Until recently it was easy for the traditional publishing industry to puff its condescending chest out and hide behind pretense and bluster, but the staunch gatekeeping the industry practiced was always a shell game. Works and authors deemed unprofitable were labeled not good enough, while works and authors that could be packaged, edited or ghostwritten for profit were granted admission into the literary sphere.
As I’ve noted numerous times, the claim that the publishing industry provides cultural stewardship has always been a lie. The very fact that screams are now emanating from corporate publishing offices tells you that self-publishing is not inflicting cultural carnage, but merely decreasing revenue and decentralizing power in the industry. Many of the people who make their living in those offices continue to toe the party line despite the obvious shifting landscape, but at best that has been a delaying tactic and at worse complete delusion.
There will never be any shortage of celebrity-driven bilge in the literary world, but as many celebrities have discovered to their horror, having a bankable name doesn’t guarantee you’ll get what you want in any business. If you’re a movie star the studios will jump at the chance to produce your next genre blockbuster, but if you’re trying to fund a small-budget art film you’re going to have as much trouble raising studio money as an unknown actor with dream. The only difference is that the studio can slam the door in the unknown’s face, while they have to go out of their way to shower you with sincere and deeply felt sweet nothings. Likewise, if you’re a literary fixture or a rising star the publishing world will be happy to take another volume of whatever you’re famous for, but if you want to wander into the short-fiction weeds or publish an experimental work you’ll probably find few takers. Unless of course you’re willing to give them more of the good stuff in the bargain, in which case they’ll begrudgingly kick your pet project out the door and support it with marketing that meets the bare minimum of their impossible-to-enforce legal commitment.
Fortunately for all concerned parties, this long-standing and tense dynamic is now changing for the better. Money-obsessed publishers watching the bottom line no longer have to pretend they care about celebrity-driven vanity projects, and celebrities no longer have to feel the bitter sting of being treated like less than the center of the universe. It’s a win-win solution, and that solution is self-publishing:
As digital disruption continues to reshape the publishing market, self-publishing — including distribution digitally or as print on demand — has become more and more popular, and more feasible, with an increasing array of options for anyone with an idea and a keyboard. Most of the attention so far has focused on unknown and unsigned authors who storm onto the best-seller lists through their own ingenuity.
The announcement by ICM and Mr. Mamet suggests that self-publishing will begin to widen its net and become attractive also to more established authors. For one thing, as traditional publishers have cut back on marketing, this route allows well-known figures like Mr. Mamet to look after their own publicity.
The publishing industry has a long tradition of making (and charging for) publicity promises that are later broken or only partially delivered. It’s gotten so bad in the last decade or two that many authors have taken the bull by the horns themselves, which the publishing industry has passive-aggressively encouraged as a means of bolstering the bottom line:
Still, with the publishing world transforming rapidly and with more books than ever being sold online, many writers have concluded that they must at least consider self-publishing.
For his part, Mr. Mamet cites horror stories that fellow authors have suffered at the hands of publishing houses. He says he has faith that his new book is good enough to sell big, even without a traditional publisher.
“I am going to promote the hell out of it,” he says gamely, “even though I’ll probably make my own mistakes.”
If you want marketing done right in the modern publishing age you have to do it yourself even if you’re David Mamet, because the publishing industry doesn’t want to do it at all. Unless, that is, you’re grinding out third-party genre crack like James Patterson, or have made your own pop-culture crater like Sarah Palin or Snooki.
Whether celebrity writers go off the reservation completely or avail themselves of pampered in-agency services that will continue to pop up until demand is saturated, the fact that publishing itself is now free to obsess about manufacturing hits while no longer pretending to care about what authors want should be a relief to everyone. That this liberation is being driven by the self-publishing movement, which traditional publishers previously denigrated at every step, is of course an enjoyable irony.
— Mark Barrett