Commodity Publishing, Self-Publishing, and The Future of Fiction

Commodity Publishing and The Future of Fiction

Many years ago, when I started working for Writer’s Digest, I was put on the self-publishing beat. I started by reading Dan Poynter’s guide, by the godfather of self-publishing, then the Marilyn Ross guide. I attended EPIC, once the leading conference for e-book authors, and sat on a panel with Piers Anthony to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of traditional publishing, POD publishing, and digital publishing. For a couple of years, I edited a newsstand-only magazine called Publishing Success, geared toward independent authors, and oversaw the Writer’s Digest Self-Publishing Book Awards. I developed lasting relationships with several indie authors during that time, including John Sundman and M.J. Rose, and I saw a few authors successfully cross over to traditional publishing.

At that time (which was in the early 2000s), if you were a self-published author, print-on-demand was emerging as the golden ticket to affordable independent publishing. New POD publishers were marketing their services with dirt-cheap introductory packages—as low as $99—to entice authors fed up with rejection to find success through this no-print-run-required technology. What most authors discovered, however, is that without access to bookstore shelves, or a reliable way to get in front of readers (these were the early days of the Internet—no social media and very little in the way of popular blogging), you were pretty much wasting your time.

One author stood out, though, as finding a way where the others didn’t—M.J. Rose. She was turned down by traditional publishers but was convinced there was a readership for her work. So in 1998, she set up a website where readers could download her book for $9.95 and began to seriously market the novel online. After selling 2,500 copies (in both electronic and trade paper), her novel Lip Service became the first e-book sensation to score an author a traditional publishing contract. (What is also interesting here is Rose’s background: advertising.)

When asked about the future of self-publishing in October 2012, Rose told The Nervous Breakdown:

In 2000, when I was the e-publishing reporter for, I was asked about the future of self-publishing and at that time said it would become the best test market for publishers to find future superstars—as soon as e-books took off and that wouldn’t happen until the readers dropped to under $100. We’re there—it’s happening. Every week the press reports on two or three major deals with self-pubbed authors who have built up their own fan bases.{{1}} [[1]]Publishers Lunch reported on roughly 5,000 traditional publishing deals in 2012; 45 of them were for books originally self-published.[[1]] But notice how those self-pubbed authors are moving to traditional deals.  As empowering as self-pubbing is—it’s not easy to go it alone. Most of us writers want to be writers—not have to spend years studying the business of publishing and becoming entrepreneurs.  So I think there are going to be more and more creative business models to offer authors trustworthy and creative partnerships as solutions to going it alone. It’s an amazingly exciting time in publishing.

I agree with M.J. My question is: Is self-publishing going to become the predominant, preferred, or recommended means for authors to launch their careers? While we might all agree there are more paths than ever to get published and be a successful author, some advocates of self-publishing—primarily those (perhaps exclusively those) who write genre fiction go a step further: Don’t even bother getting traditionally published. Self-publish first.

Usually the model or formula is expressed like this:

  1. Write a ton of material.
  2. Publish it yourself on all the digital platforms.
  3. Repeat as quickly as possible.
  4. Make a living as a writer.

For those unfamiliar with this emerging model of authorship, you may think I’m oversimplifying. Not by much. This model doesn’t care about quality. It says: You will get better as you write more, and besides, everyone knows that quality is subjective. It says: Don’t waste your time perfecting something that you can’t be sure makes a difference to your readers or your sales.

Nor does this model rely on marketing and promotion. According to its rules, the author is better off producing more salable product, which, over time, snowballs into more and more sales, and people discovering and buying your books. Do you need a website? Of course, like any author does. Do you need to market yourself or your work? As little as possible, the model says. Focus on writing your next book.

If you want to delve into the philosophy of this model further, I recommend reading the blogs of Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Katherine Rusch, very commercially successful genre fiction authors who have significant followings, with experience in both traditional and indie authorship.

My observations follow.

1. This model relies on a readership that consumes books like candy, or readers mostly interested in finding a next read as quickly and cheaply as possible. (We’re starting to see the impact of this cheap-read behavior: agents asking publishers to reduce prices because it’s inhibiting the greater volume needed to reach maximum profits.)

If you’ve ever walked into certain kinds of used bookshops (especially back before e-books became prevalent), you’ve seen the racks and racks of mass-market romances and other genre fiction, sold for 25 cents each. A customer might walk in, buy a grocery bag full, walk out, then return the following week for a refill.

The new era of self-publishing authors{{2}}[[2]]There’s also another subset of self-publishing authors that are of the Seth Godin variety: authorities or experts who publish nonfiction and offer other content and services to a fan base, whether a large one or more modest one of the Kevin Kelly variety. I’m excluding such authors for the purposes of this post since I consider them an entirely different animal.[[2]] are, by and large, serving these customers.

I call it commodity publishing. It’s not about art; it’s about product.

But isn’t that what traditional publishing has been about all along? Isn’t it also commodity publishing? It is a business, yes?

Funny, it’s the business that no one gets into for business reasons. It’s the business that, if you asked its individual participants, would likely prefer to talk about the art or culture of the business, would prefer to make the argument that it focuses on quality work that deserves publication. Yet those with trade experience know how the decisions really get made: based on a profit-and-loss analysis (P&L) and for the benefit of the bottom line.

