Monday, March 7, 2011

A Strange State of Affairs

[Please visit www.jasonkorolenko.com for updated content]

Ten (maybe even as few as five) years ago, "serious" writers were terrified of self-publishing. We've all heard the horror stories about Big House Publishers that tend to blacklist writers who have self-published novels. The BHPs say that these novels are traditionally bad because their authors don't have an army of professional editors, proofreaders, cover designers, marketers, promoters, etc. They say self-published writers don't take their works seriously enough to submit them through the "normal" channels. They say things like, "Anyone and their mother can write and publish their own book." And they say things like, "The reason it is so hard to get published is because your work has to be publishable, and most work just isn't."

Some of that is true, and to be quite honest, I agree completely with the last sentiment. But, fast-forward into the digital age, the age of Kindle and blogging and worldwide social networking and bankrupt bookstores, and suddenly writers aren't so afraid of being blacklisted by BHPs anymore. Why?

A lot of people who read this blog are writers, so they've probably heard variations of this theme before. This post is mostly for readers who wonder why the hardcover novel they just bought at Barnes & Noble is so terribly boring, but this free e-book they found online is so great. So, writers, if you'd like, you can head back over to Twitter and stare at your number of followers, wishing it to magically rise (oh, wait...that's what I do when I should be writing).

I've been meaning to write this for a while, but something always stopped me. Maybe it was that fear of the BHPs, as if they are some big brother type of organization trolling the Internet for slanderous remarks against them. But then I realized, this isn't about them. It's about writers delivering their product, their art, to the people who care about it most. Readers, of course. Those people who have half-read books in every room of their house, including the bathroom, so there is always a story at hand. Those people who have Kindles strapped to their wrists, or a collection of iBooks downloaded onto their cell phones.

The publishing industry is ridiculously difficult to break into. Say you have a book you've spent two years writing. Once that puppy is finally groomed and ready for the dog show, you have to find an agent. An agent is the man/woman with the rolodex stuffed with important numbers, that special breed of person who makes--and keeps--powerful connections within the industry. Many agents aren't interested in writers who have not been published, and there's the catch: many publishers aren't interested in writers who don't have agents. And these aren't sour grapes I'm chewing on. Any writer will tell you the same.

We've all heard the stories of popular writers who, in the beginning, received enough rejection letters to wallpaper their bedrooms. But even in the face of consistent, crushing blows to the ego, they plowed onward because they believed in their work, and they trusted that others would, too. In the days before the Internet, those "others" were difficult to find.

Thanks in great part to the Kindle Direct Publishing program (a writer uploads a novel to Amazon, sets his or her own price, then unleashes a masterpiece upon the digital world), there have been a rash of articles examining the recent successes of writers who self-publish through digital means. In just ten minutes, writers can have their work available--worldwide--to anyone who has a Kindle. And with Kindle books outselling hardcopies at a rate sometimes as high as ten-to-one, this is a game changer. Just ask Borders, who recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Just ask Barnes & Noble, who are flailing along in a similar boat filled with holes.

Big House Publishers insist that self-publishing isn't lucrative because, mainly, the writers lack sufficient promotion and marketing that fistfulls of cash (provided by the publisher) can offer. This used to be true, but the digital age leveled the playing field. This blog, for instance, has readers from Japan, Brazil, Russia, and about fifteen other countries. A high-profile blogger (which I certainly am not) can easily reach just as many people, if not more, than any marketing machine. I'm looking at you, Mark Zuckerberg.

But, let's be honest, what it all comes down to is money. Green. Dolla' dolla' bills, y'all. Writers write because they love it. That's a given. If we didn't love it, we wouldn't do it. What many writers don't admit, though, is that we want to make money. Where is the shame in that? We've got bills to pay, kids to feed, gas prices to shake our fists at. Some people went to school to become plumbers. We went to school to become writers. If a plumber admits he's in it for the money, no one blinks an eye. If a writer admits he's in it for the money, he's no longer an artiste. He's a corporate whore.

The sad reality is that only a handful of the most successful writers earn enough in royalties to survive solely on their art. This is why we're seeing so many articles about self-published writers now. This is why so many people are choosing the Do-It-Yourself route. Many struggling writers no longer care about being blacklisted by an industry that will never make them any money. And many readers are happy to risk five dollars on a digital book by an unknown writer, because they just can't afford a hardcover for twenty-five.

How will all this turn out? I wish I could tell you. For every success story, there are likely hundreds of digital e-novels that are languishing in a virtual slush pile, selling only one or two copies every now and then to the writer's spouse or close relative. But that is already a publishing industry standard. Most of the books you see in Borders don't sell, and that's part of the reason why Borders is dying a slow death.

What makes these times exciting is that, more and more, the artist--rather than the Big Business Middle Man--is in control.