Voices Less Heard: Must Publishing Always Take Sides?


#FutureChat: Time To Speak Up

Something that is often lost in a lot of these conversations about money is that economics isn’t just about money, but about time. It is that same economic equation that prevents me from going the self publishing route at this point in my career. There are already so very many demands on a traditionally published author’s time, I can’t even imagine adding the role of managing editor, art director, and publisher to that mix. It would impinge far too heavily on my writing energies. But that’s me and my choice, yours may be entirely different.

That’s one of the clearest statements you may find from a traditionally published author on why she prefers the standard route over self-publishing. And it’s rare to find it.

It’s the writer Robin LaFevers in an essay from earlier this year at Writer Unboxed. In her write, Some Economic Straight Talk: The Economics of Frugality, Abundance, and Creativity, she writes — without a hint of disparagement for self-publishing colleagues — about how her home life, her writing habits, and her financial structure all add up to traditional publishing as the best route for her. There’s some heartfelt sympathy and admiration, in fact, in her references to the self-publishing life:

Self published authors face an additional hurdle of often being dismissed, although that is thankfully beginning to change. And if you possess two X chromosomes, well, prestige may well be harder to come by than that original publishing contract ever was…But also, in this day of self publishing, there are more options available. It used to be there was a danger of writing an entire novel on spec, only to be unable to find a home for it. Now, with self publishing, there is another option available to help augment that financial risk.

What LaFevers is doing here preceded by several months what many of us discovered last weekend at the FutureBook Hack run by The Bookseller in London, as the first all-industry publishing hackathon in the UK powered through its 30-hour duration. The event was won by a fellow named Diamond Braganza for his project called Voices, which William Morris Endeavor’s Simon Trewin said “creates a community around spoken word.”

And what was spoken at the hackathon by upwards of 100 developers, programmers, coders, engineers, and others were far more supportive, upbeat words than we usually hear in publishing these days. Many of these technology workers, our hacker-participants, aren’t publishing people. Without the political baggage many in the industry! the industry! bring to the table, they could jump into the challenges placed before them with happy gusto.

The change in tone was remarkable.

As Henry Volans of Faber & Faber put it to me, publishing has been taking its digital disruption very hard. Almost all industries experience some form of disruption, especially in the digital dynamic, but publishing folks have felt particularly hard-pressed.

Turn some of the needs created  by that disruption over to the FutureBook hackers — working on discoverability, uses of audio and data, children’s literature, and more — and the mood lightened in a flash.

The happy cacophony in that University College London calls for a more balanced approach, surely something that publishing folks have earned by now.

As industry commentator Jane Friedman puts it in a look at the fortunes of both US traditional publishers and part of the world self-publishing community:

If comparing the health of traditional publishing with the boom in self-publishing, one might reasonably conclude we’re not playing a zero-sum game. In other words: if self-publishing wins, that doesn’t mean traditional publishing loses, and vice versa.

And yet, the conversation sounds skewed. We seem to hear more from the self-publishing camp than we do from authors who, like LaFevers, have concluded that the traditional approach is best for them.

Why Wouldn’t We Be Hearing As Much From the Traditionalists?

Would you like a few possible — emphasis on “possible” — reasons why we don’t seem to hear as much from the “legacy” side of publishing? Sure. These are some of the suggestions you get when you ask folks why there’s such an imbalance in the rhetoric:

  • Traditional publishing workers believe they’re the lucky ones and don’t want to make self-publishers feel bad by talking about their good fortune.
  • Traditional publishing people are superstitious and worry that they could jinx their careers if they talk about them.
  • Traditional publishing folks realize that self-publishers are the “insurgents,” in a good sense, and want to let them have the stage to get their messages across.
  • The media are only interested in self-publishing phenoms, those David-and-Goliath stories that The Bookseller’s Philip Jones describes in his editorial today, Voice recognition, as a “Manichean struggle between the disrupted and the disruptor.”
  • Traditional publishing people are always told to let the corporate communications offices do the talking.
  • Self-publishing people have the underdog / squeaky-wheel’s advantage, so we’ll always hear more of their story than the establishment’s.

Now, none of these is endorsed, recommended, put forward as gospel, or derided as myth. These ideas of why we don’t seem to hear from traditional publishing folks are here simply as examples of how divergent the thinking is on the subject.

And there are more of these ideas at The FutureBook.net if you’d like to consider some more. You’re welcome to join us Friday at 11 a.m. ET / 4 p.m. London time, for a Twitter conversation hashtagged #FutureChat on the topic. I’d like your best ideas as to whether it’s just the nature of an insurgency — as self-publishing frequently is seen — or something else that tends to make it seem the two camps of publishing are perpetually at odds and curiously overweighted by comments from one side over the other.

As LaFevers writes, “There has been a lot written recently discussing the earning potential of self-published authors, but what do the earnings of a slow build, mid-list, traditionally published author look like?”

And isn’t it curious that the prior regime, if you will, the “legacy” industry, begins to seem the part of the picture we’re less in touch with, less clear about, less familiar with?