This was a guest blog post for Paul Martin. It was published on the Self Publishers’ Showcase on December 10th, 2013.
On open fences and jailed dogs: The future of publishing
Near my home, there is a house that’s still under construction. Although it has no fence yet, it does have a door at the garden’s edge, standing alone in the middle of the road, like a white version of Clarke’s monolith. As I passed by earlier today, I chuckled at the sight of a dog standing inside the fenceless garden, right behind the closed door, waiting for someone to open it so he can go out for a walk.
At that moment, I remembered Jessica Park’s fascinating article on self-publishing, and it occurred to me that this is exactly what’s happening with the publishing industry. Writers and authors are still courting agents and publishers, who have acted like gatekeepers for centuries. And yet, they ignore the simple fact that the gates are no longer surrounded by fences.
It used to be that publishers were the only way to ensure a book’s mass distribution; having their backing was the only way to reach an audience. Nowadays, however, there’s Amazon, Lulu, Createspace and so many more; the possibilities for self-published authors are endless. So, why don’t more people self-publish?
One of the reasons is that it may seem like self-publishing is an admission of defeat. Writers are a notoriously insecure lot, so we need someone’s stamp of approval on our work, to validate it and reassure us that our work matters. That we matter.
But the public doesn’t care about that. It cares about our work. And if our work is any good, if we can build a community and talk with people in an honest and personal way (yes, I’m glaring at the ads promising to spam thousands of innocent mailboxes with our books right now), we can reach them; introduce our work to them; make them care about our characters, stories, and books.
So, what’s going to happen to publishers and agents? In a way, the industry is going through the same transformation the music industry went through a few years ago. At first, music companies fought the internet, mortified of its massive reach. Wishing to control every aspect, from production to promotion to distribution, they almost ended up losing everything. Artists started publishing their music online, even for free. CD sales plummeted, downloads sky-rocketed. It was only when the industry embraced the change instead of fighting it that things turned around. Nowadays, the internet is a nice earner for music companies, while allowing people to legally download the music they like, unconstrained by the producers’ opinions.
This, however, has made finding good music harder. If one hears the same 100 songs on the radio, it’s easy enough to know which ones they like; but if they have to choose between millions of them, people quickly become overwhelmed by the variety. So, music labels increasingly act as media companies, promoting bands and artists through their networks.
I suspect the same will happen with the publishing industry in the near future. Right now, it has fractured into many complimentary services. My mailbox is filled with companies offering to help me distribute my work; promote it; and prepare it for distribution. What used to be a single publisher’s job has now been torn into many competing elements.
I for one am very excited about this, because it empowers everyone involved: readers get more choice, while authors are free to experiment with different genres and break the rules. It is only those publishers who cling to the old ways of thinking that need worry about it. In Tolkien’s words, “the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.”
And, it seems, baffled dogs behind non-existent fences.
Readers don’t like to be told what is good and writers don’t either. Art doesn’t work that way. Hopefully, the publishing world will find their way in the next few years and maybe we’ll all be better for it. We’ll see!
Hi Lois, thanks for the feedback! I agree completely; our readers are the only stamp of approval we need! I, too, like to think that the publishing world will change for the better. Their only alternative is to perish, so that’s a pretty big incentive… 🙂