Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Further Adventures in Publishing

One of the topics of this blog is "writing," and one aspect of writing -- the most vexing, often -- is getting published. So herewith, my views on the current state of the publishing industry, admittedly offered from my own rather limited vantage point:

You'd never know it from the state of most bookstores, cluttered floor to ceiling with books (this is, of course, assuming that you can still find an actual bookstore in your vicinity), but it's gotten really, really hard to get a book published. Especially a novel. And more especially a first novel, if you're not a celebrity of some sort or at least a close friend or relative of some powerful and/or famous person.

A lot of good books still get published, of course. But what may be harder to discern, from outside the industry, is that a lot of good books never get published. And a lot of not-so-good books do get published (this is something you may have actually noticed!).

When I found an agent for my first novel, about five years ago, things were tough. Now that I'm on my second agent and second novel, things are even tougher. Now, instead of routinely sending out rejections, a number of editors have apparently given up sending out anything. At the moment, four editors have had my novel for over two months; one has had it for three months; and one has had it for five months. We've had no response from any of them, despite my agent's efforts, and there's no indication we ever will. If I thought there was more than an infinitesimal chance that any of them would take it, I might be content to wait. But my agent has had the manuscript for over a year now, and frankly the prospect of being in this limbo indefinitely is beginning to get to me.

In the old days -- a few years ago, that is -- authors really had no alternative but to wait. It was mainstream publishing or pretty much nothing. That's not true anymore. As the mainstream publishing industry has contracted and fossilized, new publishing life forms have been springing up like mushrooms after a heavy rain.

Perhaps the largest, and most obvious, new form is self-publishing. Thanks to low-cost print-on-demand technology, the number of self-published books has far surpassed the number of traditionally published books (according to a New York Times article, the figures for 2009 were 764,448 self-published books to 288,355 traditionally published books, and those figures have no doubt diverged more widely since then).

Most of these books, of course, languish in obscurity -- and in many cases, that obscurity is no doubt well deserved. After all, with self-published books there's no vetting, no cultural gatekeeper letting in the sheep and keeping out the goats (or is it the other way around?). Who's to say that any of these books are worth reading? Some self-published authors -- the ones setting down memories for their grandchildren, for example -- don't really care about reaching a wider audience. But for those who do, the question is how to get your self-published book to stand out from all the others.

When I resorted to self-publishing my first book, A More Obedient Wife, I did so with a heavy heart. I was embarrassed to admit that I'd self-published, but I figured I'd just give the book to friends and family. It was only after I started hearing from a few strangers who told me they'd loved the book that I began to think bigger.

And that's how I began to discover that there actually were some mechanisms falling into place that enabled a self-published author like me to secure some objective seals of approval -- someone other than little old me saying, hey, read this book. I entered it into two contests open to self-published authors, and it won awards in both (had I been more savvy, I could have taken advantage of other similar contests). I put it up on sites like Goodreads, where members list and rate the books they're reading. I urged readers who told me they liked the book to review it on Amazon, where at one point I was up to 11 reviews, all five-star (somehow, that number has mysteriously shrunk to 10).

And I sent it in to a website called Indiereader, which I had read about in the New York Times article mentioned above. Indiereader not only gave the book a favorable review, they included it in a program that funnels selected self-published books to independent bookstores around the country. Indiereader has also started reaching out to book clubs, giving them (in the words of its founder, Amy Edelman) "a dedicated page, the opportunity to do Q&As with authors (when they're able), to share their faves with other book clubs, and the chance to discover something new." And recently a book group in Pennsylvania that found my book through the Indiereader website picked it as one of their selections--thank you, Bad Girls Book Club of Broomall, PA!

I've also noticed that some of the numerous self-publishing companies (or "indie publishing" companies, as they're now beginning to style themselves) have started programs that incorporate this vetting function. Abbott Press, a division of Writer's Digest (which sponsors a self-published book award that my first novel won), will publish any book -- but, for a fee, you can have your book considered for a "Writer's Digest Mark of Quality" that indicates "high literary merit."

Of course, chances are that even a book with the "Writer's Digest Mark of Quality" isn't going to hit the New York Times bestseller list. With a few notable exceptions (mostly fantasy and romance writers), self-published authors are never going to strike it rich. In fact, despite the hype you'll hear from self-publishing companies, we're almost certain to lose money rather than make it. But for me -- and, I suspect, for many others -- it's not about making a killing, or even a living. I just want at least a few people -- okay, maybe a few hundred -- to read what I write. And these days, the mainstream publishing industry, whose denizens are so certain that they know what's deserving of publication and what isn't, can't stop me.

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