When I was a younger man (which wasn’t THAT long ago, thank you very much), it was harder for a writer to get published than it is today. Commercial print magazines and traditional publishing houses ruled the writing world. Your average fiction writer had to comb through the newsstands to find magazines that might be interested in their work, type cover letters, buy envelopes (oversized so your manuscript wasn’t folded) and postage, then sit and wait. And it was very likely you’d never hear back from the editor.
Getting a book published wasn’t any easier. You couldn’t simply email a manuscript to an agent. You had to got through the same thing as magazine submissions – try and find an agent and mail him your best pitch, along with the first chapter of your magnum opus. Then there was the waiting. And more than likely you wouldn’t even receive the courtesy of a ‘thanks, but no thanks,” letter.
Of course, there was always vanity publishing. These were small publishing houses that you could pay to print your book. It wasn’t cheap and they generally made you pay for a specific number of volumes up front to make it worth their time and effort. Quality of the final product was also a problem.
As the internet began to snake its tendrils across the world, non-traditional publishing began to make an appearance. People posted on message boards, then came ‘zines. Anyone remember them? These were little twenty to thirty-page booklets, usually colored printer paper folded in half and stapled on the seam. They were low-budget labors of love with cheap websites and erratic printing schedules that published short fiction, poetry, and illustrations.
Fast-forward a decade or so and we arrive at online book publishing. The writer can now cut out the middle-man, avoid the hassle of contracts and negotiations, and publish what they want, when they want. Quality is going to vary far more than with traditional publishing, but it does provide for a wider variety of stories, styles, and voices. Writers who stories would never have seen the light of day twenty years ago can now reach an audience. Personally, I think the pros outweigh the cons.
For what it’s worth, I’ve done both. I’ve been published in commercial magazines and wrote a non-fiction book (written under contract) for a smaller publishing house. I’ve also been published in ‘zines (anyone remember them?), on fiction websites, and I’ve self-published a collection of my short stories.
Recently, I was thinking about the debate between traditional vs. independent publishing. For many writers, the traditional route is the only legitimate way to go. They like traveling the long road, working with editors, agents, marketing people, and jumping through all the hoops. Even publishing on a smaller scale – commercial magazines – there’s the wait for a response.
In my experience, that’s one of the most frustrating aspects of traditional publishing…waiting for someone to get back to you. In fact, looking back over my submission tracker (a Numbers spreadsheet), I can see that almost half the stories I’ve submitted over the years have disappeared like an errant sock in the clothes dryer. I never heard back, the stories apparently sucked into some publishing black hole.
Still, I can see the appeal that come with traditional publishing. I mean, that’s how most of our idols were published. That’s what many of us were brought up with, hearing about Stephen King or J.K. Rowling getting those sweet, sweet book deals and raking in millions. Who wouldn’t want that, right?
But it’s like acting. Not too long ago I read an article that showed how the average career of a professional actor is two years. That’s it. That’s the average. So for every Meryl Streep or Morgan Freeman, you’ve got hundreds of Carls who got two or three speaking roles in a some low-budget B movies and now works at Rent-a-Center. Not that I’m picking on the Carls. They tried. That’s worth something.
For most writers, we’re never going to get the attention of an agent and end up with a contract at Penguin or RandomHouse. And it’s not for a lack of talent or effort. That’s just how it goes. It’s a chaotic, random universe. Some of us find the sweet spot on occasion, the rest of us continue to do our best in relative obscurity.
So non-traditional publishing offers an opportunity for the rest of us to get our shot at having someone we aren’t related to read our work. There’s still a chance our story or collection of poems may sit and languish on a cyber-bookshelf, but we at least got a chance to show it to the world. That’s what really matters. Besides, just because someone gets published by one of the big publishing houses doesn’t mean their book is going to sell. You’ve seen the stacks of remainder books in the bookstores, the ones marked down from $19.99 to ninety-nine cents. Nothing is guaranteed.
In my humble opinion, I don’t see much of a difference between traditional and non-traditional publishing. In both cases, writers are being published and stories are going out into the world. That’s the point, isn’t it? To see our names in print, to share our imaginations, to maybe entertain someone for a little while. That’s all I care about. If I make a little money or maybe sign a couple of copies, that’s icing on the cake.
And one last thing: I think that people sometimes put too much emphasis on getting published. They believe they aren’t a “real writer” unless they have a book on a shelf or a story printed in a magazine. That’s just wrong. If you’re putting words on the page, either handwritten or typed, you’re a writer. It’s that simple. Publishing will happen for you eventually. Just continue to write.