Are Publishers Irrelevant?

Pat Holt, on her Holt Uncensored Blog, has had an interesting series of posts on what she calls the DIY author. These are people (she starts with Seth Harwood) who have essentially bucked or avoided or been ignored by the major publishing houses—that is until they’ve created an online platform and established a fan base—and have done it themselves, creating iPhone apps, podcasts, offering up their work for free, and so forth.

I am not, as Holt termed Harwood, one of “the new breed of whiz-kid authors.” I’m a middle-aged novelist who published two novels way too long ago, has ghosted a number of nonfiction books (some of which have been national bestsellers [which, believe me, does not make me anything close to rich]) and has one complete novel on the shelf that was enthusiastically turned down by all of the major publishing houses, and another that’s almost ‘finished,’ finished meaning in this case I almost have the ending done, but much work still needs to be done.

I do my best to keep up with what’s going on in the publishing world, and I’m trying to build a platform for myself, although I’m still not quite certain that I know what that means.

Mike Shatzkin said in a blog post, “If you have finished book material, and it is not already in the hands of a capable agent managing the process of selling it to publishers, self-publish it in ebook form at least and promote it the best you can.”

This is more or less what David Carnoy did with “Knife Music.” And he went about it in a way that seems sensible—hired people to do a lot of the stuff that a publisher would do, substantive editing, line editing, design, art, etc. And he had it put together in app form on the iTunes store. He also sells it through Amazon. Using the services of such people is not free, so there’s a cost, of course, if you want to show your book in its best light.

And then we have the examples of the authors Holt mentions in her series of posts. So what’s a writer to do?

So I have a manuscript in hand. Why should I bother with a publisher, indie or major? This is not a rhetorical question. Yes, the mainstream publishers have a totally awesome distribution system. But for how long will that remain relevant? Ten years, 20? (And of course I’ve got a full time job and really don’t have the time to really do self-publishing right.) And they are able to get a book attention.

There are many indies that seem to do a good job, and some that seem to be trying to mine niches and develop a ‘brand,’ a concept that seems to have evaded most of the majors. There are plenty of indies that get the attention of reviewers. At the moment, though, if you look at the list of NYTBR best books of 2009, they’re pretty much exclusively from the majors, and in the notable books, all but three come from majors. So there’s distribution, and of course major publishers can attach to a book some significance/credibility that gets it review attention.

Still, self-publishing doesn’t have the stigma attached that it once did, and the authors Holt cites in her post seem to have proved that it can be viable, at least to some extent. And certainly there are others who have done very well using print on demand, podcasts, etc. But the formula usually seems to be—blog it or self-publish it, and then maybe get the attention of a major, who then buys it. As Holt rightly demonstrates, Seth Harwood, at least, seems to be in the process of showing that that might not be in the author’s best financial interests, unless publishers follow Jesse Kornbluth’s advice:

“Author Jesse Kornbluth even wrote in  Publishers Weekly that publishers should just give up what they do badly, “attach $5,000 to $10,000 to the advance” and let the author use that money “for digital marketing expenses and Website enhancement.”So you have a completed manuscript in hand, and perhaps a couple of books you published long ago, the rights to which you have had reverted to you. Do you put aside the writing for a bit and put together a business plan, invest money and time in presenting your novel or book of short stories to the world, perhaps in print (digital and paper) and in podcast form to try to build an audience, and a platform? Maybe you’re not a digital adept, but the tools make it pretty easy to turn your word document into an ebook, and there’s plenty of software out there to create podcasts of reasonable quality. And DIY web site creators. So you don’t have to be that adept.”

Okay, so Kornbluth puts this way better than I do. To rephrase Shatzkin’s question, What should a writer do? In certain respects, the answer seems obvious.

Is a publisher the brass ring? It’s my experience that even with bestselling nonfiction, most mainstream publishers haven’t the least clue how to promote even books that sell by themselves. In the worst case, I was actively discouraged from trying to promote my own work so that I wouldn’t screw up what the publicist was doing (which was nothing). So, do you publish yourself?

My title, Are Publishers Irrelevant?, is of course rhetorical. Clearly they are not. But equally as clearly, they are in the middle of a period of change and most of them simply do not have the vision or the right people or whatever it takes to stay ahead. So what is a writer to do?

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About Steve, i.e., him

Stephen Stark is an award-winning novelist and bestselling ghostwriter. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, Poets & Writers and in many other journals. He has been a fellow and taught at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and won an NEA Literature Fellowship in fiction. His novel, Second Son, was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 1992, and a New and Noteworthy Paperback of 1994.

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