Thursday, March 17, 2011

The New Paradigm in Publishing

(Cross-posted from The Spectral Obelisk for newcomers)

Used to be, only idiots self-published. I know I was against it. Vehemently against it. The only people who self-published were delusional, furtive little creatures, the kind who show up at writer's conferences with their scrawled and dog-eared manuscripts clutched in their sweaty paws, wanting someone, anyone to tell them, "You're a genius!"

When that unlikely event failed to occur, there was always the vanity presses, waiting like snake-oil salesmen in the backs of their shabby carnival wagons, doling out self-labeled bottles of misplaced self-esteem. It was a step up from hermits cranking out mimeographed pages in their parent's basement and forcing them onto hapless passers-by, but not by much. Every once in a while there was a success story like Robert James Waller, proving that it could be done. Why, one minute he was a failed writer and the next minute Clint Eastwood was speaking his words on the big screen! Ah, but that ignored the thousands of dollars and hours and miles Waller had to put in before he sold his first book. And even then, you have to factor in luck. Luck had a lot to do with it.

Well, the days of investing your life's savings in a crate of books, packing them in the rumble seat of your jalopy and heading out on a whistlestop tour of the byways are over. Way over.

Now, it costs you next to nothing. You don't have to quit your day job or save up sick days. You can do it all from the comfort of your home for pennies. And most importantly, it no longer matters if you self-publish. The leper colonies have shut down and self-published people can walk out among decent society without having to disguise themselves.

Ah, I've made it sound so effortless, so tantalizing! Why, I can just publish my masterpiece and readers will intuitively find me and realize my magnificent work! Er, no.

There are still two unavoidable facts that hold true and will always hold true. One, your work has to be good, and I mean good enough to pass the same muster as a book from a big publisher. I've been looking and north of 80% of self-published fiction is a hot mess. That's a non-scientific number, but it's not far off and bound to only increase as writers realize the possibilities and throw their overripe bait out into the water. Underdeveloped writers are going to stop working to get better, and hopeless writers are going to be able to publish unreadable dreck. You see, the problem with removing the gatekeepers of quality is you've leveled the playing field to a point where it's going to be flooded with people who have no idea what they're doing. On the up side, if you're good and smart and tenacious and work your butt off doing what you need to do, you have a good chance of doing at least as well as you would do with a traditional publisher, perhaps even better.

Fact number two has to do with working your butt off. If you bypass a traditional publisher, you still have to do everything a traditional publisher does. Your private publishing staff must include: beta readers, a copy editor, a proofreader, a cover designer/illustrator, a typesetter, a marketing strategist, a publicist, an IT expert/web designer, and a business manager. If you lack in any of those departments, you're apt to fail.

Now, if you're lucky and clever, you yourself may be able to fill many of those roles. You may have friends, acquaintances, and family that can fill some of those roles. Chances are, you'll have to hire some independent contractors or barter services to fill some of those roles. The truth is, you're likely at first to spend way more time marketing yourself than you do writing. And, boy, you better be a good writer to start off with, and willing to learn from your mistakes.

So, no, it's not easy, not by a far shot. But the publishing business is changing and I can't think of anything more exciting than that.

(Coming soon:  the myths of self-publishing versus legacy publishing.)

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