A lot of great comments have been flying around on my two previous self-publishing posts (post 1, post 2). And a lot of great points have been brought up. There’s one last thing I really want to delve into on the subject of self-publishing. Let me be perfectly clear: I do not think publishing is perfect.
It is one thing to be published, it is another thing, entirely, to be published well. What does being “published well” mean? That you get in bookstores, that readers hear about your book, that you get both old school (print ads, radio) and new school (web, social) advertising and media attention, that you start building a brand, that you generate sales numbers, that you, ideally, earn out your advance (if any) and earn royalties (if any).
And I would say that not all books, by far, are published well. One of the biggest problems with traditional publishers is that far too many don’t give the books on their list the time or attention necessary to generate sales. It is not a secret that a push from the publisher in terms of publicity will correlate positively with a book’s relative success in the marketplace (even if, during the infamous DOJ trial, certain publishing executives claimed that a book’s success was entirely “random.” You know who you are and you’re an embarrassment.)
Publishers can definitely boost a book’s odds of being successful (though their powers are not mystical—sharp readers will still call out a bad book, even if it has a huge marketing budget). That begs the questions, though: Why don’t they do that for each book? Why publish a book if you can’t publish it well?
This is definitely one shortcoming of the traditional model, and one big frustration for everyone involved (agents, editors, and especially those authors who are slighted by this system). It’s not that publishers are purposefully withholding their marketing money or attention. It may look like that since, in recent years, marketing budgets have gotten smaller and smaller. (Some would argue that they no longer do book marketing for most books at all.)
There are fewer book tours and advertising placements, fewer book review opportunities and media appearances. Newspaper book review sections have shrunk down to (checks notes) single digits. The industry is changing. And houses publish many, many books. Not all of them have the same chances to reach a huge market. Publishing professionals always hope for the best, plan for the worst, and know that every product is a risk. (For more great thoughts on “What’s wrong with traditional publishing these days?” go over to Barry Lyga’s blog. He just did a really intelligent series on this topic.)
Traditional publishing is not a perfect system—far from it—but at least there are others on your team to advise and support. In self-publishing situations, more than traditional publishing, you are all aspects of a house. You are the writer, the editors, the designer, the printer, the sales force, the publicist, the marketer, the distributor. (Or you hire out these services freelance, at your own cost.) Successful traditionally published authors do wear some or most of these hats these days, but they do have contacts and channels for their outreach and promotion work through their houses.
So whether you’re using the traditional publishing machine or self-publishing resources, it’s not the tools that matter, it’s how you use them. In many industries where people are creating a product to sell to other people (at the end of the day, that’s what a book is), entrepreneurship is becoming more and more important. Since traditional publishers are putting less behind some of the books they publish, and since self-publishing is absolutely self-driven, all authors need to become more proactive about the products they create.
I don’t believe that traditional publishing is over. But I do firmly believe that the old days of the recluse genius sitting in some attic, who only writes and doesn’t do a lick of outreach or publicity, are gone. There are too many enthusiastic, driven people out there who will gladly talk about their products all over town. I don’t think you can afford—whether traditionally published or self-published—to shy away from promotion.
The marketplace and technology are showing the holes in traditional publishing. This industry is not, by any means, immune to the same upheaval as happened in the music business when digital music and iTunes came in. Traditional publishing needs to embrace new technologies and models of publishing instead of deny that they’re competition. Traditional publishing needs to bend in the direction of the future. But authors need to heed this warning, too. Take classes on book marketing. Start learning about publicity tools and how to use them. You can no longer rely entirely on your publishing-system-of-choice to get your book out there. Even if you are traditionally published, take a look at what self-published writers are doing. Adopt some of that entrepreneurial spirit. Find some of that dogged determination.
There are a great many thing to be learned from each side. Traditional publishing writers can learn the entrepreneurial zeal of self-published writers. Self-published writers can strive toward the same dedication to editorial and design quality that traditional publishers uphold (rather than using self-publishing in the way a small but vocal minority uses it … to shortcut around gatekeepers but without learning much about the craft or the business in the process).
Don’t rely solely on your publisher to publish you well. Never rest on your laurels and think your job as a writer, publicist, editor, marketer, book distributor, salesperson, etc., is done. Publishing is a career that’s passion-driven. Most people really don’t get into it for the riches or the acclaim. They get into it because they can’t do anything else. That should give you the right idea about work ethic. And whether you publish traditionally or you self-publish, I think that being published well should always be your goal and highest standard.