Between the End Sheets: Intimate Tales from the World of Independent Publishing

Pulling Away the Wizard's Curtain: Twenty years ago, it was joked in the halls of Random House that the shelf-life of a book was somewhere between that of milk and yogurt. Today, the publishing giant is not joking.
As independent bookstores go out of business at a rate of one per week, and new Barnes and Nobles or Borders open, retail markets are becoming dominated by a few large bookstore chains. These chains, with high operating costs demand high rates of book turnovers (sales) and therefore, a constant supply of best sellers. Try as they might, the five major royalty houses, together with all of their imprints, cannot meet this impossible demand. It is evident that the bookselling scene is changing and changing fast.

Even though 50,000 new independent publishers enter the market each year, I am convinced many do not understand the opportunity that is before them. Stephen R. Covey, author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People asserts in his book that effective habits are the intersection of knowledge, skill, and attitude. Many self-published writers have the positive attitude but do not have the knowledge or the skill to effectively publish for commercial intent. Either they are obsessed with "just getting the book out there" that they have little concern for marketing, promotion, and heaven forbid, the product itself, or they don't reach their potential as publishers because they live by an old paradigm that suggests the buying audience belongs only to traditional publishers.

This mentality is propagated by the ease of publishing via e-books and print-on-demand, which satisfies the need to "just get published." In the case of royalty publishing, it is propagated by the fact that a literary agent is required to reach the largest publishers. This makes the publisher seem more mysterious, even greater in the eyes of the typical author. The author's perception of the publisher is reminiscent of how the humble citizen of Oz regarded the Wizard--all-powerful, all-knowing, and mighty.

The bottom line of this tiny metaphor is many authors are focused on the idea of "being published." They often don't take the time to learn what publishing is; i.e., the process of bringing an intellectual property (in this case a book) to the buying public. If the writer knew this process, with all of the available modern-day opportunities, they would be much better off on several fronts. First and foremost, they would realize that several middlemen in the distribution chain are not necessarily required to sell a finished product to the buying audience. Stephen King proved this with his recent e-book release, Riding the Bullet. It is not hard to see how such name-branded authors as King, Crichton, Grisham, or Steele could easily publish their own books with just a little production, distribution and marketing help. Even though the royalties are well into the millions now, they would likely reap several times more than their current revenues by self-publishing.

Agents and publishers have long been a blessing to the select few, but are formidable obstacles to most would-be published authors, as hundreds of thousands of rejection letters attest. This traditionally has been the industry's way of separating the strong from the weak; a benefit we've all appreciated. However, those days are all but over as technological advances in production, distribution, and marketing provide greater control and opportunity directly to independent authors.

This is both a blessing and a curse to the industry. It is a blessing because many more good authors may now step forward; a curse because the public must also sort through a glut of shoddy production work and unpolished literature. I side with all those who advocate personal accountability for excellence and make a call to every author to hold the standard high.

Brian Fielding, author of an acclaimed new novel, Rooster: An American Tragedy, poignantly states that authors should eagerly accept the responsibility for the success of their work. "Realizing this," he says, "the writer should re-vision their work and hold it to a higher quality standard. Writers should view rejection not as a dead end but rather as a catalyst to gain the confidence through their own quality publishing efforts to personally look the potential reader in the eye and say, 'This is worth money.'"

In the past, authors were conditioned to let the Wizards of OZ--the publishing houses--provide the brains, heart, and courage for publishing. What Dorothy and her friends didn't at first understand is that the man behind the curtain knew these attributes existed within each of us. Now every writer must come to this realization and point of certainty themselves. Remember, had not Toto pulled away the curtain to expose the charade, Dorothy and all her friends would have been sent away by "The Great and Mighty Oz" with nothing!

The ultimate responsibility for quality work is now with the authors. To quote Brian Fielding again: "Independent publishing should push the writer to a higher standard of quality--not a lower standard--because the personal stakes are greater. Any lack of competence the typical writer feels is the result of their own imagination. I believe that the key is to demystify the publishing process. This will push more writers and more voices through the portal. This will give readers more options and more choices from which to select. This will nurture healthy competition and diversity. But most importantly, it will wean more than a few writers, including many with tremendous talent, from the unhealthy dependence created by the publishing industry of old."

Thanks to a spunky little dog, we all learned that day that we don't need the Wizard behind the curtain. Authors and independent publishers today know what it is to have brains, heart and courage. May this revelation and new era in publishing be a fruitful one for you and your readers!

To Your Success!