One of the only advantages of the coronavirus pandemic is that individuals have been provided with more time than usual. Some people have spent this time doing something creative, like attempting to write that novel we all have within us. This has led to the rise of self-publishing. Instead of following the traditional, complicated route of seeing one’s book on a shelf, authors have begun to self-publish their works online.
It is easy to see why this has become a popular route. The traditional journey towards publication is fraught with danger, rejection and much effort for few rewards. You have to approach an agent, who will be biased towards certain genres. Given the number of requests they receive, it is normal for agents to agree to only see certain sections of the book and state that the book is unsellable, or to turn authors down. Even if the prospective author acquires an agent, the fun only just begins. The publishing industry is brutal and publishers are defined by what sells.
This can be demoralising for first time authors. Hours, months, years are put into perfecting any work. While they love to write, perfecting even a chapter is both tiring and immensely frustrating. To not have that work rewarded by publication can make the situation even worse. With all the hurdles towards the bookshop through the traditional publishing route – agent, publisher, marketing campaign, I find it perfectly obvious why someone would choose the online route. The scrutiny from others disappears; the only individuals who can make judgements are the readers.
One person’s brilliant read is another’s overrated novel
The words are online instantly. Instead of being repeatedly edited by someone else, it is easy for individuals to get their words out. Indeed, this mirrors social media. In the past, the only way someone could publicly voice their opinion on society was by writing a letter to the newspaper. Even then, an editor would decide whether or not to publish it. Now, social media allows anyone to set up a Twitter account and voice their opinion on the day, however accurate or rude. With self-publishing, there is no filter, nobody to check what novels are being sent out into the publishing world.
On the one hand, I value the advice and expertise of agents, editors and publishers. Many agencies and publishing houses will have existed for centuries, putting works into the public sphere for all to enjoy. They ensure the book will have as good a chance of selling as possible, and the access they have to marketing teams and cover designs is unrivalled by someone publishing an eBook on Amazon from their bedroom. The two are incomparable.
This then raises a whole other point. Publishing houses are businesses: they have to pay immense sums to get books printed and into the public domain. A key part of their selection process will be looking at what they believe ‘sells.’ This, of course, can be wrong. The first Harry Potter book was turned down by numerous publishers before Bloomsbury came along, with groups believing a book set in a boarding school wouldn’t appeal to readers. Marketing-wise, publishing houses can never know their readers as well as readers know themselves. Everyone’s approach to and experiences of culture are highly personal and subjective. One person’s brilliant read is another’s overrated novel.
By opting for self-publishing, authors are removing barriers that may prevent their work from reaching people
But what is the purpose of being published? I think it should be about sharing one’s words, whether that be recalling a fiction or a non-fiction story, with other people. Like all great culture, books should establish a connection between reader and author, creator and consumer. Through shared experiences, having one’s mind opened to new ideas and transforming opinions, great stories can be told. Publishing houses inevitably have to block some of those experiences from being shared.
The most important part of books is not the cover or display of positive quotes, but the words within. Publishing houses have to assess a book not on its personal experience to a reader, but whether it will sell in a competitive market. By contrast, readers can judge a book wholly on the quality of writing, the depth of its characters and the adventures of storytelling.
By opting for self-publishing, authors are removing barriers that may prevent their work from reaching people. The vast majority of authors do not enter the industry to become rich and famous. They would be deluding themselves and besides, there are far easier industries in which to do that. They write a book for their own needs and for others’. They want their readers, however many or few, to have a personal connection and moving experience. In times where the quality of a novel is determined by its level of profit, that should be celebrated. If self-publishing gives authors that freedom, I couldn’t be more supportive.