Last week’s RWA conference was a wonderful event, featuring workshops, panels, parties, pitches, meetings and more. There were writers at every stage of their career, from newbies working on their first novel to multi-published pros who have been in the business for decades. There were editors from the major New York publishing houses, as well as from small presses and electronic publishers. And most everyone was weighed down by this year’s red-and-white conference tote bag, loaded with books they had acquired at the literacy signing, in the goody room, from publisher giveaways, or at the conference bookstore. That’s right. Books. Actual paper books.
Yet the most common questions I received during the conference focused on digital publishing, and most specifically the rise in self-publication in that format. I had authors ask if I thought traditional publishing was on the way out, whether I feared for my career, and why anyone should bother following the standard route to publication. And I kept turning around in circles, looking at all the books piling up around me, most from major New York publishing houses, and wondered if I was the only one who saw the disconnect.
Digital publishing is here to stay. So is self-publishing. They are both viable aspects of the marketplace. However, the existence of e-books does not negate the importance or appeal of the more physical format. Plenty of people still want hard copies of their books. They love filling their bookcases with beautifully bound volumes, enjoy having matched sets of their favorite series, and want something they can read on an airplane while taking off or landing. After a day at the beach, it’s far easier to dust sand out of your paperback than out of your e-reader, and few people are brave enough to carry their Kindle into a bubble bath. E-books are portable, environmentally friendly, space savers, and a great way to try out new authors at lower price points. And for some readers, they are sufficient. But for others, they are merely an additional way to enjoy their preferred reading material, not a replacement.
Self-publication, likewise, is a positive addition to the publishing marketplace, but it is by no means poised to eliminate publishers as we know them. Not all writers wish to self-publish. Not all writers want to invest the time and energy self-publishing requires above and beyond the act of writing the book.
Imagine, if you will, that there are no more physical bookstores. That all the traditional publishers have vanished. You, as a writer, have self-published your book, in digital format, because that is now the only format. How do readers find you? How do they sort through the thousands of other writers who are also producing new digital books every day? It’s fine if you manage to hit the list of top-selling books on any given e-retailer’s site, or if you find a way to get a promotional slot on the front page, but what if you don’t? How does an unknown writer make themselves known in an entirely digital, self-published arena?
There are ways to break out of obscurity, of course. Writers have done it. They develop blogs of their own, with witty posts and high traffic, and visit the blogs of other writers and book reviewers. They host contests and drawings. They haunt social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter and put considerable thought into their marketing campaigns long before they release their books. But as the field grows more crowded, it will become harder and harder to get noticed.
Many of the most successful self-published authors are authors who started in traditional publishing, and who already have a ready-made audience. They are self-publishing backlist that has gone out of print, or writing new material to self-publish in addition to their traditionally published works. They frequently do so with the assistance of their agents or another entity in order to have a partner in the process, someone to arrange for formatting and cover art and to help with promotion. And a number of debut authors who gained a measure of fame and success in the self-publishing arena have signed on with agents and major publishing houses in order to take the burden of marketing partially off their shoulders. They would rather devote the bulk of their time to writing their books.
Publishing as an industry is going to continue to change and shift and morph, but at the end of the day, I believe we will settle on a system that offers writers a combination of formats and venues for getting their work in front of readers. Some authors will choose to work entirely with major publishers and some will self-publish, but the majority, I suspect, will fall somewhere in the middle, making the most of all their opportunities. And as always, success in publishing will come down to a combination of hard work, talent, timing, and luck.