1. Self-publishing is a way of opening the doors to the weird and the wonderful that otherwise wouldn’t be published.
Everyone knows that the easiest thing about self-publishing today is the publishing bit. The hard part is the selling. But here’s the rub: Self-publishing favours the familiar. It favours non-fiction over fiction, genre fiction over the literary.
Genre is giving people what they expect, literary novels are about giving people what they don’t expect. (I’m not making value judgements here, I enjoy many genres, and if I put myself in the literary camp it is not that I think I’m better, just too oddball to be genre).
The blogs and the forums where people scrabble to promote their self-published books favour those who can sum up their books in couple of lines (Birmingham Vampire Thriller, Lesbian Zombie Romance) or in terms of familiar books (“If Steig Larson had written the DaVinci code and set it in Texas…”). The high-concept sound-byte, so beloved of Hollywood, seems perfectly at home here.
Nothing particularly surprising or heinous in all of that. I just don’t believe that the ‘self-publishing revolution’ has done any more than opened the doors to more of the same.
2. Self-publishing is a great way of getting past publishers who are too stupid or corrupt to value my work
And if it wasn’t the publishers, it was the agents. Agents are in thrall to the publishers who have a blinkered view of what the world wants (or, if you are a conspiracy theorist, are part of evil multi-national corporations run by the dark forces who control everything). If I could bypass that whole process, my books could sell in the thousands.
That’s a comforting notion for all of us who haven’t found a publisher. I just don’t believe it.
Publishers, even the smallest, most committed, most intelligent, the most forward thinking are businesses. They don’t want to take on books they don’t think they can sell. Some indeed have a limited view of what is marketable, some may indeed be not that bright, but if not one agent or publisher thinks your book will sell, maybe, just maybe, they are right.
What ever you think about capitalism (and I happen not to like it very much), it’s good at finding buyers for products. That’s what it does. When you see those often depressing lists from publishers of ‘what I’m looking for now’ they are simply a notion of what it is that people might buy, and they are often right. There is a naive idea about marketing that it involves taking an arbitrary product, then spending huge sums of money to brainwash people into to buying it. It doesn’t work like that. It starts with finding out what people think they want, then spending huge sums of money telling them you’re the one that’s got it. And there’s a big difference there.
There are some small, brave innovative publishers out there but they have a hard time. They don’t make much money, they can’t take on too many books and without doubt we could do with a lot more of them. But publishers don’t, on their own, create culture. Like indie record labels (in the days when there were records), they should be able to find and exploit the various currents in culture that are going against the mainstream. But they can’t create those currents.
3. That ebook self-publishing will change everything.
The ebook just continues what print-on-demand started. It’s easier than ever to get ‘published’, harder than ever to get noticed. In the rapid rise of the ebook over the last year self-published authors have been admirably quick off the mark to exploit the new technologies.
It is particularly beneficial to the self-publisher that, with very little effort or cost, your book will look just the same as one published by a big publishing house (you’re not going to be betrayed by the larger-than-proper-paperback size, the shiny cover and the graphic your mate knocked up in PhotoShop which didn’t quite come out as you hoped but, since he did it for nothing, you couldn’t complain). Since you long gave up hope of making any money from your book, with no printing costs to cover you can almost give it away for a couple of quid or less.
If you are a writer accustomed to peer review sites, go to any Kindle forum and you will soon come across some familiar names using the same strategies learned and honed on those sites to get your attention. And the very best of luck to them. But the Kindle here in the UK is in its early days, and already you can see the backlash (much more prominent in the USA) to authors self-promoting. With thousands of new ebooks coming on to the market every week, the clamour for attention from authors will becoming a deafening din. Any ebook buyer looking to browse through a few titles for a quiet read will soon retreat to a site where authors are locked out.
4. We are slowly building a new community of readers
How many self-published books have you got on your bookshelf? I’ve no idea whether I am typical or not, but I’ve got a dozen or so. How many are written by people I don’t know? One, but that was a (rather poor) book about how to self-publish through Lulu. The rest, without exception, are by friends, people I’ve known through writing groups, peer review sites and, in one case, an exchange of comments in the online Guardian which resulted in an exchange of novels. All the novels are not only by writers I know, but writers who know me. All exist within this cosy self-publishing bubble. And I suspect the people who have bought my book online are similarly connected. I could well be wrong, but I suspect if we are building a community, it is a community of writers not readers. Why would anybody buy a self-published novel by someone they’ve never heard of? The chances are it won’t be very good.
Of course there are exceptions. Some very good indie authors have had remarkable success with Kindle publishing, but these are early days and I think the honeymoon period may soon be over.
Both self-publishers and traditional publishers face the same problem: how to get attention for your book in a world where books outnumber readers. Similarly all authors, whatever route they choose to get the work to the reader, face the same problem: how to write something that captures the reader’s interest and imagination.
Some good authors are lucky enough to have a natural talent for self-promotion. Some great writers are crap at self-promotion and don’t see it as anything to do with the job of being an author. And some authors are much better at self-promotion than they are at writing. For writers, it’s going to get increasingly hard to self-promote, for readers is going to get harder to track down the books that surprise but don’t disappoint.
So what’s the way out? My contention is that we need a new breed of publisher – small, brave, tough, market-savvy, multi-platform – who can identify hungry niche audiences and great writers to feed them. These are not going to be publishing collectives formed by like-minded, mutually supportive, self-publishers. The world is far too competitive for that, and your books aren’t good enough. Sorry. We need independent brands, adept at marketing and PR, who we can trust, where readers will buy a new book from an author they’ve never heard of just because the last three books from that imprint were so good. New technologies should enable publishers to find and supply those niche markets which were once too difficult to tap.
What are the chances of that happening? I’ve absolutely no idea, just as I’ve no idea what part the novel plays in the cultural landscape of the 21st century. I have a feeling that when digital reading devices are commonplace, it’s not novels as we know them that will be read on them. But, as always, I reserve the right to be totally wrong.
Roland Denning is a writer and film maker based in London. His first novel, The Beach Beneath The Pavement, is available in a revised 2011 ‘austerity edition’ exclusively on Kindle. The original is still available in quaint paperback form.
In Episode 7 of his animation series On Meeting An Agent, Roland’s alter-ego robot self-publishes his novel.