A little over six months ago, I entered the world of e-publishing. I decided to do so after a lot of soul-searching and agonizing. It wasn't the ebook part that worried me, so much as the self-publishing aspect. Self-publishing—yikes! That meant being responsible for every detail of my books on my own. No editor and copyeditor to catch my grammatical or logic errors, no art department to design my cover, no marketing department to get my books into stores, to promote and advertise them (in as much as my publisher ever did). Instead, as a self-published author, every sale would ultimately depend on me.
Over the years I've participated in several booksignings with self-published authors, and I was always in awe of their ambition and, to my mind, their daring. I could sit there at the signing table, watching the store customers ignore us, and while I might have been disappointed, I never really worried. My career wasn't going to survive or not based on how many books I sold that day. My writing income didn't depend on getting one of those busy, and often harried and disinterested, shoppers to buy my book. That's because while I was sitting there in some store in
or Wyoming , my book was on the shelves of hundreds of bookstores and other retail outlets around the country. Since there was no way for me, personally, to effectively promote my book to all those anonymous potential customers, I was pretty much off-the-hook. Colorado
Self-publishing would mean that not only was my ego, my effort, my dream, at risk, but my money. I have to say that if my family was as "financially challenged" as we were back then, and if self-publishing an e-book cost as much as it did to publish a print book in the days before print-on-demand machines, I might still not have taken the leap. To invest hundreds of dollars in books that I had to sell all on my own while we struggling to pay the mortgage and feed and cloth two school-age children, would have simply been too risky.
But now our household is in a better place economically, and since publishing each ebook only costs me a little over $200 (and could be done for even less by someone who had the time and technological savvy to do the formatting and cover art on their own), self-publishing has become a reasonable investment. I'm still pretty daunted at the idea of marketing my ebooks, but even without doing any real promoting, in three months my sales have built from a few each week, to a few each day. Even if my sales do no more than stay at this level, at the end of the year I will have earned back my investment and even made a little money.
With ebooks, the economic logistics of self-publishing are no longer overwhelming. But there was still another aspect of self-publishing that I struggled with. That is the—I wish there was another word—shame of it.
In my mind it was one thing to self-publish a memoir, or a local history book, or a cookbook, or almost any kind of non-fiction. I figure if you had the expertise and the work ethic to write such a book, you probably have something worthwhile to say. But self-publishing fiction was another matter. I figured there was a reason the companies that specialized in such things were called "vanity presses". Twenty, or even ten years ago, self-publishing meant you hadn't made it through the harsh world of the "gatekeepers", the agents and editors who winnowed out the real talent from the garbage of the slush pile. The general consensus among the published authors I knew was that if you couldn't sell your book to a real publishing house and get paid for it, it probably wasn't a very good book.
That's a pretty arrogant outlook. But looking back, I think that for many authors, the process of suffering through rejection after rejection before getting published was so agonizing, that we felt a need to differentiate ourselves from the writers who hadn't had to endure such torture. And, to be realistic, there was more than a little bit of truth to back-up our disdain.
I acquire fiction for a public library and every month I get donations of self-published novels accompanied by hopeful letters asking me to add them to the collection. I add some of these books, the ones that are fairly professional-looking and that are written in a genre that's popular with our patrons, or that have local or regional appeal.
What's intriguing is that back when I first held this position, the quality of these donated self-published books was pretty awful. But in the last few years, I've started to get books from writers who have some real talent and who can really tell a story. I no longer cringe when I come to work and see a brand new gift book from an unknown author on my chair. The fact is, it might well be something our patrons would enjoy. It seems to me that the gatekeepers are no longer "weeding out the drek", but often rejecting perfectly publishable books that just don't fit the needs of their house's marketing plan.
The same is true of my own rejections. At one time I felt like editors were rejecting my story because it wasn't personally appealing to them. Now I often get the sense that even if they really liked the story, they couldn't buy it. These letters and email rejections say things like: "What we really want is urban fantasy." "I can't buy a book set in this time period." "Doesn't stand out enough in a crowded market." "We already have an author writing in that sub-genre and we can't justify taking on another one." "We're no longer acquiring historical fantasy."
At one time, the general consensus was that the gatekeepers were making decisions based on the quality of the writing and the appeal of the story. Now it often seems as if they make decisions based solely on marketing objectives. I know many authors, including myself, who were once successfully published, who sold thousands of books and seemed to have a writing career going, who can no longer get published, despite years of serious effort.
What are you going to do if you're one of these writers, who once had the validation and approval of the gatekeepers, who clearly is capable of writing polished, interesting stories that readers once eagerly purchased, but who has since seen their career go down the toilet? Well, if you're like many of us, you're going to brush aside the stigma of self-publishing and re-enter the fray. Maybe we're self-published, but that doesn't mean we don't have readers willing to buy our books, or that we can't make money writing. We've gone around the gatekeepers, with their short-sighted marketing schemes. (If you only buy what's already selling, how are you ever going to find the books that are going to be the bestsellers of the future?) We've gone out on our own in the scary, often overwhelming world of self-publishing, and we've survived and even thrived. It's unlikely we're ever go back to being at the mercy of the traditional publishing industry. Maybe it's their turn to agonize and worry.