Every so often authors immersed in the traditional world of publishing pop their heads above the precipice and make grandiose statements about independent publishing, the retail book trade, and, in particular, self-publishing and self-published authors. Garrison Keillor tried it prior to Book Expo 2010 with an article for the New York Times, and last summer Sue Grafton tried her hand at making sweeping statements on a subject she later graciously conceded she knew little about. To her credit, Grafton did spend time following her comments to LouisvilleKY.com taking to self-published authors and learning far more about the subject. Neil Gaiman regularly speaks about the future of publishing and the growth of self-publishing, and while I don’t always agree with his opinions, he is always someone I’d cross the street to listen to when he does. Gaiman spoke about these topics recently during the Digital Minds Conference at the London Book Fair.
Orange Prize-winner Ann Patchett is the latest author to share her wisdom on publishing and the use of self-publishing services by authors. Patchett is a globally successful and award-winning novelist and has published books with HarperCollins and Bloomsbury. Patchett has recently published an essay entitled, The Bookshop Strikes Back, detailing her experiences after she opened an independent bookshop in Nashville. This week she spoke to The Bookseller magazine and shared her views on the traditional book industry and self-publishing. Patchett is concerned that self-published authors who pass on traditional publishing deals and use self-publishing services in an effort to “cut out the middle man” are potentially compromising their work by not using professional services. Patchett expressed concerns to The Bookseller that authors are not always taking a responsible role in the industry (believing they can make more money through self-publishing) and readers should not just purchase books from the cheapest retail channel because that threatens the survival of local independent bookshops.
Speaking to The Bookseller, Patchett goes on to say:
“If you had asked me two years ago, I would not have thought it was my responsibility. But I do think authors need to get involved with all sort of aspects of publishing and health of the publishing industry. This is not every man working for themselves, we need to think and work as a business. Authors have been protected for a long time, we are very well cared for, but we need to think about our other partners, from bookshops to publishing and self-publishing.”
I love Ms. Patchett’s phrase ‘Authors have been protected for a long time, we are well cared for,’ while not exactly explaining what publishers are protecting authors from. I’d hazard the only thing publishers are protecting is their business and bottom lines through investment and risk aversion at the end of every year, and the only people in the industry who can lay claim to running a ‘protection racket’ for authors are agents. Agents would be the first to advise us that their business is protecting the author from the vagaries of the commercial publishing contract!
Directly addressing the subject of self-publishing, she goes on to say:
“There are people who want to put books on Amazon because they cannot get publishing deals and that is understandable. But there are some authors who could get published in the mainstream but because they are trying to make more money, they think the best way is to self publish. They are cutting out the middle man whose services they really need, such as the editor and the publicist.”
There is no doubt that traditional publishing channels can offer expertise and distribution resources that self-publishing channels still find difficult to penetrate, but yet again we have another author speaking from within the traditional industry, albeit with experience of running an independent bookshop, trying to suggest that the woes and challenges facing the industry—at least some of them—lie squarely with authors and readers, the two marginalised protagonists existing at opposite extremes of the traditional industry and also divided by it. While I applaud Patchett’s defence of independent local bookshops and her wish to see them prosper and survive by publishing’s 2020 mark, she is so utterly off the mark when it comes to responsibilities to the traditional publishing industry.
Certainly any author—whether solely self-published or migrating to some form of independent publishing—should make it his or her business to understand how the industry works, but the very existence and relevance of the traditional publishing industry is not and should not be the author’s concern. The only way it will ever become a concern of authors is when the vast majority feel they have a valued place at the grand table of publishing. Authors new and established no longer have one avenue of participation, and are free to engage the professional services of editors, designers and publicist. If an author chooses to contract the services of a poor provider or entirely omits vital services for the professional publication of their book, then this is down to their valued choice or simply sheer ignorance, and not a general characteristic of self-publishing itself.
For readers, they will always migrate to the channel that provides the greatest choice and quality at the cheapest price-point. That’s not a transgression aimed deliberately at crushing the independent bookshop (or bringing about the downfall of the big publisher), no more than most authors who choose to migrate to self-publishing are throwing daggers in the direction of traditional publishers. In fact what The Bookseller article does allude to is the migration of established authors to alternative paths of publication, often combining traditional publication with independent e-publication. You can certainly bet this move by established authors working within the traditional publishing machine is motivated by better earnings as a writer, improved contract terms, and these authors are not the ones skimping on vital professional services. The vast majority of self-published authors, who continue to pursue the independent approach, do so not out of financial greed, but an unwillingness to work with an established system they perceive as being elitist, time-consuming, protected and closed to only a select few.
Even after all the challenges and changes in the book industry over the past ten years, there is still an inbuilt intransigence within the traditional publishing industry to take responsibility for its own destiny, preferring instead to load blame on new technology giants, opportunistic retail and distribution channels, and in recent years, authors and readers. It is no wonder the relevance of the mainstream industry is becoming more isolated, usurped and dictated to by its commercial partners.
One of the most insightful comments under The Bookseller article on Patchett’s opinions is this one from J Kenton Pierce:
“If a gate is slammed in my face, is it my responsibility to come back and paint it when I’ve found another gate, or built myself a ladder? I’m not a Bitter Rejectee, mind you… I’ve only recently started submitting, and I’ve got stuff in submission status I’ve very high hopes for with an Indie Publisher that I really, really think would make a good home for my main body of work… so I’m no “opponent” of Publishing. I can see the potential benefits of traditional, indie, and self-publishing. It’s just that this “rally to the gatekeepers, all for one and one for all, we’re all in this together now that we’re losing relevance, God save the Queen!” just isn’t tickling my giggler.”
I’ll raise a glass to you this weekend, J. Kenton Pierce, in the hope and desires of Ms. Patchett, that perhaps we all can work together for better books rather than just one established guest late to the tea-party.