Wishes and Horses: The Phenomenon of Self-Publishing

Last week I attended a book launch by a writer from one of my critique groups. It was a pretty splashy event, complete with an Elvis impersonator who arrived in a vintage Ford Mustang.

That got me thinking again about the whole self-publishing thing. It’s a remarkable phenomenon, the result, I think, of three things: thwarted creative ambitions, market forces and technological developments.

“Everyone has a book in them,” and when it became easy to create manuscripts, everyone wrote their book. With all the touting of books and featuring of authors in the media, wannabes began submitting their creations to publishers. To serve this market, how-to-get-published books and courses proliferated.

Publishers could not cope with the flood of queries and submissions. The big ones fenced themselves off behind agents. Smaller publishers insisted on print submissions, hoping that exacting submission guidelines and the cost of postage would act as a deterrent — to no avail. Who hasn’t heard of five-foot stacks of “slush” plugging up publishers’ mail rooms?

Rejections flooded out from agents and publishers to hopeful writers, many of whom (despite advice to develop thick skins) got seriously pissed off and started looking for other ways to get their creations out there. By this time the internet was available to all and creation and sharing of “content” was the name of the game. In the best tradition of the free market, alternatives opened up to meet the pent-up demands of writers. Self-publishing went from suspect (the vanity press) to last-resort (POD and “subsidy” publishers) to normal (today’s new world of ebooks, Smashwords and Amazon).

When you think about it, this progression is logical. Why wouldn’t people start to write memoirs, novels and how-I-did-it books, when all through school they were told to be creative, follow their bliss and take chances? Especially when the personal computer and Microsoft Word made whiteout and carbon paper obsolete.

Having poured one’s passion into a literary creation, why wouldn’t one hope to share it with others, receive admiration and make money? Most famous authors aren’t beautiful, athletic or talented at anything besides sitting behind a computer and stringing words together. Oprah’s Book Club, here we come!

Publishing has always been a business with narrow profit margins, in which a few wildly successful books subsidize the less-than-best-sellers. In the traditional situation, a book has a short time to prove itself before it’s taken out of print and remaindered. With the best will in the world, there was no way publishers could hope to publish all the wannabe authors flooding them with submissions.

And there was no way that the writers, full of newly-discovered creative joy and the self-esteem that had been introduced to them from childhood, would accept their multiple rejections and settle for bridge, bingo and birdwatching. Entrepreneurial types recognized a huge and eager market, and hastened to serve it. Editors, book and cover designers, advertising and publicity providers rushed to fill the gap. Writers, no longer thwarted by the gatekeepers, became published authors eager to market their books.

I am a self-published author, and I can say without hesitation that I much prefer that to being an unpublished writer, full of self-doubt, resentment and frustration. I decided to publish my works, and it was up to me how much and what kind of editing to do, what cover images to use and what sort of marketing to do. Several years have passed since I published my first novel. It’s still in “print” (as an ebook) and selling steadily. Instead of sending out submissions I am writing new material.

You could say that the slush pile has been liberated from publishers’ mail rooms and made available to readers. Some bemoan the flood of crap, but let’s face it — there’s always been a flood of crap. The internet has made it possible to create and share more of everything, “crap” and good stuff both. The best indie authors are producing books as good as anything by the traditional publishers. What can possibly be wrong with writers and readers having more choices? It’s an exciting time.

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