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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Self-publishing Sucks and Small Presses Rule

Mulluane recently pointed me in the direction of this interesting discussion of the 21st Century Writer knowing full well that I would take issue with some of the points. I've come to learn that the old bat has me pretty much pegged when it comes to talking points. The problem with that post isn't that it's necessarily wrong; on most points it is correct and the 21st Century Writers is largely being defined by the more progressive, technologically impacted forms of promotion and distribution. The problems I have with the discussion involve the author's perspectives of self-publishing and small presses. To start with self-publishing, I'll point to something the author said that made me curl my brow:
I no longer engage in the self-publishing debate since it no longer matters... We no longer have to go through the gatekeepers (agents, editors, and publishers) in order to get what we want out there, to get our voice, saying what we want it to say, heard.
While it's true that writers don't have to go through traditional channels to become a success, the notion that one can become like, say, Scott Sigler, Tee Morris, J. C. Hutchins, Mur Lafferty, etc. is misleading. These folks got, to put it simply, lucky. Yes, they worked their butts off to get where they are--which is still far from the fame of people like Stephanie Meyers, J. K. Rowling, or Stephen King--but hard work doesn't always pay off. There are loads of folks who worked hard, who promoted and poured tears and blood into their work, but ended up getting nowhere. Most self-published authors (whether doing traditional paper versions or podiobooks) fail. This is simply the reality. They may sell a handful of copies or a few hundred, but I think it needs to be made quite clear that sales in the thousands of copies are exceedingly unlikely.

Self-publishing, however easy and desirable for some, is not a picnic. A lot of people seem to think that one can waltz into the self-publishing scene and find success. Most of those folks fail and either disappear or become bitter writers. Factored into this is quality, obviously, something which self-publishing as a whole is constantly battling. Self-publishing is seen as simple largely because one can do it for practically no cost. But it's not simple. One has to market to sell books, and most don't know how. Even those that do know how often learn that marketing is not an exact "science." Sometimes no matter how hard you work, you will fail. It's inevitable. Some people aren't cut out to be writers, no matter how much they or their delusional friends and family think so. Self-publishing is as brutal a business as traditional publishing.

What really killed me about the article, however, is this quote regarding small presses:
And please don’t say the “Small Press.” I’m sure the small press is the answer somehow, but these days the small press is sort of like the independent movie makers. A lot of them are small and independent because they couldn’t make it in New York or Hollywood. So in the end they’re looking for someone young, pretty, and fast the same as the big boys. They care no more about the content in the books they publish than do the name brand publishers.
My immediate reaction was: bullsh*t. Comparing small presses to independent movie makers is a bit of a low blow. First off, most small presses actually do care more about the content of the books they publish than name brand publishers. The reason for this is that small presses tend to be niche markets: some publish short-story collections almost exclusively, while others delve into very specific forms of fiction, whether it be Christian speculative fiction or literary fantasy. Of course small presses want to make money (most of them, anyway), but that doesn't mean that they are interested in simply publishing stuff that will sell thousands of copies. If they wanted that, most of them would have stuck to publishing mainstream fiction, not niche markets.

And small presses aren't at all like the independent film makers who couldn't hack it in the land of the big guys. Small presses are small not because they simply couldn't cut it, but because they serve a very specific and vital purpose in the publishing industry. Major publishers aren't printing a lot of the works that small presses cover primarily because those works will have, by default, smaller audiences. If you were to try to publish an epic poem in today's market, you might find it almost impossible, with the exception, perhaps, to Toby Barlow's Sharp Teeth. Epic poetry is not exactly something that folks look for anymore--and poetry in general, to be honest. Its market is going to be understandably smaller. The small press is able to provide a publishing field for such work.

One of the things the article does a great job pointing out, however is how much the publishing industry has already changed and will change as technology progressively becomes more a part of how authors and publishers have to market the works they put out. In a way, successful self-published authors have a talent that many new authors don't: they've been there and have had to learn from start to finish how to make their work successful without the help of another. It's true that these folks, even if they aren't self-published, will become more important to the publishing industry as the Internet becomes a greater tool for spreading the word and selling books. I disagree that to be an author one has to be popular. To continue being an author, one definitely has to gain a readership, but there are plenty of authors still being published these days that start largely from nothing.

I don't know yet if this is a good thing. Some part of me yearns for the olden days. But perhaps those days are fast becoming a thing of the past. It's sad, but that's what I get for being old fashioned.

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  1. I think independent movie makers would have a problem with that description, anyway. They aren't independent because they couldn't 'hack it' - they might dream of some day having a huge budget, but their films are just as niche as small press published books. And often of a much higher overall quality then the crap you find in hollywood (or new york).

  2. Exactly. I actually like independent films, to be honest. Not the artsy fartsy ones, but ones that try to do interesting things for good reasons. The artsy fartsy ones are mostly lost to me, but all those cool short films being made of classic SF short stories and what not are okay in my book.