Last night, I was speaking with an unpublished author who confided a very common fear: that self-publishing isn’t really publishing, because as a newcomer she wants that stamp of approval that comes with a publisher’s imprint.

Now, this author isn’t one of mine, and in fact isn’t even in my category, much less the SF&F genre. She’s a nonfiction author who has written a self-help/motivational book that, frankly, sounds interesting. (And I rarely say that about motivational books, since I find them to be . . . well, less than motivational. Literally the last good one I read was about eight years ago, and it was very atypical.) But this author’s fear is not only understandable, it’s very common.

It’s also part of a misconception. See, as a reader, you naturally look up to authors and their publishers (or, even if you don’t because they suck, you feel that they suck all the more because you’re not able to treat them with reverence). These are professionals. Their opinion has weight, and you would love to be their equal, or at least the rookie on the team. Their recognition is what proves you’ve succeeded.

Not true. Very, oh so very, not true

Dave Freer, over at the Mad Genius Club blog, has a post this morning about this very topic, which I have to say is wonderful timing. I quote from his piece:

A book that you offer for publication, or put up on Amazon is NOT to please you. Not unless you’re the only customer you ever hope to have. It’s NOT to please your editor, or the staff at the publishing house. They, bluntly, are yesterday’s men. Once they were the center of any writer’s universe. Peeve them and you were dead. If they belonged to a certain ‘tribe’ and kowtowing to that tribe was important to them, you kissed up or became a non-author. Not any more, although this hasn’t penetrated yet. New technology has made that an obsolete feature.

Pleasing a publisher and their hangers on, is now as useful as a buggy whip in a Mercedes Benz… if you fail to please the public.

Now, this is not something that is truly, completely new. Publishers are businesses, and businesses are in the business of doing business, as the saying goes.

Lord Business means business

If a product isn’t selling, then it’s not worth manufacturing it, and that goes the same for books. Any print book must first be printed, which means up-front costs; and before it can go to print, it must be prepared first. Any author who will take a lot of work to prepare is less attractive than one who has a clean manuscript but might not have as original a story. That’s why freelance editors like myself can be in so much demand that we have to turn away clients. (I’m genuinely sorry about that, by the way. I just get more requests than I can handle, even if it’s a simple consultation rather than a full edit.)

Add that to the fact that publishers are looking for something that fits a particular brand (Baen Books tends to focus on books with themes of individual responsibility and big choices set against heroic stakes; Chesterton Press focuses on the ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances; publishers that don’t figure out their brand tend to be rather lackluster and usually fail), and you wind up with sometimes strange standards from the writer’s perspective. I can tell you from experience that it makes a lot more sense when you see the other side as well.

What is changing things isn’t so much the new technology of the ebook, which is a valid but simplistic point; rather, it’s the increasing availability of both printing and online marketplaces. Before, a small press was a local press, and you were lucky if the locals even noticed. It was a game where you fought for limited shelf space in small niche bookstores (or medium bookstores if you were particularly lucky and successful) and tried to get people to notice you before the printing costs added up too much.

Now? Now you can list on Amazon, put your book in as many categories and sub-sub-sub-categories as you feel can work, and there’s no end to the amount of shelves you can produce. You can instantly get your publishing house available to everyone in your country and often around the world, even without ebooks. And since ebooks are really just the print file with some extra formatting, why not sell the ebook in the same place?

There’s an occasional outcry over Amazon being too dominant. Yes, it changes the industry of retail, just as it’s changing the industry of publishing. Just don’t forget that the vast amount of products on Amazon aren’t produced by them. Aside from some house-brand products, they’re mostly there to connect the seller with the buyer. Yes, I miss having small bookstores I could easily walk into; I used to have one a few blocks from my house, but that was twenty years ago and it went out of business before Amazon was even created. But unless you want things to stagnate, change is necessary; and Amazon and other online markets and retailers have made it possible for an entirely new generation of mom-and-pop businesses to rise up.

And that brings us to ebooks, because that particular technology — facilitated and made profitable by the smart phone and then the tablet — has sped up this shift in much the same way that the jet engine speeds you a little faster than prop airplanes. Once made, the ebook doesn’t require reprints, has lower overhead, and potentially greater profitability even at a much lower price. This month’s Author Earnings Report (note: if you want to be an author at all and don’t have that site bookmarked, you should rectify that right away) notes that the Big Five have an increasingly smaller footprint in this digital frontier, now making up roughly a third of the ebook market.

Lord Business publishing

A third! The whole reason they’re called the Big Five is because these five Manhattan-based publishers controlled the publishing industry through sheer weight and volume. Not anymore. They maintain a greater hold on traditional print publishing, because indies and self-pubs can’t order in the sort of volume that lets them compete on price, but when it comes to ebooks the only way the Big Five can compete is by hiring more people to work on more books at the same time. Once it’s completed, there are just as many potential copies of a given indie ebook as one originating in the heart of Manhattan.

We are literally seeing the rebirth of a publishing craft-industry that hasn’t existed since the King James Bible was hot off the presses.

As Dave Freer notes in his essay, there’s a drop-off in quality among the Big Five. Their editorial standards are slipping across the board (I’ve noticed this even among many non-Big Five publishers, such as Freer’s own Baen Books, sadly) as they try to keep up with the competition. The sheer weight of indies and self-pubs out there might not have completely shaken up the market beyond recognition, but the waters are certainly more turbulent than just a decade ago.

And that’s going to be the only thing that will save large publishing imprints: demonstrations of quality. Because when the market expands, there’s always something that rises to the top — the thing that goes viral because people are talking about it and recommending it to friends. It’s not enough to please your editor and your publisher, as Freer stresses. You must please your audience.

In the end, there’s an important choice to make. If you want to be like the authors you admired, the ones who made you feel like you too had a story to tell, then you have to decide whether what you really want is to have those authors’ good opinion . . . or the good opinion of the next generation of readers looking to be inspired.

I can tell you for certain that this affects editors as well. It’s always great when authors recognize me at conventions and defer to my opinion, treating me as an equal. There’s never been a bestselling author, however, that has given me a compliment to compete with the beginner who tells me “You’re the one who made me realize I could do this.”