A year or two ago I was having lunch with a old friend, someone I think both intelligent and savvy, the publisher of a largish imprint at a major house. We had a disagreement about what was going to happen as e-books became more popular. His position was that readers would always need the big publishing houses because they needed to have their content filtered, so to speak–because as agents, editors, and publishers, we had a certain kind of literary taste or standard and we needed to pass that along to the reader.
Well, (as I told him–he and I are used to disagreeing) blech. I’ve always found this kind of thinking a bit elitist and unnecessary and I always will. And as the climate has continued to change, I like to think that he’s been proven wrong. There’s still an argument for why some authors need publishing houses, of course, which is that publishers can often be better at marketing and publicity and distribution than any individual author can be. Increasingly this is not always the case (although even Amanda Hocking has now decided to go the traditional route), but that’s a discussion for a later time. Today, I am somewhat gleefully celebrating the fact that electronic publishing is really blowing apart the thinking that we in publishing somehow know better and have better taste than the average reader. Why this would be the case I’m not sure. Because some of us have Ivy League educations? Because we live in NYC and therefore somehow more sophisticated and urbane than most readers? Because we read The Paris Review and The New Yorker? Because we have chic haircuts and ironic sideburns and wear trendy little eyeglasses? (Full disclosure: I do not have ironic sideburns.)
What I’m loving most about the success of independently published e-books is that many of them didn’t pass the “gatekeeper” test–the individual author tried and failed to get an agent or publisher and decided to do it themselves. And now lots of these authors are getting lucrative book deals as publishers struggle to catch up. AND, many of them are turning down agents and publishers because they want to keep doing it on their own terms. This has always happened in publishing to a certain extent, of course. My client Laurie Notaro self-published years ago because she couldn’t find a publisher after seven years of trying, and when she did get a publishing deal at long last, her book debuted at #7 on the Times list. The Shack was self-published. Richard Paul Evans’ first book was self-published. The list goes on, these are just off the top of my head. But now, with e-publishing, it’s easier than ever for an author to get their book out there, and the list of successfully self-published e-book authors is growing exponentially, every day.
Maybe I’m just bitter. An agent friend and I were e-mailing today about “reader taste” vs. “publisher taste.” I think I’ve always had a case of “reader taste” because many of the books that I’ve really loved I’ve had a tough time selling or sold for very little money. Yet most of them have gone on to do very well indeed, many of them hitting the Times list. I would list them, but I’m not sure the authors would appreciate me telling the world that their book was hard to sell. Regardless, I loved these books, and I knew readers would love these books, but publishers often weren’t so sure, probably because the books were considered “quiet,”i.e., not “high concept,” or because they were aimed at readers in Middle America, or because they were quirky and hard to categorize.
Look, I don’t want to be too hard on editors and publishers. We’re all doing our best, after all, and publishing will always be something of a crap shoot, because we can’t really afford to do market research (except for Harlequin) and rely on guesswork to make pretty major decisions about what to publish and promote. When publishers are “running numbers” to decide how much money they can afford to spend on a book, a big part of the process is comparing the book to another book that is similar, and then factoring in the sales figures of said book. Sound unscientific? You betcha. But in many cases we don’t have that much more to go on; it’s just the nature of the beast so to speak. With so little to go on, publishers really do have rely on marketing hooks, etc. in their decision-making. But it’s still fun to gloat when a “quiet” book takes off because readers love it, not because it’s based on some awesome concept.
So this has been a really rambling kind of post, but here’s the whole point of it: to say, hooray for you writers out there who believe in yourselves enough to get your work out there by whatever means necessary. Hooray for your successes, hooray for your bravery, and hooray for the fact that every book you sell means you may be touching that reader’s life in a powerful way. For isn’t that why we’re all in it? Even us gatekeepers.