Shooting Themselves in the Foot: A Brief Reconsideration of Traditional and Self-Publishing

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Anyone who reads this blog, or has in the past, knows that I am hypercritical of self-publishing.  In some respects, the entire industry deserves it, since it is full of shady practices, shady “gurus,” liars, scammers, and so on.  In a way, self-publishing is an industry that allows for such problems to grow and fester — not because SPing is evil, wrong, or whatever detractors want to call it, but because it is decentralized (there is no standard, no vetting, no gate-keeping, and so forth).  Traditional publishers have always been a centralized authority on “artistic” matters, determining what should and shouldn’t be put on shelves, rejecting anything deemed “unpublishable,” and maintaining a kind of minimum standard of production (though there is some flexibility here).  For the most part, this opposition was a no-brainer for people like me, who appreciate quality work, low-risk consumption, and so on.

And then I read this (about cuts of editorial positions at traditional Canadian publishers):

“We just couldn’t afford it,” said Gaspereau co-publisher Andrew Steeves, adding that he is happy to do the work himself. At the same time, he worries about the ultimate effect of industry-wide downsizing. “How do you cultivate a professional publishing ethic it you’re farming everything out?” 

Authors, finding today’s downsized publishers increasingly unwilling to invest their own resources in the often laborious process of polishing rough diamonds into marketable gems, are now often forced to hire their own editors – before even before submitting their manuscripts for publication. Toronto literary agent Anne McDermid saw the landscape changing two years ago, when a publisher told her, “I cannot purchase a book I need to spend 40 hours editing.”
As a result, McDermid added, “we are now advising our authors that the material they present has got to be closer to the final draft than it ever used to be.” Sometimes the agents themselves act as pre-editors. “Or, for those authors who can afford it,” McDermid said, “the biggest-growing sector in Canadian publishing is the freelance editor.”

First things first:  I get it.  It costs money to edit books, and while I think 40 hours of editing really isn’t that much, it is still a lengthy process.  Publishers want to trim back and choose books that are more “ready to go.”

But reading something like this makes me really wonder the following:  what exactly do publishers have to offer me if they’re not even willing to put in the time to help make my book better?  A distribution model?  That’s quickly becoming useless from an economic position; ebooks are growing fast and I suspect they will overtake, or at least match, print books in the next ten years (on the outside — five on the inside).  Authors increasingly don’t need publishers to make books available to a large reading market.  In fact, the only barrier beyond a professionally-designed product for authors today is obscurity, but that’s a problem that traditionally published authors also face, though to a lesser degree.  So what exactly are traditional publishers offering me, as a writer, that I cannot acquire for myself?  If I’m going to be asked to pay for editing services prior to submission, then why wouldn’t I just hire a whole crew to put together a professionally-designed book and sell it on my own?  You can’t run an entire business on distribution and book covers.

In an increasingly competitive market, it seems like publishers are only shooting themselves in the foot.  They’re looking at the market around them and saying “well, let’s just cut back and hope nobody notices.”  Anyone paying attention sees that and thinks, “they’re reducing the value of their ‘service.'”  This might be the first time I’ve actually thought that the big publishers might, in fact, fragment and die.  I don’t think all publishers will go down the tubes, because there are some truly amazing small presses out there (at least in the SF/F world) and some imprints will certainly survive in some form or another based solely on the quality products they produce.  But the rest are asking to die.  You can’t go into a competitive market, offer drastically less than you ever did before, and then expect that your economic model will a) continue producing significant profit, or b) look appealing to authors.  Maybe a) will stay true, since many publishers are flocking to celebrities just like TV producers are still flocking to reality T.V.  But that’s not the reading world I’m going to be active in.

The sad thing for traditional publishers is this:  self-publishers, in general, have and continue to be innovative people, and it’s not a big stretch to think that they will figure out how to help readers find the quality products that they want (i.e., reduce the risk of buying books that don’t even meet a minimum standard of quality).  Needless to say, self-publishing is looking more and more appealing to me.  I haven’t made a full 180 yet, because the side of me that is bothered by self-publishing is still opposing the new paradigm, but if things keep going the way they are, you can bet I’ll start looking at things very differently.

Now, I think it’s fair to acknowledge that the piece I took the above quote from is only talking about Canadian publishers.  A quick Google search didn’t produce anything about U.S. publishers, though there were plenty of cuts during the Recession.  If anyone has links that show the same about U.S. publishers from a reliable source, I would like to see it.

It also seems ridiculous to have to bring up the age-old saying again, but it’s impossible to ignore:  money flows to the writer.  Period.

What do you all think of this?

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.

One thought on “Shooting Themselves in the Foot: A Brief Reconsideration of Traditional and Self-Publishing

  1. It also seems ridiculous to have to bring up the age-old saying again, but it's impossible to ignore: money flows to the writer. Period.

    The logical fallacy here is if you don't think of your book as a product and yourself as a manufacturer.

    You have overhead and costs of production. Once that's achieved, and you've gained some marketing traction, ALL the money then flows to the writer, not just a teensy bit.

    So you don't get an advance. So what? You're like every other new manufacturer out there.

    The trick is to not think of it on a licensing/royalty paradigm, but to think of it as a business/manufacturing paradigm.

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