The US author Barry Eisler writes very well about self-publishing and what he needlessly refers to as 'legacy' publishing. He is also prepared to debate his points, and does so in good spirit. He recently caused a stir when he gave one of the keynotes at the 21st annual Pike's Peak Writers Convention, which he says led to "a bit of upset here and there" and an apparent walkout. The main points of the speech have now been reproduced at Joe Konrath's blog, A Newbies Guide to Publishing, under the title "Eisler on Digital Denial", with the thriller writer adding some additional comments following the responses to his talk.
Journalist Porter Anderson took a measure of this mood, in his Publishing Perspectives piece, titled "The Establishment Snipes Back". As Anderson notes, Eisler believes that with the changes happening in the sector, self-published writers can publish as effectively as any traditional publisher, except for the bit around "paper distribution". Eisler's point is not that all authors should go this route, but that if they choose to eschew the mass market paper distribution gets to, then they now at least have a choice in how they publish, in a way they didn't a decade ago. "Paper distribution has traditionally been legacy publishing's primary value-add," he says.
Anderson captures the reaction thus: "The engagement on Twitter of agent Sorche Fairbanks and the associated comments of someone tweeting for Tyrus Books as well as agents Rachel Ekstrom, Janet Reid, Pam van Hylckama, editor Sarah Knight and some others (you need to follow the conversation back to see them) indicates that there is, in fact, a bright line of contention around the idea of hardback and paperback distribution being the last redoubt of legacy publishers."
A "bright line of contention" being an Andersonism, for the hostile heckles that ensued from the side-lines. Or as one tweeter put it: "I've never had so much fun saying bullshit to a table of horrified writers."
As Anderson notes, there is much to commend in Eisler's points, and Anderson is right to highlight the intemperate and unhelpful reactions from "the industry". And though I think both Eisler and Konrath don't help themselves in this debate by using the prefix "legacy" when referring to publishers, they are undoubtedly at the coalface of this shift, and living it in ways others are not.
More importantly, if "the industry" is to counter these statements, it needs to get where they come from, and understand the parameters of the debate. For although it can sometimes appear like we are discussing "all publishing", we are not. Both Eisler and Konrath write commercial genre fiction, as do many other successful self-published writers. However, there are other bits of the market that lend themselves less well to these self-publishing market forces, where publication, if it is to be done, needs a full range of services to back it (not just print distribution). Where publishing's "value-add" is still quite broad.
Eisler's view of the traditional publishing system -- "an editor falls in love with a manuscript, the writer is showered with a large advance from the publisher" etc -- is heavily skewed to the notion of being a writer of bestselling commercial fiction. But there are plenty of books, particularly non-fiction or children's titles, that don't fit this paradigm, and are produced much more in collaboration with a wider team. Eisler's view is that a writer goes to a publisher with a manuscript, but of course this is true only of some titles, and some bits of publishing. In many cases the book originates with the publisher, who then commissions a writer, or it arrives out of collegiate discussions between publishers, agents and writers. Or it arrives unready, mal-formed, and the publisher (heaven, forfend) makes it better.
It is, of course, perfectly possible that digital could change all this too: that a historian who has spent 10 years researching and crafting a biography of Stalin, will find a route to publication outside of the traditional route that will prove equally as rewarding. But it hasn't happened yet, and as I've said before if we are to properly discuss the changes happening to publishing, we need to properly understand what it is publishing actually does.
Similarly, much is made of the streets of gold self-publishing has supposedly paved. In a note below Eisler's blog Konrath writes that many self-published authors are making more of a living now than when they were traditionally published. Writes Joe: "I haven't taken any polls, but I know many former legacy authors who are making more self-pubbing than they ever did, and many authors who were never invited into the legacy industry who are making money for the first time." Some of this is self-evident, but if we are to have a reasoned debate, I reckon those "polls" are important.
Amazon, without which this self-publishing conversation would not be happening, releases too few numbers to make any reasonable analysis possible. I can point to many former self-published writers who now sell more having been traditionally published than they did before: but I haven't taken any polls either. I'd welcome any third-party analysis that had sight of the Amazon numbers, and could map them to the traditionally published world. In the UK at least, those numbers I have seen suggest that self-published writers sell far fewer copies than traditionally published titles, and do so at much lower prices. But of course their royalites are greater. One might think, from reading these blogs (and others), that the choices here are simple, but until those "polls' are more widely taken, I remain dubious that one route is necessarily better than another. Even if comparisons were possible, would we be comparing the same things? The self-pubbed route is a winner takes all approach: if your book doesn't sell you don't make any money. In the traditional world the publisher makes an investment: the risk is shared, and inevitably so are the rewards. Eisler says they are "two kinds of lottery", but that is a reductive view of publishing and not wholly representative.
Where Eisler has it right is that agents and publishers need to "listen to new and contrary views", and understand those shifts in the eco-system. A good agent needs to critique the analysis put forward by the self-pubbers, not deny it oxygen. And the traditional publishing industry needs to get way better at making its case.
But we all also need to get smarter about how we talk about publishing. There is, of course, a big part of publishing that is about distributing the likes of Barry Eisler and creating commercial hits; but there is equally a different part of publishing that is not about this type of writing at all, and to characterise all of publishing in this way is to undermine the quality and veracity of the debate.
We shouldn't deny digital, but equally let's not too narrowly define what publishing does.
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