Obviously, traditional editing does not ensure excellent quality. Self-publishing does not suggest inferior quality either. Such a simplistic representation belies the gray area in the middle. Since anyone can become self-published, regardless of aptitude, it stands to reason that there are more shoddy self-published books, because there is no gatekeeper to weed out unsuitable talent. Taking this a step further, as anyone can self-publish; poor writers don’t get independent feedback. All authors require feedback to discover and remedy areas that need improvement. Thus, a self-published author may continue to produce low-quality writing, not knowing that his or her skills require honing.
Some new authors believe that commercial publishers are inaccessible. This concept lacks logical foundation. The popularity of desktop publishing says almost nothing about “the inaccessibility of commercial publishers.” Rather, it is an artifact of the transition state of the industry. I have had two traditionally published books and have not found “inaccessible” publishers. In fact, even though I was an unknown author, I received an advance on my first book. More recently, through message boards and social networking sites, I discovered many authors who gave up after contacting a few dozen publishers. They, no doubt, might have been under the impression that publishers were inaccessible. However, if they had learned how to write a succinct, descriptive editorial proposal, and had the dedication to contact hundreds of publishers, they could have succeeded.
The publishing industry, along with its distribution, marketing and sales channels, is undergoing a major transformation. Competition is fierce, profit margins are shrinking, and Internet sales are changing the face of the industry. With today’s profit margins slashed to draconian levels, publishers can take little chance with unknown writers, particularly fiction. Instead, publishers must ensure the quality and marketability of the writing. While it has always been difficult for an unknown author to obtain a contract with commercial publishers, today it is even more difficult. And, due to the flux of the contemporary industry, publishers are less interested in the quality of your writing than in its marketability. They lack the financial security to take a risk on the books with a marginal opportunity for return. So many more authors today must rely on self-publishing, not necessarily because it’s the best way to publish, but because it’s the only way.
Of course, there are many high-quality self-published books and some poor-quality commercially published books. But such a claim cannot be used to boost the reputation of self-published books. This perception lacks logic. Commercial publishers are the gatekeepers of quality, while no desktop publishing talent is required. Still, many insightful nonfiction writers who have the time and talent to market and sell their books are heavily influenced by the financial rewards of self-publishing. But, this author must be willing to put in what amounts to almost a full-time job preparing his book for self-publishing sales.
The self-published author must not only possess excellent writing skills to be successful, but must also have excellent graphic arts talent for cover design. Although it shouldn’t matter, a book’s cover is an important selling point. The self-published author must have deep connections with distributors and retailers. Most new authors don’t. The book should quickly appear on the Internet sites of Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, etc. The self-published author must also successfully engage distributors globally, as widespread distribution is a key element of sales success.
Most desktop publishing organizations will offer little in the way of marketing beyond placing the cover and a description on their website. In reality, books won’t sell unless they are distributed internationally, available on major Internet retail sites, and on bookstore shelves.
The self-published author must also have the talent and time to create and manage a successful viral marketing campaign. The author must create and maintain websites on the Internet, promote their book through dozens of social networking sites, and maintain the book in retail stores. They must write articles about their book (or a related topic) and post them on popular Internet sites and blogs. They must research, collect, and use appropriate keywords for search engines to find the book and related articles. They must Blog and write in the Blogs of others, promoting the book. All of this demands a great deal of time and effort.
In addition, the self-published author must organize book tours, book signings, bookstore visits, and create exposure in the radio and television media. The author must also obtain reviews from relevant sources and promote the book through organizations, newspapers, and magazines. In most cases, the traditional publisher, who already has the talent, connections, and experience, will perform these critical tasks; and they will be accomplished faster than a self-published author can complete tasks. If a self-published author lacks the time, connections, and talent to perform all of these critical tasks, he must continue to promote her writing to traditional publishers. Unless, of course, the author just wants a good book with his name on it for their coffee table. If the author wants people to read the book, or wants to earn money from it, a commercial publisher is best.
It is not my intention to condemn desktop publishing. For seasoned, well-known, and talented authors writing nonfiction who have the time and ability to perform all of the tasks listed above, desktop publishing may be the best opportunity. However, for an inexperienced writer working elsewhere full-time who writes fiction, it may be the wrong way to publish. Instead, the author must hone and refine his skills through writing courses and by engaging in professional commentary on his skills.
Finally, many new authors give up commercial publishing too soon. They ignore the submission guidelines posted on the publishers’ website. They send publishers a manuscript instead of a proposal. However, they send a poor proposal. At a minimum, publication proposals must include a market research, competitive analysis, biography, synopsis, marketing analysis, and sales attributes.
Trade publishers are the gatekeepers of the industry for a very good reason. It ensures that the contract author will possess marketable skills. Authors who use rejection to their advantage, by refining and honing their skills, will be rewarded in the future with a traditional publishing contract and earn the rewards offered by commercial publishers.
Charles S. Weinblatt
Author, “The Courage of Jacob”