It’s no secret the publishing industry is undergoing a radical change, but what still needs to change is people’s perception.
Traditionally, for an author to gain exposure, they needed to be published with a major publishing house (which only accepts manuscripts solicited by literary agents). Therefore, literary agents acted as gatekeepers, determining which books are worthy of being published.
However, with the advent of digital books, the marketplace and channels of distribution are open to everyone. While it has never been easier to get a book into the hands of readers, there are still some major hurdles authors need to overcome.
If publishing were a true meritocracy, then the best books would also be the ones that sell the most. Currently, that is not the way it works. I’m sure we can all think of bestselling books that are terribly written.
The reason this happens is because publishers spend a lot of money to promote a book. The promotion generates interest, which can translate into sales. If enough books are sold within a certain time period, the book will become a bestseller. Once it makes the bestseller’s list, it will convince people it’s good, when it may not be.
Most bestseller lists are reported weekly, based on total units sold. To make the list, a book usually needs to sell between 7,000 and 12,000 copies. That means a book that sells heavily for one week will be on the same list as a book that sells heavily all year round. So a book that sells 7,000 copies in one week and then zero the remainder of the year may be perceived to be better than a book that sells over 100,000 copies per year (but never more than 7,000 per week).
Since there are many subsequent benefits of being on a bestseller list, many authors and publishers manipulate the sales by purchasing a large volume of their own books. Once they make the list, they can forever claim the bestseller title, which then connotes quality, credibility, and prestige. Being on the list, even in this artificial way, allows a title or author to gain exposure and sales that are perhaps undeserved.
Considering how much emphasis is placed on this list, it does two things:
a.) reinforces people’s perception of books, and;
b.) funnels the herd of book buyers to buy bestsellers over non-bestsellers.
My concern is that given the financial limitations many authors face, it discourages authors from writing, and instead encourages them to pursue a more financially worthwhile career. In effect, robbing society of great storytellers and reduces our cultural enrichment. Therefore, the perception of publishing needs to change.
On Episode 16 of The Edward Mullen Podcast, I discuss the many different publishing options for writers. I will briefly recap that list:
- Major Publisher: (Hatchette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Simon & Shuster)
- Medium Publisher
- Small and Vanity Publisher
In the podcast, I discuss the various pros and cons of different publishing options and concluded that self-publishing was the right avenue for me. However, what I’m finding is that I often have to defend that choice to people, as if my books are in some way inferior to books published under the traditional route.
In many other creative outlets such as music, movies, and art… the term independent does not carry the same stigma. In fact, in many cases it is worn proudly like a badge of honour since it represents hustle and a willingness to forgo the corporate world to keep the art pure. It’s also a viable way to earn a living and garner respect. Many independent musicians and movie makers have won the highest awards in their fields. Sadly, this has not caught on in the publishing industry.
As I have discovered, there are many restrictions to being a self-published author, even if your books are read by millions of people around the world. Some of them include:
- You may not gain credibility
- You may be restricted from entering book contests
- Your book will not be distributed in certain stores (including some ebook stores)
- Your government may not give you a writing grant
With music, a song can be uploaded to the Internet and listened to with ease. If your song is good, it can be shared, played on radio and in clubs, and be featured in movie soundtracks. Radio stations will want to play your tune and invite you into the station for an interview. Once you develop a fan base, you have multiple revenue streams available to you such as album sales, touring, selling merchandise, and YouTube revenue. It is by no means easy to make a living and develop a fan base as a musician, but hear me out. If you are an aspiring stand-up comedian, you can follow the same formula as the musician, and eventually find your way into movies, television, and various hosting gigs. The major money-making opportunity available is live shows. A comedian or musician can earn millions by performing at clubs and venues around the world. Movies are similar in that they require a minimal investment of the audience’s time and money.
However, none of these options are available to authors, even the most successful ones. When was the last time you saw somewhere wearing a Stephen King shirt? When was the last time an author hosted anything on television? Yes, writers can earn a living in various ways, but the point I’m trying to make is that authors upload their content for free, but do not have secondary avenues to make money like touring comedians and musicians. Books require more of a time commitment, cannot be shared easily in venues, television, or radio. Due to these financial limitations, an aspiring author may give up to pursue a career that is a more worthwhile use of their time.
In the interest of brevity, I will reiterate two points. First, a self-published book can be just as good as a bestseller, and even outsell a bestseller, but is prohibited of many of the benefits of a bestseller. Second, due to this perception in society, we are stifling the creative potential of our best writers and storytellers, and thereby robbing society of the great benefit of entertainment.