Paul Doiron here—
Earlier this week an author named Jessica Park wrote an essay on IndieReader recounting the trouble she’d experienced finding a publisher for a young adult novel she had written. She had previously published five YA books with traditional print publishers, but her new book, titled Flat-Out Love, made the rounds in New York without success. Park says she received rejection letter after rejection letter (fourteen in all), and she began to grow increasingly resentful:
And then one day I got yet another rejection letter and instead of blaming myself and my clear lack of creativity, I got angry. Really, really furious. It clicked for me that I was not the idiot here. Publishing houses were. The silly reasons that they gave me for why my book was useless made me see very clearly how completely out of touch these houses were with readers. I knew, I just knew, that I’d written a book with humor, heart, and meaning. I’d written something that had potential to connect with an audience. As much as I despise having to run around announcing how brilliant I supposedly am and whatnot, I also deeply believed in Flat-Out Love. I knew that editors were wrong.
And I finally understood that I wanted nothing to do with these people.
In her essay, “How Amazon Saved My Life,” Park unloads on an industry that she feels is misguided, inefficient, and deserving of scorn:
Publishers pay terribly and infrequently. They are shockingly dumb when it comes to pricing, and if I see one more friend’s NY-pubbed ebook priced at $12.99, I’m going to scream. They do minimal marketing and leave the vast majority of work up to the author. Unless, of course, you are already a big name author. Then they fly you around the country for signings and treat you like the precious moneymaking gem that you are. The rest of us get next to nothing in terms of promotion. If your book takes off, they get the credit. If it tanks, you get the blame.
Rather than suffer the indignity of additional rejections, Park decided to self-publish her novel as an eBook with Amazon and promote it through a number of book blogs. The results exceeded her wildest expectations:
Because of Amazon and other sites, I’m making enough money that I can continue writing. I’m averaging sales of 3,500 books a month, not including the month that Amazon featured Flat-Out Love in a list of books for $3.99 and under. That month I sold 45,000 Kindle copies, and sold over 10,000 the next month. Those numbers are insane to me. Absolutely insane.
Furthermore, she claims to know writers who are making even more from their eBook sales, so much that they have no interest in ever being published again by a Knopf or Harpercollins:
I know more than one author who is making $50-150,000 a month (yes, a month) who are getting the most stupidly low offers from big publishers to take over that author’s book. Why would my friends take a $250,000 advance (if even offered that much), take a puny royalty rate, see their sales hurt by higher pricing, and completely give that book up for life? They can and will earn more themselves and continue to reap the benefits of a 70% royalty while maintaining all the rights to their work.
Under those circumstances, Park wonders why any author would choose to publish with a traditional print publisher. It’s a good question—especially when you consider the postscript to this story. Amazon saw Park’s essay as such a great PR opportunity that its CEO Jeff Bezos himself wrote a letter plugging the book and placed it on the Amazon homepage. For the past few days, every single visitor to Amazon has read about Jessica Park’s Cinderella story, making the book a bestseller on the site, leading to additional riches for her and excellent publicity for Amazon’s Kindle Direct self-publishing program.
I haven’t read Flat-Out Love, so I have no insight into either the wisdom of the publishers who originally rejected the book or the taste of the many readers who have enthusiastically recommended it. I have no clue whether Park’s quoted sales numbers are true (although Bezos certainly gave them a boost, whatever they were). Nor do I know how many writers are pulling in tens of thousands of dollars a month hawking their wares via Amazon (such creatures might exist, but they are shy and elusive, like the cougars one occasionally hears about stalking the backwoods of Maine). For all I know, authors like myself who continue to sign contracts with “legacy publishers” (as the self-published community derisively refers to them) are backward-looking dupes whose folly will become increasingly apparent over the coming years.
But I don’t think so. It’s tempting to view book publishers today as the equivalent of the record companies in the era before Napster: as ineffectual, money-grubbing hucksters. In the eyes of writers like Jessica Park and Barry Eisler and J.A. Konrath, publishers advertise themselves as necessary gatekeepers, when really all they do is prevent thousands of deserving works from ever being discovered by readers (while screwing authors out of considerable sums in the process). Amazon, of course, has a vested interest in convincing a great number of writers to see the publishing world this way, since Jeff Bezos wants to sell Kindles, and he needs an enormous electronic inventory of eBooks to persuade his buyers that they are better off buying his product than that of the late Steve Jobs.
As a writer, it’s reassuring to think that a Brave New World is dawning in which I can make a fortune by cutting out the editorial and marketing middlemen and by connecting (almost) directly with a waiting host of eager readers. But here’s the thing: unlike Jessica Park, I don’t loathe publishers. As an author who also happens to work for a company that publishes books, I have seen the hundreds of manuscripts that come in over the Down East transom, and I will tell you frankly that most of them are half-baked at best. Even the best of them benefit from rigorous editing by a disinterested professional (and this is leaving aside the contributions photographers, illustrators, and designers can bring to turning a manuscript into a fully realized book).
In my own case, I have several regular readers who vet my work before I submit it to my publisher. These are some of the smartest people—and best writers—I know. And yet even with their expert criticism to guide me, I can confidently say that my books have all gotten better because of the work both my agent and my editor have done to help improve them. I might not be making $50,000 a month, but my publisher has negotiated foreign rights so that readers in nine languages around the world are now discovering my books. They have hired talented actors to create audio versions of my stories so my novels can be enjoyed by the visually impaired (or just long-haul truckers and drivers with interminable commutes). My publisher has marketed my Mike Bowditch series to libraries and bookstores with real enthusiasm because they believe in my ability and potential. In short they have given me validation that is meaningful in its own right, apart from the support I’ve received from my wonderful readers.
Do I have frustrations? Of course, I do. Like all authors I wish I were paid more and more often. I chafe against the long delay between the date a book is accepted and the date it lands on bookstore tables. But I am sure my publisher has frustrations with me, too, and I try to remind myself that this corporation—and not yours truly—is the one investing its significant dollars in editing, designing, printing, binding, marketing, and shipping my books. In short, I try to keep some perspective and humility.
None of us knows what the future holds for publishing. I will confess to being scared of a book world dominated by a single retailer of Amazon’s size. I say that not just as an author and reader but as someone who views the dissemination of ideas as central to our basic freedoms. If conventional publishers were all to vanish tomorrow—and I don’t think they will—editorial power will shift elsewhere, to corporations like Amazon and Google and Apple for instance. It’s helpful to remember this chilling anecdote as we marvel at all our new publishing possibilities as writers.
I’m glad that Jessica Park has found fulfillment and fortune by self-publishing her work, although I hope success softens her anger. In answer to the question I posed in the title of this post, I think that anyone who shares her frustrations and specific ambitions should create a Kindle Direct account this minute and see what happens. Someday, I might join you myself. But if I ever do add my name to the ranks of the self-published, it will be with the well-founded suspicion that, without a wise and unsentimental editor to push me past my comfort zone, my books won’t be as good as they could be. In my heart I will always know I can do better.