2. If commodity publishing is here to stay, I can only see its future in the realm of genre fiction, because this is the area where I see sufficient reader demand to drive the kind of volume that leads to a living wage. It’s also the only area where I see authors without qualms about quality, or without any hesitation to produce as much material as possible, with the only limitation the amount of time you can keep your butt in the chair writing.

Most literary authors and nonfiction writers I know are not able to pursue this model. They either cannot produce—or would not want to produce—multiple volumes in a few years’ time.

I’m now on the edge of a longstanding argument: whether genre fiction is as “good” as so-called literary fiction. I’ve had more than one person challenge me on the definition of “literary” fiction on the premise that it’s an elitist, exclusionary term that implies that other types of fiction can’t be as intelligent or complex. That is to say, it is possible for literary romance, literary thriller, etc., to exist, and that “literary” should not exist except as an adjective to some other genre category.

That’s a sensible argument. But I do think it’s relevant to talk about how readers self-identify, or how they decide what to read next, and you can be certain there’s a class of reader who considers themselves devoted to the consumption of, at the very least, serious fiction. Serious fiction means: you don’t read it or skim it in an afternoon, and you don’t go through an entire grocery bag of them in a week. A lot of people enjoy both types of fiction. Yet you don’t often find authors who are switching off between writing beach reads and next year’s critically acclaimed novel. Further, authors tend to get pigeon-holed and marketed in a particular way to the same audience over years, since that’s how commercial success works best (see: James Patterson), and even if we find this constricting from a creative standpoint, it’s a sound marketing strategy.

All this to say: I don’t think it wise to recommend self-publishing as the first strategy for writers outside of the genres. I don’t think it is compatible with the goals or attitudes of a significant population of authors. However, this is NOT to say that such authors are somehow exempt from innovation, or from adopting digital tools to further their careers. Quite the contrary, and regular readers of this blog know how often I advocate that authors break out of the traditional thinking and experiment across mediums—that they think beyond the book in approaching creative expression, storytelling, and marketing/promotion.

As far as the ongoing need or demand for traditional publishers, it’s tough to imagine their demise when it comes to non-commodity authors, though I do worry that if publishers have been playing at the commodity publishing game all along (which they have), and their existing corporate parents expect growing profits, should we expect their fortunes to fall if/when the genre fiction authors increasingly go-it-alone{{3}}[[3]]I’ve also written about my concern that traditional publishers may not evolve to offer sufficient value for authors. I write in-depth about this here.[[3]] because they can earn more{{4}}[[4]]Some have suggested that the high royalty rates that indie authors now enjoy from retailers like Amazon will be yanked down to much lower numbers once the e-reading/e-publishing gold rush has concluded. Who knows if that will come to pass, but if so, it would be smart for authors currently enjoying indie success to start building their online presence and e-mail lists to ensure they can reach their readership and sell direct in the future. Plan for the worst, hope for the best.[[4]]—especially as more readers buy online and buy digital rather than visiting physical bookstores, that dwindling haven of traditional publishing profits?

And if traditional publishing declines, will the big corporate houses have the same ability to publish those titles that aren’t destined to be commercial successes, but critical successes?

Take this year for example:

  • No. 1 commercial success of 2012: 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James—published by Random House after the author self-published
  • No. 1 critical success of 2012: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo—also published by Random House; a National Book Award winner and named one of the top 10 books of the year by countless publications

Can Random House deliver books like the Behind the Beautiful Forevers if they don’t also profit from 50 Shades of Grey? Maybe someone else with more insight into corporate-wide publishing P&Ls can offer insight here.

3. Lest one be misled into thinking I prefer literary fiction and would like to protect it (and the infrastructure that goes along with it), I must agree with what Tim O’Reilly said in a recent interview with Wired:

Wired: You’re a publisher and big reader as well as a technologist. What is the future for books?

O’Reilly: Well, what kind of book do you mean? Because there are many, many things that were put into codices that have no particular reason to be books. Things like paper maps and atlases are just gone. Online dictionaries and online encyclopedias have killed printed dictionaries and encyclopedias. … But I don’t really give a shit if literary novels go away. They’re an elitist pursuit. And they’re relatively recent. The most popular author in the 1850s in the US wasn’t Herman Melville writing Moby-Dick, you know, or Nathaniel Hawthorne writing The House of the Seven Gables. It was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writing long narrative poems that were meant to be read aloud. So the novel as we know it today is only a 200-year-old construct. And now we’re getting new forms of entertainment, new forms of popular culture.

Personally (after a couple decades of being a very devoted reader of novels), I have all but stopped reading fiction. My storytelling fix comes from watching TV, which, for my money, is where the best narratives are told these days—Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, many others. I know I’m not alone in this.

So that raises the question of what I do read, and it’s narrative nonfiction of a journalistic bent (one of the reasons I recently joined VQR). I’m sure everyone is aware of the parallel conversations happening, in the magazine journalism and news world, about what their publishing future entails, and you’ll find no less confusion or wringing of hands. But I find their practitioners to be in a similar boat as the serious fiction authors, in that they need some kind of support—typically traditional media/publisher support—to carry out their work, which takes years to complete and cannot be churned out on demand. Katherine Boo, and many other nonfiction authors, require years of research to produce even a slim volume of import. What they produce is distinctly not disposable, not a commodity.

Will such authors be supported by nonprofits? Grants? Small presses whose profit demands are lower? Crowdsourcing? Kickstarter? I don’t know, but of all the options I can fathom, self-publishing seems least likely to become the preferred or prevalent model.

What do you say?

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