I recently wrote about my first attempt to self-publish a novel. The response, through blog comments and via private conversations and emails, indicated a strong interest in the topic, and a lot of frustration with the status quo.
This frustration is part of what is reshaping book publishing. In addition, the current economic downturn is throwing a harsh light on many other flaws (the consignment model, reliance on a few bestsellers, the high sunk costs of mass printing, shipping, and storage).
Lev Grossman of TIME magazine recently wrote an excellent piece on the trends in self-publishing and its rapidly escalating maturity as a viable, non-stigmatized way of getting a book out. As he puts it:
A lot of headlines and blogs to the contrary, publishing isn’t dying. But it is evolving, and so radically that we may hardly recognize it when it’s done. . . . [W]e’re living through one of the greatest economic and technological transformations since–well, since the early 18th century. The novel won’t stay the same: it has always been exquisitely sensitive to newness, hence the name. It’s about to renew itself again, into something cheaper, wilder, trashier, more democratic and more deliriously fertile than ever.
From Japanese cellphone novels to free PDF books online to self-published works to traditional works, literature and reading may be healthier than ever, even if the transformation of the underlying economic system leaves some carcasses (Borders considering bankruptcy, Barnes & Noble laying off employees for the first time in its history).
But Grossman’s view is limited. He more or less defines “success” as “securing a traditional publishing contract,” which only reinforces the view that self-publishing is second-class. He completely misses the growing number of self-publishers who have viable titles they won’t sell to traditional houses, or small publishing businesses authors are growing in niche markets, or hybrid publishing/consulting services based on an author’s special expertise.
This invites the question: Does a book need external validation to be viable? The Urban Elitist wonders whether there is a new form of peer-review possible in the upcoming self-publishing era to validate writers. It’s a fair question, but I think what self-publishing is showing is that the barriers to market are now low enough that the market and a variety of influencers in it (Amazon reviewers, Oprah, etc.) can act as a peer-reviewer on quality.
Today, however, the initial screen (agents, editors, publishers) often gets it wrong or misses talent. In the future, it will be less important, just like the large publishing houses, traditional contracts, and consignment publishing. It won’t go away, but it will be less dominant.
The Urban Elitist sums it up well:
If I were to publish my novel with a publisher, the book’s chances for success would be slim and would be entirely dependent upon my own actions. If I were to self-publish my novel, the book’s chances for success would still be slim and would still be entirely dependent upon my own actions. Therefore, I wonder, rather than spending potentially years searching for an agent and/or publisher, might I be wiser simply to self-publish and give it my best shot?
Methinks I smell change in the air.