The economics of traditional book publishing indicate new authors should make a strong effort to publicize their writing or establish their own brand before approaching a literary agent or, when warranted, an editor at a publishing house. The investment made by the publisher is a gamble that initial expenses will be offset by a book’s sales. Today, publishers seem a little more interested in banking on a first-time author who has already developed a marketable identity and an appreciable following, which can help reduce the possibility the publishing house will lose money on the deal.
Self-publishing can give book authors some insight into the labor and expense—not to mention the expertise—required to deliver a finished product to retail booksellers the way it’s been done in the past. Not many aspiring authors own a style manual, such as the Chicago Manual of Style. Few fully anticipate the effort involved in editing, graphic design, page layout, obtaining the ISBN and bar code, proofreading, printing, binding, distribution, and marketing. However, one stab at self-publishing makes it all painfully clear. It’s a lot of work.
Enterprising writers of fiction and non-fiction are employing a variety of new tactics to appeal to readers. They may not yet have agents or publishers. They may not even be ready to engage a print-on-demand publisher in order to go it on their own, but a few have already garnered attention by making their books available for free in installments on the Web. Some writers—like Clotilde Dusoulier, who started the blog Chocolate & Zucchini in 2003—attract book publishers by building an online community that then becomes part of the market for their books.
I’m not against self-publishing, but I am passionately against self-editing as one’s only gesture of editing. Another set of eyes, another mind, another couple ears—this is what a good editor offers a writer. This is no less true for fiction than journalism.
Most of the self-published books I’ve read are so poorly written, one has to hope the author has a big family with a whole bunch of generous-hearted members who will want autographed copies. One self-published book that I bought, based on reading the first chapter, was a wonderful story, very well told, and very moving. It was called Escape Into Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman’s Survival During World War II, by Sonia Games.
I found a snippet of the book on Xlibris.com, one of several Web destinations for self-published authors. Despite the overly long title, I was intrigued, so I sent for it. Within the first few pages, I found typos, some printing justification and alignment problems, and many paragraphs that would have been better extended to two or three. A good, impartial editor would have caught this before the print run. Also, this book should not have been self published—it should have been published by a major imprint, assigned a good editor and sent to Spielberg for movie rights. It would not have ended up as quite the book I read, perhaps, but because the author had such a strong voice, it would only have benefited dramatically from some good editing. Still and all, it was a diamond in the (slightly) rough and certainly far better than most of the self-published books I’ve read.
The half-dozen or so major book publishing conglomerates in the U.S. are anticipating only modest increases in book sales. First-time authors who hope their manuscripts will be purchased by publishers need to make themselves stand out in a crowd of thousands. Gaining a measure of publicity in advance won’t transform mediocre writing, but it will make a good writer easier to notice.