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Self-Publishing During the Recession

There’s an interesting comment by Nathan Bransford at the end of the epic On Agents and Editors thread.  He says,

I think what you mean is that authors and publishers should take a chance on writers they believe in and hope the public gradually catches on over the course of many books. I agree with that, and sometimes this works out. But you can blame (in part) bookstore chains for this disappearance. With few exceptions they base their orders strictly on what the last book sold. It’s incredibly hard to get them to stock and promote an author whose first book didn’t sell. They never seem to consider that a third book could be the one to take off.

The corporate mindset of profitability over long-term sustainability is no different in publishing than it is in the real estate market.  Exhibit A: Mortgage lenders packaged together subprime loans that had no chance of holding long-term value.  Exhibit B: Publishers/Bookstores tried to make a quick profit on certain books without investing in authors with long-term potential.  Let’s add Exhibit C: the environment.  Making a lot of money off of SUV’s while mountains of evidence show our reliance on oil is hurting the planet.

All told, it’s a mess out there.  And if you thought that it was hard to get published five years ago – when there was a frenzy of consumption and mortgages (or author advances) were being given out more regularly – it’s going to be exponentially harder today.  In some way, the terrible economy is actually good for self-publishing.  That is, in theory – self-publishing will lose its stigma because getting traditionally published is increasingly challenging, but it will also be harder to sell books, as fewer people buy books of any type in a down economy.

Case in point, look at these letters sent to Kristen Tsetsi – a “real thing” writer, someone who has a lot of books in her, an original voice, and should be given a shot by any publisher who understands good writing.  A publisher wrote her back:

Dear Kristen,

Thanks for your email.

[Redacted], alas, has made a corporate decision not to publish fiction. I wish I could overturn that – but it comes from our owner.

I’m also afraid that trying to sell a novel these days is harder than ever. Novels are the riskiest of all projects for publishers; and now, with sales down about fifty percent (I’m estimating) industry-wide, there’s not a lot of appetite among editors to take a risk on fiction. Lists are being cut rather than added to.

An agent wrote back similarly: “It’s tough to get fiction sold unl;ess (sic) it fits into categories such as thriller, mystery, chick lit, historical etc.”

We’re living in an increasingly risk-averse economy – across most every industry.  The publishing industry was already risk averse about taking on new writers, and now it’s going to be even worse.  Take a look at this speech about all the layoffs and loss of value in the publishing industry: it’s eye-opening.  Such as, “Random House CEO Markus Dohle (12/3/08) acknowledged the impact the current economic crisis has had on his company, stating that ‘our industry is facing some of the most difficult times in publishing history.’”

So self-publishing will lose its stigma in part because of the recession.  I’m not advocating that anyone jump right into self-publishing, because getting some kind of advance and widespread distribution is preferable.  But don’t be surprised if rejections from agents and editors increase, and don’t write off self-publishing outright – because in this economy, it may be the only option.

  • http://BrassCannonBooks.net Francis Hamit

    I agree. And I am not the only one to decide that the traditional submission process is a complete waste of time and resources. It’s a difficult decision for most authors because it takes you away from writing and into business issues you’d rather leave to others. However, these skills can be mastered and, as we have seen here, there is a growing community that will enable your efforts to get your work to its audience.

  • Randall Radic

    Nathan is entirely, sadly, right. My agent has been shopping my latest book around and one of the publishers responed with Nathan’s words exactly. He liked the idea, and liked the proposal. But….I have no track record of sales yet. If I did, they would buy my proposal immediately. But since I don’t, they won’t. So if my book that is coming out April 1 sells, then they would be happy to buy my next one. In other words, they only want to buy sure things, or what they presume is a sure thing. They don’t care about “good ideas” or “good writing” or “good reviews.” All they care about is the bottom line — sales.

    I understand that they have to make money. I want to make money, too. But if all they publish is people who have a ‘track record of sales,’ then eventually they will have nothing new to publish — just the same old authors who sell. But one wonders if they sell because that’s all there is to buy. This kind of thinking, to me, seems like signing your own death certificate. There’s no future in it. Traditional publishers have become nothing more than bean counters.

    I believe you have to feed the BIG MACHINE, which means publish authors who have no track record on the off-chance that they have talent and people will realize that and buy their books. Of course, that assumes the publishers are interested in quality writing and good story-telling abilities — not just sales.

  • http://initialdraft.blogspot.com Todd Newton

    Thought you might want to check this out. BestFantasyBooks.com has been blogging a few entries lately on self-publishing (mostly in the negative).