Bookish types have long derided the so-called vanity press, but with the big publishing houses scaling back acquisitions, DIY publishing might just be bound for glory.
Author Willa Paskin Illustration Rodrigo Corral
NOT SO LONG AGO, self publishing was a dirty word. For the serious literary artiste, there was only one route to success. First, you’d find an agent to submit your proposal — or perhaps a finished book — to the major publishing houses. Then, with any luck, an editor would take the bait, treat you to a few boozy lunches (preferably at the Four Seasons), fork over a hefty advance and enlist the marketing department to propel your masterpiece onto best seller lists. Most self-respecting authors would sooner have used their manuscripts to line hamster cages than turn them over to a vanity press, traditionally viewed as the last resort of the vain, the foolish and the hopelessly amateur. But as an increasingly mercurial economy forces the publishing industry to rethink its modus operandi, book deals (not to mention advances, lunches and expensive publicity pushes) are becoming harder to come by — and self publishing suddenly seems reputable.
While traditional publishers have seen sales fall off precipitously in recent months — a nearly 15 percent drop at Bloomsbury, for instance — dozens of self publishing houses, including iUniverse, Xlibris and Amazon’s CreateSpace, are flourishing. In the past two years, print-on-demand company Blurb has gone from booking $1 million in revenue to $30 million (authors pay prices ranging from $13 to $170). Author Solutions, the parent company of iUniverse and other self publishing imprints, put out 12,000 titles in 2007, and expects to double that figure in 2009. “Traditional publishing is imploding,” says the company’s president and CEO, Kevin Weiss, “and we’re here helping people publish in numbers we never thought we would see.”
As the chances of landing a book deal dwindle, even tweedy literary elites are whispering that self publishing might be an acceptable path to legitimacy. Here’s why:
Brunonia Barry’s self-published novel The Lace Reader was purchased by William Morrow in October 2007 for more than $2 million. William P. Young’s self-published Christian novel The Shack, about a mourning father who meets God (she’s black), has sold more than a million copies. Lisa Genova’s novel about Alzheimer’s, Still Alice, was originally self published via iUniverse; 10 months and a lot of hustle later, it was purchased by Simon & Schuster for six figures, debuting at No. 5 on The New York Times best seller list.
For Genova, the decision to go the self publishing route was a last resort — after she’d spent a year futilely searching for an agent. “I was scared to self publish,” she admits. “I get why there is a stigma about it: There’s no gatekeeper saying this book meets a certain standard.” Genova’s biggest worry was that the lack of a traditional publisher’s seal of approval on her book’s jacket would mark it as somehow second-rate. “But if it weren’t for self publishing,” she continues, “the book would still be in a drawer somewhere. Now it’s on the best seller list.”
Of course, not all self-published books turn into best sellers — and most probably don’t deserve to. In fact, the average self-published volume sells only about 150 copies. That isn’t quite as bad as it may sound, given the publishing industry’s usual margins: 93 percent of traditionally published books sell only 1,000 copies, according to numbers released in 2004, the last time Nielsen Bookscan updated that statistic. (No wonder the book business is in trouble, right?)
This past November, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt stunned the industry when it instructed its editors, at least temporarily, to stop purchasing manuscripts altogether (which is, after all, primarily what editors are hired to do). For the time being, the plan would be to concentrate on pushing the backlist. Though HMH is so far the only company to deliver an edict explicitly banning the acquisition of new titles, most publishers are becoming increasingly cautious about making new purchases, especially of fiction. Nearly overnight, the publishing world’s already high barrier to entry has become, for practical purposes, insurmountable.
Meanwhile, the few lucky writers who do manage to land a deal soon discover just how little that actually gets them these days. Under the new calculus, authors are often expected to build their own websites, throw their own book parties and schedule their own tours (which likely means driving from one bookstore to another and couch-surfing with friends). Some even wind up hiring freelance editors, rather than leave the job to the increasingly overworked red-pencil squads at their publishing houses.
All of which, come to think of it, sounds like a pretty good definition of self publishing. The Massachusetts- based book publicity firm Kelley & Hall was hired by both Barry and Genova, but according to publicist Jocelyn Kelley, self-published authors account for just 30 percent of the company’s clients. The other 70 percent are authors with traditional book deals, many of whom are dipping into their meager advances to cover the company’s fee. “Publishers have 50 to 100 authors they have to represent at a time, and they can’t always give them individualized attention,” Kelley explains. “Which means some fantastic books fall through the cracks.”
In other words, if an author’s neither a name brand nor a young hotshot, a standard publisher won’t do much more for him than a self publisher will. And these days, none of them are chowing down at the Four Seasons.
The good news for would-be authors is that new technologies are quickly leveling the playing field in a way that would surely please Gutenberg. Personal websites, blogs and Facebook pages are allowing authors, with or without a book deal, to find their audiences.
And as digital readers like Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s Reader find wider acceptance, one of the few advantages traditional publishers still hold — their ability to get books onto store shelves — will slip their grasp.
A similar transformation has already happened in the music industry, of course, where bands promote themselves on MySpace and peddle their songs on iTunes. And no one frowns on a director who films her own short, uploads it to the internet and submits it to Sundance.
Literary wannabes who still fear the stigma of self publishing would do well to remember the example of Walt Whitman, who not only personally set the type for Leaves of Grass, but also promoted it, hawked copies to booksellers and even wrote anonymous reviews of the work, one of which began by trumpeting the arrival of “an American bard at last!” If he did say so himself.
Willa Paskin, a journalist living in New York City, has written for Slate, The Daily Beast and Radar magazine. She has not stooped to self publishing her work. Yet.