Let it be said that the current publishing model, as a whole, doesn’t work perfectly. Great writers don’t make it, mediocre ones do, and the idea of nurturing an author into a bestseller is a part of the past. With eBooks, agency pricing and antitrust cases and debacles around author rights, the system is far from perfect. On some days, it barely functions. As a bookseller I am on the receiving end of a number of publisher fuck-ups, whether it is non-existent stock or ridiculous price-fixing or jacket treatment so abysmal that no one will pick up the book. (A notable example is the impending awful re-jacketing of the incredible Song of Achilles). As a reader, I am appalled at the number of spelling errors and formatting issues that are in final, proper copies.
But there’s still a great deal to be said for the publishing industry’s worth. It is a system of checks and balances, where there are proofreaders and graphic designers, editors and marketers. This is the machine that an author gets access to when a publishing house selects their work. Granted, the machine works better for the AAA authors, but once upon a time they all were bottom-list authors, the ones that the book reps advise booksellers to take 5 of. Very few get massive coverage and support from day one. The only example I can think of from last year was Erin Morgenstern and The Night Circus. It paid off: it was one of the very few books to enjoy a number one slot longer than 7 weeks on the 2011 bestseller list. It still sells well through word of mouth.
But it is hard to get published. Its nearly a full-time job in and of itself. It is very much like a job: compile a CV (the book itself, because outside of non-fiction no one will accept anything less than a full manuscript) and write a cover letter. Research all the publishing houses to find the right person and the right imprint. Then send those cover letters according to the specification of the website. (If they will even accept an unsolicited manuscript or directly from the author and not an agent.)
Each publisher will want a different set of things. Some will want a blurb and first 3 chapters. Some will want the whole manuscript, a blurb, a synopsis and any other qualifications one may have. Then there’s the usual three to six month wait for an answer, if one comes at all. Mostly, it doesn’t. Mostly, the work will sit on a slush pile amongst thousands of other manuscripts. Or it will get rejected immediately because the formatting is wrong, or they aren’t looking for any new authors or the cover letter was terrible.
Getting published is hard, and a lot of work for anyone who doesn’t have an agent or a contact inside a publishing house. Sure, lots of people get published every year. This year, 342,975 books have been published so far. It sounds like a lot, but there are 7 billion people on the planet. A little rudimentary maths tells us that is about one book per 20,490 people. Then consider how many of those might be from more than one person. There some authors that produce hundreds of books in their lifetimes. Patterson currently publishes two titles a month, for example. 24 books a year is no mean achievement. Compare that to the prolific Corín Tellado, who published more than 4000 novels and novellas in 63 years. That’s roughly 62 works a year. (Which should make us all feel incredibly lazy.)
Given that, self-publishing starts looking easier. There’s no mean editor to say “this isn’t good enough. Rewrite it.” There’s no one stopping the aspirant author from getting a book out there. There are vultures that will help them do it. Vanity presses abound, and sites like Createspace make that author dream come true. And I suppose that, if the intentions are pure, then that should be enough. The book exists, friends and family and unfortunate denizens of the social media continent can be led to it by bribed bloggers and aggressive tweeting. Mission accomplished, said George Bush, and now we can all go home.
But after the work it takes to produce a novel, some money would be nice. Prestige would be too. And this is where the gates of self-published hell open and consume the will to live of the poor sod that thought it was worth a try. Sure, anyone can give it a try. Look at Amanda Hocking. Look at EL Grey. And…that’s about it, really. Yes, there is the select club of rich self-published authors, but there are maybe a handful of them. The way I see it, if one is willing to put in the nearly back-breaking work required to produce a top-notch manuscript, then why not put in a little more and get the support of a publisher? Sure, great content will produce its own fans by itself, but the self-published have to be their own publicists and life is busy enough without the pain of cultivating a substantial online presence. As it is, most publishers won’t consider an author who doesn’t already have a website and a Twitter following. Establishing that, as outlined by this interesting BubbleCow article, is relatively time-consuming. An aspiring author, published or self-published, will have to develop this web presence to start, but the self-published author will have to work much, much harder to sell books that way. Also, consider that there is no advance for the self-published author. An advance may not always be much but it is something solid.
All in all, both are tough, but I still would rather polish a manuscript until its good enough to be accepted by one of the Big Six than try flog my work in the giant trough of shit that is the Internet. I would rather have the help of experienced people at 7% of the book’s profits than strike out on my own for a tiny chance to make 70% off my novel.