For years I’ve been advising writers that while self-publishing can sometimes be a route to success, only the very lucky, capable few manage to achieve it: and that unless there are exceptional circumstances surrounding their books, such as an easily-accessible niche market or their own brilliant marketing skills, they’d be better off pursuing mainstream publication if they want their books to reach the widest possible readership. I know that this reasoning holds water because I’ve seen so many writers fail with their self publishing endeavours: and yet I’ve often been shouted down for my apparent failure to recognise that publishing is changing.
Now, several reputable publishing houses seem to be suggesting that self-publishing is the new way forward. HarperCollins’s Authonomy site has teamed up with Blurb.com (which has, in the past, also been connected with Chronicle Books); both the US literary agency, Objective Entertainment, and the UK-based military history publisher Osprey are now referring to writers they reject to AuthorHouse, a straightforward vanity press; and a few weeks ago the independent publisher Accent Press announced its new pay-to-play publishing scheme for its erotica imprint, Xcite books.
This move doesn’t surprise me. We live in difficult times and publishing is suffering: there have been huge redundancies already and I have no doubt that more will follow. There are so many writers in the slush pile who are desperate to be published, but so few who are good enough to succeed: the temptation to steer them towards self-publication and to earn a commission from them in the process must be huge—it’s easy money for the publishers involved and it fills a need in the writer, too. What I don’t like, here, is the way that it’s being done.
It’s being presented as a real route to commercial success and while that might be true for a lucky few, most writers who participate in these schemes are not going to do well out of them. They aren’t likely to make many sales; the writers who pay extra for services like editing and design are unlikely to even earn their money back. And yet none of this seems to be mentioned by the publishers when they refer the writers on.
I suspect that before too long we’ll see many more publishing houses referring the writers they reject to POD-based self-publishing or vanity-publishing imprints. But there are some very obvious conflicts of interest here. Bearing in mind the doubtful quality of most of the books in the slush pile, most of the books concerned will have little chance of getting published in any other way: but is it fair to imply to those that they might do well out of this? And what about the writers who are good enough to do well with other mainstream agents or publishers? If they take the route that’s suggested by these publishing professionals, aren’t they being steered away from potential success?
For these schemes to work well for everyone involved, there will have to be systems set in place to avoid the conflicts of interest inherent in them; and the writers involved will have to be given plenty of appropriate support. But the most important thing here is honesty: the referring publishers must be very clear about the many limitations that publication of this kind involves, so that the writers involved know exactly what they’re up against before they sign up.