Digital Self-Publishing: Should Publishers Be Worried?

Self-publishing an essay through Amazon is a reminder of the benefits of a traditional publishing house.


One of my favorite stories about writers concerns John O'Hara, who long ago wrote the book for the musical Pal Joey, based on his own novel. When the play was making a big run on Broadway, two friends of O'Hara's bumped into him on the streets of New York. "Oh John," they cooed, "We just saw Pal Joey again, and we enjoyed it even more than the first time!" O'Hara snarled, "What the hell was wrong with it the first time?"

The ability of writers to feel offended or persecuted is pretty close to unlimited, and one of the interesting side-effects of the technological revolution in publishing has been to bring out new forms of anger and woundedness -- and not just among writers. Mega-agents like Andrew Wylie see publishers as their arch-enemy; even librarians are warming to the hate-fest. For instance, Colorado College librarian Steve Lawson says, "Publishers have contempt for the authors they need to write works, and the readers they need to read works. Publishers are scared that the Internet is going to disintermediate their asses into the dustbin of history, and the best response that many of them have come up with is to express their fear through hatred."


We need to make some distinctions. Companies like Elsevier, who make a great deal of money selling access to scholarly articles whose authors don't get paid at all, are rightly the target of angry protests. But most publishers, it seems to me, don't loathe writers and readers but are instead simply trying to figure out how to survive in a rapidly-changing market, and in a business that has rarely commanded big margins and huge profits.

Consider my own experience. Last year I published a book with Oxford University Press called The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. Oxford gave me a small advance, but thanks to that advance I was able to turn down some speaking engagements in order to focus on writing, which I enjoy much more than speaking. When I turned in the manuscript it went to some highly professional copy editors who caught many errors that I had missed. Designers came up with an attractive and appropriate cover, and gave the text a clean and elegant look. Marketing people got the book into the hands of reviewers, and arranged for me to give some talks and radio interviews.

The book has done okay. Not great, but okay. Would it have done better if Oxford had thrown more into the marketing? Had set up a 10-city book tour? Ordered an intern do a hunger strike in front of the New York Times office until they agreed to publish a review? Probably. But not all that much better, and surely not enough to recoup the publisher's investment. Only so many people are interested in the things I write about. (Or, okay, maybe I'm not that good a writer. You happy now?)

But one of the illusions most common to writers -- an illusion that may make the long slow slog of writing possible, for many people -- is that an enormous audience is out there waiting for the wisdom and delight that I alone can provide, and that the Publishing System is a giant obstacle to my reaching those people. Thus the dream that digital publishing technologies will indeed "disintermediate" -- will eliminate that obstacle and connect me directly to what Bugs Bunny calls "me Public." (See "Bully for Bugs".) And we have heard just enough unexpected success stories to keep that dream alive.

Well, here's hoping. But a couple of months ago I decided to dip my toes into these waters: I wrote a longish essay called "Reverting to Type" about my own history as a reader -- a kind of personal epilogue to The Pleasures of Reading -- and decided to submit it as a Kindle Single. Amazon wasn't interested, so I decided to publish it myself using Kindle Direct Publishing. I announced its existence to the world: that is, I posted a link on my tumblelog and tweeted about it. A few people downloaded it; some pointed out typos that I had missed, but that a copy editor surely would have caught. I thought about ways to promote it better but haven't been able to come up with anything other than becoming a self-promoting jerk on Twitter. Last time I checked it had sold 98 copies.

YMMV, of course (for the uninitiated, that's "your mileage may vary"). Actually, in this environment, everyone's M will certainly V from everyone else's, because of the multiple, overlapping audiences we all have. But my experience with digital-only "direct publishing" has given me a renewed appreciation for what traditional publishing houses do for writers. Some of their concerns and priorities may occasionally differ from mine, but they're not my enemy; and probably not anyone else's, either. Change produces tension, but let's not exacerbate the tension by hyperbolic rhetoric.

Image: Reuters.