May 8th, 2012
As a girl who works for a fairly large and established worldwide publishing firm in Canada, I am more than familiar with the stigmas of self-publishing. For every lecture that I do, panel I attend, conference that I might speak at (and those are few and far between), it’s inevitable that some lone wolf will come up to me and ask me my opinion about self-publishing, and I always give the same advice, that perhaps it’s not a good idea, that your book, your work, will, at some point, find the right home. And, of this, I am probably wrong — there are some books out there that will never find a home, and there’s a whole world of industrious people out there making a living from self-publishing, right?
We were talking a little bit about it at book club last night, and the consensus was that, for the most part, it’s not something people should do. But then, I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and while I’m not 100% a convert to the “Amazon will save your life & make you a bestselling author immediately” school of thought, I am ever-curious about the kinds of content opportunities that self-publishing offers up to the writer who might want to actually live outside the publishing ecosystem on purpose. Of course, our conversation last night strummed up and around the “sensation” that is Fifty Shades of Gray, and its evolution from fan fiction to literary sensation. We all just couldn’t get it. But that’s because we are, definably, a different kind of reader, a different kind of book consumer. My book club might be incredibly varied in its opinions but we are all book people. And I’d venture to say that perhaps, and please don’t strike me dead in the comments, Fifty Shades of Gray is a kind of book for non-book people, more entertainment than anything else, and that’s not a bad thing — different people get different kinds of things out of reading, I’m not about to judge.
But, in the end, that trilogy is published by one of the Big Six in the US, so someone, somewhere saw a great opportunity and turned it around into a very traditional success — regardless of its origins, its outcome is still seeing the book on bestseller lists all over the place (well, in the US and Canada, I’m not sure about the UK and/or the real rest of the world). I don’t know much about its evolution and how it landed at Random House, which is fine — it’s just that those stories are so rare. It’s amazing to me to see books that transcend format, ones that break out in print, in ebook, land with feature articles in Entertainment Weekly and spawn the inevitable million attempts by other peeps to jump on the same bandwagon only to watch it slowly ride away into the sunset. Will there be a movie? Definitely. Will it do as well as Twilight? Who knows. All I know is that maybe it’ll enable other writers/publishers to keep the lights on a little bit longer and that’s not a bad thing.
So, back to self-publishing. I’m consistently fascinated by the Kindle bestseller list — how the titles on there, outside of the obvious Hunger Games & Fifty Shades titles, are by books and authors I have never heard of. It’s an ecosystem in and of itself — these are books, writers whose whole world is Amazon, are making a living by pumping out ebooks and driving their own marketing, publicity and sales in that one environment. There’s no more slushpile, there’s no bother about finding an agent or a publisher, there’s control over how your content looks, reads, feels, and there’s amazing returns if the book sells. Yet, there’s the harsh reality of unsustainable growth and the inability to separate yourself from the crowd. What tools do you use? Good metadata & search? Great covers? Lots of reader recommendations? Plenty of value-priced content (read: $0.00).
I’m not going to lie, as a reader, I have never downloaded a single self-published book, but I’m thinking that I might try a few now, just to really compare with the multitudes of other things that I read. My reading isn’t remotely varied, though, to keep in mind, I rarely read small press books, simply because I don’t have too much time; I read a lot of Cdn fiction, nonfiction, but not a lot of genre fiction, which seems to me to be the overwhelming type of content available. So, what am I missing about this opportunity? Is there a gap that smaller companies can bridge by being more aggressive and publishing the slushpile, does the best content really rise to the top, and does it make sense just to throw caution to the wind and see what sticks? I’m curious but not convinced. I’m intrigued but not necessarily threatened, despite what all of the news/blogs/twitter says on an almost-daily basis about the decline of big publishing. I am consistently amazed at how technology turns traditional industry on its head and maybe the piracy conversation everyone’s having, the never-ending pricing disputes, and the seemingly ceaseless marked “death” of book isn’t where we should be focusing the conversation. Really and truly its how publishing has evolved because of digital in many ways and my consistent banging on about content was right all along — now we just have to see what happens.