There has been a lot written celebrating the elimination of gatekeepers – agents, editors, and traditional publishers – who blocked many authors from access to publication. Self-publishing has allowed writers to find their own readers. E.L. James and her Fifty Shades of Grey series have inspired many people to say, look what happens when a writer can get her own books out there to find an audience.
So self-publishing has provided authors with opportunities that didn’t previously exist, but, although not many people are talking about it, authors also lost some important things when it became possible to do an end around and totally bypass the traditional gatekeepers. Let’s take a look at some of the things authors lost.
Apprenticeship – It’s very seldom that anyone becomes a skilled craftsman in any trade overnight. That’s certainly true in writing. Ask some of the best or most successful contemporary authors about their early work and they will often tell you that it is painful to read now. Many of them were rejected many times before having their first book accepted by a publisher. What they did was to keep writing, working to get better. Over time and with effort they did.
Publishers and editors may not have been infallible, but they often did authors a service by saying that a book wasn’t ready for publication. The author who used that as an impetus to improve learned his craft, grew into a professional, and eventually got his books an audience when they deserved to have one.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of self-publishing authors who don’t understand that there is a craft to be learned before one’s books should be published. Without anyone to tell them that their books aren’t ready for print, they self-publish and get them up on Amazon.
One of the consequences is disappointment. The NY Times reports that“…most self-published books sell fewer than 100 or 150 copies…” Forbes found that “The median income [for a self-published author]…was $500.”
Mentorship – Editors and literary agents collaborating with their authors have helped them to create better books. The role of Maxwell Perkins in the shaping the works of F.Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway is legendary. But the same type of guidance is evident in agent Al Zuckerman’s role in helping Ken Follett as he wrote The Man from St. Petersburg. (See Zuckerman’s description of the process in Writing the Blockbuster Novel.)
These kinds of literary partnerships provide a depth of insight for an author that a self-publisher who seeks feedback from family and friends can’t begin to understand.
Partners in Producing a Professional Looking Book –Publishers made sure that authors had a well-designed cover which would attract readers and a well-laid out interior which enhanced the reader experience. The author didn’t have to worry about the look of the book. The publisher hired professionals to take care of that for them.
A self-publisher doesn’t necessarily have those professionals at his disposal and may not have any idea of how to find them if he wanted to. It shows in the books they ultimately produce.
The most successful self-publishing authors recognize the importance of accounting for and replacing the kinds of guidance that disappeared when they decided not to seek a traditional publisher. It’s too bad that more self-publishers don’t.