During the last few months of 2012, there has been a great deal of discussion among authors, as well as the wider publishing media, about the role of self-publishing within the mainstream industry. While some have reported the successes of self-published authors like Colleen Hoover, Bella Andre, and Samantha Young during 2012—and the moves by some large publishing houses to develop self-publishing imprints—as a positive sign that old stigmas have fallen by the wayside (that not all self-published titles are poorly written hogwash; that an author should never pay any third-party to be published; that the industry should hold dear to the rigid philosophy of money always flowing to the author; that the self-publishing boom is grossly skewed by e-publishing), much of the deeper analysis has been anything but positive.
The perennial arguments as to why self-publishing is bad for mainstream publishing have always centred around some basic points; the fact that modern self-publishing brings with it a dearth of poorly written and produced books rushed to publication through a growing channel of providers focused on speed and ease to market; and that most of the books published by authors are bereft of the sacred touch of professional curators and gatekeepers. While some of this this might be a broad generalisation—despite recent years heralding the arrival of the savvy independent authors armed with professional support and marketing nous—the negative view is still the overriding perception within the industry.
You could be forgiven for believing that the loudest voices of any deep analysis emanates from the mainstream industry’s hierarchy—CEO’s of publishers and book retailers. Yet, the strongest and loudest critics of where self-publishing is taking its place in the greater industry today comes from advocates of self-publishing itself. Perplexed? Well, there are crucial reasons which might help to explain this.
The real two game-changing events in 2012 happened when the Pearson Group, owners of Penguin books and one of the most historical publishing brands in the book industry, purchased the self-publishing provider goliath, Author Solutions (ASI), and then Simon & Schuster launched a self-publishing imprint in partnership with ASI. Of course, a mainstream publisher launching a self-publishing imprint is nothing new. In fact Penguin launched its self-publishing imprint almost two years ago with an imprint called Book Country (an in-house project), and the practice dates as far back as 2009, when within weeks, both Harlequin and Thomas Nelson launched its imprints (in partnership and powered by ASI). There are now more than a dozen similar imprints operating within the mainstream industry, with many more to emerge during 2013, and ASI is often in the thick of many of these self-publishing imprints.
I’m all for criticism and analysis of self-publishing and its meteoric rise in popularity with authors as an alternative path, and how the industry is dealing with self-publishing and the intertwined challenge of digital publishing—just as long as the criticism and analysis is constructive. However, much of the recent discussion has been anything but constructive. I’m all for informed debate, platforms and forums to provide writers with as much advice and guidance as possible on their paths to publication. It is one of the reasons I founded The Independent Publishing Magazine. But where I do baulk is when that analysis and information is presented to writers and the self-publishing community as unbiased advice, and yet is actually driven by an agenda set up to ridicule and demonise certain self-publishing providers. Its purpose seems to be to create an almost Masonic moral hierarchy between self-published authors who opt to use so-called self-publishing companies or providers, and those who opt to set up their own publishing imprints—or what is sometimes referred to as true self-publishing. We are also starting to see a similar hierarchy adopted by established authors in regards to traditional publishers running self-publishing imprints in opposition to those publishers that have yet to sully their name with such a venture.
We appear to be in the midst of some sort of power struggle on many fronts, within the industry and within the author community itself. Just like the burgeoning ranks of self-publishing, there is a growing band of modern experts offering services, writing courses, video tutorials, marketing miracles and how-to books—some with a single published book and limited self-publishing experience under their belts. I’m not sure whether this power struggle is fuelled by naivety, stupidity, greed, or just an arrogant mummy-knows-best attitude. What I am sure of is that it is not helping writers and published authors make properly balanced and informed choices. If anything, these experts are just as responsible for the misinformation about self-publishing and how the publishing industry is dealing with it as a whole as the dishonest and damaging misinformation put out by the poorest scam publishing services and vanity publishers in existence.
Here are just some of those lies pedalled by some so-called publishing experts:
Ø You can successfully publish on a shoestring budget using free or cheap online services like CreateSpace, Lulu or Smashwords. You can certainly publish a book with services like these, but success is measured by the author’s expectations, not the expert’s expectations. A good book starts out as a well-written book and then becomes a professionally edited and designed book. Success always has a price. Services like these can be a part of publishing a book. They are not the be-and-end-all of publishing one.
