Eight years ago (yikes!) I wrote a blog post about the publishing industry, self-published authors, and the massive chasm the lies between those two worlds. My opinion on ebooks has shifted a little since then, and I will admit, I've spent the last half decade (double yikes!) blinded by an industry that, eight years ago, had pissed me off by pushing me aside one too many times. Fast-forward to now and, oh, hello, fancy meeting you here.
Funny how that works, isn't it? Hindsight, as they say, is twenty-twenty. But because I've been on both sides of the fence, I'm going to share with you what I consider the pros and cons of both worlds.
This eight year old blog post was originally titled For the Love of Money: the Bad Book Boom. I'm going to cut and paste that post here. The original will be in italics, while my current thoughts will not. Because every so often, I simply need to have a conversation with my former self.
There's a serious stigma attached to self-published books. The general rule of thumb is that if an author needs to resort to self-publishing, that author shouldn't be published. If you can't score an agent and get a major book deal, you probably suck anyway.
Unfortunately, this stigma is still prevalent, even what, ten to fifteen years after the beginning of the self-publishing boom?
Traditional Publishing Pro: you get to tell all your friends and neighbors that you're a signed author with such-and-such major publishing house. And did you know they also publish (insert megastar author's name here)?
Self-Publishing Con: nobody wants to hear about your self-published novel. Because it's awkward. And also, they're afraid you're going to ask them to read it...and it. will. be. awful.
Yes, there are a lot of self-published books that suck. But hold on a second...
Look up any bestseller list today and you'll see something kind of funny. That list is no longer made up of the Hugo's and Nabokov's of the world. Then again, who's to say that Nicole 'Snooki' Polizzi isn't the literary genius of her day?
Ah, Snooki. Remember her? Well, now you do.
Traditional Publishing Con: even though you're now a signed author, you're not the only fish in the sea. As a matter of fact, there are many, many fish, all of which are bigger than you. There's even a fish named Snooki, and she will outsell that great American novel you've spent the last twelve years of your life writing with her book about how to pair spandex with cheetah print that she herself has not written, nor has even read.
Self-Publishing Pro: you are your own champion, and you literally do not have to compete with anyone for attention. Because you are the center of the goddamn universe.
That's right, that big bad publishing industry that turns away writer after good writer and story after solid story are publishing the likes of the Jersey Shore. These masterpieces are chock full of information on how to pick up steroid-loving gym rats and how to get famous without, well... doing anything. These books are starting to fill up the shelves of bookstores, daring to share the same shelf with Pulitzer Prize winners and novels of genuine merit. And the publishers are okay with that. Hell, the publisher's love it.
My anger and annoyance toward the publishing industry really comes out in that above paragraph, doesn't it? And rightfully so. Those Jersey Shore-type books are still selling like gangbusters, but I'm going to modify my previous take just a bit. Yes, publishers love that stuff, but there wouldn't be a market for it if readers didn't eat it up, right? So, my apologies to the Big Six for putting the blame on their shoulders. Half the blame belongs on the shoulders of folks who read absolute garbage. (Then again, who am I to say what constitutes garbage and what doesn't? If you love Snooki, by god, read her book. Don't listen to me. I'm just another judgy Internet jerk.)
Rightfully, it would make more sense if 'real' books would be limited to paper and ink while 'the other stuff' would only make it out as e-books, but that's not the case. As a matter of fact, it's quickly becoming the complete opposite. There is less and less room for fresh authors in an industry that's weakening by the day, and that very well may be why publishers are turning to the likes of Kim Kardashian to pump up their book sales rather than taking risks on genuine talent. (You can buy a hardback copy of Kardashian Konfidential for a paltry twenty-five ninety-nine at your local Barnes & Noble.)
On top of that, a good number of self-published e-books actually outsell the bestsellers on the New York Times list. But you don't hear about that because no matter how many copies an e-book sells, and no matter how awesome that book may be, New York Times and friends simply do not acknowledge the existence of any works that aren't backed by a publishing house. (When I wrote this post, this was true. At this point, I have read about the rare self-published book that has made it onto these types of lists, but this is a one-in-a-million occurrence. I've listed a few of these anomalies at the bottom of this post.) Or, simply put, they don't acknowledge the existence of work that doesn't make them money. That's why authors like Amanda Hocking, an indie author who sells thousands of copies per day, never make it onto those lists, and that's probably why you've never heard of her. (She has, by the way, made it onto these lists by now.)
I don't know what Amanda Hocking is up to these days, but I hope she's snorkeling through a pile of money she made on the self-publishing circuit.
