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Monday, September 15, 2014

Reply to Duncan on the Role of Traditional Publishers

This post began as a comment to be published on Duncan‘s blog, but as my intended comment grew longer and longer it seemed to me that posting it on my own blog, with links, would make more sense. So here’s the post that sparked my response and will give a clearer picture of what follows below.

15 September 2014

Dear Duncan,

As you and I are both booksellers with open shops, and you are in addition a working writer with your own books to sell, I’m always interested in comparing your perspective on publishing and self-publishing with mine. As I’m sure you know, best-selling author Stephen King did experiment with self-publishing an e-book but then turned back to the traditional road. Here’s a link with a brief discussion of why King and others might not want to self-publish.

My own bookstore experience with a majority of self-published authors continues to be fraught with difficulties. Not always—the self-published titles I carry in my shop are clearly exceptions!--and more often than not I give self-published books, whether brought to me in person or hawked to me by e-mail, a cool reception. For me as a bookseller, there are two big large, distinct problems, and here they are:

First (and labeling one “first” and the other “second” is completely arbitrary), all too many self-published book authors want to be writers but don’t realize that by self-publishing they are also going into business. Let me repeat: Publishing is a business. If you’re going to self-publish, you’re going into business. Instead, most of the authors who come to me (there are exceptions, thank heaven) are neither prepared for nor interested in accounting, advertising, bookkeeping, distribution, marketing, publicity, or any of the myriad other business aspects of getting their books into readers’ hands and keeping track of even the most modest paperwork. “I just want to write books.” And so they bring their books into my bookstore without any kind of basic written consignment forms or invoice forms. The serious writers among them do better or quickly learn their lessons, but as the wannabes increase in number, the problem grows rather than diminishing. You suggest that a distributor take on this problem – who would want to? Herding cats and taking on responsibility for litter boxes? Distributors, like publishers, like booksellers, need their businesses to survive. The writer who has an agent as well as a publicist still has to do a lot of personal appearances and other kinds of marketing these days, but being with a legitimate publishing house smoothes the way.

My second (or should I say simply “other”?) problem with self-published books, be they fiction or nonfiction, is that way too many  are very poorly edited, even in cases where the author has paid someone for “professional” editing. Yes, I use the scare quotes intentionally, because I often wonder, other than charging for editing a manuscript, what other professional qualifications were brought to the job? Editing problems range from the level of words and sentences (e.g., misspellings, inappropriate word use, run-on sentences, bad punctuation) to the level of narrative (e.g., undeveloped characters, confusing transitions, or even a “story” in which little if anything happens at all).

Your own willingness to rewrite and rewrite, tightening up your stories and bringing your characters to life (as I read in many of your blog posts) is admirable. If only this willingness were more widely shared among those who dream of becoming book authors! (Readers, Duncan writes very forthrightly about his own writing, as will evident to you if you read some of the older posts on his blog.)

It’s child's play these days to have a book "designed" and those dearly beloved pages bound – easier still, perhaps, and probably cheaper, to throw it out into the world in e-format. Regardless of investment, however, most self-published authors don’t want only to see their book in the marketplace. They also want readers. And that’s where offering a product that has recognizable value, along with offering it in a professional, businesslike manner to make it worth the while of intermediaries, makes all the difference. As a bookseller, I am much more comfortable dealing with traditional publishers through traditional book distributors, whenever possible, for these reasons. 


Dawn said...

I've thought about self publishing, but I don't think I have enough fortitude to even finish a book much less do the rest of what is required. I can understand how authors don't want to do the selling and budgeting and promotions. For me the only fun thing is the writing and that's not always fun. You make excellent points.

Karen Casebeer said...

This was very interesting, Pamela, and an excellent perspective from the bookseller point of view. I think writers today face many challenges on how to get their books "out there." With the changes to traditional publishing, I think authors are now looking at self-publishing as a real possibility. Thanks for writing about the potential challenges of taking that route. Karen

P. J. Grath said...

Well, thanks for commenting, Dawn and Karen. When I posted a link on Facebook a couple people commented there rather than here, so I’ll copy what they wrote below as two separate comments, because their perspectives are important, too.

P. J. Grath said...

A wildly successful children’s book author/illustrator (and friend!) had to following to contribute: “As a writer, I am so grateful for an editor who holds me to a higher standard than I would know how to set for myself. As someone who is already challenged by juggling work and non-work life and relationships, I am grateful for a publisher that does not require me to be (too much of) an entrepreneur. I am willing to cede some of my profits to people who actually like selling things, especially since if I had to do it myself, there would not be enough of those profits to survive on. As a reader, I am grateful for the curatorial process, however difficult and flawed, of traditional publishing. As well as the editing.”

P. J. Grath said...

One bookseller colleague began by saying he agreed with me and then proceeded to state his position in much stronger terms: "I agree with your points on self-publishing. I still consider them by their old slang name, Vanity Press. As a store owner I am bombarded by these folks huking horrific kids books and Hallmark greeting card quality poems. Though it has worked for some Authors, it to me will always have a certain stigma. Self-Publishing is dumbing down and taking away dollars for books that deserve the attention. For every Confederacy of Dunces, there's a mountain of unpublished poop and it needs to stay that way." I wouldn't go all the way with this friend, because there are a few diamonds out there in the dust, and once in a while the sun hits one.

Another bookseller wrote simply, "I agree with your assessment self publishing." I assume that means she also agrees that there a few shining exceptions to the general run of dreck.