When I was little, I daydreamed that each person has at least one special book inside of them. A book nobody else can produce. One with knowledge, understanding, ideas, vision, and perspective unique to the author. A tome that makes civilization a little better by capturing and sharing valuable insight that would otherwise be lost from humanity.
I aspired to create such a work. In my estimation, I now have.
I’m not saying it’s the next War and Peace. Innumerable thousands of people, perhaps millions, have brought forth their own special books. I’m simply saying that mine’s worthy of inclusion among them, adding something of value which would not be available if I hadn’t written and published it. At the very least, it irrefutably gives a view and discussion of hummingbird development and behavior few if any have seen so clearly before.
I self-published Growing Up Humming. When people hear “self-published,” many of them think “rejected by the traditional publishers.” However, in my case, I never submitted to a publisher; I wanted to retain complete creative control, full copyrights to my work, and all profits generated.
Many authors are now choosing this route, as technology has brought down the barriers – even big name ones, such as J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, and bestselling writer of the last decade. The number of self-published books produced annually has grown by 287% since 2006. According to Beat Barblan, director of Identifier services for Bowker, “This is no longer just vanity presses at work – self publishing is out of the dark corners and making its way into the mainstream.”
148,424 self-published print books came out in 2011, making up 43% of the total titles published. Presumably, these include many people’s special books.
Despite self-publishing’s now-sizable numbers, it’s still mostly treated by the book industry as an unacceptable aberration, rejected and ignored. This is partly due to questionable assumptions that they’re all flawed, amateurish products. It’s also partly due to simply not fitting in with the book industry’s pre-existing systems.
The industry’s disregard for these publications has consequences.
How does a library typically hear about a book and decide to order it? More often than not it’s from a small set of preferred reviewers, such as the New York Times Book Review, School Library Journal, The Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Books, Kirkus Reviews, and Publisher’s Weekly. For bookstores, too, it’s often this same set of reviewers that first brings books to their awareness and convinces them to purchase. It’s also one of the main routes for the average book reader to learn about books of interest.
Unfortunately for independent authors, almost all of the major reviewers refuse to review self-published books. As Matthew Gasda describes the situation in IndieReader, “…most novels are introduced to the world by a handful of New York-based critics who write for New York-based publications which draw their novels from a pool of publishers based in New York … criticism is an insider’s game….” And as Suw Charman Anderson describes the situation in Forbes, “…Book reviewers … frequently don’t accept submissions from self-published authors. Instead, there’s a web of professional relationships between traditional publishers and reviewers which keeps the books and the reviews flowing.”
The New York Times Book Review doesn’t review self-published books, as a matter of policy.
School Library Journal does not accept submissions directly from authors. Since indie authors don’t have the marketing division of a known publishing house to send book review submissions for them, this also appears de facto to be an exclusion of self-published book submissions.
The Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Books submission guidelines say that they only consider “mass market” books, and don’t consider books which must be “mail ordered from the publisher.” This, again, appears to eliminate self-published books from their review system.
Kirkus Reviews is explicit that they’ll only review books by independent authors through their Kirkus Discoveries Review Service. In other words, they’ll only review them for a fee – $425 if you don’t mind waiting a couple months; $575 if you want the review expedited. But that’s just a review for the author. Kirkus sends the review directly to her or him. They make no guarantees that they’ll put the review in their magazine or newsletter.They simply say they’ll “consider” it. Most of these indie author paid reviews don’t make it into print. Kirkus gets vastly more paid review assignments than the number of reviews they publish. Furthermore, their paid reviews are segregated from the rest. Moreover, if online accounts by KIrkus Discovery customers are to be believed, their paid reviews are often careless and incompetent. Finally, with the conflicts of interest that come with a paid review system, combined with the lack of accountability which comes from their reviews being anonymous, most book buyers don’t treat these backwater reviews with any of the cachet the unpaid reviews may have.
Publisher’s Weekly’s review submissions policy excludes self-published books, except through their PW Select program: a fee-based program where an author pays $149 ostensibly for an “announcement listing”, and then has an estimated 25% chance of also getting reviewed. Again, these reviews are segregated from the unpaid reviews, and not considered equal by most book buyers.
About half of print book titles published this year are, to a first order of approximation, categorically locked out by all major reviewers, and thus excluded from the primary avenue of gaining public awareness.
Beyond their reviewer access, big name traditional publishers also have well developed distribution networks of bookstores and other outlets. Independent authors don’t. If the latter want their books distributed widely, it’s up to them to establish connections and build networks, themselves.
I’ve been doing this. I’ve succeeded with some cases and failed with others. The character of those failures likewise reflects the book industry’s attitude toward anything outside of their rigid systems. Here are a couple examples from a few days ago:
1) Walking from a friend’s house to the train station, I dropped by the library of my friend’s daughter’s elementary school. I showed Growing Up Humming to the librarian, and asked if she’d like to get any copies for the library. She flipped through the book’s pictures and read a few sentences here and there, commenting repeatedly about what a beautiful book it is, and how it would be perfect for school reports. Then she said, “Let me look up the Library of Congress number,” while typing into her computer. A moment later she said, “Oh, it doesn’t seem to have a Library of Congress number,” then looked up from the screen and said, “Without a Library of Congress number, I won’t be able to put this on the shelves – so I can’t buy this.” That surprised me because many other libraries – such as the Oakland County library system, The Santa Cruz County library system, and the library at Gault Elementary School near my home – all purchased multiple copies and put them on the shelves without any apparent trouble. Regardless, her mind was made up.