Self-Publishing Pro: as recently as a few months ago, Amazon sent me an email about how proud they are that such-and-such amount of their self-published authors are earning six digits per year doing what they do; which is to say, kicking ass and pocketing up to 70% of their royalties so they can buy gold toilets and flying cars.
Traditional Publishing Con: unless you're incredibly lucky, you aren't going to see a six figure year as an author. Even really great authors never make that much money. And if you do manage to snag a six figure advance (congratulations!), it isn't going to be for just one book. This is going to be a multi-book deal that very well may never make back its advance, which means you're selling your book for a flat fee of...whatever. Did you score $100k for four books? That translates to a $25k flat fee per book and zero royalties if you don't make back your advance...and you probably won't. That might still sound like a hell of a deal. I mean, $25k for a single book is great, right?
Traditional Publishing Double Whammy: I no longer own the rights to what I feel is the best work I've ever produced. Those rights are gone, and while those books have my name on them, I am not the owner of that content. I'm just the author. I'm not here to say "my god, isn't that evil". That's just the nature of the business. You sign a contract and you get paid for selling a product. That product just happens to be, in this instance, intellectual property. That said, this reality doesn't come without its sting, especially after you break up with a publisher. You aren't breaking up with them if the relationship is incredible, right? Obviously, something isn't working. You break up because sales aren't great or someone isn't living up to their end of the deal or...whatever. Point is: you're no longer in love, but those books? Those are your babies. And those babies stay with the other parent, and you don't get visitation rights.
Traditional Publishing Triple Whammy: as I stated previously, I've been to the other side and I've gotten an earful of how stuff works. It's a numbers game. Presales are important because every presale is tossed into a bucket, and those sales are then counted as sales on publication day. Publishers push for presales like crazy with things like interviews and press releases, guest blog posts and podcasts. The goal is to sell as many books before publication day to come out of the gate swinging. Makes sense, right? Of course it does.
But there's a grim reality behind this marketing push. That reality? The push is temporary. If it doesn't work...if that book doesn't land on the NYT Bestseller List, well... cue the game over noise. Publishers have other books to worry about, other pub dates to stress over. If your book didn't make it, that's a shame. Maybe the next book by the next author will. You, on the other hand, are left standing on the side of the road wondering what the hell just happened. And I gotta tell you, that is a shitty feeling.
Self-Publishing Con: you have no marketing team. So, have fun with that.
Self-Publishing Pro: if you find yourself standing on the side of the road empty-handed after publishing day, you've still got your book in your back pocket. You still have options. It's not over. Regroup. Try again.
So yeah, there are a lot of self-published books that are nothing short of a joke. But it's no different from the stuff that's given a glossy cover and shoved in our faces every time we walk into a bookstore. It's the bad book phenomenon, and we aren't blind to it. Borders has already taken a serious tumble (Awh, you guys. Borders. Remember Borders?!), and Barnes & Noble may not have been far behind if they hadn't jumped on the e-book wagon with the Nook when they did. If that isn't proof of how much heft the e-book has, I don't know what is. (I'm not sure B&N can claim that the Nook was their saving grace, but I'm sure it helped.)
So what can we do to keep the good books alive? Buy a Kindle, or a Nook, or an iPad, and support the authors that write for the love of story, not the publishers that publish for the love of money.
Personally, I've outgrown my love for ebooks. I'd rather have them in print. I recently read an article about this which made a lot of sense. We're so bombarded with screens all day, we long for the analog experience. And of course, there's the smell.
And again, to be a bit more fair now than I was before, publishing is a business. Publishers publish to make money. This is a fact that will never ever change. Unfortunately, this is both a pro and a con when it comes to the traditional market. Pro: traditional publishers are in it to win it, so to speak. They want every book to be a bestseller because that's how they make the big bucks. Con: if you aren't making them money, you may as well not exist. Sorry if you don't like the way that sounds. That is, unfortunately, the reality of the business.
This post isn't meant to demonize traditional publishing. It's simply here to shed some light on a murky and mysterious business that not many have had the privilege to see from both sides of the fence. Do major publishing houses publish phenomenal work that's worth reading? Of course they do. But they also publish garbage they know will sell. This makes the publishing house money, and that's great. Without money, all of those phenomenal works would cease to be. But there's a big problem with garbage making most of the money that runs the big bad machine. When garbage is the main source of fuel, it becomes important, depended upon. It lets authors with incredible potential fall through the cracks. Want proof? Here are a few self-published titles that made the big time:
The Martian by Andy Weir
The Shack by William P. Young
Eragon by Christopher Paolini
Still Alice by Lisa Genova
Self-Publishing Pro: even when they tell you 'no', you can go right on ahead and take over the world.