Ø You can reach your readership by just e-publishing alone. You can’t and you won’t! Unless your entire readership has access to e-reading devices and PC’s and this is their preferred deliver and reading option. Despite what you are hearing from experts, paper book products remain the dominate choice for readers. Don’t allow experts and providers of self-publishing services to delude you into believing almost all online sales of book products are digital-only downloads. They are not, and not by a very long way, and they won’t be for some time, if ever. The latest e-book sales figures from 4th quarter 2012 are actually suggesting a significant growth reduction on the figures of the past two years.
Ø You don’t need conventional marketing and promotion to reach your readership. Again, highly misleading and designed to suggest that social media marketing has trumped traditional marketing. It has not, though social media marketing does deliver speed and the ability to target potential customers by interaction and community. Social media marketing works extremely well when augmented with traditional marketing. It is not an alternative to traditional marketing and advertising and when used on its own in the hands of an unprofessional person, it can lead to a scatter-gun approach or just outright spam.
Ø Agents and publishers are a waste of time.Really! Go ask self-published poster girls and boys like Amanda Hocking and Jeff Rivera about why they have agents, and why so many successfully self-published authors move to mainstream publishers. Then ask yourself how is it possible to be both successful and a self-published author at the same time.
Ø Self-publishing is a replacement or the whole future of publishing. It is not. It is and will continue for some time to be a fundamental part of the industry, but it remains, on the whole, an alternative route with limitations in quality, marketing and distribution. This could and should change, but it will only come about with the help of the greater industry, and not from authors alone as a community.
Ø You can self-publish; oversee the editing, design, printing, marketing, promotion, distribution, as well as publicly representing yourself as an author to the media and your readers in a competitive book industry, and find time to write all the books you want to right. Pretty unlikely, considering most full time writers can’t achieve that with a traditional publisher and agent. Stop kidding yourself. Even a professional needs professional support.
Ø Publishing books is also a way of making money and improving your self-esteem. Unfortunately, self-publishing has become another victim of marketing entrepreneurs and get-rich-quick schemes from scamsters trying to demonstrate how, with a weekend course costing $500, you can teach anyone to write great stories or proofread for money. Your words should have value to you first before you try to share and help others. Your words should never register monetary value the moment they hit the page. If they do, you are either a celebrity in another life or you are simply deluding yourself.
Apart from bolstering already stated agendas, the debate and argument over the arrival of self-publishing with the mainstream industry has actually done nothing to progress the future of publishing—other than present a series of polarised views. Mark Coker of Smashwords and Mike Shatzkin of Idealogic did, at least during 2012, add something extra to the debate, and in a constructive way. Coker lamented the move by Simon & Schuster to launch Archway Publishing with ASI, its self-publishing imprint, as another lost opportunity for mainstream publishers to turn the explosive rise in self-publishing into something more than a simple revenue stream. Shatzkin, dealing with the issue from the perspective of mainstream publishers, at least put forward the reality of publishers as content providers within the trade, and not just demonised money and rights grabbers.
So many of the publishing experts I talked about earlier are quick and right to point out that self-publishing is also a business for authors. And yet, many seem so quick to forget this detail when considering the position of the publishing industry as of today. What is good for the author’s goose does not seem so good for the publishing gander. The good and bold in the self-publishing community (expert self-published authors, bloggers and publishing service consultants) cannot both educate and at the same time try to ridicule authors for not being savvy and business minded about their forays into self-publishing. And all the while, the same experts are taking such a principled and moral high ground when it comes to publishers in the established industry launching self-publishing imprints. Publishing was a business long before the art of self-publishing for vanity ever was. There is a deep underplay of do as I say and not as I do (or my community) at work here. I don’t like it one bit.
“Supermarkets tell publishers what price to sell at, how many copies to print, what to put on the cover, what to call books and even what to put inside them.”
