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

Doing business in the public eye

business in the public eye
Image courtesy of Mompes
Most of a literary agency’s business is conducted quietly, behind the scenes. Attempting to bring any of it to light is difficult, because significant context often is missing. Every profession shares this quandary. Looking in from the outside, observers are forced to oversimplify and stereotype other occupations and businesses, because it’s impossible to experience all of them firsthand.

My work as an agent is neither routine nor boring, which makes it fun. After five years, I no longer feel like a novice, but that doesn’t mean I can ever stop learning. Most knowledge workers recognize that continually educating ourselves and monitoring industry intelligence are necessary aspects of our jobs; otherwise, we’d consign ourselves rapidly to obsolescence.

Many of us have been watching and commenting on the latest machinations of big corporations. Because of their size and reach, the largest companies involved in publishing and bookselling must contend with heightened public scrutiny. That’s good, because we need to be reminded that these big corporations establish de facto standards for balancing competition and cooperation, which other businesses in the industry then will emulate. If the biggest companies succeed by dodging taxes, being aggressively adversarial, poaching talent, emphasizing volume over quality, crowdsourcing free content, eschewing customer service, and exploiting their employees, then every other businessperson within the book publishing industry’s entrepreneurial ecosystem will begin to see value in those strategies. Ruthless tactics can appear much less unethical when they’re necessary for survival.

The outrage and dissent, even when inarticulately expressed in debates riddled with inaccuracies, help to reassure me that we haven’t completely lost our ethical sensibilities. And by the way, in the grand scheme, I really enjoy being in a position to advocate for the artist.

Exactly when did kindness and courtesy became unbusinesslike and unsexy? Certain old-fashioned business practices are worth reinstating.