Since the release ofAt Fault earlier this year, I've been touring the convention scene. I began in Chattanooga, and have hit small towns and big cities across the north and midwest, having just wrapped up my summer and kicked off my fall. Some of these conventions have big name authors whose books you might see featured on front-of-store displays in Barnes & Noble and other major brick and mortar box stores. Others you've never heard of, but they are prolific and professional, with displays of 20, 30, 50! books with quality edits, designs, and covers. Still, these latter artists of the word trade - with all of that creativity, hard work, sweat, tears, and blood (from their paper cuts) on display - will face the inevitable question no less than a dozen times at every show:
"But do you have a publisher, or did you put this out on your own?"
Don't get me wrong, some will phrase the question a bit less passive aggressively. "Is it independent?" "Do you have a traditional publisher?" or even the particularly positive spin, "Did you do everything on your own? Even publishing?"
Regardless of wording, the implication is clear and the old stereotype is intact: traditional publishing is "real" and indies, hybrids, vanities, or self-published works are somehow lesser.
Having worked in both traditional and independent publishing, as well as in every step of books from bucket list to bookshelf, I feel I have a unique perspective on this at least thirty-five-year old rivalry and debate. You may be surprised to hear about the ways you can fit into this world . . . as well as how you might choose the books for your shelf if you are a reader.
Here's the thing. For literally centuries, publishers built up this gated community of traditional publishing with an HOA that would make Beverly Hills look like an RV community.
Getting in was about - as we crassly used to call it out - "who you know and who you blow." Don't go getting uppity on me. The writing and publishing business is, in many ways, a far dirtier life than the porn industry. Some may even say it rivals politics and with just as many old cronies making power plays.
Sometime in the late 20th century, writers got frustrated. Do you blame them? Were their stories, the stories of the unconnected (and unwilling to pander) any less valuable than the ones of those on the inside? For instance, just how many Hollywood stories does the average human living and working and paying taxes need about . . . well, other Hollywood personalities. (I'm looking at you, Golden Age! Not that I don't get weak in the knees from the Bing Crosby classics. Sigh......I digress.) Stories by the elite about the elite were no longer enough for the people whose paychecks were lifting them up en masse.
All of those frustrated, average (in spotlight, not talent), everyday, working writers decided, 'Fine. Don't let me into your bleeping gated community. But I'm building a tent city right outside!'
Enter vanity publishing and that changed everything.
Oh, there were still people in the gated community. Quite a few, in fact. It was the old money (in this case books) versus the new. Many of those aware of the new players complained about these tent city dwellers because its occupants right outside their doors did NOT understand the rules of the neighborhood and, frankly, the newcomers were ruining their peace! Of course the "new money" writers didn't understand the rules. THEY WERE NEVER EVEN INVITED IN FOR A CUP OF COFFEE!
That said, there were some on the fringes of the community, not the people in the biggest mansions, but they were still behind the gates, and they looked over at that tent city and occasionally would see something that they really liked. They were entertained or informed or encouraged depending on the art being created and witnessed. Some of those fringe gated community inhabitants invited a person or two, maybe even a whole cluster of creatives, into their homes. (Cue the hallelujah angels as these squatters make their ways through the gates!)
Enter Niche Publishing, ghostwriting, co-writing, fan fiction, and story collections.
Suddenly, a lot of natural-born tent-city folk were playing in the gated community. Now things were really changing. The BIG 6 PUBLISHERS became the BIG 5. Not only that, but some of those fringe gated community folks thought, 'Well, we really like what's coming out of this new blood, but those tents just don't look as comfortable as our mansions. How about we do some community building and put up some affordable housing?'
Enter hybrid and independent publishers!
These new publishers were, in many cases, started by the very people who once lived in the gated community. They did know the rules. But they were willing to play by those rules with people from either side of the gate. And guess what. Today, there are only the BIG 4 PUBLISHERS behind those gates, but there are plenty of other people playing in the publishing neighborhood.
Here's the new thing. We are always going to have gatekeepers. But the community behind the gates isn't the only one to play in, anymore. If that's what you really want, then you're going to have to strive to meet the standards of that old HOA that has been in place for ages. OR, you have to meet one of those people on the fringes who is going to invite you in and you can work your way up to a higher mansion from there. But you may find that you could be just as happy partying in tent city, or making a life in affordable housing.
Or maybe, like me, you'll decide you sometimes want to camp in the tents and other times you want to dress to the nines in the mansions. I look to find the best fit for each book I put out and I play in all of those communities at different times depending on each different book's need, as well as on my needs and desires as an artist. We no longer have a six-palace neighborhood behind impenetrable gates. Instead, we have a whole society, and that's what art was always meant to be . . . the language of the masses.
So, find your neighbors and hold your own block party!
And, by the way, if the people at your block party are looking for a good read, here are a few great authors you've never heard of who I've met during my ongoing book tour. Pick up one of their books, enjoy as you laugh, think, and feel, and watch for my features on these and many other great creatives I've encountered on my tour!
Be Gloriously Human