The growth of the self-publishing industry is a popular journalistic subject. Some articles on self-publishing, such as the New York Times's recent Self-Publishers Flourish as Writers Pay the Tab, provide reasonably balanced coverage of the issue, while others, such as Time's Books Gone Wild: The Digital Age Reshapes Literature, are fatuous and overstated, with a distinctly triumphalist "old publishing is dead, and good riddance!" feel to them.
With each of these articles, I get a flurry of emails from writers wanting to know what I think. Is it really true that that print publishing is "over?" Has the self-publishing stigma really vanished? Are publishers really combing through offerings from self-pub services for likely prospects? Has paying for POD really become a viable way for a new author to break into commercial publishing? So with the latest example, Elham Khatami's April 6 article for CNN, More Authors Turn to Web and Print-On-Demand Publishing.
Articles on self-publishing often follow a similar formula, and Khatami's is no exception.
1. Pick a rare instance of self-publishing success--in this case, Lisa Genova, whose iUniverse-published novel Still Alice garnered a major publishing deal. Make sure not to tell the whole story--omit, for instance, the fact that Genova hired PR firm Kelly & Hall--the same firm that propelled self-published Brunonia Barry to success--to publicize her book, and acquired a literary agent as a result of the attention Kelly & Hall was able to generate.
2. Segue to the growth of self-publishing and the great possibilities it offers for budding authors, while taking a swipe at the commercial publishing industry. Totally ignore the contradiction inherent in the fact the success of the self-published author just discussed hinged on her transition to a commercial publisher.
3. Toss out a few random facts about self-publishing (not all of them necessarily relevant--Khatami notes that the self-published author "retains the copyright to his or her book," as if this were not the case with commercial publishing), while ignoring the issue of low sales (the average self-published book sells fewer than 200 copies) and limited distribution (most self-pubbed books are not distributed beyond the Internet).
4. Mix in some boosterish quotes from representatives of self-pub companies, such as Keith Ogorek, Author Solutions' VP of Marketing, who "cited several pluses of print-on-demand publishing: the speed with which a book gets into the marketplace; the fact that readers, not critics, 'decide whether your book is any good or not,' and the environmental benefit of fewer printed copies." (Now, there's a comfort! My book only sold 50 copies, but at least I saved some trees.) Rhapsodize a bit about democratization. "'Anyone can publish, that's the beauty of it,' said Gail Jordan, Director of Public Relations at Lulu. 'Nobody's going to say, We don't like your cover. Chapter 10 should be Chapter 6.'" (Actually, a commercial publisher isn't going to say that about your cover, either...because commercial publishers don't expect authors to provide their own covers.)
5. Feature a happy self-pubbed author. Khatami's example: Melinda Roberts, author of Mommy Confidential: Adventures from the Wonderbelly of Motherhood, who turned to self-publishing after being turned down by three publishers, and is pleased with her experience despite the fact that "she has sold fewer than 300 books, mostly by word-of-mouth."
6. Conclude (explicitly or by implication) that "traditional" publishing is [pick one] dead/dying/running scared. For bonus points, include something that encourages inexperienced aspiring authors to make completely inaccurate assumptions about the possibilities of self-publishing. Keith Ogorek again: "'Traditional publishers are looking at us to find new and upcoming authors,' he said. 'We provide that for them.'"
There doesn't seem to be any question that the self-publishing industry continues to grow, even as the commercial publishing industry enters a period of contraction. Nor is there any dispute that self-publishing can be successful in specific circumstances: for writers who are able to sell directly to their audiences (frequent conference speakers, for instance); authors with niche nonfiction books that can be marketed directly to interested readers; people with non-commercial projects such as genealogies, family recipe books, or memoirs for limited distribution; and anyone who, for whatever reason, isn't interested in commercial success.
For most writers, however, the path of self-publishing offers substantial downsides and pitfalls (for a full discussion of these, see Writer Beware's Print on Demand page), and successes on the order of Lisa Genova's remain few and far between. These hard facts are way less sexy than the vision of a brave new technological world that makes it possible for (a few) authors to bypass the traditional route to success--but they are no less real. In my opinion, journalists who write about this issue have a responsibility to cover both sides.
It's a responsibility they too often seem to neglect.