A Level Playing Field

Back in the summer of 1996 I was on vacation in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina with my girlfriend and her family.  That girlfriend (who would later become my wife) and I happened to be in little mall area by the ocean one day.  There we ran across a bookstore.  Sitting at a table full of books was a writer, probably in his forties, meeting and greeting.  I was a twenty-two year old unpublished writer with dreams of breaking into the business one day, so I stopped to chat.  He seemed like a nice guy, so I bought a copy of his book.

As much as I hate to say it, the book was pretty terrible.  The grammar and spelling seemed okay, but the story itself seemed contrived and a bit silly.  I also thought it was boring.  It just seemed to lack a solid hook to keep me interested.

Turned out that he’d self-published the book.  Back in 1996 self-publishing meant a substantial cash investment followed by a campaign around bookstores trying to offload your inventory.

In other words a losing proposition.

Although I didn’t really think the book was very good, I was impressed with the author’s drive and determination to make it a success no matter what.  Conversely I can see why traditional publishers balked on the book.

Traditional thinking tells us that big publishing houses have the uncanny ability to separate the delightful from dreck, the awesome from the awful.  Traditional thinking tells us that this vetting process will ensure we get the the best books possible.

I don’t disagree there’s truth to this.  Of course there’s no guarantee that traditional publishing houses aren’t also allowing some crap to flow through, or aren’t watering down original and unique works until they’re just homogeneous clones of whatever’s hot that week.

In the case of the book I referenced, traditional publishing was probably right to reject it.  Traditional thinking would tell us that this is another self-published pile of rubbish; that the author was forced to self-publish because the book was terrible.

But what if I’m wrong?  What if the book was actually pretty damn good after all?  Maybe this writer deserved a level playing field.

Fast-forward to 2011.  In just the past year or two we’ve seen a dramatic shift in publishing.  eBooks are changing everything, from the way we purchase books to the way we read them, to the definition of the term “self-published”.

Now dozens (or more) self-published authors are selling hundreds of thousands of books.  Many of these authors are very good, as good as the “vetted” authors.  Many of them are formerly published through the traditional route.  Some of these authors are actually choosing to self-publish rather than go through a traditional publishing house.  And these authors are making royalty rates in the 70% range.

So the image of “self-published” is starting to change.  It’s now often called “indie”, more proof of the image change.

Does this mean that all self-published works are good?  No.  I’ve seen some of the bad ones.  Hell, maybe I’m one of them.

Does this mean that all self-published authors are guaranteed to succeed?  Of course not.

But the playing fields is leveled now.  The author I referenced could now write his book, design his own cover, and upload it to Amazon himself.  Then, if the book was a flop, it would flop on its own.  It’s also possible that it could succeed in the same fashion.  All this could be done for less than ten dollars.

So will these changes in self-publishing allow more dreck to enter the market?  Sure, but the good stuff will naturally bubble to the top.  It’ll happen organically.

By the same token, however, good books that should have been published but weren’t will also make it into the market.  Books that haven’t been watered down, books that push the limits and break the constraints currently in place.

As I finish the first 13,000 words of my first self-published novel, I think about this author who came before me.  It’s very possible that I will not sell a single book.  Or I might sell thousands.  But, with a level playing field, I have just as much chance as anyone else.  My work can live and die on its own merit, and readers will decide that fate.

If I succeed, then I have everything to gain.  If I fail, then at least I won’t have cases of unsold books sitting in my basement.  I can afford to try again, to write a better book, and see if things change.

I have a significantly better advantage now than this writer ever did.  I don’t intend to squander that by not taking advantage of it.


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