As I’m gearing up for the final editing push on my novel, getting it ready to pitch to agents, people keep asking me one question: “Are you planning to self-publish?”
Well, no. I’m not. I may do so as a last resort, but I want to avoid that if at all possible. In an era in which people are furious with big studios, publishers, networks, labels, etc., because they seemingly get in the way between artist and audience, actively choosing to pursue mass distribution probably seems odd. It’s probably especially so given that I’m such an advocate of digital, user-curated distribution methods. Surely, if I’m such a supporter of the switch to e-books, streaming, etc., I shouldn’t be wasting my time with companies that are still so invested in printing stuff on bits of dead tree and physically shipping them everywhere, right?
Thing is, distribution of physical media is only a fraction of what large-scale distributors do. The divisions of these companies that actually do the physical media production and shipping sometimes aren’t even fully connected with the publisher itself, so that’s really not their primary purpose. What they do provide, however, is a service that’s virtually impossible for an individual creator to do on his or her own: making the world aware that he or she has made something of value that other people might want to have.
This is not to say that there aren’t problems with mass distribution companies as they currently exist. One of the very real problems with the big guys is that they’re so driven by the bottom line that niche audiences have a hard time getting what they like. Classic case in point is TV as it exists now. Because the medium itself, and the means by which it’s funded, are so antiquated, the short-form video consumers it’s serving are those who haven’t yet embraced the 21st centry. Smarter people who don’t spend every night parked in front of a box in their living room are finding it harder and harder to get the entertainment they want because monetizing their preferred distribution methods has yet to be properly sorted out. The larger the distribution company, and the more married it is to a single method, the more likely it is that the content they offer is lowest-common-denominator. It’s simply not true that a vast majority of the population really wants to watch crappy reality shows. It’s that a vast majority of the people watching ad-funded live TV on their big boxes want such shows.
Likewise for publishing, it simply doesn’t make economic sense for a distributor whose primary audience is still invested in going to a physical bookstore to buy a dead tree version to produce content that goes way over those folks’ tiny little heads. Though really, it doesn’t even have to be an intellectual issue. People who have a small-audience niche interest such as model trains, for instance, find it very hard to find media related to their interest because such things aren’t seen as big money makers for the distributors.
But that’s where the indies come in. I’m not talking, here, about faux indies–arthouse movie studios, for instance, are almost entirely just offshoots of a larger company. Focus is owned by Universal, etc. They specialize in making money from Oscar-bait films, rather than blockbusters, but they’re still very much focused on the bottom line. True indies, however, are those distributors who genuinely want to work with underserved audiences, and who aren’t focused on growing their business to epic proportions (which would necessitate cutting those niche audiences out.) It’s not quite fair to ignore the value of those distributors in a misguided attempt at closing the gap between creator and consumer.
The novel I’ve written is highly unlikely to appeal to mass audiences. It has some shelf-friendly aspects, but simply having a queer teen protagonist, for instance, most likely would cut it from consideration by most of the largest publishing houses. Yet, I do think there’s an audience for it, and being able to find all those people and give them my book to read would be well beyond me–even as media-savvy as I imagine myself to be. There’s only so much self-promotion I can do on Facebook and Twitter before my followers start getting cranky with me, after all. And while I hope that word of mouth among some of my early readers (and friends) might spread, that alone just isn’t quite enough to get my story into the hands of everyone who might like it. This is especially important for international distribution. I don’t have the ability to translate my book into the dozen or so different languages of people who might like it; a publisher would.
So, yes. I do want the greater distribution possibilities of a proper publisher.
The other problem with self-publishing is the one you hear the most: a severe lack of quality gatekeeping. Self-publishing was a novelty at first, and that alone brought in curious looky-loos, with the result of selling a whole lot of stuff for some of the early adopters. That novelty has worn off, however, and all that’s left is a truly enormous ocean of titles on Amazon, etc., with a truly enormous variety of quality.
I fancy myself a fairly decent writer, both on an artistic and technical level. I even plan to do much of my own copyediting, since I have training in that. But even I know better than to assume my novel will be publishing-ready without a proper editorial pass from another pair of trained eyeballs. Only those authors who really aren’t as good as they like to think they are try to get away without an editor. I know better.
Of course, merely being published by an actual publisher doesn’t guarantee quality–only that someone thought there’s an audience for the story. Still, I’d bet that even if 60% of published novels are dreck, the percentage for self-published ones is even greater.
This all boils down to one simple thing: a professionally published novel has a much larger potential audience than a self-published one. Obviously, I hope to make some money from this, so that’s a consideration, but beyond that, I also want a lot of people to be able to read and enjoy my story. Self-publishing would miss a lot of them.
Finally, there’s always the issue of ego. I may hope I’ve done something great, and some of my friends may tell me I have, but until a professional, trained in the art of appreciating storytelling, also tells me it’s great, I’m not really going to think it is. I wouldn’t necessarily take rejection letters as evidence that it’s not good for what it is–oftimes, those are a matter of marketing more than quality–but still, I think I’d quite like the shot in the arm I’d get from a pro liking my story.
Most artists create because they are driven to do so, and what audiences think of what they’ve made is purely secondary. Like anyone, I do have some of that. Even if I never published a thing, I’d still write stories–after all, I’ve been doing so for 30 years without being professionally published (as a novelist, at least.) Yet from a practical perspective, art is still something that goes beyond oneself. It definitely is if you want to make any money from it, but storytelling is also a method of communication. If there isn’t someone on the other end of the line, the experience just isn’t as good as it could be. My characters need to live inside the heads of people other than me. A proper mass distributor is the best way to ensure that that happens.