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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.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


5 Thoughts on "Self-Publishing Reinvents the Novel"

I agree, Kent, that the “real people” reviewers and Oprahs of the world are a much more important filter for potential readers. What I was more concerned with when I wrote the post is that authors have a way to verify, for their own sake, that their work has passed some threshold of quality. Before I make the effort, spend the time and spend the money that will be required to self-publish, I want to be as sure as a person can be that what I’ve created really justifies it. It’s always going to be something of a subjective call, of course, but it would be nice if there were some impartial entity that had an understanding of a book’s target demographic and could judge the book accordingly.

I’m working on another post that explores one other lesson that self-published writers might learn from the scholarly publishing world. In trying to answer the question of whether a self-published writer should give his work away for free (for a limited period of time) in an attempt to build up an audience, I’m going to take a look at the “free for a few years” strategy that some newly launched journals use. Should have that one up next week.

I agree that success isn’t necessarily defined by moving up the publishing ladder, but if that were to happen more frequently it would legitimize self-publishing further and self-publishing would lose its stigma.

Even if self-publishing proves its worth by finding readers, it’s still so much harder to find an audience – no matter the book’s worth – as books are generally online-only. So it’s a kind of last resort, but a totally valid avenue, given the current climate.

I think an author’s decision re self-publishing really comes down to motivation.

If you are writing because you want to see your name in lights, then you will want a traditional publishing house with an agent and the whole works (similarly, in scholarly publishing, you will want to publish in a high-impact journal).

But if you are writing because you just want someone–anyone–to read your words, then the message outweighs the medium and you might as well post it on your own Web site for free, forever.

My comment follows closely to the first posted.

As a fellow struggling author, I am also dealing with not only the insanity-inspiring process of searching out an agent, while at the same time wondering if, by the time I get a book published, there will even still be book publishing.

The problem I see with self-publishing being the next incarnation is, as David says above, quality control. Nine years ago, I got fed up with the search for agents (one having ripped me off already) and decided to self-publish. In my mind, I thought it was ready and went for it.

I ended up making the money back on the publishing itself, with a little extra, but within the past couple of years happened across the book on my shelf and flipped through it, becoming immediately embarrassed by it.

Writing is an evolutionary craft with every style and voice taking years to develop. Between then and now, that became obvious and I quickly set out to rewrite the entire book. I am currently on the first edit after the rewrite and luckily, as one benefit to self-publishing, own the rights so can replace the old with the new when it is ready.

Traditional publishing has its merits in that the rejection process, while cold and heartless, allows authors to develop and learn to improve their work before it is too late. Yes, that is something of a contradiction as I just proved that, with self-publishing, it is never too late. However, if the industry goes to this and authors are allowed to replace their books on a whim, we’ll possibly end up with a world where either authors are no longer prolific (no one will ever let their work rest) or the readers lose their trust that buying a book means buying the actual story, not just this version of it.

Granted, mine may be a unique experience and everyone else would be a better judge of their own writing from the beginning, but looking at and reading some of the self-published books out there makes me a fervent believer in the world of agents and traditional publishers…quality control.

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