The Brave New World of Book Publishing

In one of my early blog posts (September 22, 2010—The Rush to Publish), I cautioned new authors against surrendering to the lure of self-publishing. I’ve been writing books for more than thirty years, and like most of us in the business, I’ve had a strong bias. Self-publishing is a sign of failure, goes the argument, an admission that the book isn’t “good enough” for traditional commercial publishers.

Beyond my natural bias against self-publishing, though, was a more practical reason not to do it. Book sales. It isn’t enough to publish your book and get it listed on Amazon. You also have to find a way to let readers know it’s there, and you have to convince them to buy it. That’s the hard part. Self-published books have typically been ignored by traditional book reviewers and booksellers, making it all but impossible for authors to get their books noticed by enough readers to generate real sales.

That was the self-publishing challenge two years ago when I wrote that blog post. It’s still a challenge today. But readers are changing their book-buying habits, and that’s opening up some new options for authors. As Jami Blackann pointed out in last month’s guest post (October 9, 2012—Who are the gatekeepers?), literary agents and traditional commercial publishers are losing their long-held control over which books end up in the hands of readers.

Shopping for Books at the Neighborhood Grocery Store

When I was a kid, I loved to browse through the rack of paperback books at the El Rancho grocery store a few blocks from my house in west Phoenix. It wasn’t much of a grocery store by today’s supermarket standards, but it had an awesome selection of paperbacks. That multi-tiered rack was at least five feet high and fifteen feet long. Whenever I needed new reading material, I would walk over to El Rancho and spend an hour or more sifting through dozens of titles, looking for the book that would satisfy my reading addiction for the next week or so. This was a wonderful adventure. I would start by scanning for novels by my favorite authors—Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke, or Ray Bradbury if I was in the mood for science fiction, or maybe a spy thriller by Donald Hamilton or Ian Fleming, or a Mickey Spillane novel if Mr. Gish wasn’t standing guard at the cash register. (One time he asked me if I really thought I was old enough to be reading Mickey Spillane novels. I probably wasn’t.)

I also mined that book rack for novels by writers I didn’t know. This was the greatest adventure of all, and it usually started with a scan for interesting covers and provocative titles. When a book caught my eye, a quick look at the cover blurbs would usually tell me if it was something I might like. If it looked promising, then it warranted a few more minutes reading the inside blurbs and the first few pages of the story. I discovered authors as varied as Frank Herbert, James Michener, and Samuel Delaney on that rack. I could usually only afford to buy one book, but if I had fifteen cents left over, I would buy a double cone at El Rancho’s ice cream counter, then take my new book and my cone across the road to the little park where I would find a comfortable spot under a tree and engage in some serious reading and slurping.

I looked forward to these trips to the El Rancho market, and walking out of the store with a good book in one hand and a chocolate-almond ice cream cone in the other was—well, life didn’t get much better than that. In later years, I often took my two young daughters to the Borders at a nearby mall. The book shopping experience there was more sophisticated than my experiences at El Rancho. But the goal was the same: Find a good book to read.

Book Buying in the 21st Century

The El Rancho store in Phoenix has been gone for decades, and even Borders has closed its doors. As the old saying goes, the only thing constant in life is change—and things are definitely changing in the world of book publishing and bookselling.

Much of this is being driven by changes in the way readers make decisions about which books to buy, and where they buy them. My neighbor Zack, just out of college and teaching highschool English, buys his books online. Most are e-books which he downloads and reads with his Kindle or iPad. I was surprised to learn that Zack often buys self-published novels, and he even has a few favorite authors who have published all their books themselves, eschewing the traditional commercial publishers like Random House or St. Martin’s Press.

That surprised me. If you count self-published books, thousands of new titles are released each month, and most self-published novels are pretty—well, amateurish.

“With so many books to sort through,” I asked Zack one afternoon as we sipped homemade sangria on my back patio, “how do you decide which ones you might like?”

“That’s easy,” he said.

“Really?” My mind’s eye had conjured up an image of Zack hunched over his computer for several hours each day, doggedly working his way through Amazon’s long list of new releases. “Explain, please.”

“Amazon sends me an email whenever an author I like comes out with a new book.”

That, I had to admit, sounded easy enough. “What about books by authors you don’t know? How do you find the good ones?”

“Recommendations from friends.”

Zack, it turns out, is active in social networks like Facebook and Twitter. He has a lot of Facebook friends, for example, and many of them share his reading tastes. So when one of them posts a message about a new author he or she just discovered, Zack has a good reason to think he’ll like the author’s work, too. Zack also makes use of Goodreads, an online meeting place for people who like to read and share information about books and writers, and he uses other fan websites that allow readers to share information about specific authors and genres.

