Monday, May 10, 2010

Publishing is Not Going to Die

A couple of weeks ago we had a reading called, “Self-Publish or Perish? The Implications of Digital Book Production.” The assumption of the article was that traditional publishing was going to go by the wayside shortly and that the wave of the future was self-publishing. I am afraid that Fenton is full of crap. He makes several poorly researched points and uses logical fallacies to try to sell his opinion – that great authors are going to come out of the woodwork and self-publish their books in SPITE of the mean nasty editors who keep turning them down, we are all going to read them and be happy- voila! Thank you, digital revolution.

Fenton makes a logical leap in one of his big assumptions – that publishing books digitally will somehow result in the demise of publishers. Let me ask you – has the surge of affordable camcorders resulted in the demise of Hollywood? No, it has resulted in a bunch of crappy YouTube videos. Self-publishing is the YouTube of the book world except it has some bigger and more damaging pitfalls.

Fenton states that with today’s technology, “anyone can publish and market a book, produce it and order it cost effectively with Web-based services.” And that is perfectly true! Yet, how many of those books are ones we want to read? Very, very few.

One of his illogical assumptions is that all a publisher does is print a book. If someone is a good writer, does that also make them a good copy-editor? How about a great graphic artist? Do they have marketing skills? Do they know and understand the process of getting a book on the shelves of a bookstore? How about the legal implications of things they have written? If not, do they have the cash on hand to hire all of these people and to live on while they write? These are all things that a publisher helps to take care of or does. Yet Fenton doesn’t even mention these services, which are necessary whether a book is printed or an e-book.

Another mistake Fenton makes is ignoring one of the biggest trends in self-publishing: getting ripped off. Fenton looks at one of the good and honest self-publishing agencies, Yet a lot of self-published authors are not using Lulu, because Lulu is straight-forward about what it can provide. On demand books are hard to sell. They are more expensive than normal books, a bookstore cannot return them, and they are often terrible and full of typos. Self-publishing companies like Publish America, which claims to be America’s most prolific publisher, pretend that they are a “traditional” publisher but that THEY are willing to give your manuscript a chance. They charge exorbitant rates for services that they do not perform, like copy editing and marketing. If they did perform these services, the manuscripts submitted by several different writers’ advocacy books that did things like repeat the first 15 pages 15 times or try to write the worst novel in the world Atlanta Nights would not have been accepted.

Publish America and companies like them are ripping people off while pretending to fulfill their dreams. It makes money by charging people to print their books, charging them for non-existent services, and then selling them said copies of books that people try to hawk to bookstores themselves. It recently had a promotion in which it they would submit up to five copies of your book to Random Houses submission editors. What a great deal! You only had to buy ten copies to get them to do it! And surely, if they get FIVE copies, someone will read at least ONE of them, right? Except, if one wanted to be published by Random House, why not just send your manuscript to them yourself? Oh, because they don’t accept manuscripts from writers without agents. What did they do with all the unagenteded manuscripts that flooded in from PublishAmerica authors? They threw them away. Fenton and PublishAmerica are making the same leap here. The only “success story” Fenton mentions in his article is a woman who self-published, was noticed, and then picked up by a regular publisher. But, if the whole publishing model is coming to an end, why use someone published in the old-fashioned way as a success story?

The whole point is, despite the huge amounts of people self-publishing, we aren’t reading their books. They aren’t selling and they aren’t being reviewed. Mostly because they are bad – if they are good, they are generally able to find a publisher that will pay the author, not the other way around. The ease of producing books digitally does not make publishers less needed – just like the ease of finding huge amounts of information does not make librarians less needed. If we want to support a new model and change the way books are published we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, support smaller presses like Subterranean Press, Mercury House, or Small Beer Press. These are discriminating presses who publish very talented writers, and I like that. I like having experts wade through the slush pile and pick out some books for me. Sometimes, there is a reason for experts.

John Scalzi wrote a short play in three acts on the issue here.

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