In recent weeks I've had the opportunity to engage in several discussions on several blogs about the nature of publishing. This is an interesting topic, but it has become all the more interesting with the rise of "Print on Demand
" (POD) technology, which allows a publisher an economically viable print run of even a single book, which with older technology was simply not practical.
Thus far I have encountered four basic applications of POD technology:
1. Small Presses. By reducing overhead, POD benefits small publishers, many of whom operate on very tight budgets. This is in every way a good thing, since the small press has been under pressure in recent years as major publishers grow more and more dominant. Small presses are an important part of the publishing world, since they provide an outlet for titles that appeal to smaller audiences and which therefore are not commercially viable for a major publisher to invest in. Small presses, in other words, promote literary diversity, and this is good. A good example of a small press that uses POD is Prime Books
, which specializes in literary science fiction, fantasy and horror.
2. Publishing Out of Print Books. Since the size of a print run doesn't matter with POD, the technology makes it profitable to bring old books with small audiences back into print, making them available when they otherwise would not be. One of the larger POD companies, iUniverse
, has such a program, and there are imprints heavily involved in this, such as Wildside Press
3. Publishing Limited Demand Books. Some books, by their nature, have an inherently limited demand. Examples include certain reference books whose contents are only valid for short periods, or books that are regularly updated. Rather than commit to (and risk having to dispose of) a large number of copies, POD allows the publishers of such books to produce them as needed.
4. Vanity and Self-Publishing. Despite a few well-publicized commercial success stories, the majority of self-published books sell only a small number of copies. There are a number of reasons for this, including quality concerns (self-publishing usually also means self-editing and proofreading, which are very different skills from writing), limited promotional opportunities, and an inherently small audience (unless Grandma is famous, her memoirs are not likely to be interesting to anyone outside the family, for example). Just as it benefits small presses, POD makes self-publishing economically feasible for the individual.
Put simply, because POD has a cost advantage over traditional printing when the number of books being printed is small, POD works best when the anticipated audience for a book is small, as in each of these four cases. While it is perfectly possible to print a million copies of a POD book, in the real world this is unlikely to happen. Since POD books are individually more expensive than individual books from a traditional print run, any publisher who expects to sell a lot of books will bias toward the economy of scale found in that traditional print run. Only if a POD book were to suddenly catch the public's attention and quickly sell a large number of copies might there be an exception to this, and in such a case a traditional publisher would almost certainly pick up the title right away and remove it from the POD inventory.
Now, the first three applications I noted above have few detractors, since they are simply traditional publishers using a new technology to cut costs, but there has been a lot of ink (or more correctly, bandwidth) spilled over the vanity/self-publishing aspect of POD, so much so in fact that some people equate the two. As a result, discussions about POD usually become discussions about self-publishing. I'll say here that I've self-published a book with POD, and so do not approach this discussion from the outside. I've also done professional freelance editing, and am fairly familiar with how traditional publishing works.
This brings us to a second feature of the modern publishing world: the internet. With the success of on-line booksellers like Amazon.com
and Barnes & Noble
, it is now possible to distribute a book worldwide without taking up shelf space in bookstores. Though I think it unlikely that on-line booksellers are ever going to replace the bookstore, the internet has created a method of distribution that did not exist twenty years ago. The biggest benefit of this, of course, is that obscure titles are now widely available; for example, you can find both the well-known Harry Potter
and much-less-well-known The Usahar
Yes, these two along with almost every book that iUniverse and its peers have put out is there, a few keystrokes and mouse clicks away. The result of the combination of POD and the internet, in other words, is that there are a lot of books one can buy that wouldn't have been out there twenty years ago. Is this good or bad?
Hence the debate, since so many of these new books are self-published. Objections to self-publishing typically focus on the low quality of so much of it, and a look at the preview pages from any of the major POD companies shows that many of these books do indeed have a lot of problems. As a result, self-publishing is regarded by a lot of people as the option of last resort for authors whose manuscripts simply weren't good enough to actually be "published".