“Sounds like you spend a lot of time with all this online stuff,” I said.

He shrugged. “Couple hours a week. Time well spent. I love to read, and it’s always exciting to find a new author I like.”

Zack, I realized, is today’s reader. The trends are clear. Instead of poring through the racks at neighborhood supermarkets or bookstores, today’s readers are buying books from Amazon or other online booksellers. This change in book-buying behavior is also driving changes in book production as the trends shift from printed books to e-books. More importantly, as Jami pointed out in her last blog post, when it comes to decisions about which books make it into the marketplace, literary agents and traditional commercial publishers are no longer the gatekeepers.

Who’s In Charge? Answer: Readers

When I browsed the racks at the El Rancho market as a boy, the only books I saw were books that commercial publishers deemed worthy. For every novel that was published by one of these publishers, hundreds were rejected and never saw the light of day. Self-publishing wasn’t a practical option for book authors back then. Print-on-demand technology didn’t exist, and the term “e-book” was yet to be coined. So if the book you had labored over for months or years wasn’t picked up by one of the commercial publishers, your only option was to pay a vanity publisher a small fortune to print a few thousand copies. Booksellers wouldn’t stock it, so you ended up with boxes of your books gathering dust in your garage or basement.

Nowadays, self-publishing is an option on almost any budget. With print-on-demand technology, books are printed only when orders are received, thus eliminating the need for authors to stock an expensive inventory. Publishing as an e-book in Kindle, Nook, and Adobe formats is even cheaper. More and more authors are skipping the often-painful search for a literary agent and commercial publisher, instead choosing to go directly to self-publishing as an e-book or print-on-demand.

What’s more, some of these authors are selling a lot of books. Self-published e-books are ending up on bestseller lists, and some authors have enjoyed sales of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of e-books per month. My neighbor Zack told me that if an online friend recommends a book, it doesn’t matter to him whether the book was released by HarperCollins or if it was self-published by the author. If someone he trusts recommends it, he’ll take a close look and will likely buy it.

The Bottom Line

You’re probably asking yourself: What does all of this mean to me as an author? Should I self-publish my book or go with a traditional commercial publisher?

Short answer: Despite the changes that have left the book publishing industry in a state of turmoil, I remain convinced that traditional commercial publishing is the way to go if your book meets their criteria.

But that’s a big if. Before a commercial publisher will offer a publishing contract, at least one senior editor (or an acquisitions committee in the case of some major publishers) will have to be convinced that your book will sell enough copies to generate a nice profit. Basically, this means a well-written book targeted to a large audience of readers.

Even submitting your book to a commercial publisher can be a challenge. Most major commercial publishers won’t accept manuscript submissions directly from authors, so your first step will be to convince a competent, well-respected literary agent to represent your book. This can require quite a bit of time and patience. Bestselling author James Lee Burke was rejected by 150 agents before finding one that agreed to represent his first novel. It can take a year or more to query that many agents, with no assurance that one will agree to accept your manuscript and pitch it to publishers.

And here’s an interesting phenomenon: Many books that were rejected by literary agents and commercial publishers have gone on to generate huge sales numbers as self-published books. Quite a few have made it into bestseller lists, and some have then been picked up by the same commercial publishers who had previously rejected them. Clearly, agents and publishers aren’t always on target about what will appeal to readers.

A few years ago, the only options for an author were traditional publishing or obscurity. Today, with new technology and promotion tools, self-publishing is a viable option.

Lest you misunderstand, let me be clear. In my opinion, if your book has a reasonable chance of snagging a good literary agent and commercial publishing contract, and if you’re endowed with patience, persistence, and confidence in your manuscript, then I urge you to prepare a book proposal, compile a list of competent, ethical literary agents, and start sending out queries.

But if it’s unlikely that your book will attract a commercial publishing contract, or if you know yourself well enough to know that you’ll wilt after receiving a few rejections, then my advice is to go right to self-publishing. That way, you can get your book published right away and put yourself in charge of its destiny. If you’re willing to spend a good chunk of time and effort promoting your book, and if you’re lucky enough to see your book sales take off like those of self-published authors Amanda Hocking and John Locke, rest assured that HarperCollins or Random House will come knocking on your door.

Further Reading

  • For a good perspective on some current publishing issues, including the proposed merger of book publishing giants Random House and Penguin, read Adam Davidson’s article How Dead Is the Book Business?

Questions about this topic? Call me at 505-796-6895 or send me an email at william@wgreenleaf.com. I’m in my office most weekdays from 9 to 5.