A friend of mine recently sent me a link to this blog, which makes a powerful contribution towards the ongoing argument that self-publishing –e-publishing– is not only the easy way to put my work in front of readers, but also the better way to do it. It’s a seductive siren song, but does that analogy extend to include tempting me onto the rocks?
I’m going to be honest, I am slowly coming around to the idea that this might be a direction I have to explore. Not anytime soon, mind you, but that’s because of my stubbornness. It’s the way the world seems to be going, and even someone who writes historical fiction can only ignore the prevailing winds for so long before he thinks about adjusting his sails accordingly.
For anyone outside the loop, I have two finished manuscripts, and I had a literary agent from 2008 to 2010. I was over the moon when I found representation within the traditional industry: I danced a jig at 3 o’clock in the morning and accidentally punched a hole in the drywall with my joy. It really felt like I was making progress. Of course, 2008 is when the bottom fell out of the economy, and my agent was looking to grow his practice from a non-fiction clientele into a well-rounded agency. The combination of the worst recession since my grandfather’s teens, the unattractive length of my work, and the lack of established connections on the fiction side of the industry led my agent to drop me after a couple of years of flattering rejection letters from publishing houses. He made the right call, and I’m still plugging away at finding a new agency to represent me that already represents the kind of books that I write.
In the meantime, my friend is slowly persuading me to look at the future of e-publishing as something that can be done in the present. I don’t think anyone is arguing that the publishing industry isn’t undergoing a tidal shift, and the numbers clearly show it is an ebb tide. Publishers no longer trust their acquisitions editors to take chances in the search for new authors. In the last decade, every first-time novelist I’ve discovered fought an uphill battle to break into a shrinking, frightened industry. My books are long enough to be risky even in an economic boom, and publishing hasn’t seen one of those since I’ve had something of worth to show them.
Once upon a time, vanity presses were for vain writers. Today, traditional publishing is for vain writers. I do want my books to sit on a bookstore shelf. Any bookstore I walk into, I go looking for James Michener, because that’s where my work will one day sit: Right next to Michener. Isn’t that vain? Isn’t that my pride talking? But isn’t that the stuff meaningful dreams are made of?
Economically, it’s true that it might actually cost me money in the long run to go through an agent and a publishing house, but my pride says my work should be good enough to persuade professionals to support me. If my publishers and agent get a large percentage of the eventual earnings, that doesn’t worry me in the slightest, because that’s the way things have always been! The larger percentage of earnings kept by a self-publishing author is only an argument for someone who is willing to forgo the accomplishment of succeeding in the traditional way.
E-publishing is easy to do. Half an hour of research and I could be available online right now. I could e-publish my aborted NaNoWriMo project before I go to bed tonight, and it would rightfully disappear into the void, unnoticed and unloved. Would one of my finished and polished novels do any better? Who will go looking for it? How will they tell it apart from the dreck and scribblings of the hundreds of thousands of other ‘books’ deemed not good enough for anyone to want to read?
I don’t know. I have no idea how to market or promote a book published online. Maybe I’ll have to figure that out. We’ll see what the future holds. Right now, the idea scares me. It’s an unknown gamble with something I’ve worked on for many years now, and there is no guarantee that anything will ever happen except that I will have castrated any chance of my work succeeding in the traditional publishing industry. I will have thrown it away, and there will not even be pages to vanish into the wind.
Even if I do ‘very well’ on Kindle or Amazon, my books will never sit on a shelf at a Chapters next to Michener. Hardcopies would only be available by special order, the way rabid Radiohead fans can order In Rainbows on vinyl at a ridiculous mark up. How many copies will ever exist for someone to hold in their hands? Ten? A hundred? Maybe (maybe) a thousand?
Five years from now the industry might be in a very different place. One day very soon, someone is going to start off in e-publishing and become a household name, and then everything will change. I am not going to be that pioneer. I write historical fiction: The traditional, conservative way of doing things appeals both to my vanity and my sense of ‘the right way to go about it.’ I will fight the good fight for at least a little while longer. Let someone else show me the new way to do things that isn’t just whistling alone in the dark.
I appreciate my friend poking and prodding me on this. I really do. He dragged me kicking and screaming into hip hop and blogging and twitter, and I enjoy all of those things now. He’s an early adapter, while I cling to the past. It’s my hang up, but I can’t escape how I feel.
One day my frustration may well reach a tipping point, but I don’t want to e-publish because it is easy. I’ll only do it once it really becomes the way such things are done. When it is normal. When people don’t view it as a cop out, and there is just as much accomplishment and achievement online as in print.
Honestly, I read about ten of this guy’s blog posts, and then I slept soundly: I’m not where this author is. Not yet. It’s interesting, and it’s getting more interesting, and it’s where the world is going. I encourage everyone to keep their eyes open, and I’ll do the same, but I’m not going to be in the vanguard of this trend. I don’t have it in me, and I wouldn’t be proud if I did go this route before exhausting my options.
After eleven years of plugging away, I have two finished and edited manuscripts that I’m proud of, and two more under way. If I’m sitting on four novels in a couple of years, one of them will be thrown to the e-publishing wolves to see if they it ends up going the way of Romulus. That’s two years from now, and I have no doubt I’ll have a much better understanding of what’s happening out there then than I do now.
That’s my thoughts on e-publishing at the moment. We’ll see how things develop over time. Cheers!
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UPDATE: I’ve decided to take the plunge. You can read more about it here.