Monday, September 13, 2010

Publishers Weekly and the Self-Published

Publishers Weekly recently announced its plan to begin quarterly coverage of self-published books, stating that in the past twenty years self-publishing has "produced an explosion of new authors and new books." According to PW, "Nearly 800,000 books were produced in the U.S. last year and were characterized by Bowker as 'nontraditional.' Much of this was self-published and POD." Since "They are books and that is what PW cares about," PW is launching PW Select, "a quarterly supplement announcing self-published titles and reviewing those we believe are most deserving of a critical assessment."
The first supplement will appear in December 2010. The supplements will list all self-published books submitted to PW during the quarter, and 25 (or more) of those titles will be reviewed. There will also be discussion of publishing trends and resources for the self-publisher.
Well, this is an interesting development, and comments from self-publishers have already made for two opposing camps, divided by reactions to the fact that these listings and reviews won't be free--PW charges $149 for a listing and doesn't guarantee a review.
The authors who excoriate PW for charging to be listed (and not guaranteeing reviews) regard this as a huge ripoff, yet another sign that PW is part of the publishing establishment and has no genuine interest in self-published books. Well, I don't think PW would ever argue that they aren't part of the establishment. A review in PW, even a bad one, is pretty much a guarantee that the book will sell. If it's a badly written celebrity book with an unrealistically large advance, it might not earn out its advance, but it's still going to sell. Yet the move to cover self-published titles indicates that PW does have a genuine interest in books from outside the mega-conglomerates. A financial interest in them? A perception that this could be a cash cow? That's harder to say.
It's well known among savvy writers that there are people and organizations out there that make plenty of money out of writing contests. Most writing contests do charge an entry fee, and the fees range from nominal to not-so-nominal. Some of the contests are highly respected and some are just machines bilking the naive. My point here is that the fact that a contest charges an entrance fee is not in itself unethical, it's how the contest is run.
Now, if last year's figure of 800,000 books published in the US is any kind of average, it ain't rocket science that PW has no way of reviewing them all, whether listings are paid or free. PW does not review all that many books in its regular weekly issues, it mainly lists the books. PW is a hefty trade publication and I doubt that most subscribers have time to read all its articles, let alone sift through all the individual listings.
As a writer who may at some point choose to self-publish, my reaction to a $149 processing fee to be listed in PW (which, incidentally, includes a 6-month subscription to the digital version of PW) is that sure, it's burdensome. Many writers don't have much money. But the poorest writers are not self-publishing on paper. If they're self-publishing, they're likely to be doing e-books, which aren't currently eligible to be listed anyway (why not, I'd like to know?). Someone who is self-publishing a traditional physical bound book is spending much more than $149 in production costs. If you're going to put money into producing the physical objects, which will then have to be housed somewhere (your living room?), you'd better be willing to put some additional money into marketing them. Paying $149 to be listed in the industry's major organ may or may not prompt anyone to notice the book, but if you're serious about your work, isn't it a sensible gamble? The face of publishing is changing, in some ways unpleasantly but in other ways perhaps for the good. In some ways writers have less control and fewer options than in the past, and in other ways they have more control and many more options. When it comes to book publishing, the author who opts for self-publication has to make many choices, and the choices that fit one person's work may be unsuitable for another's. It's my guess that some types of book will never benefit much from exposure in PW, but in general it seems to me that self-publishers should not be penny-wise and pound-foolish.

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