May you live in interesting times

My understanding is that’s an ancient Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times. When I was younger, I didn’t understand how that was a curse. Now, I do. Seriously.

It seems everything in the world is changing (except human nature). Politics, both inter- and intranational, the economy, morality, what was benign is now evil. Everywhere I look, something fundamental seems to be shifting. Some of the shifts are good for me, some scare me, many are meh. So why should the publishing world be so different?

Back when I started writing (1974), there was only one way to publish. You sent your book to an editor (magazine or book publisher) and they bought it or not. Only the elite writers had agents to handle their careers for them, back in the day. The big dream was to sell well enough to need an agent.

That was a long time ago.

Within a decade, there was a slight shift. Book publishers wanted agents to go through the slush piles for them, they didn’t want to do that work anymore. More and more, a writer needed an agent just to get published. It was a little shift, but it’s stayed that way pretty much until today. Very few book publishers would read an unagented work.

Since I started this writing thing, it’s always been BAD to self-publish. Better to self-publish than to vanity publish (where the writer pays the publisher to produce their book, usually with draconian contracts greatly restricting the author in the mix), but still you were supposed to look down at writers that self-published.

And we did. With great zeal and disdain and it made us feel so much better about ourselves. Sure, we were unpublished, but we were still better than anyone who self-published.

Then things started happening on occasion. The late Vince Flynn self-published his first book (Term Limits, IIRC) and sold enough copies to gather New York publishers’ attention. They bought the book and he became an “overnight” best seller. And there was Richard Paul Evans with The Christmas Box. Here and there, these self-published people suddenly were doing well. One might even put Christopher Paolini (Eragon) there, since it was his parents that published him, but that’s been a subject for debate among writers since it happened whether or not he belongs there.

But, y’know, they were news because they were so different. They weren’t the norm.

Except, they’re becoming more of the norm.

Self-publishing isn’t what it used to be. It isn’t the way for the hopeless to make themselves feel better about themselves or to be able to answer the eternal question “Got anything I can read?” with something other than a lame excuse. Self-publishing is now a lucrative means of getting work out there and making something of a living off it. It’s becoming more common to make as much, if not more at self-publishing nowadays than traditional publishing pays in advances ($3-5000) annually.

I have friends who make enough self-publishing that NY publishers have approached them. This was a dream of all dreams, back in the day, after all. And what NY offered them was less than they were making already, so they refused. I can’t say I blame them, honestly. I have many friends are actually replacing their low-wage jobs with the earnings from their writings, and that number seems to be increasing every year.

See what I mean, though? Interesting times. Writers now have direct access to processes that were previously unavailable to them. Direct access to readers. What was now doesn’t have to be. It’s a major shift now that the readers are on board with it too.

There’s still a lot of talk about self-published books being unedited and unprofessional, which makes me laugh, honestly. I mean, have you read the books in the bookstore? The typos, the wordos, the misprints are legend. I’ve heard author after author tell me that every stage of editing with their publisher adds another dozen or so errors to the prose. Yeah, I think a competent self/indie-publisher can meet those standards. Especially since I’ve seen several former NY editors advertising their services to writers. I’ve heard some agents are advertising such services as well.

Distribution is the other place where NY publishers claim superiority, but I wonder about that since many of my friends sell several thousand ebooks a year. Sounds like whatever is open to authors is working just as well, y’know?

Mind you, I don’t know if this is going to be a “revolution” or if publishing as it has been for a century will be no more. I don’t think it’s going to be anything to such an extreme, at least not immediately. Maybe not within my lifetime. But it is changing and won’t be the same anymore. It isn’t even the same now as it was five years ago, nor do I think it will be entirely the same in another five.

So, we live in interesting times. Wonder how it’s all going to shake out?

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