Sunday, April 1, 2012

Coming Soon to a Page Near You

An article in today’s New York Times about the rise of self-publishing focused on authors mostly under the age of 18. Some of the books described were written by pre-teens, and one or two have even attracted some readership. An interesting phenomenon but, in itself, not particularly important in the world of writing and publishing.

Self-publishing isn’t new, of course. In fact, what is new (in the long history of publishing) is what the industry refers to as "traditional" publishing: a house paying an author and underwriting all the costs associated with bringing a book to market. It is a practice that only goes back a hundred years or so. Gutenberg, you will recall, made printing (and subsequently, publishing) possible over 500 years ago (1455) by applying movable type to make multiple copies of the bible. (The Chinese, of course, invented movable type far earlier, but I won’t go into that here.)

Between the Gutenberg era and the modern era books were published by subscription. If you had a manuscript you thought worthy, you took it to a publisher with enough orders to get it printed. If you had more subscribers than the book cost, you could be encouraged to try it again, perhaps, and even quit your day job. That still doesn’t happen very often - - - quitting your day job, that is.

So today we are going backward. Writers of all ages are finding self-publishing an option worth pursuing. More than one author has moved into the best-seller list after a self-published work has been picked up by a "traditional" publisher. Many more languish on Amazon, of course, or find a limited readership among specialty readers. Getting a self-published book reviewed, for instance, is no more difficult than one that is traditionally published. Getting the review published is still a game, and one the big houses may be able to engineer better, but still cannot guarantee. If you self-publish, however, you are more likely to get reviewed by friends and family than by a paid reviewer (yes, book reviewers are paid for their work).

Traditional publishers don’t have the budgets they once had, or the readership, so they buy fewer manuscripts from unknown writers and publish far fewer new authors and titles than they did in the "old days." Which leaves the door open for the electronic and print-on-demand publishers.

Two of my books (Accidents of Time and Place, and Mixed Freight: Checking Life’s Baggage) were originally published by a "traditional" house. That is, I paid nothing to have the book designed, printed, put up on Amazon and made available to booksellers through the big wholesalers. Promotion has been up to me. Letting people know about the books, setting up readings and interviews and going to book fairs, even placing books in stores has all been left to me. One, Mixed Freight, I arranged for conversion to and sale on Kindle, and a third one, A Beautiful Place for an Ugly Death, I self-published directly to Kindle. Again, promotion has been entirely in my hands, and if I am not on the NYT best-seller list, the fault lies with me (either as the author or as the promoter - take you pick). If I’m ever to be on a best-seller list, it will be by my own hand, as it were.

I’ve earned my living as a writer for almost all of my working life. I actually retired from paid full-time employment 20 years ago yesterday. I’ve been writing for myself since then. I can do that because I worked many years to achieve financial independence. I can now write what I want to write, and in this new world, publish if I think it is worth sharing. At my age the idea of spending seven or ten years sending the same story out to agents and publishers over and over again has very little to recommend it. I was thrilled the first time I received a letter accepting a manuscript, and even though I now realize that the company publishes a lot of really poor writing, I’m happy that I’ve had the experience. If I have more manuscripts that I think are worth a reader’s time, I will probably give the traditional way a shot or two, and then, if things keep coming back with polite refusals, I’ll head back to Kindle or even a "traditional" self-publishing house.

If a word falls on a page and nobody reads it, is that really writing?

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