Sarah Glazer's essay, "How to Be Your Own Publisher," in the April 24 New York Times Book Review, seems to mark another step forward in the acceptance of self-publishing:
For the first time, print-on-demand companies are successfully positioning themselves as respectable alternatives to mainstream publishing and erasing the stigma of the old-fashioned vanity press. Some even make a case that they give authors an advantage -- from total control over the design, editing and publicity to a bigger share of the profits.
Although it is unfortunate that the essay focuses so much on the new "book" by Amy Fisher, that the NYTBR would devote so much space to the discussion of self-publishing suggests that there is enough potential in it that other book reviews might eventually pay attention to self-published books, if the form does indeed come to attract talented writers of real books.
What John Feldcamp, founder of Xlibris, says about the future of self-publishing is probably correct:
"Publishing has been an arcane specialist skill under the control of a guild of people that are unique and different from anyone else. . .Those skills have been so complicated they haven't been accessible to normal human beings. What's happening is all the technologies of publishing are becoming increasingly cheap and accessible". . . .
Not only has the technology of publishing been under the control of a "guild," but I would argue that the same thing is true of the editorial side of publishing. Who can honestly say that the decisions made by most mainstream publishers are being made according to some deep-seated love of good writing rather than the financial bottom line? That those in control of the publishing process have this control because they are uniquely qualifed to make judgments about the literary merit of what they publish? That their judgments are so obviously sound that we can be confident the books they choose are the best they could find and the books they decline are not worthy of publication?
Writers continue to seek publication through this process because of the lingering distinction that still glimmers faintly from some of the "name" publishing houses and because of the implicit flattery involved in having one's book chosen by people who are supposed to know what they're doing. But today's "book business" only offers most writers frustration on two fronts: Publishers who put most of their emphasis on big-name writers and blockbuster titles, and who while doing so still manage to lose money and fail to bring attention to the writers they do publish.
This essay by Akashic Books publisher Johnny Temple in my opinion only lends support to the notion that writers might be just as well off to publish themselves. Although publishers like Akashic are taking up some of the slack in publishing worthwhile books, Temple still calls on writers to themselves do more of the "promotional 'dirty work'" in getting their books noticed. "The ideal, of course, is to collaborate with an attentive and zealous publisher," he writes, "but the reality for most artists in any medium is that little is guaranteed beyond one's own efforts." If writers are increasingly being required to fend for themselves once their books are published, is it really such a big leap to doing everything oneself, including getting the book into print in the first place?
Temple comments further:
Once the pitfalls of today's publishing terrain are understood, writers can readjust their expectations. Start with a basic truth that is rarely presented in MFA programs and writers conferences: 5,000 copies sold is a fantastic number, particularly for a first-time author. This goes for books published by either indies or majors. (A quick probe of BookScan will show how few books pass this threshold.). . . .
The truth is, most literary fiction is going to appeal to a relatively small, self-selected audience. If writing well and cultivating one's art is what's most important to the serious writer, I don't see why this should be debilitating. Audiences for good work grow over time, but even if they don't, it doesn't seem so tragic for a writer to reach those readers most likely to appreciate what he/she is trying to do. Furthermore, if your book is going to sell only a few thousand copies even if it's published by a New York publisher, surely a self-published book effectively publicized by its author is going to have a chance of equalling this number, at least, especially if the author is able to take advantage of the increasing influence the literary blogosphere seems to be having. (Either by starting up a blog or by appealing to those maintaining existing blogs.) Other ways of marketing one's work on the internet are surely going to develop as well.
Glazer cites several examples of self-published books that have sold many more than 5,000 copies. Most of these are nonfiction books, to be sure, books that fit into what one quoted publisher calls "microniches." But since it is literary fiction that tends to be worst-served by the publishing business, I don't see what writers of such fiction have to lose by going the self-publishing route. If the book business continues to be operated as incompetently as it has been lately, they may eventually have no other choice. I think it's quite possible that some very talented or very brave writer will sometime relatively soon decide to self-publish and will be successful at it. Once it's been established that one can self-publish and still maintain one's dignity (and maybe sell some copies as well), other writers will follow. Being able to efficiently get one's book into the hands of interested readers ought to make up for any "prestige" lost through bypassing the conventional publishers, who are increasingly proving unworthy of the job of gatekeeping for both serious writers and readers.
(I would not want my remarks to suggest I don't respect the efforts being made by what Temple calls "indie publishing." I do. But I also think self-publishing could simply be another way of going "indie.")