19 Feb 2009
Self-publishing used to be all about vanity. So-called 'vanity publishers' made a tidy fortune from the egos of authors who couldn't find or didn't like traditional publishers. These vanity houses would happily take hundreds or thousands of pounds from writers who would then have to find a home for hundreds of unsold copies of their books.
Technology has changed all that. Print On Demand (POD) services have made it possible to print copies of books as and when orders are received. There's no longer any need to invest in a print run of hundreds of copies in the hope that they will sell.
POD technology is being used by traditional publishers for books that sell in low volumes, including backlists. It's saving them a fortune in warehousing and returns. But the most significant development enabled by POD technology has been the do-it-yourself publishing sector.
And that's where I come in. This is the first in a series of blogs in which I'll be sharing my experience of self-publishing - including why and how I decided to produce my first novel, Lady Caine, myself.
First, though, there's still that nagging doubt about vanity. And what this is, really, is a question of quality.
With vanity publishing, the assumption was always that the book simply wasn't good enough to interest a 'real' publisher. I'm not sure that was ever entirely true: in fact, as recently as early parts of the 20th century, it wasn't uncommon for authors to assume that they would publish their own works. Some set up their own presses to do so - presses that have gone on to be counted among the most venerated names in the mainstream publishing world.
The Hogarth Press, for example, was established by Virginia and Leonard Woolf to print and publish their own works, as well as those by names like T S Eliot and Laurens van der Post. It started as a hobby, grew into a business (using commercial printers) and was ultimately absorbed by Chatto & Windus.
Nevertheless, it has to be admitted that the majority of works handled by vanity publishers should probably never have seen the light of day. And it was only the cost of producing the books that stopped such works turning from a quiet and unregarded backwater of publishing into a tidal wave.
Then Print On Demand was unleashed.
Many people will tell you that Lulu, Wordclay, Wheatmark, CreateSpace and their ilk have simply encouraged the untalented to believe that they are real writers. A casual survey of these self-publishers' sites, and other online literary experiments, such as Authonomy, tend to bear this out. Most of what you find there is crap. It reminds me of an old saying - that everyone has a book inside them, and that's where it should stay.
This phenomenon is not confined to book publishing. There are parallels in other forms of writing, and in photography.
Blogging has clogged up the Internet's tubes with the witless outpourings of people who have little more to say than what bands they like and what they had for lunch. It's journalism writ very small. Finding a worthwhile blog among all the dross is a difficult - if sometimes rewarding - task.
There was a time when the only people who sold stock photographs commercially were professionals who could produce images to the exacting standards of photo libraries. Now, Internet-based libraries, particularly those peddling royalty-free micro-stock (where photographers get a pittance for each image used, but the library, which is making millions of transactions, turns a very healthy profit) have flooded the market with dross. Traditional photo libraries, such as Getty or Corbis, sift all submissions, rejecting those that don't meet their standards for technical and aesthetic quality, as well as marketability. Micro-stock sites will take anything that meets the minimum technical specs. The result is that searching these sites is like ferreting around in a charity shop, riffling through piles of junk in the hope of finding a treasure.
What's happened is that technology has made the technical aspects of these activities trivially easy. Modern digital cameras pretty much ensure that the picture will 'come out' (providing your standards aren't high) and that the cost of creating images is negligible. The Internet has eased the process of sharing and distributing them.
Pretty much everyone today is comfortable using a keyboard. Word processing and blogging software makes it easy to produce attractive, even professional-looking publications, on paper or screen. The fact that most bloggers and amateur writers are producing attractive-looking drivel is, to them, beside the point.
And yet, and yet...
Treasures do exist - on micro-stock sites, in the blogosphere and among the self-promoting rabble of the self-published. Some micro-stock sites carry some work that is every bit as good as that of the professionals. Some blogs are required reading. And numerous self-published books have won for their authors fat contracts with traditional publishers.
If self-publishing is starting to shed the stigma of vanity publishing, it may be to do with a change in mindset that the Internet has wrought.
Bands are cutting out the middlemen of record labels and making their work available direct via the net. And so many writers also see the Internet as the key marketplace for their talents. If you don't care about bookshops or libraries (though, actually, I do), if your desire is simply to make your work available to those who might appreciate it, self-publishing using the web as your marketing medium makes perfect sense. It's a new paradigm for publishing and commerce.
Over the next few weeks, I'll be blogging more about these issues - for example, about the place of the traditional 'gatekeepers', the mainstream publishers and literary agents - as well as why I've decided to self-publish Lady Caine, how I'm going about it and the lessons I learn along the way.
If you want to go on this journey with me, I suggest you subscribe to our RSS feed or sign up for email-based alerts from Feedburner (see form in right-hand sidebar). And why not check out Lady Caine? I've set up a separate website to support it - the Outside Lomcovak Club.