Bringing up Israel and Palestine is likely the only way more sure to get people muttering/tapping the hilts of their daggers than talking to Internet full of writers about self-publishing vs. going with so-called legacy publishers. In this age of the Web, the debate is ever-more hot, with writers on either side biting their thumbs at the other. In this post, I'm going to look at the three biggest points of contention in the debate, and offer a solution. (Donations and thank-you gifts can be sent via PayPal.)
At its base, self-publishing is a cinch: Start an account on Amazon (or any of the many services), upload your work, set a price, sit back, and relax. Huzzah! No matter what you pounded out on your Mom's old laptop, you are a published author. Go to Amazon and do a search for “Writer'sCramp, Volume 1” by Rob Greene. I made it available to your Kindle on May 18, 2009, just to show one of my Creative Writing classes how easy it was.
“And with a click,” I told the rapt students, “I am a published author. Fear me.”
To date, not a single copy of “The Cramp” has sold, despite its low, low, low price of $1. (You cannot see me, but I am smiling every time I type “Cramp”; it keeps coming out, appropriately enough, as “Crap.” Maybe it's really a work of genius; I don't know. I wrote it, but I've never read it.) I put the book together in about 10 minutes from random Word documents I found on my thumb drive. I've done nothing to market it, nor should I. Do NOT buy this book. It was just a class exercise I did to engender discussion about new media.
So, Problem One: Any yahoo with an Internet connection can be a published author. Furthermore, by marketing the hell out of it, or just spamming the Twitterverse, he or she can con some lit lovers into downloading the book. The Result is a lot of self-published books, with no guarantee of quality. If the book sucks eggs, the disillusioned bibliophile will be less likely to try another self-published author, even a good one, which makes the whole cottage, sticking-it-to-the man industry suspect. Meanwhile, the scofflaw author (or maybe he's just deluded by his sales and Amazon reviews into thinking he can write) goes on to barf up another volume.
Problem Two: There is gold in them there hills. Self-publishing cuts out the middleman, so more of the books' proceeds end up in the author's pocket. Established authors, like Barry Eisler, have figured this out and, based on the assumption that readers buy books more on the basis of the writer's name than the prettiness of their covers, are striking out on their own. Like Radiohead with “In Rainbows.” This kind of thing gets easier and easier as more and more people get e-readers for Christmas. Why buy a low- to middle-brow airplane/beach read when you can download it? NYT best-selling fantasy writer Tracy Hickman has gone one better: You can buy his self-published work as an e-book, and then, if you like it, shell out for a limited-edition print copy as a souvenir of your reading journey. The Result (especially if it continues to catch on) is less money for legacy publishing, which means it gets harder for writers who want to go the more traditional route. Plus, it kills kittens and, potentially, the House that Hemingway Built.
Problem Three: Legacy publishers exist to make money. Sure, they serve as the gatekeepers of literary quality, keeping the reading public safe from the vile verbiage of literary wannabes, but, at the end of the day, they are out to make a buck. As such, they're not always good at taking risks. Want better odds of getting a book published? Write a dystopian YA, a novel about a woman taking a road trip to find herself in wake of infidelity, a forbidden love story between a human and some type of monster, or a “tell all” about your drunken debauchery and inability to keep your pants on. There's gold in those hills, too. You'll get an advance and, if your book makes money, you'll get a piece of it. The Result is, for unknown authors with new ideas, can be an uphill climb. (Some of my favorite books were put out by legacy publishers. Actually, all of my favorite books were. When the time comes, I'm going to attempt that climb. I want the branding, and I am perfectly willing to let someone help me with the math.You hear me, legacy publishers? I love you. Call me?)
What it really comes down to are questions of quality control, and what pockets the money ends up in. Independent types can solve both problems with some type of writers' co-operative. Here's a model I'll call The Gamble Group: A bunch of people with writing credentials (published works, MFAs, editing backgrounds, laptops) get together and send out an RFP (request for proposals). As all the indie writers polish their drafts for the deadline, the Gamble Group creates a vast network of media contacts, Twitter followers, etc. The submissions roll in and the members of the Gamble Group pick a few with promise. These experts help their chosen writers edit and fine tune the work. They help them design book covers, prepare press releases, etc. When the work is perfect, the writers can then self-publish their books, complete with the Gamble Group stamp of quality. In time, the Gamble Group stamp will come to mean something and readers will know that a book endorsed by the group is a guaranteed good read. The writers get the lion's share of the money (with a percentage going to the Gamble Group for their time and effort) and the readers of the world get quality work. To adopt more of the co-op model, the Gamble Group can sell shares and anyone with a share gets a vote on what projects the group undertakes. Share dividends are paid in free books, autographed copies, special author access (prom dates), literary panache, etc.
Legacy publishers can get a piece of this, too, by creating their own in-house cooperatives to find and develop talent, and then serving as more of a producer role. They won't need to make the books, the co-ops can do that. They can focus on distribution, printing, and marketing.
Many of these ideas are likely already out there (Yes, Jason, you are very smart. Good boy.) but – and I am aware that I am patting myself on the back for my own brainstorm – they are worth discussion. So, there you go: my obligatory post on the issue. Don't ask me about Israel v. Palestine; I don't need the flamers.