Sunday, April 24, 2005

Sarah Glazer on Self-Publishing

The New York Times > Books > Sunday Book Review > The Book Business: How to Be Your Own Publisher: "How to Be Your Own Publisher"

You have to register to read The New York Times, but this is a pretty interesting article about self-published books.


Anonymous said...

Glazer claims that The Times doesn't review vanity press books. For an exception, see

John Joss said...

Sarah Glazer's superficial article gums the true issues and fails to acknowledge the unbridgeable gap between self publishing and the publishing industry. By failing to mention the realities, she presented a distorted picture of publishing today, deceiving writers who might think that their books have a chance in the general market(s).
With the publishing industry's lunge to celebrity and notoriety (e.g. the 'great writers' Monica Lewinsky and Amber Frye, not to mention Paris Hilton's lapdog), and its dependence on established writers to provide product, the beginning writer (or even, today, the established one) has little or no chance of generating income from his or her work.
The industry, publishing perhaps 50,000 books a year, can exercise its true power--distribution--only in the case of about 10% of those books, or 5,000 books. That's because the channel, AKA the retail outlets typified by Borders, cannot take more than, say, 5,000 books a year or 100 a week and only accept books from the major publishers whose representatives call on them. And the chains do fast-slow sell analysis weekly, dumping and returning the slow sellers.
Readers buy books because they knows the writer or book, or have focused reading needs (e.g. professional, psychological, a specific sport). With almost no chance of review, a self-published author has little opportunity to become known. In the record, Sydney Sheldon self-promoted one of his Morrow books to get it into the public eye, and it 'took.' Many publishers do little publicity for their authors and authors need to do such work.
So creating visibility for a book and controlling the distribution are the publishing industry's principal powers. Putting ink on paper is, in context, trivial.
Now consider the agent perplex: the agents who could help the beginning or unknown writer do not need that client; the agents who will accept that beginning or unknown writer can rarely help get that writer accepted. This applies regardless of writing skill.
Recall that J.K. Rowling's first book was plucked from a slush pile by an agent facing a boring weekend (and the rest is history) but who can make that sort of lightning strike? You? You are insanely lucky.
When I was having a book published in New York by William Morrow, my editor, the late Howard Cady (who was Editor in Chief) took me to Morrow's 106 Madison Avenue offices and gestured into a vast room in which six ping-pong-sized tables groaned under the load of tens of thousands of brown paper packages. "That's the slush pile," he explained. "None will ever be read." By the way, that book of mine was republished by Morrow after I had self-published it! So we know that it can be done ("Celestine," etc. are much better examples).
Consider the writer who does not write in genres and thus cannot 'label' his or her work.
Unless the work can be pigeonholed into one of those categories--thriller, mystery, romance, etc.--it becomes unclassifiable and no agent or editor knows what to do with it. All generalizations are false, a paradox: the late, great writer Macdonald Harris wrote 16 novels, none of them genre (he was published by many great houses such as S&S, Holt, Random, Morrow, Atheneum), but his achievement was an anomaly.
Writing skill is no solution to the problem. Think of the many huge best sellers that were seemingly written by pinging the keyboard with a baseball bat (e.g. "The Da Vinci Code," lumpen by any literary standards). Think of the immense success of formula books by known authors, books that have the specific gravity of styrofoam and the skill level of K-6 yet sell hugely. Mencken said one would never go broke underestimating the public taste and he was right.
Self publishing can work in niche markets where the self publisher can control the promotion and address a tightly focused audience. I sold 40,000 books on the subject of soaring (or gliding), using the only U.S. and UK advertising media available-- the soaring magazines of the respective countries--and that niche example is valid. But in the case of general-interest books, the self-publishing route is a seriously uphill struggle, regardless of quality.
There is much more to this subject. These are only random notes. I choose not to hide behind anonymity (last refuge of cowards) and am very much open to correction if anyone who reads this will contact me at