As you may or may not know, the publishing industry is in convulsions. A business model forged in the fires of the Great Depression is now hopelessly out-of-date, but is so entrenched that it will take dynamite to move it.
And dynamite is what it's getting. The digital revolution combined with the economic situation is a pretty formidable double-whammy. While the music industry got blasted into the air a number of years ago (the dust is still falling from the skies and its new shape is starting to be visible), the book industry managed to duck most of the impact, primarily because very few people wanted to read book-length text on a computer screen. It's hard on the eyes and there are too many distractions. Amazon and mega-bookstores did change the rules a bit, but mainly for retailers and publishers.
But the recent successes of the Kindle and the Sony Reader are starting to shake things up for readers as well. And if they follow the well-worn path of electronic innovations and drop their prices significantly over the next few years, the impact will be seismic.
So what has this got to do with self-publishing?
Simple. The rules are changing. Self-publishing is looking ever more attractive. The traditional advantages of traditional publishers are eroding.
The first advantage was distribution. The publisher - not the author - did the hard work of trying to get the book into actual stores. This is still true. But the advent of new technologies makes it a less wonderful advantage. Print-on-demand technology and digital distribution are making a physical presence in a physical store less necessary than it has been in the past. And if present trends continue, this advantage will continue to shrink.
The second advantage was marketing. A publisher would - in theory - take on the publicity responsibilities and do everything in its power to make sure the book sold. (Is that the sound of cynical laughter I hear?) In actual fact, that is now rarely true. Blogs and social networks have become the most effective way of marketing books and authors are generally expected to work these angles on their own. They are often exhorted to plow their advances back into their own publicity: publishers are too busy with the spaghetti strategy: throw a whole bunch of books at the wall and see what sticks. More and more writers are wondering what the point of signing with a publishing house is if so much of the hard work is left to the writer anyway. If you're not one of your publisher's A-list authors, this advantage has pretty much ceased to exist. (Some of the agents I am querying want to know my marketing vision right in the query letter. What does that tell you?)
The third advantage is editing. This one really matters too. But so many editors have been laid off, the survivors are dizzy with fatigue, trying to handle the workload of two or three people. How much time and energy are they really able to put into a book nowadays? A self-published author can also hire a free-lance editor to do the work, although that obviously means a financial outlay.
The fourth advantage is credibility. This one is a doozy. What if every kid that auditioned for American Idol set up a page on iTunes and released their basement-recorded singles? That's pretty much what you're facing as a reader in the self-published world. How much dreck do you want to wade through to find the rare voice worth listening to? How many dreadful books do you want to read before you find a good one?
Yet even that is not an insurmountable problem. A savvy author who knows how to generate word-of-mouth publicity and who posts an excerpt or two online might be able to do an end-run around the credibility issue. And with a good-looking website selling digital downloads, it could be done without the financial risks of publishing hardcopy books.
I'm still thinking finding a publisher is preferable, but to be honest, I'm going to be looking very hard at what they're offering in terms of editing and publicity. Because if they don't offer much in that department, it's hard to see the advantage to me of signing up with them.
What do you think? If you're a writer, under what circumstances would you self-publish? If you're a reader, under what circumstances would you buy a self-published book? If you're an industry insider, is there something important I'm missing here?
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