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Traditional Publishing Versus… What?

I began this blog with a somewhat blustery piece about how tricky it is for your average mid-list author to make a living in today’s difficult publishing market. I’ve since taken that post down, mostly because it was a bit of a rant and in it I shot off some opinions that I later realized were only half-formed at best. 

One of the subjects I touched upon was the burgeoning self-publishing market, and I sort of dismissed it out-of-hand. In my defense, I had just been talking to someone who – despairing his inability to secure an agent – had self-published, and didn’t like the experience. When I worked at the literary agency, I also occasionally heard complaints from unpublished authors, who eventually found themselves taken advantage of by various vanity presses. So my thinking there was, “Authors! Don’t pay to be published! This is always a terrible trick!”   

I also have to say that over the last four years or so, traditional publishing has been my bread and butter, so I probably feel a loyalty to the system that has kept a roof over my head. There is also the loyalty-to-people-who’ve-really-helped-me factor: Under the traditional publishing model, you have all these people trying to make your book succeed. You have your editor who sweats and bleeds with you, you have your publisher who invests money in you, you have your marketing and PR people who work all kinds of social magic that you – pathetic, anti-social writer that you are – certainly could not work yourself. All these people (and more! jacket designer, layout designer, sales reps, library reps, so many, many more!) working hard to make your book succeed. You can never really give these people enough credit, you know? In my grateful zeal to demonstrate how much I appreciate these folks, and not wanting to bite the hand that feeds, I think I came off as very dismissive of other, non-traditional forms of publishing. 

But in trying to adopt a more neutral stance on this subject, I was reminded of history. I thought I remembered something about Mark Twain making a good deal of his fortune based on the fact that he "self-published" Huck Finn. And sure enough, a quick Google search revealed my memory was not as completely shot as previously assumed. In fact, self-publishing advocate John Kremer posts the following list of famous authors who’ve self-published in one form or another:

Margaret Atwood, L. Frank Baum, William Blake, Ken Blanchard, Robert Bly, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Lord Byron, Willa Cather, Pat Conroy, Stephen Crane, e.e. cummings, W.E.B. DuBois, Alexander Dumas, T.S. Eliot, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Benjamin Franklin, Zane Grey, Thomas Hardy, E. Lynn Harris, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway, Robinson Jeffers, Spencer Johnson, Stephen King, Rudyard Kipling, Louis L'Amour, D.H. Lawrence, Rod McKuen, Marlo Morgan, John Muir, Anais Nin, Thomas Paine, Tom Peters, Edgar Allen Poe, Alexander Pope, Beatrix Potter, Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, Irma Rombauer, Carl Sandburg, Robert Service, George Bernard Shaw, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Upton Sinclair, Gertrude Stein, William Strunk, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoi, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Virginia Woolf. 

For those of these authors who’ve enjoyed commercial success, the reason to get more directly involved in the production end of their books is pretty straightforward: Invest your money and influence in yourself, and keep more of the resultant profits. Think of it in terms of a bankable Hollywood star who demands a executive producer credit. It makes sense, no? There are also those authors – like Virginia Woolf – who along with her husband Leonard Woolf, ran a publishing press as a means of advocating for a specific literary movement, in which case, a hands-on approach to running the printing press can be an act of community-making. And there are, of course, a great deal of qualifiers in terms of what it meant for some of these authors to be considered "self-published," and certainly not all of them came out ahead, in terms of finances or reputation (see this HuffPo piece debunking the same list).

But getting down to brass tacks: Debunking aside, it can be said most of the authors on the above list had a more direct hand in achieving publication of their work, however you want to slice it. Most of these authors had to have some amount of cash to invest, and smaller presses weren't already a quaint figment of the past. Not to mention most of them didn’t have to deal with that wild card element: The Internet. 

While – in theory – the Internet ought to be a democratizing influence, in some instances, it can also intensify existing social strata. Nowadays, anyone can publish a book at the click of a button. I’m not sure I agree with John Kremer when he says, “many larger publishers now scour the Internet for self-pubished books that could fit their publishing program.” In fact, I think publishers more often wait until a self-published book is already a commercial bestseller, then swoop in and try to romance the author into a contract (Hugh Howey, E.L. James, etc). My point is this: I believe the fact of the Internet has served to tighten the small, elite, and sometimes insular loop of communication in the traditional publishing world. This is especially true when it comes to literary fiction. The Internet has made the stream of book information overwhelming – there is too much to take in! – and in my opinion, the world of traditional publishing has reacted by focusing more and more on promoting an increasingly small number of anointed titles. This is great for the Chosen Few, but not so great for the Would-Be Authors, obviously. 

Meanwhile, Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing model is interesting, in that it is so unapologetically business-driven. There has been an even more interesting development as of late, in that Amazon has decided to pay its KDP authors according to the number of pages their customers read. Also, Amazon does have its own in-house imprints that run a little more like traditional publishing imprints, and sometimes authors are able to make a crossover. From my understanding, it operates on numbers: Amazon monitors sales, and if a title is successful enough, Amazon will approach the author.  Not unlike how those traditional publishing houses approached E.L. James or Hugh Howey. This is a business, folks; the hard truth is if there's money to be made, any number of smart entrepreneurs will naturally get in line to make it. My investigation focuses on exactly where the author (i.e. the content-producer) comes out in the wash. 

In any case, KDP is just one program, and this post marks the first of a few exploratory inquiries about what sorts of non-traditional publishing routes an author might take. 

I remain a tried-and-true advocate of traditional publishing, because it has been so good to me, and I’ll be clear about this bias as I blog.  But given that even traditional publishing has been forced to undergo some rather radical changes in the last decade or so (enter e-book, commence chaos), the discussion of how an author can best succeed as both an artist and a gainfully employed human being in today's culture is one well worth having.