Why writers will always need publishers

I've always loved short stories, and they were my gateway drug into being a writer. I produced quite a few before I felt I was ready to try a novel, and have kept them up ever since. They're not merely nursery slopes toward the long form, though they can be a great way of finding your voice and practicing the craft. There are genres - notably horror - where the short story is where the best work gets done. They're something you do largely for the love of it, however. They don't pay well, and with a few exceptions – uncontested masters of the form, like Ray Bradbury - major publishers tend not to feel enthusiastic about bringing them to the market in book form.
 
I've been fortunate to have a couple of collections out over the years, with another due out next year. Neither of the previously-published books are widely available these days, and it struck me one afternoon that the seventy-odd stories I've written so far were just lying there, unused, unread, unavailable. It struck me too that all the cool kids kept banging on about an e-publishing revolution, and it might be worth checking out. So I set up a little virtual imprint - ememess press - and started to release the stories individually online.
 
I'm lucky that the course of my life has provided me with most of the tools to do this. As a covert geek, the process of obtaining a domain and server, setting up a Web site, going through the process to create ebooks from text files and then submitting them to Amazon was a source of furrow-browed intrigue rather than baffled and irritable confusion (for the most part, though there was a certain amount of foul language from time to time).

A long-ago period spent haphazardly working in graphic design means that using Quark and Photoshop to produce covers isn't daunting (though I'm not going to be winning awards for them, either). After working as a professional writer for two decades, it's a welcome change to spend a few hours dealing with pictures and technology rather than words. As a writer you often feel distanced from the sharp end of your career, too - forever handing your work on to other people to make into books, and then sell. Taking control of this process feels rather liberating and can-do.
 
I can't claim it's been a roaring success financially so far. That's likely to be because I haven't dedicated enough time and effort to marketing and PR, which in turn is because I'm a bit useless at them (most authors are; that's why they're authors). And that, my friends, is where real publishers come in...
 
New technologies always affect the speed and dynamics of the areas of life with which they intersect, but they seldom reverse its fundamental structures. Re-publishing my short fiction electronically is a fun experiment, and I'm happy to have a way to give these stories a new lease of life. When it comes to trying to ensure the hard work of writing pays off, however, you want professionals in your camp. There will always be those who achieve escape velocity on their own - these shooting stars predate the advent of e-books, and often burn out very quickly - but publishing is a business and an industry as much as an art. As with so many areas in life, you can't do everything yourself, and will hobble your potential if you try.

I felt reasonably confident e-publishing these stories because they'd all been published before, often multiple times. They've effectively been through editing and peer review. If you're venturing into publishing for the first time, and with serious intent, you need backup and expertise - and objective second opinions. Writing is a solipsistic occupation. To succeed, once in a while you need to bang heads with people who aren't you, and to listen to what they say. You may hate that process (I do, sometimes) but you write for an audience. These professionals are just the first in line – with the bonus of being able to help you get better at what you do. One of the most annoying things about the advice of others is that sometimes... it's right.
 
Play to your strengths. If you're able to write you should focus on that, and seek the advice of others who understand editing and marketing and publicity and design - rather like dealing with a real publisher. I believe that's what we'll start to see over the next few years, in fact, a gradual realisation amongst some of the self-published that they're better at (or more excited by) the publishing parts than the writing, leading to the formation of new virtual houses... In which case the eBook revolution could also see the emergence of an online world of great new designers and editors and agents and publishers. This would be extremely exciting, and very positive for the future of the written word, because these people have always been as important to the business of books and writing as the writers themselves.

No wo/man is an island. If you're going to take the e-publishing route, then power to you - but at least make sure you also use the Internet for what it does best. Reach out, and meet and take advice from other people. Writing doesn't have to be a lonely business.
 
You should have fun with it too.

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Comments

Publishers will need to reconsider their selection process

Paul J. Newell's picture

 

I agree that the support of an objective peer reviewer (/editor) is possibly the most vital asset of any writer (I'm eternally grateful to my most brutally honest critic). Unfortunately, turning to the professionals of the traditional publishing industry is not something most writers have a choice about. Sadly, it is often the case that whether industry people will even consider a writer’s work is more dependent on the marketability of their personal back story than the quality of their written story. Hence, the bland ghost-written novel of the b-list celeb is stiff competition to any newbie writer, and even the words of serial killer will garner more attention than those of a lowly software architect. (I'm generalising here, of course, and I apologise for that)

The the self-publishing revolution offers the potential for success on merit alone; and because of this I think you’re absolutely right, that a new kind of publishing industry will emerge over the coming years, and the old guard will crumble unless they rapidly adapt.

 

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