In today’s brave new world of book publishing, the news is full of stories about writers who jumped from anonymity to the bestseller lists via clever blog posts, assiduous social media networking, and the support of a celebrity tweet or two. We’re encouraged to believe that having a publisher is now optional for reaching broad popular attention. That any self respecting writer with a clear voice and a fresh idea can do it all herself, if she so chooses.
Some proponents of self-publishing (J.A. Konrath, Barry Eisler, John Locke et al) go even further — they think having a traditional publisher is not merely optional but foolish. Why should a gifted writer share the proceeds of her success with an intermediary if she can attract a flood of readers without one?
This line of reasoning makes no sense to me. Yes, self-publishing and ebook-only publishing are enticing new avenues for aspiring writers. But self-publishing is not an easy road. As a recent New York Times article attests, “there are often hidden fees.” It’s expensive to self-publish. Incredibly time consuming. And the results can be meager. The author who was the focus of the Times article had sold 700 copies of her novel after months of hard work.
Despite the hype, the fundamental rules of publishing have not really changed very much. Now, as before, the greatest challenge facing a new writer is to find readers, not to finish and print a book. If anything, self-publishing has made the shelves, both virtual and physical, even more crowded. The obstacles to being noticed are even more forbidding, not less. In a world where anyone can upload a Word doc and call it a book, it’s more valuable than ever to have experts curate the works that are really worthy of a reader’s attention.
But even more important, good publishers add immeasurable value precisely because they have hard-won experience in all those aspects of the process that writers are not experts in. These arts — editing, positioning, packaging, and marketing — are as essential as they ever were. Freelance editors, publicists, and other service providers are available to provide such services, but few writers know how to choose and manage those hired guns. Even fewer possess the mix of discipline, public credibility, and book marketing savvy it takes to devise their own titles, cover art and marketing plans.
And let’s not forget that the explosive rise of e-books and online retail hasn’t eliminated the crucial impact of distribution and merchandising of printed books in stores — an area in which traditional publishers have an overwhelming advantage.
Some gurus of self-publishing suggest that trying to start word-of-mouth by focusing on friends and acquaintances is a new tactic. Actually, writers have done that from time immemorial. The difference is that now we call a writer’s core audience his “platform” or “tribe” and the Web makes it easier than ever to build one. Which is great news for every author, from the famous to the unknown. But surely the vast majority of promising writers who aspire to reach the wider world are better off with the help, nurturance, advice and financial backing of a prominent publisher. Writers who fall for the myth of self-publishing are likely to end up relegated to the periphery of the book world.
My advice to aspiring writers is to pursue the traditional path of agents and publishers to the best of your ability. If you fail to get traction that way, you can certainly try self-publishing as a way to attract attention and build your platform. But a good mainstream publisher is still the best way to reach the biggest possible audience via professional editing and marketing support — and to get paid an advance for your work, which the self-publishing gurus tend to conveniently ignore or disparage.
Of course there are rare exceptions — like self-publishing superstar Amanda Hocking — and those anecdotal triumphs draw a ton of media attention. But someone always wins the lottery too. Why take that risk and sell yourself short if you don’t have to? Besides, Hocking herself has now signed with a traditional publisher for her future novels, as the best way to build on her early success.