My blog yesterday drew a healthy response, which is great to see. The panel presented a snapshot of the way things are in publishing presently but also avoided two key realities.
One is that business-as-usual is just not working. Independent bookstores are falling like buffaloes in the Old West. Even chains are having problems--long gone are B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, once mainstays, and Borders is teetering.
The "usual method" of publishing is that authors write books, and then find agents who land publishers for the books. The publishers print the books in large numbers and create sales catalogs and a sales force to get those printed copies into stores. The publishers gather once a year for Book Expo America (next month in New York) to show off their books. A certain number of those books sell, but the stores have software programs that track sales, and slow-selling books are returned to publishers immediately for a refund.
The publishers, stuck with a large number of books and making refunds, remainders the books at ultra low prices to help defray the costs of printing, and the books once again go to stores for the bargain shelves.
In this method, UPS wins, trucking books back and forth. What's clearly starting to happen, though, is that authors write books and then don't find agents but rather self-publish their books using print-on-demand technology. Heck, with publishers essentially demanding that their authors "have a platform," as book agent Barbara Lowenstein explained in my article yesterday, why market for a company when you can market for yourself?
That's naïve, certainly, because most authors know nothing of marketing. I happened to work in a PR office for a decade, so I learned things. Still, there's so much to marketing that I yearn for a bigger publisher who can help me.
In the old days, self-publishers would have to print a few thousand copies of their books, store them in their garages, and distribute their books one by one--a terrible method. Now, one's books are listed on Amazon and other online places, and the books are sold one by one--often to the same few number of people as in the old method.
Self-publishing retains a sense of self-defeating, but that's because:
- There's a sense that if you can't get published, there must be something wrong.
- Industry journals like Publisher's Weekly don't review books that can't be returned by bookstores, hence adding to the sense that there's something wrong.
- Most self-publishers are not clearly seeing what bigger publishers do best: deliver quality work using editors, designers and a marketing campaign. Too many self-published books are amateurish.
Still, if it were not for self-publishing, we might not have ever seen Ernest Hemingway, who self-published his first book, 3 Stories and 10 Poems, Virginia Woolf, whose husband published her, and Margaret Atwood, who self-published her first book of poems. Click here for a long list of famous self-publishers.
I never intended to do more than write. After a number of my short stories were published in literary magazines, I found an agent who loved my writing but would not represent a collection of short fiction. "There's no money in it," he said. "Go write a novel." I eventually did, which became The Brightest Moon of the Century. First, though, I wanted my collection published.
The most noted publishers of short fiction were certain small presses, where I kept being told that they are full up and not accepting more submissions. Others gave me outright rejections. My designer friend Daniel Will-Harris one day told me about Lulu Press, a company that offered print-on-demand and distribution with no money upfront. It was about profit sharing. My friend said he'd design the book for me.
I thought about it. Earlier in my career, I'd been the senior editor of Prelude Press, run by Peter McWilliams, one of the first computer book publishers. His self-published book, The Personal Computer Book, which explained computers to people in the early 80s with a cover that had the caption, "It's like a typewriter but has a TV," led to his publishing empire. He hired editors (me and an assistant), designers, a publicist and more to make seventeen people working out of his condo in West Hollywood. Books were stored in the parking garage below.
I figured that I could follow his model. I hired an editor, even though my stories had been published in literary magazines, to make sure each story was strong and appropriate. We worked on the order of the stories. Daniel designed multiple versions of the cover, and I did market research, showing my favorite covers to many people, asking which they liked best. One with a goldfish jumping out of its bowl was the winner.
Thus I published my first book, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea, whose first review was in the Los Angeles Times, gaining another twenty more reviews down the line. The book was later mentioned in Entertainment Weekly. When a fan of the book associated with the Beverly Hills Public Library asked if she could present my next collection of short fiction in an evening at the library, I wrote and published a second book, Months and Seasons, which has earned over twenty-five great reviews.
Thus, I find myself as a publisher.
What's funny to me is that Two Dollar Radio, which started out to publish cofounder Eric Obenauf's own novel, Can You Hear Me Screaming?, decided to publish other people, and that caught the attention of all the panelists and the media, including Publisher's Weekly. Two Dollar Radio has a fabulous mission, though, bringing bold fiction to the world. That's some self-publisher's mission, too. For more on the whole self-publishing movement, go to Self-Publishing Review, run by novelist Henry Baum.
This brings me to the second key reality: technology. A new generation has grown up with screens. My ten-year-old daughter, like all her friends, hammers away on the computer and on her pink Nintendo DS, while feeling completely comfortable dialing up her TV shows on the Internet and watching DVDs on a portable player. Perhaps she'll love reading books onscreen.
I don't forsee the demise of the book ever, but I've been predicting and expecting the day that bookstores will have their own print-on-demand machines. If a book isn't on the shelf, you go to the counter in the back and have the book printed instantly like a one-hour photo. The first commercial machine of this sort, the Espresso Book Machine, was announced in London yesterday. Click here to read about it in The Guardian.
Perhaps within the year, you'll see the bigger bookstores have such a service. It will change the book business because it will cut down on shipping and cut down on returns. It’ll certainly affect what big publishers do. What still counts: attention to detail and writing fabulous books.
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