Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Either ... Or

It doesn't have to be one or the other

I've talked a bit about how the world of publishing is changing. We see it all the time these days, in both good and bad ways. When I see lines like 'traditional publishing is over, traditional publishing is broken' and all the rest, I remember reading about two instances in the past where these same sorts of things were said about the book industry. The most recent occasion was at the advent of cheap paperback publishing. Prior to that addition to the shelves, publishing had been limited to hard bounds which made them rather elitist in their own ways. People were appalled at the idea of paperbacks for the masses, and the drop in quality of both the books and the writing that they saw in this new technology. It was the birth of the genres as we truly know them. It did change publishing and made it a far larger industry.

And the time before paperbacks where there was an upheaval? It was the birth of the printing press when books could be distributed in large numbers, rather than a few carefully copied manuscripts sitting on the shelves in the house of the rich or hidden away in holy houses. Now anyone could write and publish a book and the masses (more or less) could buy it. This was, they said, the downfall of scholarship and the end of the truly elitist antiquarian society.

But here is the point: in both cases it was not the end. Rather, it was change and the publishing world adapted to it. It wasn't an instant adaptation, and there was (as there always is in human nature) attempts to fight against the tide of change. That's inevitable in any long term project that suddenly faces drastic changes from the outside.

We are now in the midst of one of these drastic changes in publishing. We've all seen it coming and some of us have been taking advantage of publishing along the peripheral in ebook and small press companies.

The publishing industry is not broken; it is adapting. It will change and while a lot of what we accepted may fail in the change, something will survive and go on along with the other new forms of publishing. People are still selling books to the New York publishing houses and following their dreams. There is no reason not to try if that has always been what you wanted.

But here we come to the real point of my post (finally). People seem to think that this has become an either/or world for writers. Either you pursue traditional publishing or you self-publish. This isn't true -- at least if you have more than one book in your files. Many writers, including ones who have had long-time business relationships with big publishers, have now started offering items through self-publishing. Many of them offer backlist books when they have reacquired the rights. Others offer the rest of the series that a publisher never completed.

New writers don't have that backlist. They might, however, have several finished manuscripts and been unable to get a publisher interested in. There are small press and ebook publishers out there as well, but self-publishing is not as frowned on as it was ten years ago. It just has to be done very carefully. Why wasn't the book sold? Was it because of the story, or was it the quality of the writing? A self-published writer must have material that is as well written, and probably better edited, than what you'll find on shelves in stores. If the book is going to present you as a 'real' writer, than you better make certain it stands up to the test.

If you do self-publish (or publish with a small press or ebook company) that does not mean you can't still send work out to agents and publishers. There is no reason to cut yourself off from any venue of publishing, in fact. We are in the midst of a revolution but it's one of those rare revolutions where you don't have to choose sides. You can play on both sides of the field because the line is wavering at the moment. It is unlikely, now that the wall has been breached, that it will ever be formed up as solid as it had been before.

For some of us, this means instead of looking at the these changes as the demise of traditional publishing, we need to start looking at them as new opportunities.

If you are going to self-publish don't do it haphazardly. These books are going to be read (if you work hard at marketing) by people who will either become your fans or who will not buy another of your books no matter how it is published. Be prepared to do more marketing than anyone in any other form of publishing -- and that's a lot as it is.

Don't leap into any form of publishing without thinking it through. But also don't make a choice and think that's the end of any other choices. Take advantage of all the chances there are out there today. But do it wisely.

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