Saturday, May 29, 2010

More on Self-Publishing

Start with my recent post on Publishing and Self-Publishing for background.

Now, the publishing industry is what it is: there are more people seeking publication than ever, and more book proposals and manuscripts (good and bad) being submitted than ever. Publishers still have to make money to stay afloat-- no one should begrudge them their right to make a profit. And the sub-industries around publishing are full and growing.

As I pointed out in my last post, however, there are some sea-changes taking place in the publishing industry. Probably one of the most significant ones is that the seat of power is shifting from the publishers themselves to the resellers. Another crucial change is that the "middle-man" is no longer the distributor, but now the publishing house itself, because distribution is largely consolidated among four or five huge companies that represent both distribution and re-sale-- and many of these companies offer a direct publication/distribution route to writers through self-publishing.

All of this has the publishing industry on the defensive, and there are basically two ways that they are responding: own it and figure out what part they will play in the next new era of publishing, or crab about it and insist that everyone is mistaken but them.

One example of the former is Thomas Nelson's approach: they established a self-publishing division called
WestBow Press (actually resuscitating an old Thomas Nelson imprint name) which offers both self-publishing and (they claim) something like farm-team development for authors. In other words, according to Thomas Nelson, they're watching for major-league writing talent in the same way the division-I minor league baseball team in your hometown is looking for the next Albert Pujols or Andy Pettitte.

Another example of the former
came recently on literary agent Chip MacGregor's blog, when Jeff Gerke, who is president of Marcher Lord Press, openly challenged a lot of the claims of conventional publishing houses. Gerke made a lot of solid points in favor of self-publishing, and pointed out that the trajectory of the industry doesn't seem to leave a lot of room for traditional publishing houses except for those who will be "pleading with people to come to them"! I feel like some of Gerke's claims are hyperbole, but he pointed out some weaknesses in traditional publishing's arguments (not the least of which is the arrogance with which so many seem to approach their place in the industry) and certainly stirred up some active discussion on Chip's blog.

And then comes the example of the latter, not-too-ironically coming in a response to Jeff Gerke on Chip MacGregor's blog. Dennis Hillman, who is publisher at
Kregel Publications, had a lot to say in defense of traditional publishing. I'd like to respond particularly to some of Mr. Hillman's central points, to demonstrate why the "let's grouse about it to try to deflect some from reality" approach is so poor.
  • "The author is putting up his or her own money and time to make it happen"-- this isn't wrong, but it isn't the obstacle Mr. Hillman makes of it. Many of the print-on-demand options represent a great value here, with little upfront cash required. Time is always a factor, but I'll speak more to this in a moment.
  • "They are probably not authors who earn a living from writing" -- to which I would ask, how many of Kregel's authors are career writers? For that matter, how many of a company like Thomas Nelson's are? I just don't think there are that many career writers out there, period, who are looking to books as their sole source of income.
  • "Will self-publishing allow an author to move into the larger general market of stores and e-sellers or the more defined CBA Christian store market? Maybe, but most often not" -- actually, this is largely untrue, as I have already demonstrated in my previous post. But where he goes from there is to say that when a book becomes a very good seller, the author needs the large, established corporate publisher and their expertise in marketing and in handling large-scale promotions, etc. This is probably true in 99% of the cases-- but this is the ONLY time when the author "needs" the large, established corporate publisher. In every other case, the marketing and promotion of the book is left almost entirely to the author (as Chip has repeatedly proclaimed on his blog, as have others). The publishing house offers almost no support to authors in terms of marketing and promotion today: if an author isn't able to establish their "platform" and have at least a somewhat-known name before they pursue publication, they won't have much chance of a contract -- and after publication, they are still on their own.
  • "Publishers are going to to continue to serve authors, even though the nature of publishing is going to change radically" -- this was the line that made me laugh out loud. I find it quite a stretch to think of publishing houses as a service industry to authors. Yes, publishing is a service industry, but the order of those served puts customers first, the publishing house itself second, the resellers third, and the authors last. Traditional publishing houses are most interested in making money-- as they have every right to be-- and the service they render to authors, whatever that may be, is the lowest priority in that interest.
  • "The real threat to traditional publishers is not the small, niche publisher or self-publishing. It's the disintermediation (I know—big word but an important one) that is taking place as two or three huge corporate entities replace the traditional chain of author-publisher-distributor-bookstore/online seller" -- this was the most reasonable thing Hillman said in the entire piece, and he's right that it should keep him awake at night. I've already demonstrated how that is a part of the sea-changes that are taking place. The question should be, though, why should this be presented as a problem, any more than the moveable-type printing press represented a problem for no one except the guild of scribes who made their living with quill and ink hand-copying work.

As I said above, one of the most significant sea-changes in the publishing industry is the shift of power from the publishing houses to the resellers. Another way to think about this is that the arbiters of what makes a book viable and worthy of publication are less and less the editors and publishers themselves, but the market. In other words, the readers are now the ones who will decide whether a book should be in print, not the editors at publishing houses. Why is this bad? It's not-- unless you happen to be an executive in a large, traditional corporate publishing house.

Here's where I think this is all going: following the trends of media "democratization" currently underway, self-publishing is going to break out in the coming years (even more than it already has), and the result may actually be a revival of book-reading in our culture because of the abundance of surprisingly-good and well-produced books on an incredibly wide array of topics. The large, power-holding traditional publishing houses are going to lose a significant amount of their clout and prophetic voice in the publishing industry; they won't go away (most of them), but in the fight to stay alive many of them will merge in an effort to shuffle the deck chairs around on the Titanic. Many smaller publishers, especially ones that focus on niche audiences and are nimble enough to adapt to new technologies quickly, will thrive-- and more of their kind will emerge and also thrive. And a new type of "publishing house" (if you can even call it that) will emerge, that will function more like a partner to authors by providing editorial, design, and layout services on the way to some sort of self-publishing and/or print-on-demand publication, in exchange for a share of the royalties (disclaimer: Doulos Resources, a small ministry that I work with, is actually something like a hybrid of the last two categories).

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