I grew up amid two publishing families. Roger Straus (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and Alfred and Blanche Knopf. They were both family cousins and close friends of my paternal grandparents. In the fifties, the publishing world had two entities, vanity publishers (Vantage Press et al.) and the traditional publishing houses. The traditional publishers enjoyed their reader’s brand respect.
Today, in this Amazon-driven maelstrom of buying, publishing, and distribution options, most publishers have lost any cohesive brand equity. By “brand equity”, I simply mean value recognition – whether a publisher’s name evokes any specific quality or characteristic in the consumer’s mind. If I say, “Harper Collins,” does anything come to mind? Does anyone go into a bookstore and ask, “What’s new from Random House?” Coherent publishing brands evoke in the consumer some identity attached to the books they publish like Harlequin Romance, Chelseas Green, or National Geographic. Its lack makes online marketing a challenge.
Furthermore, publishers failed miserably to ascribe any value to the content they sell, leaving consumers to believe that a book’s delivery medium defines its selling price – $25 for a hard-cover book; $18 for a paperback, and $15 for an audio book. So, when ebooks arrived, readers assumed they would be free as the transactional cost to buy and deliver one was virtually nil. Had publishers defined their work with a value, say $8.00, and then allowed consumers to choose the delivery medium, authors and publishers would be in much better shape. As in music and film, the ability to monetize digitized intellectual property is at grave risk.
The good side of all this is that technology has filled the void between vanity and traditional publishing, enabling anyone to publish either alone or with a for-hire or “hybrid publisher.” There are many professionals who can assist and advise would-be self-publishers about the universe of these intermediary publishing services. The ins and outs of self-publishing are too numerous to detail in a blog post and can be better served in a panel discussion. I can only speak to stand alone self-publishing and traditional publishing, as they form the basis of my own experience.
I will, however, offer one piece of advice to writers seeking to publish in any channel. Escape yourself. Get out of your own head. When writing, you must inhabit the imagination of your intended reader. When seeking an agent or publisher, you must understand the constraints and protocols of their business model. When your self-published books arrive, you must understand the rudiments and challenges of bookselling as you approach a bookstore owner and ask him or her to promote you and carry your books.
It’s good to believe in yourself and your work, but only when you have empathy for and knowledge of those who will make your book a success, will you start down the road to a successful career.