It's not really publishing, just printing and binding, the detractors say.
This is a comfortable position to take. It implies that we are protected from bad writing by a system that invariably rewards quality, and that there is some inherent merit in "published" work that is lacking in a manuscript that is "unpublished". What's odd, however, is that this is not the view that editors and agents in the business of publishing actually seem to have. They freely acknowledge that they are constrained by economics, and that the cost of publishing or representing a book precludes them from accepting every worthy title that comes across their desks. In an interview over at POD-dy Mouth
(a blog devoted to POD), one editor even pointed out that self-publishing might be a good exercise for authors, so they can see how difficult and complex the publisher's job actually is; I can personally attest to the value of this lesson.
It's also worth noting that in the interviews at POD-dy Mouth, none of the agents or editors thus far have said that self-publishing by POD or otherwise will in any way hurt a budding writer's career; such things seem not to matter to the business one way or the other. There is no evidence that they consider self-publishing a threat to what they do. This makes sense when we consider that they are in business, that a good, salable book is a good, salable book regardless of its pedigree, and these people know they can't publish them all anyway. Better a good book be self-published than not published, one editor said. Readers seem to not really care; they either like a book or they don't and rarely pay attention to the name of the publisher.
So who are the critics of self-publishing? One group is reviewers, who usually refuse to deal with self-published work, and given the large number of books to be reviewed and the high percentage of bad self-published ones, this makes a certain amount of sense (I should note in all fairness, however, that some self-published work does occasionally get reviewed--sometimes favorably and sometimes not--in major venues such as SFSite
). Those publications that do review a lot of self-published work, like Midwest Book Review
, are themselves called illegitimate by some critics of self-publishing. Reviews by readers, such as those at Amazon.com, are also dismissed by some, despite the fact that these are the opinions of end users; that is, the people for whom the book was written. I confess that the logic to this escapes me.
Oddly enough, though, the harshest critics of self-publishing are often writers. Some are seasoned professionals
, while others are self-acknowledged amateurs. The reasons for this are no doubt varied; a few are themselves veterans of self-publishing who perhaps were disappointed by their experience. Given the low sales volume of most self-published books it is hard to imagine that traditionally published authors would consider them to be competition, and you would think that those who are trying to sell manuscripts to traditional publishers would be glad that some of their competition was opting out, thereby narrowing the field.
To provide another possible explanation, however, a little autobiography is in order: Years ago, when I was learning about the publishing industry and trying to sell the manuscript of my first completed novel, I spent a lot of time with budding writers, and we all went to writing conventions together, where we networked with agents and editors. There was a clear prestige thing going on, imposed from below, by all of us who looked with a certain envy upon the authors who had sold books, and we also looked at the editors and agents as our path to the promised land. We listened to these editors talk so we could learn what they wanted us to write, bought them drinks in the hotel bar, and gave them our specially made business cards that proclaimed us as writers, all for just a chance to send them our manuscript. It was, as I look back on it now, lots of fun, and it was quite educational, because for the most part they were very nice folks with a very real love of literature, and they were trying to be patient with us as we badgered them while they looked for the one or two authors who might actually have a manuscript they could turn into a profitable book. The majority were honest, sometimes brutally so, about the publishing industry.
To us neophytes, selling a book was the most important thing in the world, and we wrote furiously and critiqued each other furiously with that goal in mind. But as time went by, I saw in myself and others that writing had become less important than being a "writer". This meant, of course, a published writer, because we had convinced ourselves that nothing else would validate our art. Our highest praise in critiques was "this will sell!" Not "this made me weep, it was so beautiful", or "this made me think about something in a way I never had before", or even "wow, that turned me on". There was a time when my highest aspiration was to be on the cover of Locus
, because that would mean that I had "made it". I would have the status and prestige that I had so willingly granted to others (never asking whether they actually wanted it or not).
