Is Independent Publishing Killing or Saving the Book Industry?

A reader with whom I've had occasion to debate various issues in the past said to me recently, "self-publishing is killing books." We were discussing the state of literature at the time and little did I know this arena of marketing was a bit of a trigger for him. As he carried on about amateur writers and "book covers that look like they were made by 6-year-olds with colored pencils and construction paper," it was clear he'd taken umbrage at that fact that, "everyone and their brother thinks they can write, now anyone can publish, and that leaves the market flooded with crap." (He's always been an indelicate sort.)

He wanted to know how I felt about this and since I am now one of those writers who's leapt into the self-publishing world (though we writers prefer the "independent publishing" world!), I decided to take him on, as he seemed to be unfairly painting all indie writers with the same cloth. But not only am I a self-published author, I am an avid, selective, and very judicious reader, so between those two points of view, I feel uniquely qualified to rebut his assertions.

Do I think self-publishing is killing books? In a word, NO. In fact, not only do I believe self-publishing isn't killing the book industry, I believe it's actually enlivened the marketplace, bringing a fresh, less structured, less filtered, more open life to the entire literary industry. And how has it done that?

By resuscitating moribund, outdated paradigms of just who who gets to publish, who gets to sell, and how one gets to buy those books. Until this recent industry shift, one that mirrors a previous and similar plate-shifting in the music business, the traditional publishing industry ran a tight show: it had its gatekeepers review and select what was ultimately an elite group of authors, who would then, hopefully, be vaulted to success by large, well-financed promotional campaigns. These companies controlled every aspect of their authors' books - their titles, their content, their marketing platforms; their rollout - and while this could be very advantageous for those select writers, it wasn't always. And it didn't include very many people.

Self-publishing, on the other hand, has pushed that literary paradigm aside and, instead, opened the doors to many talented writers who had, prior, been kept shuffling behind gates held tight by gatekeepers, who - by virtue of presumed supply and demand formulas, and, it seems, a somewhat limited perception of what should get published - refused them entrance. Sometimes kindly, sometimes not, and most times by simply ignoring them. Now, in the new world of independent publishing, those rejected writers, unbound from requiring "permission to proceed," have put their creative asses on the line to take the risks, and do the work, to share their books with the wider world. And that has done for readers and writers what the digital revolution in music did for bands, singer/songwriters, and the fans who listen to them. It democratized the process and gave power to the artists to provide the product, and the consumer to decide what succeeded by virtue of their personal choices. What has followed is the discovery of some incredible work.

Don't think it applies? Don't think there's that much undiscovered talent in the world of books? Wonder if the tsunami of self-published work has glutted the market with sub-par literature, as my friend asserts? Think the filters implemented by traditional publishers are necessary to pick the best and keep out the.... less best? Well, let's address these very valid concerns:

1. Don't think there's that much undiscovered talent in the world of books? 

If you've ever watched The Voice, American Idol, or any of the many singing talent shows that populate our airwaves, you have to have noticed how, year after year, an unlimited supply of astonishingly talented vocalists have stepped up to the stage to be discovered. This year alone The Voice has featured so many outstanding singers it's impossible to honestly pick one over the other; a choice is made simply because those are the rules of the game. The point is, any of them are good enough to win; there is no shortage of talent out there in the great, undiscovered public. None. If it ever seemed there was, prior to the televised democratizing of the process, that's because the formula for "being discovered" and making it big as a recording artist was difficult and exclusive. Record labels had A & R people who had to, first, find you amongst the millions, then hear you, get you signed, and hope the record company did right by you. And those A & R people could only cover so much ground; they were limited in who and what they could sign, and the kind of money needed to break a star pre-digital-age was mind-boggling. Hence, very few artists were chosen. Now? In the digital age there are no limits, which means any of the authentically talented artists who were previously ignored, dismissed, or rejected are being found. Or are simply taking matters into their own hands and recording and marketing their own work.


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