I couldn’t decide if it was my personal “coming out party” for my latest book or my moment to come to terms with reality. But with a new novel very nearly ready to share, I knew I had to get back in touch with the publishing world.
What I had been reading in the trades – Publishers Weekly, Publishers Lunch and a dozen other publications that report on the state of books – was that publishing was in a dramatic state of flux. I didn’t really want to believe it, fearing what it might mean for my own creative work. So I registered for Author (R)evolution Day, part of the Tools of Change Publishing Conference held in New York City a couple of weeks ago. And yes, it took me this long to organize my whirling, disoriented thoughts into a three-part blog post to share with all of you.
Note two critical ideas in the conference titles: “(R)evolution” and “Tools of Change”. My son has been learning about the aftermath of the American Revolution and how, once they’d won their freedom, the Patriots had the challenging task of figuring out how to govern themselves. What I understood clearly from the conference dialogue was that we authors are now similarly in control of our own fate. But as Porter Anderson, a journalist and publishing expert, stated on the first panel, “With freedom comes great responsibility.”
“We are in an era of abundance,” Kristen McLean, CEO of Bookigee and conference organizer, explained. It was a dubious pronouncement from the standpoint of a traditionally published author like me. In the past few years, we’ve seen traditional publishers losing their grip, literary agents losing their relevance, and bookstores disappearing like icicles on a warm day. Meanwhile self-publishing is on the rise as no one could have imagined a decade ago.
Jason Allen Ashlock of Movable Type Management calls what’s going on “disintermediation”, the disruption of the intermediary in the process of, in the case, publishing. He brilliantly compared the current landscape to C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra: “The earth moves beneath the hero’s feet. Only one place remains stable, but the protagonist can’t go there because his enemies inhabit that land. So he must learn to live with the earth shifting beneath his feet.”
This new reality is both breathtaking and debilitating. Sure, we have many incredible new options. But which is the right way to go?
First, let’s be honest: we authors really like to — well, write! We prefer that all that business stuff be taken care of by others. The idea of self-publishing is overwhelming. A self-published author must not only make their work the very best it possibly can be; she must also create an appealing, professional package, figure out how to distribute and promote it, and finally sell it, all by herself! And what about the clout and prestige that a traditional publisher brings? By even thinking about self-publishing, or having no other choice, aren’t we diminishing our hard-earned “brand”?
At this point, I really should dispel a fantasy: much of what’s required of a self-published author isn’t all that different from what a traditionally published author must do these days. In full, honest disclosure, the traditional publisher’s care and tending ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. Most of us rarely get the nurturing encouragement to “just go and write”. Almost all of us have to do some, if not all, of our own publicity. Even when we get fleeting attention from our publishers, most authors bemoan the deficient support behind their books, the missed opportunities and inevitable orphaning when an editor moves on.
Perhaps it’s not so ironic then that, in this new world, traditional publishers are struggling to demonstrate to the marketplace “that they add value to the publishing process in an era where anyone can publish a book.”* For authors willing to self-publish, “The worst deal they can offer you must be better than what you can do on your own,” said Cory Doctorow, one of the most outspoken and successful author-proponents of the new paradigm.
Suddenly we authors are in a position of power, something I honestly worked to come to terms with through the course of the conference day. If we consider publishing on our own, we would not be alone. “A third of traditionally published authors are interested in self-publishing their next book,” according to a recent survey from Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest.
So, how do we confront our new power and freedom? In my next post, I’ll try to distill what I learned from the experts. They taught me a lot, and I look forward to sharing it with you.