse, in print and e-book form, swelling the ranks of 99-cent Kindle and iBook offerings by the millions? Is the public prepared to meet the slush pile?

No, I suspect they’re not. This is a legitimate problem for self-published authors, and it’s one I truly hope my podcast can address.  We need taste makers in the self-publishing world helping people cut through the chaff—and, yes, it would be disingenuous if I didn’t admit that there is plenty of chaff to cut through.  Because you’re right:  no reader wants to read four crappy books on his way to finding a good one.

But happily, there are enormous resources available to help him.  There are Amazon reviews, review blogs, and, yeah, my little podcast.

I’d never claim that the vetting traditional publishers do isn’t a valuable service to readers.  But I’m hopeful that they aren’t the only ones who can provide it.

8. I’m Busy. Writing.

Self-publishing takes a little time and energy, but it’s not as much as you might think.  In fact, if you cast aside the idea that being traditionally published will get you out of marketing your own book, it’s really very little time at all.  You’re just communicating with artists and editors, and spending a few hours of research figuring out how to format your work for publication.

Is that really so much more time consuming than the communication a traditionally pubbed author has to do with his agent and editor?  Somehow I doubt it.

Now, I better get busy.  Writing.

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