Do you know that it’s only been five years and change since Harlequin announced that it was going to start offering self-publishing services? By comparison, digital-first publishing seems downright ancient. I don’t know if you remember how that Harlequin announcement blew up the internet, or how contentious the discussion among Romance authors was over self-publishing in general, but if you ever want to take that walk down memory lane, check out the comments to this Smart Bitches post, and see how many opinions have changed since then. In particular, it’s interesting to see how often self-publishing in general was seen as low-brow and illegitimate, signaling the end of quality and publisher branding. For some, vanity publishing and self-publishing were inextricably linked.
I bring this up because of a recent comment by Hugh Howey, who some seem to view as self-publishing’s current spokesman. The comment came in response to a blog post written by someone who didn’t have a good grasp on the changes Amazon is making re payment to self-published books in KU (Amazon’s subscription service, Kindle Unlimited). While explicating his assertion that “Self-publishing . . . [is] rejecting traditional publishing,” Howey says,
What’s really interesting to me is the evolution of traditional publishing into vanity publishing. Really, the only reason to go traditional, besides the hope of being one of the .01% of authors who get top-shelf treatment, is the vanity of being accepted by an agent or editor with an MFA and an office in NYC. I’m sure that feels good, just as I’m sure venting this misinformation about KDP Select and Kindle Unlimited felt really good.
Yes, you read that correctly: traditional publishing is becoming vanity publishing, and authors who sign with traditional publishers are doing so out of vanity.
Putting aside the elision there around the word “vanity,” it’s an interesting rhetorical move, because it basically it tries to flip the legitimacy script and place self-publishing above traditional publishing, largely on the basis of sales, given the first part of Howey’s comment, where he claims that “[m]ost indie ebook sales are coming from authors who have turned down publishing offers, or never sought them out in the first place.” Now I have absolutely no interest in the truth (or not) of this statement, because as a reader, I don’t really care how a book is published, as long as I find it appealing. Some things help with that, like solid craftsmanship, professional covers, and good formatting, proofing, etc. But I’ve even been known to enjoy books – self, traditionally, and digitally published – that lack one or more of those qualities. So for me there are few unbreakable rules.
Still, I think Howey is unintentionally doing a disservice to self-publishing by pitting it against traditional publishing, especially given his recent comments about self-publishing’s democratizing influence on writing and publishing. If self-publishing is so fabulous, and all these writers who’ve had no interest in traditional publishing contracts are making mint, then why the need to slam traditional publishing at all?
Publishing is, of course, a business. Like all businesses, it’s aimed at profitability. And because authors are in so much more direct contact with readers in our online environments, readers often get to see authors talking as publishers, when they’re publicly discussing issues related to what and how they earn. We see authors talk much more openly about earnings, in part because many authors now have much more direct control over what they earn (although authors have always had the freedom to accept or reject publishing contracts). In many ways this has clearly been a good thing for the author community, because in having their choices expand, there is a possibility of more books coming to market. And that benefits readers, who have been seeing traditional publishing narrow their own offerings. As Jane recently argued about genre Romance:
The always endangered mid list appears to have declined dramatically with many migrating to digital publishing, either through digital first arms or self publishing. The midlist was the place where new authors were cultivated and grown into front list or “lead” authors. It can take several books for an author to “break out” and generate enough sales to improve an author’s stature from mid list to lead. . . .
We see that with our own genre in the likes of Nalini Singh, JR Ward, and Ilona Andrews to name a few. Eloisa James wasn’t a household name when she started publishing and neither was Stephanie Laurens. When advances were better, publishers took to the risk to provide a diverse variety of books. With smaller lists and the erosion of the midlist, traditional publishers are looking increasingly to sell only front list. Entrepreneur authors will write books that are marketable. When they are fronting the costs of a book and a career, it’s more advantageous to be risk averse. And many self-published authors think only of the moment rather than long term. I have huge admiration for authors like R. Lee Smith who write what they want no matter the market dictates.
While on the surface this may seem like a victory for self-publishing, it’s also a sign that the market is always in flux, and that new publishing trends and opportunities will change the field, for publishers, authors, and readers. We’ve seen it in self-publishing, with authors who vehemently defended the gatekeeping function of traditional publishing and have wholly embraced self-publishing. We see it in self-published authors who are seeking out contracts with traditional publishers, either for print rights, or for the totality of their production and distribution needs.
Not every author wants to or feels comfortable with the business responsibilities of self-publishing, and isn’t it actually the opposite of vanity to understand that about yourself and be smart enough to seek out the right publishing fit, whether that be digital first, a specialty or independent press, or a Big 5 conglomerate. As it is, self-publishing is growing at a rate that seems impossible to sustain, and while each author who doesn’t make it as a successful publisher may not have the same market impact as, say, a stumble by one of the granddaddy corporations, there may be a significant, accumulated impact over time. And as we know, it’s just not the case that the best, most thoughtful and professional writers always make it. But that’s never been the case, has it?
I know that many readers lament the loss of production values like editing and formatting in many self-published books. And it’s very much caveat emptor for readers who are looking to discover new self-published voices. But again, it’s always been somewhat that way, even with traditional publishing, because the taste of an acquiring editor may not match your readerly tastes, and you won’t necessarily know that until you’ve bought a book (yet another reason that sales numbers should not be used to predict reader tastes). I have hundreds of those books around my house, and that doesn’t even count the digital books languishing in my Kindle. Readers buy books on spec, and we don’t know what we like until we read it.
Picking back up my argument from last week that reader tastes are, in the end, nearly impossible to predict with any consistency, I want to add my conviction that one of the things that makes self-publishing great is that it’s not the only game in town, let alone the only profitable game in town. As a reader, I love being surprised by a new voice, a new take on a beloved genre, and whether it’s an editor who sees promise in a new author or a new direction for a well-used trope, or an author who wants to take a risk beyond where traditional or even digital publishing is willing to go, I don’t particularly care.
What I care about is being able to have options, and to have different types of tastemakers and gatekeepers and facilitators participating in the process of bringing books to market. I love that I can rely on an independent press for, say, a work of literary fiction, or an academic press for a well-vetted scholarly study. And I am so glad that some of my favorite authors continue to write because they have a third-party publisher producing and distributing their books. I don’t think self-publishing is meant to serve all authors and all readers anymore than traditional publishing or digital-first publishing is. That’s the beauty of a robust marketplace – publishers are certainly in competition, but they’re not competing for the exact same readers all the time.
Yes, there are those who are certain they can see what the publishing marketplace will look like in five more years, but I actually think we’re all better off not knowing how the next chapter is going to end, in the event that something even more unexpected and interesting comes along. Like that really great book you had no idea could even exist until it did. Readers buy, borrow, and read for those discoveries, and it’s going to take more than one type of book, and one type of publisher to keep these stories going.