Publishing Debate: Self-publish or Self-immolate

Publishing Debate: Self-publish or Self-immolate

As a writer with a manuscript (previously posted in part here) and no publishing credits, I recently decided to join the debate over self-publishing versus trying to get a deal with a publisher. Well, joined the debate means I tried to read up on it, hoping that I would get the information I needed to actually join the debate. Because the internet is too big, information is too hard to come by, so I decided to join the debate anyway. I have confessed that I am an aspiring author, which of course is a secret to the book-buying world, and that fairly well sums up the plight of a first-time author. I am not sure how it got started culturally that author’s enjoy wealth and celebrity (wait, I do. It’s TV, film and mass market paperbacks and the New York Times Book Review and John Grisham and Stephen King), but fame and fortune might be the dream of many who take up a quill. But writing as a profession enjoys a much more inglorious seat in society, despite what they show on TV. But we do live in a world where the success story is far more interesting and inspiring than the alcoholic writer of incredible ability who dies destitute, so we like Who Moved My Cheese over A Moveable Feast. This brings up the question for me as to how Hemmingway would have fared if he uploaded his e-book to Amazon and let the current market drive his sales. Would he hit the top 1000? Would J.D. Salinger have been cut out to scour the web and ask for people to review his books so A Catcher in the Rye would get past the slush pile of self-published books available on Kindle for $1.99?

The idea of the vanity press was repugnant to me, because it basically tells people that your book was otherwise commercially unmarketable, or worse, no press wanted it. But all that is changing, right? The latest buzz is that publishing is dead, or dying, just like the music industry, and the power is back in the hands of the people. Up yours, you media conglomerates. I was inspired by this uproar. Finally, there is fair trade in the publishing world. I read The Altucher Confidential’s article (a meme? a lens? I don’t know what you are calling this stuff anymore), and I was convinced the stigma of self-publishing was gone, and that I would be crazy not to do it. I was exuberant that the royalty structure was better, that traditional publishing was a total rip-off, and even better—there is a paradigm shift in publishing, so you had better, you know, get with the times. I love when you can argue against something because the times are changing. It inspires just enough fear that most people will just agree with you. But even my sensibility wasn’t going to move me off the self-publishing solution. The idea that I wouldn’t have to go through the excruciating process of rejection while seeking an offer from a publisher was like the weight of the world falling off of my shoulders. That process would likely break me, and if you don’t know me, I am already paralyzed by fear and fairly well a shell of a man as it is. I would not write while I engaged in the year long (at a minimum) process of shopping a book around to what so many people are calling scoundrels and dinosaurs. I would become more and more depressed by the rejection that is part of the rites of passage for most writers. I can’t imagine the pain and suffering and the humiliation that I would endure. How would I look at my wife after the tenth ‘no thank you’ arrived in the mailbox? And here I see Amazon and Createspace have come to the rescue of the indie author, offering the panacea for undiscovered talent. Jim Altucher makes a great case for it, and even inspires the idealism of the whole thing, claiming that sincere and honest writers will flourish under the new paradigm. Awesome! I am ready to upload my manuscript to Createspace and design a cover and get my e-book into the Amazon store—where I imagine I will enjoy the feeling of selling my work everyday.

Then the cynic revisited me. All of that is good for Altucher, whose e-book was at #2 on Amazon’s Motivational Books category. If he were just another lowly, first-time author, I might be inspired enough to jump in head first and worry about the rest of the publishing game later. The fact is that he has a huge platform, which is a publishing word for built-in audience. He has enough profile and outlets to gain a large and fast readership that he is really a great case-study in the virtues of self-publishing. So, for all the debate, all that really comes from it is a rather disheartening and discouraging dilemma for authors. The world of traditional publishing is certainly unappealing for so many reasons, which is why the new evangelism for self-publishing looks so lustrous and fresh. The challenge to get off the slush pile at a publishing house is depressing enough. Then, if you do have a deal, the royalty structure will kill the dream of fiscal success. On the self-publishing side, the upside potential is much higher, but the writer is faced with the job of developing a reader base, and marketing their book. In my more cavalier moments, I felt ready to tackle that problem, but once I set out to look at what would be involved, I quickly began to want the support of a publisher. I mean, that is their job, right? Altucher says no, that his publishers did little to sell his books and actually asked him what he could do to get readers. What would someone with no large readership and no knowledge of developing and carrying out a marketing plan for a book do to rise above the heap? It turns out that the statistics for book sales are like the current socio-economic hierarchy, with 7% of all books selling the 92% lion’s share of all books sold, while the remaining 93% of all the other books sell on average less than 1,000 copies (figures are not exact but representative). Do most authors feel it is within their capability to win that game somehow? I have tried selling things on the internet, and it is not as easy as many would have you believe.

Which brings me back to Amazon and Createspace, for they are presented as the solution to all of this. I looked at the Createspace website, where they have a section for developing a marketing plan for your self-published book. I imagine most people would have some notion about what would need to happen to market a book successfully, but a quick read of their suggestions for developing a marketing plan made me feel futility, fatigue and confusion. Not only do you need to have prowess with traditional methods of book selling, but now you have to know the ins and outs of the Amazon store. The more I looked at it, the more I felt I needed a team of people doing this sort of thing for me (like a publisher, maybe?). When would an author have time to write? I consider myself an expert in so many things, but when faced with the prospect of being a writer and a marketing genius (and I mean a good one), I begin to feel the floor sinking. Perhaps it’s just my cynicism, and I just need to say it can be done. What would be more heartbreaking to work hard to sell your books, only to have e-book spammers outsell you with their hit-and-run brochures that proliferate the e-book marketplace?

There is only one national bookstore remaining. There is not even an indie bookstore in my city of 108,000 people (some of them even literate). Yes, more people buy books from Amazon. Now more people buy books that aren’t on paper anymore. But why would you be so ready to publish through what people are beginning to say is a monopoly? The more I get into this, the more I find that neither looks good for writers, but it seems as though there isn’t much choice. Publish yourself or maybe publish with someone else. And if you do publish yourself, try doing it without Amazon. Jeff Bezos is, in my opinion, one of the coolest billionaires alive. He is a crazy, hilarious guy that I would totally party with. I am always inspired that a guy that is so wildly funny—the antithesis of the Wall Street Banker or the VC influencer—and that he has made what he has of his company. But the fact is, we haven’t partied yet, and until we do, I doubt he will help me figure out how to get on the pages of his website that will actually sell books.

The fact is, I would publish with anyone who wanted to publish me. And it seems that Amazon wants to. If the horror stories about the Old Way of doing things in the world of publishing is true, I hope they don’t repeat history. And where the hell is Ralph Nader when you need him? Or that Sherman dude with the Anti-trust laws? Call me Bezos, we’ll have lunch.

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