Tuesday, July 25, 2006

A New Look At An Old Subject

Once again, we're going to talk about self-publishing. But, rather than retrace the same tired ground, let's take a look at the subject from an entirely different perspective.

Disclaimers and definitions first: All the posts on this blog reflect my opinion. If you don't agree, read another blog. Also, when I refer to traditional publishing, I am talking about print publishers. When I talk about a subsidy press, I am using the politically correct term for a vanity publisher. This post does not refer to electronic publishing, which is another critter entirely--a new and exciting development in the publishing world.

I'm going to begin with a broad generalization, which may offend some people: In my experience, self-publishing is often the direction taken by writers who are unfamiliar with the publishing industry. Focussed on their manuscripts, they neglect the important (in my opinion) work of educating themselves about how publishing works.

Let me hasten to say that there is also a tiny contingent of very savvy writers who choose to self-publish--with full knowledge of what they're getting into. However, they are a very small segment of the overall group of self-published writers. Read my blog of 6/20 to find the group I'm talking about. I'm referring to writers who have produced a work that is either cross genre or targeted for a niche market.

But, the vast majority of writers who opt to self-publish are a separate group of frustrated and impatient people. They've grown tired of receiving rejection letters from agents and publishers and are looking for alternatives to traditional publishing.

Lured by the promises of the subsidy presses, these naive souls start down the yellow brick road toward self-publishing, hoping to find the validation they so desperately seek.

Unfortunately, they know so little that they fail to identify the chief impediment to their success. They see their problem as finding a way to get their manuscript into printed form, thinking of that as the ultimate goal. They're wrong.

The technology is here today to easily accomplish the task of getting a manuscript into print--whether you go with a standard printing operation or with a subsidy press. The technology is called POD (print-on-demand). It is a technology, not an economic model--no matter what the subsidy presses tell you.

The writers' real problem is what comes AFTER the printing: marketing their books. Traditional publishers still have a virtual chokehold on the two most important markets in publishing: Libraries and retail outlets. Most libraries, bookchains and stores like Wal-Mart will not consider buying a self-pubbed book although some individual stores and libraries will be gracious to a local citizen as a gesture of community good will.

Someone once said to me that all authors are expected to market their books and that publishers don't spend money publicizing new authors. That's true and, at the same time, isn't.

Authors represented by traditional publishers do not bear the onus of marketing to libraries and retail outlets. The publisher does that job for them. Traditional publishers produce seasonal catalogs, which are used to promote their new releases to the enormous library and retail markets. Too frequently, authors forget that the expenses involved in producing those catalogs represents an investment in the author and a form of marketing the author's books.

With the publisher doing the big task of selling to the macro market, the author's job then becomes to sell him/herself to micro groups of individuals and specific booksellers. If the publisher did its job, the book will already BE in the bookstore and libraries. The author is just juicing up the bookclerks and librarians to recommend the book and trying to connect with readers during tours and talks.

The self-pubbed author has an entirely different task. S/he must get the book INTO those libraries and bookstores IN ADDITION to attracting attention from individuals. It's a herculean task. That's why the vast majority of self-pubbed authors never sell more than a couple of hundred books.

Do I believe the system is changing? Yes. Absolutely. Self-publishing is becoming easier and easier, but in my opinion is not yet to the place where it is the ideal solution for a writer. For one thing, libraries and bookstores use the traditional system to save them from vetting thousands of books. They assume (rightly or wrongly) a certain level of quality/professionalism from books purchased through those publishing catalogs.

Let's face it: a lot of self-pubbed books are dreck. If you don't believe me, read this post from Poddy Mouth's blog: http://www.girlondemand.blogspot.com/2006/06/random-notes-to-authors-of-last-seven.html

Until a mechanism is developed to separate the grain from the chaff, libraries and bookchains are going to avoid self-published books.

And, yes, this isn't fair, but it's reality. The subsidy presses' greed led them to "publish" anything--no matter how bad it was. If you want an example of what I'm talking about, read the "Atlanta Nights" entry on Wikipedia here:

The failure of the subsidy presses to exercise even minimal control over quality has poisoned the pool for self-published authors.

Are there good self-pubbed books out there? Of course, there are. However, they have an uphill battle because of the negative connotations created by the subsidy presses.

However, in the same way it is changing every other industry, digital technology is changing publishing. If mechanisms for quality control and marketing can be developed, I believe that self-publishing will become a more viable alternative for writers everywhere. And, hopefully, the subsidy presses will go the way of the Betamax and buggy whip.

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