Self-publishing has its risks

I began representing authors late in 2008, shortly after self-publishing suddenly had become incredibly easy and no longer required an up-front contribution of cash. Optional, carefully considered investments in the editing, design, and marketing of a self-published book were likely to improve its popularity with readers and increase sales, but at the time, few eager self-publishers were thinking that far ahead. There were no barriers to entry and no obligations to understand the market’s demands. Making a book available to readers was thought to be, by definition, the only truly necessary element of publishing. The outcome was up to consumers, who would decide what they liked best. And they did.

For about a decade, self-publishing expanded exponentially and matured. Successful, entrepreneurial indie authors generously began to share their expertise online. Self-published and reissued out-of-print titles flooded the market, which, as expected, had unfortunate economic consequences for individual authors attempting to profit from their written works.

In 2008, plenty of aspiring authors believed that digital self-publishing, which sometimes incorporated a crowdsourcing component, would destroy the traditional, established trade book publishing industry. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the acquiring editors with whom I discussed technological innovation back then weren’t feeling threatened or concerned. Today, the predominantly East Coast trade book publishing industry has adapted to the extent it was forced to, mass market paperback editions face extinction, and crowdsourcing has been usurped by crowdfunding—or, put your money where your mouth is.

The past decade began with writers asserting they no longer needed literary agents or traditional publishers and is ending with some of the same writers searching for literary agents or publishers who they hope might be persuaded to help reissue their self-published titles so the books can find a much larger readership. Of course, I don’t hear from the self-published authors who apprehend the demands of the market or the ones who are satisfied with the results of their efforts. A self-published author who had mastered entrepreneurship would realize she’d be asking me and a potential publisher to invest thousands of dollars worth of labor and capital in a market-tested book that had already publicly proven its value as an investment, and she wouldn’t waste her time trying to interest me in a book if it hadn’t sold phenomenally well. I can’t champion an author whose past performance doesn’t meet the expectations of the publishers with whom we’d be trying to collaborate. Doing so would benefit no one.

Queries from self-published authors are trending now in a sudden, stark shift. As a literary agent, I’m invisible and, nevertheless, a convenient bullseye. I understand how unfulfilled dreams can turn certain writers bitterly indignant. No one enjoys being judged when the standards are severely high. Fortunately, the ill-mannered are serendipitously counterbalanced by unrewarded yet still gracious writers who I know will continue reading, researching, practicing, experimenting, and improving in order to progress as far their talents and skills can take them on their chosen paths.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. As ever, regardless of how much variety they are offered, consumers gravitate en masse to read, discuss, recommend, and eagerly anticipate the screen adaptations of books written by a tiny fraction of a percentage of authors—the ones all authors would like to be and all agents would like to represent.

Book and target concept

2 thoughts on “Self-publishing has its risks

  1. Marsha Durham

    Thanks for your usual insightful post, pointing out the realities of the publishing business. I’ve just finished reading Michale Larsen’s book, How to Write a Book Proposal, which goes beyond the nuts and bolts of a proposal, to identify how the publishing industry works, at different levels. Interesting and useful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s