Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Cult of the Self Published

Back when I was in the cult, I had—shall we say—a selective view of the world.  Cults, to no one’s surprise, tend to associate only with like-minded people, and for our part, we spent much of our time preaching our own message to ourselves.  AS such, we were not known to be well-balanced individuals.  Over time, we pile one truth upon another and extrapolated a new truth from that, and then another, and another.  Eventually, our beliefs parted company with the real world, but in our view, we owned the monopoly on reality; it was everyone else who was wrong.
I got out, but have remained wary of evangelists—of any flavor—ever since, which was why I resisted the self-publishing revolution for so long; it smelled like zealotry to me.  Eventually, I joined the uprising, but now that I am on the inside I wonder how skewed my perspective is becoming.
It’s something that merits sober thought, especially as it happened so fast: not too long ago self-publishing was a prohibitively expensive and unattractive option, then it became affordable but still undesirable, and now, of course, it is such a cheap, easy and attractive option that only an idiot would agree to be shackled by a traditional publishing contract .  Or would they?
The arguments against tradition publication are compelling, and based on undeniable truths.  The web—at least the part of it I haunt these days, looking for like-minded people—is  filled with horror stories where publishers play the Big Bad Wolf and the formerly hapless writer is Little Red Riding Hood.  (I suppose this would make self-publishing the Heroic Woodsman, who chops up the wolf in the nick of time and sets Red free to gather her royalties and residuals.)
I don’t doubt the stories—someone is always ready with a “How Things Went Horribly Wrong” epic—and I trust in the logic, but still I wonder if there isn’t another reality out there.  I find it hard to believe that publishers are swirling around the rim of the drain, begging for writer’s to sign with them.  Especially not when the lowest earner on the list of the 53 largest publishing companies (you thought there were only 6, didn’t you) managed, even though they took a small loss, to pull in $232,000,000 in revenue last year.  Admittedly, that’s not a lot by many people’s standards, but they are certainly not headed for the poor house any time soon.  Neither are the top twenty publishers on the list: every one of them (and there were an even number of winners and losers) registered income in the billions.
So why am I being assured they’ll all be bankrupt in a matter of days while we’re all happily self-publishing ourselves onto the Fortune 500 List?  I am certainly no prognosticator of business, or trends, but there must be people out there successfully selling to traditional publishers, who are perfectly happy with their contracts and who don’t feel like a mug for having chosen to not self-publish.
I hope so, because I would like to be one of them someday.
It’s hard to think that way, however, when you find yourself surrounded by people who believe, quite passionately, in a different reality.  And it’s hard to think beyond this reality when the foundation is so undeniably sound: “You’ll maintain creative control” is a prospect almost any writer welcomes, “You’ll keep most of the profits,” is another, but “Most people buy their books online,” is where the reality begins to thin.  Do they?  We like to say they do, and we point to facts and figures that purport to prove it, but how much of that is wishful thinking.  And how much of that wishful thinking is there simply to shore up the next truth: “You can sell on Amazon just as easily as anyone else.”
This is where we part company with reality because that is patently false.  And, paradoxically, if it were true, none of us would sell much of anything.  Imagine what would happen if each one of the millions of self-published writers suddenly acquired the drive and determination of Joe Konrath, the inspired weirdness of Russell Blake and the marketing chutzpah of John Locke?  I’m trying to, but I’m sure even my most radical fantasies fall short.  I do know, however, that none of them would sell many books because readers would not be able to reach beyond the competing babble.  Not that it would matter, because none of them would find the time to write more books, anyway.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Self-Publishing Denier, and none of this has made me sorry I self-published; I’m just wondering, that’s all.  And seeking balance.

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