Publishing, Self-Promotion, and Amazon v. Macmillan

It's been a fabulously interesting weekend in the publishing world. The Cliff's Notes version: Amazon pulled all print and digital editions of Macmillan's books from sale when the two reached a negotiating impasse regarding the pricing of Kindle editions of Macmillan titles. Macmillan is one of the six big publishing houses, so this was a big deal; basically Amazon removed about a sixth of their stock. If you're interested in the comprehensive details, check out these analyses written by John Scalzi, Scott Westerfeld, and Charlie Stross.

A fun time was had by all. Or actually, now that I think about it, by nobody.

There is, however, a tangential issue I would like to address. I've seen a common refrain bubble up over this hullabaloo: "Soon, the entire publishing chain will collapse, and an author will be able to sell to readers directly!" Or a variant: "When the iBookstore comes, authors will be able to publish their own work and set their own book prices!"

Oh god, I think. What a nightmarish future that would be, indeed, in which every author is reduced to self-publishing. Why would anybody think such a thing is desirable, much less inevitable? Even aside from the stigma of self-publishing, let me explain just why this is a dystopian endgame.

First, as a reader, I look to the publisher as providing a sort of affidavit of quality. If I weren't interested in quality, I could buy books indiscriminately on Lulu or iUniverse. I do not do this. And if you look at the numbers... nobody else does, either. This teaches us two important lessons: First, promoting a self-published book is really hard. Second: Nobody is going out on a limb to try out cheap but potentially lousy ebooks. There's a reason people get paid to read slush, and not the other way around.

It's also no big secret that I'm trying to claw my way up the ladder into the treehouse of traditional publishing. Hopefully it won't fall out of the tree first (or at all). As a writer, if the traditional publishing model ceased to exist, if your only choice as an author were to put your work out there and promote the hell out of it your own self, you know what I'd do? I'd probably stop writing novels. 

I have a trait that is not rare among writers: I loathe promoting myself and my own work. 

In the golden world that exists only in my head, I make stuff, and then somebody else hands me cash for it. I at no point need to hustle for clients, network, chase payments, or any other pesky administrative task. In reality, these are necessary evils to keep my freelance business running. But I only need to successfully market myself to a handful of people in order to be successful as an ARG writer. Those are the creative directors, project managers, team leads, etc. at the agencies I look to work with. 

After that, the marketing muscle and know-how of wiser heads than mine combined with the quality of the experience I am designing work together to build an active and engaged audience. The people hiring me have the dollars to put up commercials, billboards and posters; the designers to make them interesting; and the savvy to know where they should go. They attract attention. My job is to keep it and build on it.

If I were completely on the hook to build that audience all by my lonesome, I'm sure I'd do a pretty miserable job. I know this because I have done a miserable job many a time before! The participation and readership numbers I get for my personal projects - this here blog, My Super First Day, what have you -- they aren't in the same ballpark as my big games, not by multiple orders of magnitude. I frankly don't think I could build an audience of several thousand or more for a book without any marketing support. And it's not because I think my work isn't pretty great. It's because self-promoting is hard, it's expensive, it takes time away from creating, and just plain isn't the talent I've spent my life honing. 

I'm curious to know where other people see the future of publishing heading, though. Think I'm wrong-headed, misguided, pessimistic? Go ahead and comment. I'd love to hear what you think.


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