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
John R. Austin says
Mark – you’re a man after my own thoughts Re your analysis of the TP’s and the changing publishing landscape and what it really means and exposes 🙂
What’s funny about the Mamet piece in the NYT is that it’s essentially the same kind of celebrity puff piece you would have gotten if he’d gone with a publisher, but instead he’s using his own celebrity to sell his independence and pioneering spirit. If it was a hundred years ago he might have skipped the book writing and taking up flying, and I’m sure the celebrity hungry media would have tagged right along.
Anyway, Mamet is clearly on a press offensive, for whatever reason, and because he’s Mamet he’s getting play when he wants it. The fact that he doesn’t need a book publisher to do this does send a powerful message, but in effect Mamet is still pimping himself out and trading access for exposure. That’s obviously not something every self-published writer can do.
A little over the top. Who said that self publishing causes cultural carnage? Who exactly in the traditional publishing industry is puffing out their chest and hiding behind bluster? it seems to me that like all content oriented businesses publishing houses are trying to stay afloat in a tough, changing environment. That they can’t publish everything and want to make a profit shouldn’t be considered so evil.
Self publishing probably produces a lot more lousy books than are already out there. Not that all self published books are bad. However if you are a self published author and none of the mainstream publishing houses are interested in your work there is at least a chance that the book simply isn’t good enough. If that’s the case, write another book. Get better. A lot of people want to write just as a lot of people want to be professional athletes or professional musicians. Most aren’t good enough. No one should expect to be published by Penguin or whoever just because they want it. Everybody knows that every author believes his book is good enough to be published and that the author is probably the last one to know the truth if he ever does. That’s the great thing about self publishing. You don’t have to be any good and that’s not a slight just as it’s not a slight to guys playing in a YMCA basketball league that they won’t ever make the NBA.
Only a little? Hmm….I’ll have to try harder next time.
I’ve never said that publishers shouldn’t care about making a profit. What I’ve said is that publishing has long pretended it’s not a profit-first enterprise, when that is in fact exactly what it’s about and almost always only what it’s about. This pretense — the premise of which is that only people in the publishing industry have the artistic and cultural wisdom necessary to maintain the purity and excellence of literature — was in fact entirely a smokescreen that helped the industry control ideas, not sift among them. (Consider how long American literature was a boys’ club, or a whites-only club in the U.S.)
In terms of pure numbers, of course you’re right that most of what’s self-published is bad writing. But that’s not a surprise, right? I mean, most of the people singing in their showers stink, too — and as you point out most of the people who enjoy playing sports will never make it in the big leagues. But the idea that writing quality is the only reason people do or do not get published is yet another industry fraud, perpetrated for the express purpose of maintaining control.
If you’re a bad writer and unknown then you’re dismissed by the industry and told to “get better”. On the other hand, if you’re a bad writer and a celebrity then the publishing industry will slobber all over you and hire editors (read: ghostwriters) to help fix (read: write) your book. Which means the publishing industry is not only willing to sell out its supposed standards for a buck, but it’s willing to lie to its own customers in the process.
As to self-publishing being great because you don’t have to actually be good at writing to ‘publish’ something, I guess that’s a snidely valid way of looking at things. On the other hand, self-publishing never guarantees success to anyone. You can self-publish dreck, of course, but you can’t jam it down people’s throats, so if you’re actually interested in being read or selling copies you’re probably already motivated to improve and be as good as you can be. Although if you have a lot of free cash you can obviously take a page from the publishing industry itself and try to advertise your way to success — at which point the industry might take notice of your sales volume and give you a book deal, even if your writing is crap.