But no longer. Today’s Internet and exploding social media invite anyone with a computer and quality printer to become an author – a development that allows first-time novelists and non-fiction writers to get their message into the mainstream without the blessing of a traditional publisher.
Internet giants such as Amazon offer the public a plethora of selections on a spectrum of topics. And when you consider that publishing houses are flooded by thousands of titles per month for consideration, self-publishing presents enticing options.
Is the medium still the message?
Marshall McLuhan’s axiom is more relevant than ever. The abundance of publishing options available to writers today provides a constantly shifting medium.
Author Rick Junnila took the self-publishing route – and he’s glad he did. When Junnila decided to write “An Elf Named Findley,” the Oakley chiropractor knew he would publish the story himself. “I just knew that I wanted to get it out quickly (in time for the holidays),” said Junnila. “And that this would be the way to do it.”
Junnila’s vision paid off, and after just a few weeks his book became one of Amazon’s top holiday sellers.
Pros and cons
If the idea is to get the work out to the largest audience fast, and money is not the end-goal, then self-publishing has plenty to recommend it. One of the strongest arguments in favor of self-publishing is the retaining of control. Traditional publishing houses often take vital decisions out of an author’s hands. The look and feel of the finished project can be radically different from the author’s original vision.
Publication speed is also a plus. Self-published books can be produced nearly immediately and marketed in several months or less, whereas conventionally printed books can take as long as two years to hit the shelves.
And if you’re trying to market a book to a specific audience, such as educators, or if you envision your book making a limited run, as in the case of a family history, self-publishing has its place.
But the author’s retention of independence and control increases the potential for error. Traditional publishing houses employ a host of professionals who take a manuscript from cover to cover and edit, sharpen and clean up the product. Self-publishers should also make use of professionals to help with grammar, spelling and general editing. Nothing says “self-published” faster than a poorly proofread product.
Publishing houses also typically offer a retainer to the author based on what they expect the title to earn, plus a royalty on copies actually sold. Self-publishers receive compensation directly from the sale of their products based solely on the number of titles they sell. Lump-sum advances are a strong argument in favor of going the traditional route.
And then there are the publishing and marketing costs. Traditional publishers carry all the costs of printing, promoting and publicizing an author. The price tag for self-publishing depends upon such variables as the number of pages, type of binding, paper stock, and paperback versus hardcover. According to Go-Publish-Yourself.com, the cost of self-publishing (based on a 1,000-copy run) can range from $2,500 to $5,500. Self-publishers are not only responsible for their own costs, but the job of promoting themselves as well. Today, online sites make it easier to get the word out, but unless authors are somewhat marketing-savvy, press promotion can mean a precarious dive off the deep end.
The snob factor
Many will argue that self-published books are every bit as highbrow and prestigious as traditionally published books, and that people don’t make their selections based on the publisher. True, but like it or not, self-publishing still bears a stigma: “real” writers go the mainstream route. And in some cases the preconception is accurate, especially for those in the field of academia, where credibility is gained by the number of established houses or journals that publish them.
But that preconception is slowly changing, and rightly so, say advocates. Quality work, they argue, shouldn’t be predicated on how or where a work is published, because for every rule there is an exception – or two. Take for example the story of Jack Canfield, author of the mega-selling series “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” After countless rejection slips and years of discouragement, Canfield decided to strike out on his own and publish the first book in the series himself. And remember Charles Dickens and Mark Twain? Yep, self-published entrepreneurs as well.
It can’t be ignored, though, that the number of hard-copy books that find their way onto the shelves of Barnes & Noble, Costco and Target, is limited. According to Pat Walsh, editor-in-chief of the San Francisco publishing house MacAdam Cage, as fast as the world of book publishing is changing, there is still and always will be a market for the published writer who sells his books the old-fashioned way.
“Self-publishing will not bring you literary success,” Walsh was quoted in a blog by Christopher Meeks, who attended a panel discussion with Walsh. “Books are still a brick-and-mortar industry. That is, books are still sold mostly out of stores.”
Don’t forget the e-books
The growing popularity of e-readers such as the Kindle and Nook and the online capabilities of the iPad provides a limitless market for books that defy the restrictions of a paper medium. E-books and online titles allow readers to access books in record numbers and authors to produce them just as rapidly. The mere click of the mouse brings up the latest titles – some for free. According to Editor and Publisher Magazine, Amazon is selling more e-books than print copies, a trend that has grown exponentially since the release of the Kindle just four years ago.
“E-readers are doing amazing things for self-published and independent authors,” said Shannon Skinner, community relations manager for Barnes & Noble Booksellers in Antioch. “I am definitely seeing a huge trend toward writers moving their books to e-readers. It’s easier, cheaper and reaches more potential readers.”
Another force that’s changing the face of publishing is the success of companies such as iUniverse, Lulu and AuthorHouse, which co-opt the role of the conventional hard-copy publisher by assembling an author’s creation in digital form.
There are even online sites such as YourNovel.com, which for a modest fee will write your book for you, incorporating your name and family members into the pages of adventure stories and romance sagas.
And given the fact that approximately 100,000 English-language fiction books are published annually – and more than a million are currently in print – bookstores are unable to provide shelf space for every new author, making the electronic option a viable alternative. According to the Self-Publishing Resources website, of the estimated 8,000 to 11,000 new online publications produced each year, the majority are self-published.
Quality versus quantity
So is the growing trend toward the homogenization of the medium affecting the message? Are the technological advances and user-friendly formats subjecting the public to the literary whims of every Tom, Dick and would-be Hemingway? Is the modern approach to publishing dumbing down our expectations of what good or even great literature should be?
The answers, like the myriad approaches to publishing, are varied.
“I don’t think there is any such thing as ‘dumbing down’ reading,” said Dr. Richard Ek, former CSU Chico journalism professor. “If you believe that any kind of reading is good reading, then the Bathroom Reader or Archie comics are good literature. Shouldn’t ‘good’ literature be up to the reader? All the choices out there are positive; it’s up to the individual to decide what they want to read or how they want to be published. Free will – it’s about free will.”
If successful publishing is like beauty – in the eye of the beholder – whether an author self-publishes, goes the traditional route or simply pumps out an online blog, the measure of success will be as individual as the medium. And if self-publishing was good enough for Twain and Dickens … it just might be good enough for the rest of us.