I’ve been thinking more about author Barry Eisler’s blog series on self-publishing. As I seek to expand my own writing horizons beyond the games industry, it’s a question I have to ponder. Are we at the dawn of a brave new world where authors skip hand-in-hand over sunlit daisy fields, unshackled from the dead hand of big publishing? Or has a comet just hit the industry, requiring the survivors to adapt or die?
It’s been said that the best thing about the new technology is that anyone can get published. The worst thing? Anyone can get published. In the old model, publishing houses acted as gatekeepers, ensuring that only the very best work (in their own opinions – your mileage may vary) got before the eyes of the reading public. Now that technology offers a way around the gatekeepers, there’s going to be a lot of material clamoring for the reader’s attention. It will be of all levels of quality, and almost completely undifferentiated. Members of some discussion groups on LinkedIn and elsewhere are already starting to fret about a coming “sea of crap” that may make the reading public throw up its hands and stop looking for new authors altogether. Some have a touching faith that quality will stand out. We’ll see.
In any case, the authors who will succeed in this environment will be those who can stand out from the mass of self-published material. If authors self-publish they take on all responsibility for marketing, and for many that will be less of a learning curve and more of a learning cliff.
Social networking is being touted as one way – some say the way – to reach and build a readership. But if you’ve just published a book and no one has heard of you, why will they flock to connect? How many Facebook contacts do you have at the moment? If each and every one of them bought one copy of your work, would you make enough to sustain yourself? And how would you reach people who don’t already know you? “Buy my new e-book” spam, alongside guaranteed Canadian pharmaceuticals and sure-fire male enhancement products? The mind reels.
Let’s think about how readers discover new authors. Marketing is one way, word of mouth is another, and these both work for e-books just as well as they do for dead-tree books. However, browsing in a bookstore does not. Ever tried browsing through a book retail web site? They are much more geared to searches for books and authors the customer already knows, and the “other products you may like” functions can’t match the experience of wandering a favorite bookstore, latte in hand, flipping through things that look interesting. There’s a reason for the coffee shop and all those comfy chairs. They help sell books. And in all honesty, what proportion of Amazon’s customers goes there to browse, anyway?
The new technology provides a production solution that is much cheaper than the previous “vanity publishing” route. An e-book costs little or nothing to produce once it has been written, although let’s be honest, a printed book is still a pleasing thing to hold and read. However, the publishers’ marketing and distribution functions remain. And by “distribution” in this context I mean the process of making the work available in places where customers go, and doing so in such a way that customers will notice it. Arguably that is part of marketing, but I wanted to make that distinction.
Any author who wants to self-publish will need to learn how to handle marketing and distribution for themselves, and to do them as well as – if not better than – the publishing houses do currently. Some will, I’m sure, but many more will find they lack one or more of the time, the expertise, and the inclination. I, for one, would rather spend time writing than marketing, or learning to market. That keeps the door open for those traditional publishers that can keep up with the paradigm shift, and for newer “e-publishers” and service houses to whom authors can outsource these functions, along with tasks like editing and file conversion. I expect to see the latter popping up like mushrooms any time soon. Remember, the real money in the 19th century gold rushes was made by the folks selling picks and shovels.
So as you can tell, I’m still undecided about self-publishing. Right now the only thing I do know is that I can’t affort to ignore it.