And so I can't help but wonder if at least some of the criticism from writers of their self-published, POD, Amazon.com-benefiting comrades isn't based ultimately on a fear that the mass of self-published work and the new means of distributing it will somehow lower the status of the word "author", or more specifically, "published author". Some argue
that most self-published writers are simply unwilling to go through the long and often painful process that is required to write well. To be sure, one can now write a bad manuscript and spend a few hundred dollars on it and then proclaim oneself "published", but does this make one John Steinbeck
? The work, the quality of it, will in the end be judged in either case, and no matter how nice the cover or the binding or the typesetting, if you have typos all over the first page or your story is impossible to follow or your style is incomprehensible even to a native speaker of whatever language you are writing in, your book will be called bad. By the same token, if your work is good, if it is one of those many fine books that traditional publishers might like to but cannot publish, then it will still be just as fine a book if you publish it yourself, provided you are willing to do the extra work and edit and proofread it well.
Selling a self-published book, of course, is another side to it all, and one that needs to be carefully considered.
Our society regards economic success as one of the highest (if not the highest) forms of human achievement, and this attitude extends into our views of literature. "Successful" books are generally regarded as those which sell well, as if popularity were synonymous with quality. Certainly, if one's goal is to make money, then sales are important, whether one is selling cars or books or shampoo. But books, and more specifically stories, are not merely a commercial product. They are also an art form, and art is by its nature subjective; what appeals to me may not appeal to you. It is possible to say that because Car A has airbags and a higher safety-rating and better fuel economy and performance than Car B, that Car A is a better car. But does the fact that Book A has magic and wizards and swordplay and a linear, entertaining plot and Book B does not mean that Book A is a better book? Are the Harry Potter
books better than The Grapes of Wrath
? Can an objective standard to make such a distinction actually exist in an art form?
I would argue not. It is possible to state that a book, or even a story, is poorly produced, based on a number of widely accepted norms (correct spelling, punctuation, and even to a lesser extent grammar, for example). It is also inevitable that we will each like some novels and stories more than others, based on our own individual criteria for what constitutes good and bad literature. But we would do well to remember that not every author writes what they do because they believe it will sell, or that anyone outside a certain niche will be interested in it. Both authors and audiences will vary widely, and popularity is not by itself an inherent indicator of quality any more than a hundred positive reviews at Amazon.com or one in the New York Times. Popularity is flattering and affirming and can be profitable, but what constitutes quality in literature is something we each have to decide for ourselves, ideally after reading widely. Not everyone likes Hemingway's work either.
So, ultimately, how do we define "publishing"? Dictionary.com
gives us: 1. "To prepare and issue (printed material) for public distribution or sale" or 2. "To bring to the public attention; announce". It says nothing of an increase in status (thus shattering my youthful dreams); nor does it mention specific requirements as to how the work should be produced or disseminated. It does not guarantee quality or fame or fortune. Rather, publication is merely the act of making one's work public.
And this, by way of conclusion, should stand as a warning to any and all prospective self-publishers: if you think self-publishing is going to be easy, you are mistaken. If you think it is going to get you status as a "published writer", you need to take a close look at exactly why you are writing in the first place. If you think it will make you money, know that the odds, as in the lottery, are stacked against you. Self-publishing requires skills in editing and copyediting and proofreading, not to mention an ability to self-critique, that few writers have. Many POD companies offer these things as services (for which they charge you), but in the end, the one who is investing money in the venture is you, not your publisher. Unlike a traditional publisher whose success or failure derives from how well your book sells, the POD publisher will make a profit regardless (albeit a smaller one). The good POD publishers are honest businesspeople and will give you what you have paid for (iUniverse has treated me extremely well), but simply because the product they produce has a pretty cover and is well-bound does not absolve you of the responsibility for putting the best book you can write (and edit, and proofread) between those covers. And you need to set realistic goals for putting your work into published form, to know what you want to achieve and are trying to achieve, and to be prepared for the consequences of what you are doing.
It's all up to you.