I was recently involved (marginally and cautiously) in an epic comment thread with the title “why self-publishing might kill the industry”. The exchanges have been fairly heated, let me tell you! I think I made a few good points, although I am not as well spoken as some other posters. It was a good discussion at first, but devolved quickly into a war between self-publishing lovers and haters. I tried to keep myself respectable (and mostly succeeded).
One of the big reasons I hopped in to the discussion was I am kind of on the fence about trying to submit my latest story. I feel like I might finally be at a place with my writing where it would be picked up. Not definitively, of course, but I feel kind of okay about this one. So, I have considered it. And gone over a pros/cons list. So when this thread popped up, I jumped in to the fray.
The main points in favor of traditional publishing made in this extensive (205+ posts) thread are few:
1. Quality. Major publishers are putting out more quality work than self-publishers. If you can’t get traditionally published, you probably shouldn’t be published.
2. Reputation. To be accepted in literary circles, to gain respect as a writer, you must be published by a legitimate publishing house.
3. Assistance. Marketing, editing, cover art, and “author-branding” assistance is provided by the publisher.
I feel all three of these reasons are mostly bullshit. Reason #1 is less than half right. The best you can say is usually the quality of trad-pub is better, and that is because the self-pub market has a lot of duds which lower the average, even though they rarely sell and so hardly ever show up in searches. Reason #2 might be totally true, but who cares what elitist assholes think, anyway? Reason #3 is perhaps partially correct, though at a small genre press, I wouldn’t expect too much help beyond editing and cover art.
The benefits of self-publishing are multiple. I won’t even go into all of them, because honestly it’s too much. A few major self-pub bonuses: keeping control over all aspects of production, holding rights to your work, receiving a larger percentage of sale price, setting your price, writing whatever and whenever and however you want.
So, I’m kind of leaning towards self-publishing this story.
But part of me wants to know: if I submitted it, would be it accepted? And…okay…I do kind of want the respect of those elitist assholes. And I wouldn’t mind a smidgen of support, either. Ahh, decisions, decisions.
Well, back to that thread… I think the title should have been worded differently. The question really was not about self-publishing, but rather about e-books in general. The original poster was concerned that the massive influx of (mediocre/poor quality) e-book offerings would make people turn away from reading in general, and thus “destroy” the publishing/writing industry. I replied that this is false. People will not stop reading if they happen upon a bad book, they will simply be more selective the next time. E-books, I asserted, could only increase readership.
So then I was reading my local newspaper, and I see a letter to the editor entitled “My world of books is being dismantled! Help!” Written by a gal named Marsha, a 68 year old from my city, who complains that the library is losing books, in favor of e-books. She bemoans the loss of her precious paper tomes, and calls the kindle and the nook her “enemies”. I’d like to say her letter was ridiculous, but she made some fair points.
1. Paper books are physically pleasing. Well, you are right, Marsha, they are. Not only the feel and smell, the reassuring weight of them. But also the way that paper choice and font selection can be so specific to each book. Are the pages trimmed cleanly, in a precise smooth cut? Is the cut edge gilded? Or are the pages deckled, adding a rough textured accent to each sheet?
2. Paper books show their size at first glance. You know immediately if you are dealing with a novella, or a weighty epic. (Although, for the even-slightly-tech-savvy, this is easily noted of e-books as well)
3. Bookstores are nice, and they are disappearing because of e-books. Yes, true and true. But for me, bookstores were always a bit of a heartbreak. I could never afford all the books I wanted, and I could never have housed all the books on my wish list even if I’d been able to buy them. perhaps bookstores will adapt, become more a source for reference books and children’s books and periodicals? I hope.
4. Picture books are no good on e-readers. No argument. I have a real problem with children’s digital book offerings. They are not so great. And for kids, especially little kids, the picture book is a necessity. I have enough chewed-cornered, drool-marred, torn-up examples of board-books from my kids’ toddler years to prove this point. A good book is physically loved by children, and rightfully so. My kids routinely kissed and hugged their books, and sometimes even slept with them. They provided a tangible comfort no e-reader could ever duplicate.
5. People who cannot understand/afford e-readers are left out. Well, this is a good point, and though Marsha doesn’t make it directly, I think it is a big part of her argument. She fears the reduction in the quantity of physical books available at her local library. Going to the library, which used to be a simple activity equally accessible to people of any age, education level, and economic background, now requires computer assistance and a digital device. I can see the problem. Even more frightening to Marsha, an new all e-book library is supposedly going up in Bexar county, Texas. The times, they are a changin’.
I guess when I think about both of theses things (the letter and the comment thread) , what I am really left with is the high value we place on printed books. Even though the publishing industry has it’s faults, and even though e-books are undeniably awesome, there is a magic quality to a physical, printed on paper, professionally bound book. As if, by putting the effort forth to create such a thing, the value of the words contained within are increased, the merit of the author is attested to.
But what about all the books that are available in e-book form that never would have been printed? As a writer of m/m romance, I can say the availability of printed books in “my” genre has been historically scarce (or non-existent). So many great stories, in so many genres, are now available digitally when before, they’d never have been printed. Not because they are trash, but because they would not have brought in enough money to justify the investment a publisher would have made in them, or because they were too controversial.
One last note: In honor of Banned Books Week, let’s consider how e-books and self-publishing have helped with this age-old issue. How can you ban an e-book? Well, I guess you could outlaw it, but how could you stop people distributing it? I don’t think you could. Not when an author could simply e-mail a .pdf to ten thousand people. And self-publishing means that any message, any subject, no matter how controversial, could potentially be published. Even if (hypothetically) amazon refused to distribute it, an author could use the kdp formatter to create a .mobi file for free, and distribute it themselves. Something else to think about, for sure.
So the debate rages on. I am partial to e-books, for their convenience and availability, but I still go to the library a lot (geeky habits die hard), and I still have a lot of over-stuffed bookshelves.