2) Walking by a bookstore in downtown Mountain View, I dropped in and asked if I could speak with the person in charge of purchasing books. I showed him my book, and the buyer looked through it, saying, “I love this!” Then he said, “I’ll order a few copies right now,” while typing into his computer. A few seconds later, he said, “It looks like your book is printed by CreateSpace.” I told him that’s correct. He asked, “Isn’t CreateSpace a division of Amazon?” I answered affirmatively. Then he told me, “I’m sorry, we refuse to do any business with Amazon. We can’t get this. And that’s all I’ll say.” I urged him to please explain more, but he just repeated, “That’s all I’ll say.” I told him I’d be back when I printed the hardcover edition with Lightning Source, and then left.
I’ve experienced a number of cases like these, where a buyer first tells me how much s/he likes my book (and often expressly states an intention to get it), but then the sale is lost over some trifle. One time a bookstore manager told me to have my publisher’s representative contact them; they don’t deal directly with authors. Of course, I don’t have a “publisher’s representative.” Another time I was told the bookstore has a contract to buy all books from a single distributor, and so – since my book isn’t available through their one and only source – they can’t buy it. Even though I was standing right in front of them, willing to sell to them on the spot. Yet another time I was told their preferred distributors supply them with the labels, codes, stickers, and other paperwork, thereby minimizing bookstore labor costs; thus it’s too expensive to buy directly from me, even at wholesale. And so on. A different reason every time, but always a case where something about my book just doesn’t fit with their systems.
Growing Up Humming isn’t the only title getting waylaid en route to the coveted outlet shelves. If anything, it fares better than most. The great majority of independent authors never manage to get their books into any brick and mortar venues at all. The conventional wisdom is that self-pubbed books don’t stand a chance of achieving such placement. Period. As a publisher said to me a couple months ago, “I would suggest to you that the chance [of getting your book into a physical bookstore] is extremely minuscule.”
Imagine a useful fact, a novel theory, a deep insight, a powerful idea, a better method, a brilliant point of view, an inspiring metaphor, or a fabulous story. Now imagine somehow squashing it shortly after it first arises, so that it’s gone from human culture. While there may not be any organized conspiracy to do this, the aggregated policies, decisions, and behaviors of those in the book business are having the operative effect of snuffing out great multitudes of such intellections.
As it is today, the book industry gives short shrift to just about anything self-published, condemning vast swaths of important new books to remain unknown and undistributed, and fall through the cracks. This isn’t just an issue for some obscure authors such as me; this is a serious loss for everyone. Think for a moment about these self-published books from times past: Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematica, Beatrix Potter’s The Adventures of Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, Galileo’s Starry Messenger, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Henry Martyn Robert’s Robert’s Rules of Order, Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking, James Joyce’s Ulysses, John James Audubon’s The Birds of America, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, William Strunk and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style, and – yes – Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. These should give you a sobering clue of what we’re losing amidst the many titles presently discriminated and suppressed into oblivion by the literary establishment.
Perhaps half or more of the books published this year will be self-published, but the great majority of reviewers categorically refuse to review any of them, and the great majority of bookshops (and the slight majority of libraries) categorically refuse to carry any of them. Not due to unsalability or lack of virtue, but strictly because of provenance and protocol. The legacy literary establishment has ossified.
There are myriad good reasons why authors self-publish. They do it to make a subsistence wage from their work, retain copyrights, circumvent censorship laws, get books into print within months instead of waiting years, keep their books in print forever instead of a few months, make revisions rapidly, fight political oppression, maintain creative control, get paid in a more timely manner, be able to distribute their works globally, publish highly specialized works that may not prove profitable, and take a chance on making something daringly different. These kinds of compelling reasons are why self-publishing has such a rich heritage, including Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Bronte, Emily Dickinson, Ernest Hemingway, George Bernard Shaw, Herman Melville, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and William Blake, among many other luminaries. They’re also why self-publishing exploded as soon as the technology became accessible and affordable – and why it’s probably about to become preponderant.
Bookstores are desperately struggling to survive, often losing to competition with the online booksellers; newspapers and magazines are cutting budgets for paid review coverage; and public libraries are losing funding. Now a clash is coming to a head between the teeming hordes of do-it-yourself authors and those in the literary establishment who automatically disregard them. People in the book business can’t afford to further marginalize themselves by capriciously ignoring every book that doesn’t fit their legacy systems. When brick and mortar bookstores refuse to carry the books people want, people will instead go to the online retailers willing to provide. If the big name reviewers refuse to review anything with the “wrong” provenance (which will soon include most books), people will instead go to crowd-sourced review sites for adequate coverage. When these institutions estrange and disgruntle the authors they ultimately rely upon, the authors will take their business elsewhere.
I can only shake my head in wonder when they choose to come up with picayune systemic reasons why they won’t do business with independent authors, rather than coming up with solutions how they can. It doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve been able to get my book into a variety of special interest outlets besides dedicated bookstores, because it touches upon several categories in addition to literary ones. For examples, The Ansel Adams Gallery carries my book due to its photographic merit, and the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History gift shop carries my book due to its ornithological merit. By comparison to the regimented protocols of the book industry, other places are easy to deal with. These auxiliary retailers look at a book, decide they want it, buy it and shelve it. Simple as that. As it should be. Only those in the book industry have proven so insular and backward in their practices that they’re paralyzed in the face of opportunities to acquire books they like.
Presumably, booksellers, reviewers, and librarians don’t get into these careers for fortune or fame. They do it out of a love for books. Yet what they’re doing to indie books works against their bibliophilia, unthinkingly squelching reams of worthy literature for the pettiest reasons. In the process, they’re also going against the public’s needs and their own best long-term interests.
It’s time to get back to the basics: the love of books. Coming up with reasons to toss out everything that doesn’t conform is easy, but they’re ultimately excuses for failure to adapt to the exigencies of the current market. Those in the book industry need to keep the love of books in the fore, letting nothing come between them and a special book.