Over the weekend, NPR was the latest news organization to see the iPad as the latest hook for the ongoing story about self-publishing (“iPad Could Help Self-Publishers Kick Open Doors,” by Laura Sydell). But, after speculating that the iPad’s fabulous full-color screen will make e-books sexy again, it’s pretty much the same story as usual: self-publishing gives authors a way to reach their audience without the intervention of those pesky New York publishers — and, sometimes, make way more money than they could have with a traditional publishing contract.
The authors cited are San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford, tech writer Tim Chou, and National Book Award finalist John Edgar Wideman, whose ISBN-free short-story collection, Briefs, is today’s Review of the Day on Booklist Online.
For writers who already have a wide audience and the means to reach that audience, self-publishing makes a lot more sense. But, unless they have a hot idea, good writing chops, and the time and ability to promote their work relentlessly, unknown writers are still likely to do better with the promotional apparatus of traditional publishers, even if marketing money is tighter than it once was. This is especially true in fiction: with traditional publishers and, yes, traditional review sources under siege, it’s getting harder to cut through the crap.
Interestingly, two of the most-heard complaints in stories like these are that publishers don’t shell out like they used to for fancy lunches and fancy hotels. But wouldn’t we castigate them if they weren’t making these appropriate responses to challenging economic times? And few self-published authors, it seems, really dream of staying self-published — after all, publishing is a lot of work, and writing is a lot more fun.
For all the value that I think traditional publishers provide, I do think they need to be thinking more boldly in order to compete with the groundswell of enthusiasm for doing it yourself. How will they do that? One way, perhaps, is to combat a perception voiced here by Lulu.com’s CEO Bob Young:
“If the Internet, as a medium, allows us to connect each of us with everyone else, why, as an author, can’t I get my book to my audience without having to ask the permission of the publishing industry?”
Publishers should not accept the B-movie casting as snooty gatekeepers but should strive to be seen as champions of the best books and authors. This will mean doing things differently, but it will be essential if they want to recapture writers’ and readers’ goodwill.
Another perception, voiced by consultant Michael Shatzkin, is that “The biggest thing that a publisher provides is the ability to put physical books on bookstore shelves.” That’s more true than it used to be, unfortunately. But what if publishers give themselves the role of finding and grooming talented writers — and then staying loyal to them when their first books aren’t bestsellers? To contributing resources and, crucially, enthusiasm to the world of books and letters? And, of course, to trimming wasteful spending practices when they do exist, in order to embrace dynamic new opportunities as they arise.
Personally, I think publishers could do a lot simply by publishing fewer books and allotting more resources to those books. Careful editing does make books better — a lot better — but even big publishers often do so little of it that they can’t claim much of an advantage over self-publishers. And, finally, it wouldn’t hurt to stop throwing money at the bestseller bait that is here today and remaindered tomorrow, either. A writer who publishes 20 modestly profitable books over a career should be seen as a greater asset than a politician’s girlfriend who dictates a salacious memoir.