A few years ago, as the e-book revolution was getting under way, there was a good deal of buzz about where it might lead. The death of the bookstore? The death of the big-brand publishers? Freedom from the tyranny of the agent-publisher system that – to aspiring writers outside the industry – seemed to offer nothing other than barrier and heartbreak?
None of this has come to pass as people supposed. Inevitably. Agent names have disappeared from aspiring author blogs – they’re no longer the badge of credibility for the unpublished writer. The big-name publishing houses have bent but are not broken. Amazon has opened a hard-copy retail bookstore – an experiment, but one that I expect will lead to a chain, certainly in the US and perhaps worldwide.
And the debate over ‘independent or mainstream’ has also, largely, gone away. That debate was dominating discussions just five years ago. When it became possible for anybody to publish, it seemed that the way ahead was to do just that.
What happened? In hindsight it’s obvious. Being able to publish independently didn’t solve the problem of marketing. The bigger challenge became that of discovery – a barrier just as high and impenetrable as the old publisher-agent system. That was compounded by the fact that a lot of people leaped on the band-wagon, whether their work was any good or not – saturating the system with what US author Chuck Wendig has called a ‘shit volcano’.
The fact is that self-pubbing – let’s call it ‘independent publication’ – still demands the same quality standards as big-name commercial industry. That lesson has, I think, been learned. The down side is that it also carries similar costs: there is little choice but to hire artists, designers, proof-readers and so on.
A savvy indie publisher will be nimbler than the big-name houses, purely by virtue of scale; but by the same token marketing budgets will be much lower – that challenge of discovery again – with the difficulty of trying to make ends meet and to get distribution.
For established authors the new ‘e-book/Amazon’ paradigm also offers opportunities for back-list reissue that wouldn’t be economic for a mainstream publisher to tackle. I had a brief exchange of letters about this, earlier this year, with Australian author Faye Weldon. Using Amazon to pump out the back-list is a good strategy that a lot of authors are following these days.
So the issue, really, isn’t ‘either trad OR indie’, but actually ‘both’ – taking a savvy approach that exploits the best strengths of each publishing mechanism. Just to nail that, these are:
Pros: established marketing budgets, professional editorial/design, big-name branding, production risk carried by publisher, potential for high returns.
Cons: industry currently risk-averse, some titles not economic to handle, relatively slow to manoeuvre/produce, entry barriers still high for incoming writers.
Pros: no entry barrier, quick to produce, economic for books that don’t suit the trad system.
Cons: discovery, distribution system needs work, lower returns (mostly), publisher (author) carries all financial risk and has to meet all costs.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015