Self Publishing, The Road to Info-Paralysis
Last week I shared a vaguely painful post about my personal experience in the publishing world as someone who has published a book with a traditional publisher and is currently partnering on a new project to do so again. If you haven’t read that story, I’d recommend you get all the dirty details. They’ll help frame this post and the next few about The Domino Project and critical thinking/how ideas spread.
Why Gatekeepers Might Feel like a Problem
A gatekeeper is, by definition, anyone who stands between you and something else. Sometimes a gatekeeper guards something you want (you’re a salesperson and the secretary is gatekeeping your access to the boss, the person who’s going to buy from you); those gatekeepers are people and organizations who we feel like stand in our way, who we feel we need to surmount or work against.One particular group of gatekeepers, acquisitions editors at publishing companies, are the people who decide what books will be published by the publishing company. It’s so tricky to even get work in front of those gatekeepers that authors hire agents to get to editors (...and agents themselves choose whether they represent an author’s work.). A lot of people stand in the way of getting a book published through a traditional publishing company. To many writers, up until a very short time ago, acquisitions editors and publishers were perceived as people standing in the only way to get our ideas out to the masses.
What Social Media Changed About Gatekeeping
With the advent of social media has come the era of No Gatekeepers. Any Tom, Dick, or Harry can slap up pretty much anything [legal] he wants to on his website. I, of course, think this is great. If gatekeepers governed the whole internet, StayOutOfSchool would be a collection of essays in my journal. I’m thrilled that I am able to share them with you, instead. As a writer, at least in this regard, I personally benefit from a gatekeeper-less internet.Now that people can self-publish on such robust sites as Amazon CreateSpace and Lulu, the world of book publishing has caught up with its own form of gate-less entry.There are two major reasons some writers like the new self-publishing structure:
1They aren’t being told “no” by publishing houses. Whether they’re being told “no” because they’re writing for small niches that don’t seem profitable to publishers, because their niche has already been filled by several other authors, because of conflict of interest, or because their work flat-out stinks (poor writing, bad storyline, un-cited ideas, etc.), self-publishing is a great workaround.
2Writing for a publishing company is not known to be a way to make a zillion dollars. For every author you can name off the top of your head who has done financially well from publishing books, there are thousands more in the store and out of print who haven’t. Anyone who writes books will tell you this: there’s not much cash to be made from the book itself unless you sell many, many copies.
Let me reiterate that: authors get a really small percentage of receipts when they sell books through a traditional publisher. Lately this is all negotiable, but for working purposes, call it 15% of whatever the price of the book is. When you self-publish you get a whole heck of a lot more money per individual book sale. Fifty percent, seventy-five percent? Whatever it is, it is way more than you’d get with a traditional publishing house. To authors who aren’t going to make much money selling books anyway, seventy five percent of receipts of fewer book sales still means they’d make more money.I still don’t think it’s a very good long-term option for people publishing robust, serious ideas (or for whomever is writing the next Great American Novel). We'll get to why in a minute. Back to the gatekeepers.
The Pros of Gatekeepers
Gatekeepers serve a wonderful purpose, particularly these acquisitions editors at publishing houses. Readers should LOVE these people. As a reader, I think of those gatekeepers as people who work for me. They’re the people who edit or curate our experiences on the other end. They’ve slogged through eight different How To Boil Chicken cookbooks and selected the best one so I don’t have to spend the time reading them all myself. They’ve read and rejected thousands of heinous fantasy novels so that I could find Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell at the store. Not only do they find a number of literary gems in the rough on our behalf, they help those writers make their books even better!It's fashionable to rally for authors' rights to make more money from their work and bash publishing companies sometimes lousy publicity options. But as a reader, you should think twice about that: publishers are doing you a huge service that you might not realize they perform. They save you time and they make the work you read better.
Why Self-Publishing, from a reader's perspective, isn't Sustainable
Here’s why self-publishing is going to be a problem in the long term and will absolutely, 100% be replaced by some other form of publisher/gate keeping organization if publishing houses as we know them now do, in fact, crumble. It’s just not possible to sort through thousands of books yourself, and if all the publishing houses fail and everyone starts self-publishing, that’s what you’d have to do. If you don't, someone else is going to have to slog through them. You’re already being barraged day-in and day-out with information. If you’ve picked up the March 7, 2011 copy of Newsweek, you’ll see an article called “I Can’t Think” by Sharon Begley. On page 30 you’ll find the following comment about the barrage:
So much for the idea of making well-informed decisions. For earlier generations, that simply meant the due diligence of looking things up in a reference book. Today, with Twitter and Facebook and countless apps fed into our smart phones, the flow of facts and opinions never stops. That can be a good thing, as when information empowers workers and consumers, not to mention whistle-blowers and revolutionaries. You can find out a used car's accident history, a doctor's malpractice record, a restaurant's health-inspection results. Yet research like Dimoka's is showing that a surfeit of information is changing the way we think, not always for the better. Maybe you consulted scores of travel websites to pick a vacation spot--only to be so overwhelmed with information that you opted for a staycation. Maybe you were this close to choosing a college, when suddenly older friends swamped your inbox with all the reasons to go somewhere else--which made you completely forget why you' chose the other school. Maybe you had the Date From Hell after being so inundated with information on "matches" that you chose at random. If so, then you are a victim of info-paralysis.
What's my point? If everyone who has a book in them (or even only those people who can bring themselves to actually write their books) has to self-publish, how will we as readers ever get through them all and find what’s great? If the next, undiscovered Malcolm Gladwell has to publish a book with the exact same lack of resources and equipment as Newton Nolcolm of Nowheresville and hope that people find his work, he’s in a pretty tricky spot. Undiscovered Malcolm--and we as his hopeful readers--have to pray that someone comes across his book and takes the time to research it and hope that those searchers have not already become the victims of info-paralysis.What's undiscovered Malcom's next option? (Ignore that the real Gladwell is a journalist for periodicals)Undiscovered Malcolm would take that work and have try to have it peer reviewed. He'd go out and look for vetting. He'd look for the equivalent of a publisher.
Vetting and Spreading Great Ideas
Not many authors are in book publishing just to make money--or at least not necessarily from the book itself. People who are sharing new ideas or new research value peer review and gatekeepers. It validates their work. It vets it. That vetting comes in all sorts of forms, and it seems lately the trend is to attack the vetting of publishers or the vetting of the New York Times Bestseller List because every now and then they're not true indicators of quality (Snookie's a NYTimes Bestselling "author"). But rest assured: both readers and authors will ensure in the long run that, some way or another, work is vetted.Readers are not going to sort through millions of books themselves. They don't have time. When they try they become info-paralyzed.As someone who hasn't made much money from her published book, I still don't want to be a reader in the world without them.Writers are going to join together and peer review themselves and ultimately "publish" together. They have to find a way to separate themselves from the pack. They'll birth new publishing houses. That's what's happening at the Domino Project, a hybrid of traditional publishing and self-publishing, which we'll talk about in the next installment.