I’m beginning to feel that perhaps I was a tad harsh on publishers in Part 1 of this post. Publishers have to turn a profit, after all, so who can blame them for opting for the known and the safe? They aren’t psychic, and successes can be difficult to predict – who, ten years ago, would have guessed that a book about sparkling teenage vampires would be the next big thing?
Besides, these are tough times. Books now have to compete with a glut of entertainment: the internet, gaming, TV, and films and music that are available pretty much on demand. Sales of print books are in decline, and the growth in eBook sales is slowing too. You can hardly blame publishers for adopting a survival strategy.
However, such explanations probably provide scant consolation for authors who are caught in the ever-tightening vice of financial viability. Like our poor beleaguered mid-listers, for example.
On the face of it, self-publishing provides an obvious answer to the problem. And in many ways, it really does. For the self-published, that initial step – getting one’s work “out there” – doesn’t constitute much of a problem. A few clicks of the mouse, and there your book is, on the virtual shelves of the biggest bookstore in the world.
However, the very size of that bookstore may actually confound the original problem – that of locating the idiosyncratic, the offbeat, the quiet, and the understated. The authors of such books probably won’t be jumping up and down and screaming for attention. Instead, they’re more likely to shuffle around nervously in the background, timidly hoping that sooner or later their books will be noticed. And many (most?) authors fall into this category, because – let’s face it – writing talent and business acumen rarely go hand-in-hand.
I’ve read enough excellent self-published books to know, beyond any doubt, that there are plenty more I’d enjoy. Unfortunately, the chances of my finding those books are small. In a curious paradox, they’re in about the most public, most well-trodden place in cyberspace – the Amazon store – yet pretty much invisible. Most self-published books, frankly, don’t shift many copies – not because they’re no good, but for any one of the numerous reasons that books don’t sell. A handful of self-published genre writers have had stunning, unbelievable success (Hugh Howey and Amanda Hocking, to name but two very obvious examples), and that’s great; but mid-listers are unlikely to emulate their triumph.
In my last post, I moaned about lack of choice. However, when I’m browsing online I often find that I have completely the opposite problem. The sheer number of choices is mind-boggling, bewildering. If a book isn’t setting the charts on fire, it’s likely to get lost in that manic whirligig of products. How can readers, faced with this same confusing carousel, be blamed for making safe choices – the known, the understood, the New York Times bestsellers or the latest celebrity autobiographies?
There are, of course, vast numbers of book bloggers and websites devoted to books, whether they be self-published, traditionally-published, or both, and this may be one area in which the self-publisher actually has a slight advantage. Book bloggers are likely to be more inclusive than the book pages of major newspapers, for example, where the emphasis now tends to be on “click bait”, the big stories and big names that pull in readers. Print newspapers and magazines have always been limited by restricted space; of all the books published in a week, only so many can get a coveted position in the Times Literary Supplement, for example. Blogs and websites help to fill the gaps, but they are mostly manned by unpaid volunteers who, however great their passion for books, can only review so many. Goodreads, for example, is an excellent site for anyone who wants to glean a range of opinions about a given book. Yet, though the site itself is vast, information and recommendations tend to be exchanged within limited circles of friends, which rather reduces one’s chances of finding anything new or unexpected.
A few months ago, I got all excited about the fact that the Guardian had set up a self-publishing showcase. In the event, it turned out to be a bit of a damp squib, its reach limited and its featured authors more so. I understand it has since been quietly shelved, though plans are apparently in the pipeline to resurrect it in a new, improved form.
There’s another worry that’s recently begun to gnaw away at the corners of my mind – a vague and unformed worry as yet, but a persistent one. Authors are no longer necessarily subject to the whims of publishers; but, with Amazon’s increasing dominance of the marketplace, aren’t they just submitting to yet another massive corporation? Have the Big Six been replaced by the Colossal One? I’m not criticising Amazon by saying this, believe me. Amazon’s incredible success is due to its business savvy and focus on customer service, not because Jeff Bezos made a pact with the Devil. And for the self-published author, Amazon is a godsend – for now.
At the moment, Amazon’s interests and those of self-published authors seem to coincide pretty neatly. But what will happen if one day that is no longer the case? Authors are being naive if they think that Amazon executives are concerned about their wellbeing per se. They aren’t – not because they’re evil, but because they’re businessmen.
I’ve no answers to any of these concerns, but I really hope that an answer can be found. The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the apparent opposition between self-published and trade-published is actually a false dichotomy. If there’s a good book out there that I might enjoy, I want to find it and read it. I don’t care whether it was published by the Big Six or by the author himself. I don’t care whether it’s a runaway bestseller or languishing way down in the upper thousands. I don’t care whether it’s slickly produced or a little rough around the edges. But self-publishers themselves, in depressing numbers, often ape big business. They focus on what they think will sell. There’s a lot of enthusiastic chatter about marketing and target audiences, but a dearth of conversation about the more exciting possibilities that are available to us. It’s shame when one of the most persuasive arguments in favour of self-publishing – that it can free authors from financial constraints, and enable them to write niche works – is rarely heard from self-publishers themselves. If readers distrust our motives, we can hardly blame them.