Okay, so – as a commenter told me yesterday – why do writers still need publishers? What is the point? Why can’t writers self-publish on the web and be done with it?
Let’s dispose of the silly stuff, first. I have had people tell me they could never self-publish because they need “editors” by which they invariably mean copy-editors, btw; or because they need a cover; or even because they need to format it.
These are ridiculous objections because there are free-lance copy-editors. If you can’t afford that, find a friend who will do it for a dinner. If what you need is a REAL editor, you can hire those too. Ask friends or look through the adds in writers’ publications. Ditto for covers. Believe it or not most artists are not that expensive when it comes to using their illustration for a cover. Look over at deviant art or another place where artists post their work, hoping to be noticed. As for formatting, you can usually find instructions on line. (It has occurred to me that if I were unemployed right now and were marginally more tech inclined than I am, I’d start a business formatting books for writers, and arranging them to fit the various publishers/services.)
Now, the real objections – the first one, forgive me, I’m going to sound like a curmudgeon and I’m not. There is a point in any artistic pursuit when you think you are much better than you actually are. It’s in the nature of the beast. You have managed to put something of the picture that’s in your head on paper, in some format. When you look at it, you see what your original idea was.
I’m currently going through this with my drawing/painting. This is why writers groups are so important. A good one, will tell you about the stuff you left in your head. (I’m just not sure I want to take the trouble to get an artists group, since it’s a only something I use to focus the writing and for some publicity. Of course, if I got much better, I could possibly eventually maybe do covers. Um.) But even writers groups can get used to your flaws and blind to them.
I’m not going to say the current publication-process is flawless. I know for a fact that many, many people who are publishable and perhaps even marketable (not the same thing) are simply not getting in. For one, must publishers these days don’t have a reading/slush department and it goes through agents. Which means overworked agents have to find the time to read. I could write several posts on the flaws in that process, alone. Things that slip through, things that the system isn’t designed to do, etc. I won’t. There’s very little point. Suffice it to say it is difficult to get published and while there is an element of meritocracy in it, it’s not absolute.
However, what the element of meritocracy does do is weed out 99.9% of the absolutely unreadable dreck. Even more importantly it weeds out 75% or so of the “nearly there, but not able to keep anyone’s attention but the author’s” which is a subtler distinction. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you are the VERY fortunate avoider of slush piles. Anyone who has struggled through a slush pile knows how absolutely horrible the dreck can be and also that a lot of what should be technically perfect keeps “popping the reader out” every two paragraphs. (I’ve learned, if I actually analyze those I find fairly large technical mistakes, like bouncing around between the heads of characters in one paragraph. Or contradicting your scene setting in two sentences, or… But on the grammatical and superficial level these stories look passable. Only, they’re not. They simply wouldn’t hold up.)
Now it is a perverse thing I’ve noted that at that stage of near-publishable most writers are more confident than publishable writers. It could be because people are funny… Or it could be because that too is part of the stage of learning any art or craft. When you’re at near the top, you see fewer flaws than after you study a bit and become even more proficient. Also, some people are naturally hard on themselves, which doesn’t mean they’re bad, and some people are naturally brimful of self confidence, which doesn’t mean they’re good.
I’ve found that amid self-published writers, confidence often outstrips the ability. Not always, mind you, but often enough that even though self-published is no longer a bad word, I like to read a bit of the book before I buy it – even at 1.99 on Amazon. When I disregard this rule, I often get into trouble. And I don’t think I’m the only one. Because self-published is anyone from the raw newby (and I’ve for my sins bought a couple of books that turned out to be just that) who hasn’t read a novel, but by gum hasn’t written one, to the near-readable writer who is often more frustrating, and who has decided he’s “good enough.” Yes, there are also pros bringing out long-lost books. There are people bringing out the one-off book the publisher rejected. And there are first time writers who are flawless.
The problem is distinguishing the gems from the muck. When – to quote Pratchett – gold and muck come out of the same shaft, how do you tell one from the other? Surely you know you’re not going to read EVERYTHING that’s self published.
This is not a problem for bestsellers. I’ll be painted purple if I understand why bestseller authors don’t just go “I’ll publish myself, now.” Unless it is because they want the advance in regular, scheduled payments. Or because a substantial number of their sales are paper. (Yes, you can contract with POD services, but I don’t think those are quite where the price makes them viable for small or one off print runs.)
Even for established mid-listers, the choice is fairly easy. Oh, you’re not going to get as many sales electronic as you would on paper. Yet. But that ratio is changing every month – perhaps every week. And for the occasional extra book or odd novellette, it’s fine. And people know what they’re getting with you.
For a relatively-recent, low-name-recognition mid-lister like myself, things are a little more dicey. If I started JUST publishing myself regularly, I probably could, in time, build an audience. Mind you, it MIGHT take me five to ten years, but I could probably make it. At any rate, it’s worth it enough that I’m starting to dip my toe in that particular ocean.
But what about beginners? How can a beginner writer start off the gate and establish himself? Someone earlier said that perhaps people couldn’t live form writing anymore. I don’t think this is true. Writing, like any craft, will always have a much larger number of hobbyists than professionals, but there will always be money for the exceptionally good. A writer – even I – can only write so much, and if you want him/her to continue writing, you’ll pay. Judging by the near-threatening letters I get (Mostly for the Musketeers Mysteries, but also the Shifter Series) demanding MORE books, I think there are at least some people willing to pay to ensure I continue writing.
The problem as I see it is some sort of imprimatur – some sort of label that distinguishes books that have gone through SOME form of gatekeeping, not nearly like what we have today (couldn’t be anyway, to the extent that it will be a lot harder to control distribution.) Just something that assures the public that someone other than the author has read this book and thought it marketable.
It could range from basically a publisher (I am in fact working with a micro-e-publisher right now, or perhaps I should say involved with it, since it’s in the nature of a cabal of friends) who does the proof reading/editing/cover/coding and at least a modicum of publicizing and who, for its pains takes, say 50% of the profit (which is far more equitable than what we get from established publishers, royalties running around 8%) to simply some form of “certification system” – the literary equivalent of the labels on port wine bottles that say “purveyor of Port to her majesty the Queen since…”
I have some ideas on how this could be accomplished, which I will write about tomorrow.