Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The case for traditional publishing

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David Mamet

Yesterday, none other than David Mamet, an author whose influence haunts this blog in more ways than one, announced that he would be self-publishing his next novel. It’s a little tricky to draw a line between other authors and Mamet, who isn’t exactly uploading his book to the Kindle store: ICM, his agency, is making an ambitious push into publishing its clients’ books, and it has resources for packaging and marketing that many literary houses would envy. Yet although this isn’t an example that most writers can follow, it still feels like a turning point. It’s possible that we’re entering a new phase of how books are distributed and promoted, with self-publishing being the smartest option both for literary stars—who get a much larger cut of each sale—and for emerging writers, while authors on the midlist stick with business as usual. But I wouldn’t write off traditional publishers just yet. Even if you’re an author with an established audience, and especially if you’re just starting out, the boring, conventional route of working with an agent and going out to publishers is still often the best option, and not for the reasons you might expect.

In my case, I’m grateful I did it the traditional way, just because otherwise my books wouldn’t be nearly as good. On the first and most obvious level, the traditional publishing process serves as a kind of check on work that isn’t ready for print, which is a courtesy both to readers and to the authors themselves. If you’re having trouble finding an agent or publisher, it’s possible that your timing is just wrong, but it’s equally likely that your work isn’t quite where it needs to be—and if that’s the case, you’ll probably be glad one day that you held back from releasing it. As I’ve mentioned before, I spent close to a year working on my first novel with an agent, only to part ways without going out to publishers. At the time, it was a frustrating experience, but looking back, I’m grateful that it turned out that way. The book I was able to write at the time simply wasn’t good enough; it was a promising first draft, but little more. I’d be mortified now if that version of the story had seen print. And as daunting as that endless succession of gatekeepers can be, it certainly forces writers to work harder.

Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan

Even after you’ve sold a book, though, the structures that a good publishing house has in place can prevent you from making costly mistakes. I’m currently working my way through the copy edit of Eternal Empire, for instance, and I’m already relieved that another pair of eyes has reviewed the manuscript so thoroughly. Even apart from issues of grammar, my copy editor has pinpointed continuity problems, typos, and implausibilities that I never would have seen on my own, and I get physically ill at the thought that any of them might have seen the light of day. (Among other things, I don’t seem to know how to spell “Ceaușescu.”) On a higher level, I put more care into the books I write knowing that they’re eventually going to be read by an editor whose stakes in the process are more pragmatic than emotional, and who has no reason to tolerate anything less than my best work. It’s fine for authors to want more power, but there are times when the only way to grow as a writer is to give up some measure of control, and to devote yourself to earning it back.

Of course, many of these conditions can be recreated by a writer working alone, but only at a price. The author Michael J. Sullivan, for instance, recently used a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to self-publish his next novel, and estimated that the costs of editing and cover design would come to $3,000, although he ultimately raised much more. That’s a fair amount of money, and it cuts considerably into an author’s larger share of the proceeds from self-published sales, to say nothing of the costs of marketing and promotion. Whether an individual writer can do this more efficiently than a conventional publisher is an open question, and my mind isn’t made up on the subject. I still strongly believe, though, that it’s an avenue that a writer should explore only after pursuing the traditional route as diligently as possible, as much for its artistic and spiritual challenges as for its practical incentives. The publishing system is a flawed one, but it tends to leave authors better than they were when they entered it. And in the end, that’s the consideration that matters the most.

Written by nevalalee

April 18, 2013 at 9:15 am

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