Is It Dangerous to Sign Deals for Self-Published Books?

This is just not me.

This is definitely not me.

I read a piece by Galley Cat this morning about self-publishing which featured the famously petite model Isobella Jade. Aparently, Jade wrote her memoir in an Apple Store. Then she got an agent. Then she fired her agent because things weren’t going fast enough. Then she self-published the book. Then she promoted herself so effectively that she ended up signing a deal with Harper Collins.

Jade is definitely very good at self-promotion – and I mean that in a good way. Take a look at her tips for self-promotion on a small budget and see what I mean. She is dedicated, professional, and savvy, and she clearly puts in a lot of time and effort. Talking in a recent interview on the Morning Media Menu podcast, she said,

“I’m extremely self-absorbed, but in a productive way. I’m always thinking … how is what I’m doing interesting to somebody else? How could this appeal to an audience? Why would somebody care what I have to say?”

There is something very good about this. We all admire people who believe so strongly in themselves that they manage to push through to success against all odds. Yet there is also something very disturbing about it.

As the publishing industry creaks under the strain the recession is putting on it, as it struggles to maintain its relevance in the digital age, as other options for publication and (especially) distribution become available to authors, people like Jade and the many other self-publishing success stories like her, are becoming minor folk-heroes to the vast numbers of authors aching to break into the exclusive club of published authors and looking for a way around the roadblocks that agents and publishers appear to place in their way.

Publishers too see the drive and ingenuity that Jade and her kin possess and, with their own publicity and marketing resources stretched way past the point of usefulness to any but the biggest-name authors, they want some of that. They want their authors to be their own publicity machines. They want their authors to be celebrities. They want their authors to find markets and build brands and grow loyal followings.

Which is great if you’re Cory Doctorow but not so good if you’re not.

This is a slippery slope for publishers. We all know that the author is the brand. But if the publisher isn’t the one building that brand, if you have to do it yourself, then the publisher’s value has slipped yet another notch. Right now, they have a strangle-hold on distribution because the bookshops only want to deal with publishers. So their value is high. But what if more lightweight intermediaries stepped up? What if there were companies that would manage an author’s brand for them? Companies that would project-manage book production, warehousing/POD and distribution? Companies that would review, rate, even marlet-test self-published works as a service to booksellers? Where is the publisher now? Or the agent?

Picking up deals for successful, dynamic self-published authors may look like easy money for publishers, but it looks to me like another step down the slippery slope to extinction.

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2 comments to Is It Dangerous to Sign Deals for Self-Published Books?

  • I couldn’t agree more. Once the last vestiges of stigma against self-publishing disappear, and someone offers comparable distribution as you say, the only advantage I can see that publishers will give is getting the services for free at the beginning, but with the disadvantage of less money recouped later on. But for the authors who have the money to invest in the initial outlay, successful self-publishing would earn more money too.

    Just a matter of time. But we still want it, don’t we?

  • There are two forces at work here. One is a buying public that seems to want mainly celebrity memoirs and formulaic genre pieces. The other is a vast army of writers who want to get their work into print and onto bookshelves. In between, stands the publishing industry.

    I think new models of publishing and distribution have the potential to do a lot for writers – serving them better than agents and publishers do now. The question is, whether they will change the market (e.g. by finding new segments, or by expanding niche segments). If the market doesn’t change, we might as well stick with the existing model for all anything new will do to help writers make a living.

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