Saturday, January 24, 2009

The New Publishing Industry

Over the three and a half years I've been blogging, I've made a lot of predictions about the future of publishing. I want to revisit one of those predictions in view of a new article in Wednesday's Time magazine.

Back on July 20, 2006 here, I said:

The latest POD technology makes it relatively easy [for publishers] to produce a quality, bound book at a reasonable rate.

Notice I am not including aspiring authors. The reason I am not is because, even if they now have a way to produce printed copies of their work, there is still no system by which they can successfully market those books. I personally do not believe in selling books by hand out of the trunk of your car--UNLESS you are doing so as a part of a publisher's marketing campaign during a book tour.

I think that day is coming. Sooner or later a viable system will evolve by which authors can self-publish AND market their work. That day is not now, but it is probably not too far in the future.
Now the new Time article, titled "Books Unbound," talks about the success of three self-published writers:
Giga-selling fantasist Christopher Paolini started as a self-published author. After Brunonia Barry self-published her novel The Lace Reader in 2007, William Morrow picked it up and gave her a two-book deal worth $2 million. The fact that William P. Young's The Shack was initially self-published hasn't stopped it from spending 34 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.
While I am not denigrating these novelists' success in any way, I do believe Time did not do an adequate job in analyzing those successes. There were very specific reasons for the success of both The Lace Reader (an investment of $50,000 by the author in marketing) and The Shack (a niche Christian market together with help from influential people in that market).

The case of Christopher Paolini was a "once in a lifetime" stroke of luck. Listen to his 2004 interview in the UK's Guardian:
The Paolinis led a simple life, earning a living from small publishing projects. After seeing the finished manuscript, they agreed to throw the whole family business behind their son's book. It was a huge risk . . .

The bookshops were hard. No one had heard of him. 'I would stand behind a table in my costume talking all day without a break - and would sell maybe 40 books in eight hours if I did really well,' he recalls. It got to the point where, if the book did not start to turn a profit, the Paolinis would have had to sell their house and take regular jobs in the city.

'It was a very stressful experience,' he says. 'I was fried. I couldn't have gone on for very much longer.' Then chance came to his rescue. Novelist Carl Hiaasen was on a fishing holiday in the area; his stepson saw the book in a shop, read it, loved it and showed it to Hiaasen who immediately contacted his publishers. Paolini's feet have barely touched the ground since.
In my opinion, the Time article has an overly optimistic tone with respect to a novelist's chances for success in self-publishing. While I firmly believe self-publishing is a viable route for a non-fiction writer with a niche market, I think fiction writers have still not overcome the three biggest hurdles in self-publishing. I described these hurdles here in October of 2006:
(1) The need to develop a system to vet books for bookstores and libraries to ensure a quality product;
(2) The need to develop a system for marketing (just slapping a book on Amazon or eBay will not drive traffic to it); and
(3) The need to overcome a justly deserved reputation for publishing crap.
While I don't agree with Time's implicit recommendation to self-publish a novel, I DO agree with the article's assessment of the changing publishing market. This passage particularly caught my attention:
Old Publishing is stately, quality-controlled and relatively expensive. New Publishing is cheap, promiscuous and unconstrained by paper, money or institutional taste. If Old Publishing is, say, a tidy, well-maintained orchard, New Publishing is a riotous jungle: vast and trackless and chaotic, full of exquisite orchids and undiscovered treasures and a hell of a lot of noxious weeds.
Go here to read the entire article.

Go here to read my decision tree for deciding whether to self-publish.

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