Traditional Publishing Wasn't Very Good, You Know?
Traditional publishing, that is, author -->agent--> publisher-->wholesaler -->retail bookseller, worked as long as the ticket of entry was high. That is, it cost a whacking great lot of money to edit a book, copy edit the book, edit the galleys, have it printed and bound, warehouse it and ship it to distributors and booksellers. So, traditional publishers (and to a very great extent, agents) became the de-facto gatekeepers between aspiring authors and their audiences. But because of costs, manpower, and scheduling issues, publishers could not publish anywhere near the number of high-quality publishable manuscripts they received every year. We know this from the numerous tales of Pulitzer-quality manuscripts bouncing from agent to agent to publisher to publisher maybe as many as 17 or 18 times or more before somebody bought it and brought it to print. We know this because of the number of mid list writers (good, workmanlike authors who'd been published before) being dropped from traditional publishing houses and agents because their books didn't sell enough.
So it isn't an issue of not enough quality. What it is about is limited bandwidth, and a perceived limited market. We know now that that perception was wrong. eBook sales have shown that the market for books is vastly higher than the Big Five or Big Six publishers thought it was.
The question, now, is what does an author get from his agent and publisher that he/she cannot get elsewhere?
The answer from agents and publishers is, of course, self-serving. You get a gatekeeper against crap. You get an editor who knows what he or she is doing. You get a copy-editor same-same. You get good cover art, a distribution system with sales people and promotion and marketing people. You get good royalties, and you don't have to do anything but write your next book.
Nyaaaaaah! Anything you can do I can do better!
With the advent of freelance editors and copy editors, graphic artists and print on demand, most of the "advantages" of traditional publishers go away. And for a mid list author or a new author in most cases, the sales people and promotion and marketing people slip away as though a morning mist.
What mid list and newbie writers have known for years is that if they want to have a successful book they have to promote it and market it, and in many cases, sell it themselves. I am NOT talking about the so-called vanity press publishers. I am talking about the large publishing houses like Simon and Schuster, Scribners, and so forth. Most publishers will tell you that they think they lose money on a writer's first book. Maybe. With their overhead, it is more than possible.
So, mid list and new authors have known for years that if you want it done, you better do it yourself. So what is the difference between that and self-publishing? The stigma?
Well, the stigma surely exists, but it is fading fast under the impact of the people who have self-published, made money and then gotten a traditional book deal, or kept on self publishing.
And it is fading under the impact of reduced costs to take a book to press. One popular new publishing methodology is to produce an ebook, a video trailer for the ebook, and then as demand grows, a print on demand paper version...which comes directly from the ebook files and doesn't cost extra, except for the printing.
So, it is not about how to take a book to market anymore-- literally anyone can do it. It is, rather, about whether the book is ready to go to market...and therein lies the rub.
The Importance of Being Good
Recently I was asked to review a manuscript and give an opinion. It wasn't either science fiction or fantasy, it was a romance the author claimed as a geopolitical thriller. The author wanted an introduction to an agent or two, if I could do that.
Unfortunately, the book wasn't, in my opinion, ready. Like many self-ePublished books (I know, I know, she didn't epublish it) it had many of what I call newbie mistakes that would keep it from being picked up by a traditional publisher.
When Eric Flint got the contract for the first Ring of Fire anthology, he decided to open some of the slots to people who hadn't necessarily been published before. He asked me to write something. I did. He called me up and asked me, "How big is your ego?" He swears this never happened. But it did. I told him I didn't have one as far as writing is concerned. "That's good," he said, "because I'm going to buy your story, but it is crap and it needs a lot of work." What he was explaining is that there is a difference between a good story and a publishable story. Over the next couple of weeks, and in public on Baen's Bar, he used my story as a teaching tool about how to make something publishable.
Some of the newbie mistakes I see a lot in self-published ebooks:
o Too much description
o Stilted dialog
o unnecessary POV shifts
All of these things are common mistakes that can be corrected almost always just by bringing the writer's attention to them. This is what beta readers, and a freelance editor can do. And not very expensively, either.
It doesn't take much to "typeset" an eBook. You can do it yourself, or spend a couple hundred dollars having somebody do it for you, in multiple formats. You can have a cover designed for a hundred or so dollars, if you're careful. You aren't going to get Dave Mattingly or John Jude Palencar, or somebody like that, but you certainly can get somebody decent.
The rest of it is mechanics. Getting it up on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Sony and Apple bookstores, and offering a print-on-demand version...
That takes care of distribution, too, basically. Where do you think the Ingrams and Baker and Taylors distribute their books to? That's right. And maybe Wallyworld and Target and those few supermarkets that still have book aisles...you won't see that, as a self-published author, unless your book really takes off. But there's plenty of distribution without.
So what's left that an agent or publisher can do, that you can't do? Publicity and Marketing!
You can't do that? Of course you can. It takes time, and it takes money. But the principles are simple. In fact, Mary Robinette is doing a great example right now. Yes, Tor is paying for it, but the example works for indies and self-publishers. She is moving from Oregon to Chicago, so she set up an ad-hoc whistle stop tour. She is asking her friends and readers to find bookstores along the way where she can do a signing, get them to order books, and schedule the signing. You can do this too.
That's just one example of how to market your own book. I have more, but this is getting way too long already.