There is an honest endeavour to challenge publishers as to how they value creativity and treat authors well, but that endeavour is also underlined by a deep naivety at times—the same naivety leading many authors into publishing service solutions like ASI—the very path ALLi might rail against. There is no doubt ASI is selling overpriced services to authors and ALLi only want to offer Partner Membership to approved solutions services (individuals or companies) operating ethically and with bespoke services. But the above quote doesn’t do anyone any good, because it also presents a much polarised view of traditional publishers as anti-author and controlled by soulless marketers. Certainly, publishers have allowed themselves to be a slave to large supermarket and bookstore chains on pricing and discounting with wholesalers and distributors, but the real killer for years in the industry is large consignment deals and returns. To suggest publishers are so in the pocket of retailers that they are dictated to on cover design, title and content is somewhat absurd. Publishers may be far too conscious of marketing trends and editors can be too keen to adopt winning formulas with the book buying public, but stretching an initially valid argument to an extreme is somewhat pointless. The ALLi piece continues:
“It may be an exaggeration to say, as Michael Levin’s recent HuffPo article claimed, that publishers hate authors but it is certainly true that publishing executives and editors do not view writers as equal partners in the publishing process.”
The truth is that publishers never viewed, nor pretended that the writer/publisher relationship was or is equal.
“Why, for example, is the writer of the book the very last person the marketing team would allow at their table when deciding how to reach readers?”
While there might be a valid reason for authors to be more involved in the marketing push of a book, the reality is that publishers sell books to book retailers—not readers or authors! Again, the sentiments of the ALLI piece are admirable, but inherently flawed. Right now, the industry’s immediate task is to wrestle back the control ceded to retailers and deal with the challenges of digitisation and new players in the field, not clean up the ethical issues rampant within the self-publishing world so as to provide a shiny new image for it now that old stigmas and prejudices are falling away. The onus remains with self-publishing providers to rise to the challenge and be a part of the publishing industry.
There is also an interesting comment by David Thornhill-Thompson under the ALLi piece, and I think it demonstrates the skewed view we can sometimes have of traditional publishers.
“The future is no longer in the hands of a small number of prestige ‘houses’ who use their exclusive power to create bestsellers…”
The comment draws on the same them-and-us emotive charge within the core of the ALLi piece. He seems to view ‘prestige’ publishers as holding a divine x-factor touch on titles published. I don’t think any marketing executive or their sales staff would suggest they are empowered with any Midas touch to create a bestseller, and for every single bestseller, publishers have countless bummers.
But here is my biggest beef with the ALLi article and with many articles now emanating from the self-publishing community. It attempts to align itself to a very specific type of self-publishing—that of true self-publishing, where the author sets up his/her own imprint and contracts individual services as needed on a bespoke basis, dealing with one or two individuals or companies, or a multiple of editors, designers, printers, e-book specialist and distributors. That might suit someone with sound business acumen and the will and time to turn their writing ventures into a full or part-time publishing business, but the reality is the vast majority of authors want to write and not become small publishing presses. If any expert or analyst of the self-publishing arena takes this view, then they are immediately disenfranchising a great many writers and adopting a very narrow view of what self-publishing represents today. Aspiring and seasoned authors—put off by the constraints of the mainstream publishing industry—consistently tell me, day in-day out, that they don’t want to become publishers, they want to be authors, and if they are willing to pay for publishing services, they want them in one place and with one provider. Writers inherently want to write, and they begin with that aspiration, whether they self-publish, secure a literary agent or a traditional publisher.
Much of the ALLi article by Orna Ross was fuelled by the decision by Simon & Schuster to go into partnership with ASI to launch its self-publishing imprint. Like many other articles written on the subject, it focuses on the poor reputation ASI has in the self-publishing community because of its ‘exorbitant and problematic service provision,’ but does little to examine why mainstream publishers continue to enter partnerships with this self-publishing goliath. I’m not going to re-explore the reasons for this here because I have already covered it extensively in other articles. Suffice to say that there are few other publishing providers as large and with such a developed publishing engine—built specifically to fit the needs of global B2B full publishing services—which could suit the needs of a large mainstream publisher, or without the publisher investing and developing something in-house. I can only think of Amazon or Smashwords, maybe even Kobo, that could even come close to what is required. I guess, ultimately it is also about how you use that engine once you have the keys.
Interestingly, Mark Coker of Smashwords, offered a more constructive view in this debate, recently describing Simon & Schuster’s partnership with ASI as a ‘missed opportunity’ by a publisher. Indeed, Coker, as always, is on the button. We need to move beyond silly polarisations in the industry and start to look to how self-publishing should be used.
And that is where the second part of this article will begin…