Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The Paradox of Successful Self-Publishing

Self-publishing seems to be increasingly prevalent in news and gossip of late. Quill&Quire had an article in December 2004, "Adventures in self-publishing," which highlighted several successful Canadian self-publishing ventures, such as Recipes from the Road, published by The Cooking Ladies (Phyllis Hinz and Lamont Mackay) through Hushion House. The Cooking Ladies, veteran food columnists, did all their own writing and photography, hired a design company to create a design and lay the book out, and hired a publicist to promote the finished product, which was distributed through Hushion House. While they did get publicity, they didn't get many sales until they approached national retailers about placing customized versions of the cookbooks in their stores, and "hit the jackpot" when Home Hardware ordered 12,000 non-returnable copies. This success earned them the notice of Ten Speed Press (which publishes and distributes Mollie Katzen's Moosewood Cookbooks), which will now distribute both the Cooking Ladies' books, in Canada and the U.S.

While Q&Q shone some light on the success of projects like the Cooking Ladies', where personable authors who identified a niche market have done well with their self-publishing projects, the SFWA Atlanta Nights sting operation, which has been big news in the publishing blogosphere shows the other side of the self-publishing coin.
Grumpy Old Bookman (who is now required reading for This Crazy Industry) discusses the claims, made by several self-publishing outfits,

that almost every famous writer in the entire history of literature started out by publishing his or her own work. Trafford, for instance, gives us a list including Alexander Dumas, Edgar Allan Poe, and Margaret Atwood. Advocate House reminds us of Mark Twain, James Redfield, and John Grisham. And even so straitlaced a body as the UK Publishers Association mentions Jill Paton, Timothy Mo, and Susan Hill. The longest list is to be found in the self-publishing hall of fame.

(I'll forgo the rant about how, like much good PR, these claims leave out more than they include. They imply that these authors were successful because they self published, as if self-publishing were a first step on the ladder to literary success. The stories behind self publishing ventures are almost always more complicated than that. Margaret Atwood's, for example, self-published her first volume of poetry. Her first two novels were published by small literary presses; it was only when McLelland and Stewart published her third novel that those first two novels gained much commercial success for their publishers, this interest sparked interest in her poetry. But I was going to forgo that rant.)

More to the point, as the Bookman points out, for every Cooking Lady we hear about, there are thousands of self-published authors whose works are never read by more than a handful of people.

One rarely hears of self-published authors who continue to self publish after they achieve publishing "success" (where success seems to be defined as being picked up by a mainstream publisher). The Cooking Ladies are now carried by a Ten Speed Press. India Edgehill's novel Queenmaker, touted in Wired News as an example of a self-published success, was "traditionally published" in 2002 by St. Martin's press. David Chilton's legendary self-publishing success The Wealthy Barber is published by Random House (and I believe it was published by Stoddart prior to the Stoddart disaster) For all the claims that self-publishing is coming into its own, it seems that success is still defined by the the publishing industry, which still controls the means of distribution. A "successful" self-published book is one that comes to a publisher's notice, so that it can be "traditionally" published in its second edition.

Does it seem paradoxical to anyone else?


CEP said...

Then, too, the entire subindustry of self-publishing b/o/o/s/t/e/r/s/ gurus asserts that a great many authors/books were self published at all. Leaving aside the cogent points made on the mistaken "cachet effect," the usual canonical list is woefully inaccurate.

CEP said...

Not "at all," I meant "in the first place." Ididididididireallydid!

jennie said...

Yes, well, I did say I was going to spare you the rant about the inaccuracy and imprecision of that list. Perhaps another day I'll indulge myself.