(First in a series of articles about the rapidly changing book-publishing industry.)
There are a lot of chickens running around these days trying to convince us that the literary sky is falling—and that if we don’t somehow find a way to slow or at least manage the digitization of book publishing, good writing is going to disappear forever.
Well, guess what, kids and pundits? You can stop reading (and writing) those articles, and you can also stop debating the issue: the traditional world of books has already all but vanished, and it isn’t coming back.
And guess what else? Writers and readers have begun to realize that the sky was not falling after all: what collapsed and shattered was only a glass ceiling.
While these are desperate times for most publishers, booksellers and agents, they represent the dawn of a new era for writers and readers (not to mention editors, publicists, book designers, and those bloggers who write coherent book reviews). After hundreds of years of trying to wrestle our way into (and then survive) uneasy alliances with the publishing industry, writers have—with no real effort on our parts—been unshackled, unbound and freed.
Almost overnight (at least in story-telling years), an entire infrastructure of walls and ceilings that prevented us from reaching our intended audiences have simply fallen away. Suddenly, unexpectedly, fantastically, we find ourselves with room to soar. No longer are we merely the authors of our books: we have become the authors of our destinies as well.
I have been writing fiction and nonfiction, both short and book-length, for thirty years. I have published four books with established presses and hundreds of articles and short stories in books, magazines and journals. Despite the good experiences I have had with various established presses, and the knowledge about book publishing I have gained by working as an editor and editor in chief with traditional publishing houses, I have never been more excited about the future of our art form—and our industry—than I am right now . . . in fact, I find myself almost unable to get my head around the endless possibilities that lie before us. (Think product placement on your cover as a way to subsidize production and guarantee some sales: ”There are no sacred spaces left” – Morgan Spurlock, Director, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.)
A whole host of components of the traditional book-business continuum are being dramatically altered as the literary landscape changes, raising challenges (and opportunities) that include:
- how readers will find outstanding writing in the growing pile of crap that is being published every day;
- how to outsource the contributions that quality publishing houses have traditionally made to the book-production process (from pre-selection to editorial intervention to design to promotion, and more);
- how writing awards, prizes, grants and reviews will be managed in a world where not only new writers but also those with strong track records are choosing to publish their own books (see, for example, Dean Wesley Smith and Barry Eisler;
- why the future is still as bright as ever (whatever that means) for niche publishers and small literary presses;
- why it is ridiculous to think that only rich people will be able to afford to self-publish.
Over the next several blog posts, I will deal with these and related issues in detail. I will also talk about the upsides of independent publishing—such as the significantly higher proportion of the cover price writers receive on each sold copy of their books, and their ability to get their out-of-print books back on the market cheaply and easily.
To whet your appetite, here’s a rundown of some of the benefits I see for independently published writers (and their readers):
- Elimination of the gatekeeping role of agents, and of those acquisitions editors who are required to get approval from the sales department before they make book selections;
- Higher royalties paid to self-published authors (50% or more compared to the traditional 10%);
- Expanded marketing opportunities (nobody knows a book like the author does);
- Instantaneous reports on sales and royalties;
- Creative input by authors re: book covers and layout;
- Copies of books and reprints when you need them instead of when the system can afford to spit them out;
- Inventive co-publishing opportunities;
- The ability to do short-run publications of such books as memoirs intended only to be read by family and friends without having to store 500 copies in your basement—and the capacity to fulfil orders when your memoir suddenly goes viral.
In the post that launched The Militant Writer blog, “The Talent Killers: How Literary Agents Are Destroying Literature and What Publishers Can Do to Stop Them,” I managed to alienate most of the literary agents on the continent — not to mention the acolytes who’d been hoping to snag said agents as their representatives. This time I’m likely to incur the wrath of publishers and booksellers.
Aside from not really wanting to antagonize people in these fields who are my friends, I’m not concerned about that. Nor am I worried about the comments I’m sure I’ll get again from people who will warn me that I am shooting myself in both feet — that no publisher will ever take my books after what I’ve written here, and no booksellers will stock my titles.
I am now preparing to self-publish my next novel, The Whole Clove Diet. I assure you that if the book sells well, publishers will be asking me for the opportunity to re-publish, agents will be sending me emails inquiring about representation, and booksellers will be making exceptions regarding their policy re: stocking at least one self-published book.
And if my book doesn’t sell like hotcakes: well, at least it will be out there—which it is not right now-—and I will be free to move on to my next book.
I no longer need the publishers, or the agents, or the booksellers.
Neither do you.