Previously, Ira Nayman took us on a little tour of the more unexpected side of online publishing — who was doing it and why. Contrary to some commonly held opinions, writers who put their stories online are not a gaggle of no-talent hacks but may be established writers looking to cut out the middlemen or simply seek feedback from readers and fellow writers. Now, more authors than ever are self-publishing or working with small and mid-sized publishers. But what drove them away from large-scale traditional publishing in the first place?
Fat Bottom Line, You Make the Corporate World Go ‘Round
The publishing industry has certainly changed over time, starting from the days of dedicated scribes and moving on to Gutenberg’s printing press and now to the internet and modern digital communications. Traditionally, there were gatekeepers. In the days before the printing press, there was no such thing as publishing per se, as making a copy of a book could take weeks or months because the entire text had to be transcribed by hand. In any case, only clergymen and the wealthy could read, so fewer copies were needed.
Gutenberg’s printing press changed the world of words and contributed to a trend of increasing literacy rates among the general population. As more people could read, more books were wanted and needed. Publishing the old-fashioned way required special equipment, and being able to produce large numbers of books, magazines, or newspapers required a lot of financial and human resources. Writers wrote, editors selected and then prepared the materials for publication, marketers fed the appetite for the goods, and still others handled the printing and distribution processes. And all that before anyone has even bought a single item.
Large-scale book production ramped up into the twentieth century as technology improved and books became increasingly accessible. But during the second half of the twentieth century, the industry began to change again. This time, the direction seemed to be less technological and more ideological. Publishing is a big, expensive business, so to keep the black ink flowing, publishers decided to put their money where their pockets are.
Now, I don’t want to criticize publishers of any size for trying to make money, because if their accountants consistently used up more red pens than their editors, the enterprise would eventually fail. However, the attitude that has developed towards books and their authors has not been particularly healthy for authors, readers, or the industry as a whole.
One of the most common concerns I hear is that large publishers have become increasingly reluctant to take chances. Once upon a time, a company would publish a broad range of books, with the expectation that some would be bestsellers, some could be expected to bring in modest revenues, and others might be financial losses. Now, the attitude is often that every book must be a bestseller.
But how do you predict what books will top the charts? You can’t. The best you can do is to stick with established authors, but eventually this tactic could land you in the dust heap — established authors don’t appear out of nowhere. They need to be developed from scratch or poached from other publishers. Nonetheless, publishers have become skittish and risk-averse, and good authors are losing opportunities as a result.
Author Claude Lalumière shared one such story with me. It seems his first book, a collection of short stories, was nearly picked up by a major publisher, and I can only imagine how hopeful he must have felt to think that maybe his work would have all the advantages of being produced and marketed by a heavy hitter in the industry. However, after six months of communicating with the editors, instructions came down from the head office quashing any deal that might have been made. Apparently, the publisher had recently released a similar collection and the book had not sold quite as well as they hoped. Claude suspected that if he had presented his book to that same company two years earlier, he might have had a contract. Instead, he ended up publishing the book through ChiZine.
Lalumière is far from alone in his concerns about this “all or nothing” attitude. Jen Frankel, Nicole Chardenet, and Stephen B. Pearl all commented on this phenomenon in their answers to my inquiries.
However, you should not assume that the lemming-run towards big profits is a concern only for those who are unknown or have achieved small-scale success in the arts — even famous and accomplished writers are chafing over the phenomenon. In fact, when Ursula Le Guin was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, she used the opportunity to chastise the publishing world for constraining art through commercialism. As she very beautifully states, “… the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art … the name of our beautiful reward isn’t profit. Its name is freedom.”
It is in large part due to the drive for higher profits that smaller publishers and self-publishing have taken such firm hold. In fact, Lalumiere points out that niche publishing, even on a smaller scale, is generally successful because there is a ready-made audience looking for the kinds of work that large publishers may not be as interested in. This allows new and lesser-known authors to find alternative ways to publish their work and may grant them far more artistic control over the final product than they might have had with a large company.
But have large publishers done authors a favour by pushing them out into the world of small publishing? The industry is still changing, so only time will tell how well the new models of publishing will pan out. In the meantime, the costs to individual authors have risen significantly.
A Pretty Penny, Indeed
While alternative publishing methods offer hope to those who have trouble catching the interest of the big players, one particularly troubling aspect of this shift is that it often leaves new authors in the dark about how to proceed or where to find appropriate professional services. Additionally, the services required to publish successfully may be prohibitively expensive for an author who has to pay out of pocket. An author will need the services of at least one editor and a printing press, and possibly a visual artist or photographer. They may be forced to eat the costs of book distribution and publicity, such as hiring a publicist, maintaining a website or blog, making long distance phone calls, or travelling to and from the book launch, signings, interviews, etc.
So what would you do if you found a company that promised to help you take care of all that? I’m sure you’d jump at the chance to get their help. But just as you would with all other services, you should be prepared to do a little research.
For example, Author Solutions, a subsidiary of Penguin, promises to assist authors with the marketing and distribution of their books. However, the company has been accused of various fraudulent or otherwise deceptive practices and “unjust enrichment” in a class action suit that was launched in April 2013. At the time of writing, the suit had yet to be certified. The allegations have not been proven in court, but there have been whispers for years amongst writers and freelance editors about the way that Author Solutions has dealt with its clients, and some believe that the services are little more than a way to scam hopeful authors out of their money.
Whether the suit is successful or not, it still raises the question of how to find professional services that are both suitable and relatively affordable. There are, I’m afraid, no foolproof methods for choosing, but as always, be prepared to google the company and ask around. Are you part of a group of writers, editors, or other members of the publishing industry? If not, join one — the one that suits your profession and/or genre the most closely. Your fellow members will likely be able to recommend some good services, or at least help you steer clear of those that have poor reputations. Read the blogs and websites of these associations. Talk to you editor/publisher/publicist, if you’ve already chosen one. If you haven’t already chosen one, the Editors’ Association of Canada has its own listing of professional editors who work with authors from around the world.
If you can afford to take your time choosing a professional service, do it. Publishing is difficult, costly, and time-consuming, so choosing a good match will be critical for your success. Remember that this is your book, your time, and your money, so don’t rush. Look around a little and you may save yourself a lot of heartache in the long run.
The Brave New Publishing World Series:
Where Have All the Authors Gone?
Whither Shalt Thou Publish? Part I
Whither Shalt Thou Publish? Part II