Citizen Publishing

I attended a lecture about Sherlock Holmes at the Howe Library last night and sat next to another writer. Before the lecture began, we got to talking about Amazon and its fractious relationship with traditional publishing companies.

American Patchwork—edited by Sonja Hakala
American Patchwork, published by St. Martin’s Press

I get questions about this subject whenever I do a publishing workshop and my attitude can be (mostly) summed up by Shakespeare: “A plague on both their houses.”

But that’s too simple a perspective on what’s essentially an argument about the future of book publishing. So here’s a more thoughtful response to my fellow Sherlock fan.

Even though I shudder metaphorically whenever I count up the years that I’ve spent in publishing, I’m glad I started when I did—on the eve of the digital printing/digital book selling revolution. Because of that, I’ve had the opportunity to watch history being made.

The book publishing industry traces its roots right back to Johannes Gutenberg. I often point out to students that Gutenberg’s revolutionary inventions did two things simultaneously—they freed books and the ideas within their pages from the tyranny of scarcity while taking away the rights of writers to control their own work because of the cost of the mass production that his inventions created.

Cover for the new edition of The Road Unsalted
The Road Unsalted published by Full Circle Press LLC, a company founded by author Sonja Hakala

In 1995 when the first American self-publishing company raised its head—we’re talking iUniverse here—every sage in the business nodded and said (rightly, as it turned out) that this was simply vanity publishing with new technology.

But iUniverse represented a potent idea—that a writer, any writer, could once again afford to print her or his own books. That’s one copy at a time over and over and over again. No limit.

In any discussion of book publishing, it is important to remember that the true origin of the industry is printing—not best seller lists or editorial control or cover creation or marketing. Publishing exists because Gutenberg’s inventions pushed the manufacturing of books beyond the reach of most people.

Digital printing pushed it back.

Also in 1995, a man named Jeff Bezos decided to use this new thing called the internet to sell books online.

If you were around and cognizant then, you will remember the laughter that greeted this new company called Amazon. But this innovation democratized bookselling, giving authors direct access to their readers in a way that’s never been done before.

Independently publishing authors, like myself, needed both of these innovations to be freed from traditional publishing’s feudal system.

My first three books (of which American Patchwork was the first) were published with traditional publishers. Based on my experience as a marketer, editor and book designer with traditional publishers around the country, I can honestly tell you that my author experience with St. Martin’s and Wiley was all right.

But unlike most new authors, I entered into my contracts without any expectations of author tours or editorial attention or marketing dollars. I knew there wouldn’t be any because traditional publishers don’t do those things for 95% of their authors.

Let’s say I was not disappointed.

After my third book was released, I decided to independently publish all of my future work and started my own company, Full Circle Press LLC, to do just that. My novel, The Road Unsalted, is one of my independently published books.

This is a long way around to say that I find the escalating fight between traditional publishing and Amazon sad and infuriating. Personally, I think that the big five publishing companies are really fighting for the preservation of a system that maintains the second class status of writers.

I predict that they will eventually lose the control they are struggling so hard to maintain because too many writers now understand they have a choice.

There are a few traditional publishers out there—Interweave being one—that treat their authors as full publishing partners. When all this dust settles, companies that adopt this business model will be the winners.

Does this mean I trust Amazon to keep its distribution doors open and financially accessible to all authors forever?

Are you kidding? Only a fool trusts what a large corporation will do in the future.

But right now, I believe Amazon has made the stronger argument to the people who produce the raw product on which this entire industry is based—writers.

There are a lot of articulate voices being raised on this issue. Here are three recommendations if you want to know more.

Writer Beware is a blog dedicated to rooting out the many scams in the book publishing world. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox: Writer Beware

Hugh Howey is one of the best-selling indie authors and he does an absolutely incredible job keeping a spotlight of truth on the industry, including a public compilation of author earnings FOR THE FIRST TIME IN PUBLISHING HISTORY. Here’s a particularly good post: Give Customers What They Want.

And David Gaughran is another indie author, very successful, who applies his sharp business eye to the publishing biz. Here’s a post that’s well worth the read: Publishing Is Rotten to the Core.

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