Saturday, January 31, 2009

Fear of Pollution

In response to the recently posted "Self-Publishers Flourish as Writers Pay the Tab" NYT article, why do I feel like the elite lads are complaining their exclusive club isn't so exclusive anymore? I get a slight sense of impending doom from Motoko Rich, as if the Published Authors Club isn't feeling as important as it once did when an author was either published or unpublished—not this in-between DIY nonsense where everyone has a voice and is using it (for better or for worse). I'm not knocking traditional publishers. Their editors are (mostly) impeccable, their market penetration is very nearly absolute, and (the majority of) their authors have proved their worth repeatedly. But they can be a tad whiny at times. Especially when someone forms their own club across the way.

The lines have become blurred, and I get the feeling the Published Authors Club is yearning for a simpler time. As if, twenty years from now, walking into a bookstore—once the pristine promenade of the literary elite—will yield a barrage of printed blogs and hardbound diaries. And that’s what this is about, isn’t it? The possibility that the bright lights of the elite will one day be drowned out by those of everyone else. But is that really a possibility? As far as mainstream publishing is concerned, the odds really haven't changed (though the way we go about trying to beat those odds has). Random House's buying habits remain fixed. They’ll continue to look after their own, acquiring new members via referral (what’s a slush pile?) and meeting regularly with booksellers to ask, “We’re still best friends, right?”

I smell fear. We're becoming more visible, and it’s ruffling some feathers. In times past, just like now, everyone had a story, a book, a play in them, but you never heard about it unless you lived in the same town as the author. Blogs and the Internet have made everyone’s business your own. Who doesn’t have a blog? If I subscribed to each and every one, I'd be dead before I finished reading a fraction of what’s out there. There have always been too many writers writing, and not enough readers reading. I was an editor once; there were always more stories coming in than I was willing or able to publish. Sometimes it was because of poor grammar and punctuation. Or maybe the idea was horribly cliche. Or the writing was just plain awkward. Or else everything was great and I simply had no more free space. Regardless, I never feared "pollution" of my precious ’zine because I knew what I liked to publish, and that was that. Authors who received a rejection letter told me off and went on to have their stories posted elsewhere.

I get the feeling mainstream publishers are worried there’s too much garbage out there for prospective readers to sift through. Pollution. The elites are feeling a mite insignificant. Being published isn’t a big deal anymore because anyone can be published. Perhaps not successful, but published nonetheless. Club members are no doubt worried that as the prestige diminishes, so do the hefty advances. They’re fretting over the possibly of having to do what the rest of us do: market our own work. We’re selling through our Web sites instead of via store shelves. We’re reaching smaller audiences, but taking in higher percentages per unit. And, yes, we’re putting out a lot of noise.

Circle of life. Variety with the risk of obscurity. The midlist being reborn as the POD and self-publishing movement. The demoting of the elites by a notch or two. The publishing industry continuing to invalidate its competition. But we'll find a way to tell our stories. We always do.


Steve Reynolds said...

Major publishers should be nothing less than thrilled by the phenomenon of self-publishing. The reason they reject 99% of submissions, or simply refuse to look at anything that isn't recommended or represented by an agency, is risk. They don't want to spend their own resources finding, editing and marketing a book they aren't confident will sell. Self-publication can reduce this risk. It lets them observe the likely fate of a book without laying out a dime. If readers respond to something an author has self-published, a major publisher can sweep in with the six-figure deal and carry it off to glory, as was the case with Genova's "Still Alice" and numerous others. Who loses here? Major publishers reduce their risk, emerging authors have some hard sales numbers and good reviews to argue their case, and readers have access to a much greater diversity of work. There's no risk of pollution. Bad writing will always fail. Major publishers needn't worry about losing money to online ones, either. Surely the smarter majors will quietly establish online self-publishing imprints under other names...if they haven't already.

Kristen said...


What's curious about what you've written is that I've heard, often, that self-publishing something makes agents & publishers LESS likely to want to take it, because it's already been introduced.

Some marketing I did for my own book made one agent nervous; she said if I'd already been interviewed in one place, that place was less likely to interview me again when/if the book published with a Publishing Company - which would mean one less marketing option for the publisher.