The Rise of the Accidental Small Publisher
So the short story marketplace is becoming incredibly crowded and competitive. Other than being a great time to buy short story collections and anthologies – what does that say about the literary landscape?
Is it actually easier – or harder to get a novel published these days than a short story?
Well if we're talking big name publishers, it's almost certainly harder than ever before. Lots of publishers have gone under in the past fifteen years – unable to hold their own in a marketplace where people who can barely string a coherent sentence together suddenly have the power to make their dreams come true by self-publishing a book.
According to a 2002 NY Times article by Joseph Epstein, more than 80% of people in the U.S.A. believe they have a book in them and 80,000 books are published in America every year. Remember – this was 2002 – ten years before the self publishing boom. These days, every one of those 200 million people has the resources to self-publish their book.
You may have considered such a thing, or, like me, have actually gone there. If you have a few dollars to spend and can afford to pay for a good cover and cover design, your book can be indistinguishable from the masterpieces or the gripping thrillers or the intellectual tomes that you're positioning yourself against. But the public is slowly starting to catch on to the signs that separate self-published books from their more well-heeled competitors. Like the imprint. If something comes from Doubleday or Harper Collins or Simon and Schuster – that means it has not only appealed to a distinguished and experienced editor – but also gone through a rigorous editorial process (or as rigorous as it gets these days). These processes do not guarantee quality, but they at least promise that the book will come up to the minimum standard that all books once had to achieve before they saw the light of day.
Over the past few decades, the stigma of a self-published book has been enough to ensure that said authors are not taken seriously by the literati – the critics, other writers, bookstore buyers and so forth. Most self-published books suffer from "cheap design." Even if the author has gone out and consigned a wonderful work of art to grace the cover, and hired a professional copy editors to vet the prose – there are still tell-tale signs that give it away. Many of these books waste the beautiful cover image by embedding it within poor design – a badly chosen or overly familiar typeface – sized and coloured or poorly placed on the page; there may be a complete absence of design on the spine or back cover; badly laid out pages inside, with lack of margins or white space, hard to read or uninspired typeface or similar design problems. None of these problems fatal in and of themselves, but collectively they conspire to reveal the final product as "amateur."
And even if the book gets all those things right, it can give itself away in a multitude of other ways: lack of reputable blurbs on the cover or within the front or back pages; 100% five-star rave reviews online; and most obviously, an imprint that no one has ever heard of. A web search for the imprint reveals that they have published a total of five books – all by the same author.
A self-published book that doesn't display any of those obvious tells suggests an insider perspective. It's a sign that even if the book was self-published, the author knows books, understands marketing and has invested the time and effort to put out a professional looking product. This is also a clue that their book may be considerably better than most of the self-published work on the market (or not). The process can also work the other way – where a brilliant book is hidden behind layers of bad design and poor marketing choices…but I like to think, or at least hope, that the author involved in such a project stands at least some chance of getting discovered and building an audience for themselves.
As for the book-buying public – we're all on the lookout these days!
Which brings me to the trend that I was intending to talk about. The rise of the accidental small publisher.
Once an author has self-published a few books, they will likely make many of the above discoveries for themselves. Coming to realize how important design is in creating a professional looking product, they find and hire a good designer. They may bring some literate, unemployed friends on board as editors and start building a publishing infrastructure. And having done so, they discover that their books still stand out as self-published because there are no other authors on their imprint. If they network and belong to a writer's community, they may know other authors who are producing good work. By publishing their books (maybe with some personal investment from the writers involved), they can build a small stable of writers. They discover they can get the word out about their company and attract visitors to their website by publishing short story collections. This works better if they actually pay authors a nominal amount like a penny a word. Gradually, the website starts looking more and more legitimate and this begins to boost sales of their own titles. At that point, they probably just pay novelists commissions on sales on their books – which gives them a way of not only recouping their own investment, but bringing the writers back with more and better books. And then, some of these accidental publishers may come to the revelation that if they are willing to pay advances – on the novels as well as the short stories in the anthologies – and as little as a couple hundred dollars will distinguish them from 95% of the micro-publishers in the marketplace – they may be able to attract some truly outstanding writers. Because with the current state of publishing, there are hundreds of writers who would have (or actually have) been mid-list writers or better in the old regime. And they are grateful for any publisher who will pay them real money. Suddenly the new imprint is getting some respect and maybe even an award nomination or two.
From out of the ashes of the old publishing model – I can see more than a few of these publishers rising. Many will likely continue to grow and evolve, because they are not saddled by the same sort of infrastructure that "real" publishers have to deal with. They can write their own ticket. And in the process, they can provide a worthy home for some wonderful writers who were left wandering the wilderness with their poor tattered manuscripts.
Publishing is dead. Long live publishing.