If you want to be a capital “W” writer, there still is much to be said for the editing and publicity support of a publishing house — not to mention the prestige. If, however, your book is part of your business platform and you know you can sell copies in the course of your business (speaking engagements, trade shows, on your website); or, your story is simply one you know will find an audience, even if that audience is too “small” for a publishing house (see, e.g., Julie Flygare) — or some combination of both — you are a perfect candidate for self-publishing. Of course, there also are the E. L. James’s of the world who find a devoted online readership, which can help propel self-published E-Books up the Amazon and iBooks best-seller lists and as a result attract attention from publishers and agents. If you think that’s you — go for it! Below, my flowchart of some of the basic issues:
Self-publishing used to be sort of the secret, ugly, bastard step-child (am mixing my metaphors, I know) of the industry. But with the relative ease of self-publishing E-Books, with the success of certain self-published writers, and with digital advances that make self-published print books not only easy to do oneself but much more professional looking, I don’t think they are quite as stigmatized. As an agent, if I believe that a book is terrific but I just don’t think the big publishing houses will bite, I wholeheartedly encourage self-publishing. Likewise, if I try to sell a book and cannot — and particularly if that book has a devoted niche audience, such as Young Adult or Science Fiction (or Romance, though I don’t take on Romance manuscripts) — I will absolutely direct a writer towards self-publishing. Even if the big houses aren’t interested, we have seen that there are still readers out there, finding books through websites and listserves.
But by fervently supporting self-publishing, am I condemning the industry by which I make a living to a slow death? The thinking being: if more people are self-publishing, more people are buying and reading self-published books, thus supporting Amazon, thus further decreasing the traditional publishers’ bottom lines, thus ultimately decreasing author advances. Perhaps just as important, am I supporting a vast morass of unedited, uncurated crap?
The self-published books I have seen have been quite excellent (more on that tomorrow). I also truly believe in supporting people who want to write — no matter how they get there. Before self-publishing became so much easier, these people were stopped entirely from sharing their stories. If they want to share them through traditional publishers, I can help them and if I am successful, I’ll make some money. But if they don’t want to — or can’t — go the “traditional” route, who am I to keep writers from sharing their books — books which I well know take time and effort and courage to write.
There are agents who
troll keep an eye on the self-published best seller lists looking for authors to pick up, repackage and sell to publishing houses. I don’t do that, though I have had authors come to me seeking an agent after they were independently contacted by publishers due to the success of their self-published books. There are also agencies that set up their own sort of in-house E-Book publisher for their clients; in other words, if the agency cannot sell a book, they will help the writer self-publish through the agency’s own E-Book “imprint”, and then the agency will still take their commission. This makes me uneasy because I’m not sure how hard an agent will advocate for traditional publication if the agent knows that he or she can still make money through the agency’s own “imprint”. (I’m not sure agents should be in the business of both agenting and publishing, though maybe this is the lawyer in me being overly wary of crossing ethical, client-focused lines?) And, finally, there are certain publishing houses who have developed hybrid E-Book imprints for certain genres, such as Romance — if a manuscript is not quite good enough for a house to take the financial gamble on a print run, but there are still potential E-Book readers who can be reached through various forms of internet marketing, the publisher will create an E-book version only. I’m not sure how I feel about this either — could the writer make more money simply self-publishing? How much editorial or marketing support will the publisher actually give?
In the end, as Julie Flygare mentioned yesterday, no one who picks up her excellent memoir seems to care whether it is self-published. Is it only us navel-gazing publishing types who care whether Knopf* publishes our books?
*for those who want to be capital “W” writers, Knopf is like the Harvard of the publishing world. Big, historic, bureaucratic, prestigious. [I like to think of Scribner as the Princeton! Smaller, more nimble, friendlier, yet just as prestigious…heh]