As I noted in a previous post, until very recently self-publishing was tainted with the implication of failure. It was tacit admission of inability in a world where ability is deemed equal parts talent, determination, networking, pedigree, bombast, salesmanship, sensationalism and hype.
For writers unable to find traditional publishing outlets — for whatever reason — there have always been self-publishing options, including subsidy and vanity publishers. Whatever you think about those options, the important point here is that technology has always been available to pursue one’s own publishing objectives, provided one had the money to do so.
So if the technology has always been there, what’s changed? Why is self-publishing no longer inherently considered a sign of failure? The internet is the answer, but not for the reason you think.
Yes, the internet is a classless distribution system that bypasses traditional gatekeepers in the publishing industry. And yes, the internet allows people to market their self-published books directly, at much lower cost than would otherwise be possible. But neither of those reasons explains why self-publishing is losing its stigma.
To explain this cultural change you have to look, instead, to the experience of the internet itself, and the honest, valid and compelling content that has arisen unbidden and unsanctioned by experts, from people with no more to recommend them than desire, talent, and an internet service provider.
With access to so many new voices, it turns out that many of our pop-culture and publishing-sanctioned pundits and leaders are considerably less well-informed than we were led to believe, if not less well-informed than your average citizen. And all you have to do to realize this for yourself is surf the internet for a few hours, during which you will come across average citizens making good and valid and penetrating points on any and every subject.
Yes, you will also come across a lot of really crazy people, but that doesn’t deny the reality that knowledge and talent are present in the general population much more so than anyone would have imagined before the advent of online communication. It is the internet itself — as an object, a medium, a distribution pipeline and cultural mirror — which has devalued controlled media while legitimizing the value and contribution of the individual voice. (If you’re thinking this can’t really be a coincidence, you’re right. Only by controlling the message have publishers in all mediums been able to make the case that their messengers were special.)
So the stigma is off and the door is open and opening wider by the day. For myself, the appeal is irresistible. I have several ideas I want to explore, and several works I want to self-publish. One of them, a collection of short stories, is something I don’t think any publisher would be interested in for legitimate commercial reasons. The other is a longer work in a traditional genre, and I think it might be something a publisher would be interested in if I made all the right moves and added a little sex (to paraphrase Joel McCrea in Sullivan’s Travels). But I don’t want to make all the right moves, and as I’ll be explaining in an upcoming post, I don’t want to add a little sex.
I’m also not interesting in jumping through a bunch of hoops for someone else with no promise of better returns than if I jump through my own hoops. So I’m going to explore all available (and growing) self-publishing options with these works. My aim is to keep costs down and connect directly with readers who like my work while testing methods of monetizing my work as an independent author.
The main drawback of self-publishing for any author is that you’ll be going it alone and working without a net. If you’re the sort who finds that daunting then maybe self-publishing isn’t for you. On the other hand, if you’re the sort — like me — who’s always done it that way, then there’s no downside to self-publishing that isn’t also a risk at some point in the traditional publishing process.
For example, saying that marketing is a problem for self-publishers is a valid statement. But it’s also a problem for traditionally-published authors, many of who are being asked to do the bulk of their own marketing anyway. The same goes for editing, by which I mean actually working on the text. If you’re self-publishing you have to do it yourself, find good people to help or pay for a freelance editor. Then again, if you’re being traditionally published your book may only get a cursory glance as to content because there are too many books ahead of you or more important books ahead of you or the editor assigned to your book actually hates it and hates you for writing it.
So that’s my take on self-publishing, and the bulk of my entry into the Backword Books Contest. As a marketing initiative I’m not sure what to make of the BB Contest, but I like the idea of chipping in and spreading the word about their site almost as much as I like the idea of winning free stuff. (Had they had thrown in a t-shirt — and here I’m not even talking about a Backword Books t-shirt, or even a new t-shirt — I would have entered much sooner.)
As to which book on their site I would most like to receive if I’m fortunate to win anything, I think I would choose Waiting for Spring by R.J. Keller, for three reasons. First, and here I am making a note to myself: the cover photo appealed to me. Second, it’s set in Maine, and I love Maine. Third, the storyline and setting seem calm to me somehow, at a time when I could use some calm.
Having been forced to choose, however, I want to wish everyone at Backword Books the best of luck. Someday I hope to be in your shoes.
— Mark Barrett