These days it’s all the rage to talk about how the old gatekeepers are losing their stranglehold on publishing, how no mere agent or editor can stand between you and your dreams anymore. The corollary to this stance is that those of us who have decided to go the traditional route are making some kind of a mistake, that we are throwing precious creative energy and years of our lives at querying agents and submitting to publishers when we could be selling books.
To some degree, the first half is undeniable: you can now make your creative works available for purchase online without paying much of anything, except for the cut Amazon etc. take from your earnings. The corollary, though, is nonsense.
This is not to say that self-publishing, online or in print, cannot work. Obviously it can, and I have even met those online for whom it has worked extremely well. But for those arguing that the gatekeepers can (and ought to) be ignored, the question is not whether self-publishing can work; the question is whether it works better.
One of the first points people make in support of self-publishing online is that ebook sales now account for over half the market. But let me point out first of all that it’s the tougher half. In a bookstore (yes, they still exist), your book is competing against the other books in the store. Online, you’re now competing against every book ever written in your language, including those that will never make it into a store. Even if the majority of book sales are online, the average author is getting a much smaller cut of this massive windfall. The statistics I’ve heard about self-publishing are fairly grim: the average self-published book sells under 1000 copies. Those are not fame and fortune numbers.
Another point people make is that self-publishing gives you more creative control. To put it mildly, that’s a double-edged sword. Having your work edited by professionals can make a huge difference to its quality. I’ve gotten priceless advice from rejection letters. And there is a cultural assumption that editors know what they’re doing. Fair or not, people assume a higher quality from traditionally published books than they do from self-published ones. And this affects their spending habits! What proportion of ebook sales do you suppose come from traditionally published books in ebook form? I don’t have the stats on this, but I’m guessing it ain’t small.
And we have to talk about promotion. When you self-publish something, you need to do all the grunt work yourself. And a lot of this grunt work really can’t be done by an author with a day job. Researching and building relationships with, say, a couple hundred bloggers interested in your genre. Contacting newspapers, magazines, etc. You can do it, just not quickly and not easily unless you already work in a very convenient field. But you know who can help tremendously with this sort of thing? A publicist. Preferably one you don’t have to pay extra for, because you’re already under contract with their employer. So hey, if you have the time and the savvy, perhaps you really can make a better profit as a self-published author. But the ranks of people prepared for that kind of work aren’t any bigger than the ranks of those who are publishing with traditional publishing houses. Probably much smaller.
Lastly (not because this is the last thing one needs to consider, but because I don’t feel like spending all night on this post), let’s not miss the fact that there are still gatekeepers in the free online self-publishing world. Those gatekeepers are called algorithms, and they have great difficulty sorting books by quality. The closest they come is sorting them by popularity, which biases them against new books and especially new books by unknown authors.
Now again, I don’t mean to imply that self-publication is illegitimate or wrong, or even that it won’t get you where you want to be. There are plenty of contexts where self-publishing makes a good deal more sense than trying to go the traditional route. If you are trying to reach a small, specific audience rather than a wide one, self-publishing is probably the way to go. If you have no interest in developing a writing career, and feel that you have exactly this one story to tell, then querying agents and submitting to publishers is probably an inefficient use of your time.
I’ll grant you this: agents and publishers aren’t exactly gatekeepers anymore. They’re more like powerful allies that can only be won over through the long, often dispiriting process of proving yourself worthy. They’re like Ents, really. Don’t hate on the Ents.