Interesting article in Sunday’s NY Times magazine.
Its essential question is to wonder if the traditional stigma attached to self-published books is diminishing or will diminish in the near future?
That such a stigma exists is, at least at this point in book history, cannot be doubted. That it has not always existed in the past is also true. There was a time when small edition, privately-printed books were treasured, considered more special than mass market commercial books. Now, though, this is true only if the small, private edition is actually published as an accompaniment to the more general mass market version printed by a commercial publishing company.
This article eludes to what remains the core dilemma: the contrast between chosen by others and choosing oneself. Secondarily,the difficulty of sorting through tons of bound paper in search of the actually good. Although I agree with the conclusion in one of the following comments, that since there is so much really bad writing commercially published, the task is hardly any less cumbersome when plowing through the morass of books commercially printed and distributed; I agree that the ratio given of 95% bad to 5% good is accurate. I also believe that the reason for this is that (see next paragraph) editors no longer make literary decisions, they are just “scouts for the marketing department.”
The first commenter following the article has this to say about commercial publishing companies, such as the massive Random House conglomerate: There’s long been this confusion that an editor is a critic, they are not. An editor is a scout for the marketing department. The marketing department is the heart and soul of a publisher–if such can be said of any marketing department anywhere. In other words, editorial decisions by commercial publishers are in fact essentially marketing decisions, that’s why they are called “commercial” publishers. Just as it is the marketing department that decides what soap gets sold and how it gets sold, likewise the book publishing company’s sales and marketing staff are driving editorial decisions.
I believe there is a particular way that companies catering to writers who want or need self-publishing to both distinguish themselves positively from the standard variety of commercial publishers and perform a critically valuable service to the cause of good literature. That is to do what commercial publishers do not do: serve as front line editorial critics. If the Random House sort of conglomerate commercial enterprises are being steered by sales and marketing staff, then self-publishing companies (both already established ones like Vantage, Xlibris, and iUniverse, and smart, wise, new publishers yet to appear) can create and sustain a reputation for critical acumen by actually being literary editors. There are already companies that will publish anything, and I mean “anything.” If someone wants to fill 200 sheets of paper with his name repeated, or his favorite sentence over and over, or anything at all, there are companies that will take the money and print a book. If a company, say Xlibris, for example, decided they would not print anything and everything that comes through the door, but instead would offer an editorial critical staff to evaluate manuscripts (I see this as a first line evaluation editorial process rather than an editorial Mr. Fix-it), and reject the bad while printing the good, and especially the best, would it take long before serious readers came to realize that an Xlibris imprint on the spine was a sign that this author was chosen by a company that has established a reputation for rejecting the bad and printing only the best?
Another important aspect of this is also mentioned in the article. Trusted critical review sources like NYRB, NY Times, New Yorker, need to evaluate books from private publishers. Of course, they are not going to do that — no one has that much time or that many resources — so long as the great bulk of what gets spewed out of private presses is horrific crap. One of these private presses needs to break that chain of impressions by making literary publishing decisions up front, rather than purely marketing and accounting decisions; then not only will the majors review books from such a press, but could easily come to give preference to them.
That is a leap of faith decision that will have to be made by a company with literary balls in the private, self-publshing group of companies. Until then, self-publishing is not going to be thought of as “legitimate” in anything like the same way we still believe that the FSG imprint for example, on a spine means a valiant effort has been made to separate the good from the bad.
Finally, from the writer’s point of view, this is my complaint about self-publishing. It turns the author into the auteur. I mean by that, writers are also editors, designers, marketers, salesmen. This is not good for writing, although it might be all right for producing a little income. I believe firmly in the division of labor in which each party fulfills separate functions and stays out of each other’s area of expertise.
Writers write. It is all they should be doing. Agents sift wheat from chaff and then have the core task of matching a writer with the publisher that best fits. Publishers make books out of manuscripts, and then sell them. Writers have no business wasting their writing time being agents, producers, or salesmen. Agents need to be matchmakers. Publishers need to let writers write and do their job selling what their writers write. When everybody does their job and stays out of the other’s playpen, everybody plays happy, and readers get the reward.
That is why under conditions as they exist today I am not interested in self-publishing. I write. That’s all. Time spent designing, marketing, distributing, and selling is time I am not writing. More than time, it is a mental distraction from the necessity of thinking as a writer must think, if he is to be any good at all.
There is nothing in the least fair to the author in the antiquated commercial publishing world; in fact, publishers screw most of their authors. Yet, for the time being, it remains the only way for an author be be a writer and not a salesman.
I hope the future is better for both writers and readers.