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A few years ago cupcakes were all the rage. Adorable little cupcake shops were cropping up everywhere and customers were flocking to them. I admired these entrepreneurs and their gumption for transforming their passion–baking cupcakes–into a business.
But what if Hostess (owned by a venture capital firm before it went bankrupt) declared it had the only real recipe and process for baking cupcakes? What if Entenmann’s (which produces all manner of baked goods, including cupcakes) declared only its processes could produce a quality product? What if these large companies spent millions upon millions in advertising and marketing to convince others in the baking industry that any cupcakes not produced, marketed, and sold by them were somehow not only of poorer quality but that they damaged the whole cupcake baking enterprise? That they were dangerous! That entrepreneurial cupcakes were more fattening and led consumers down the road to laziness and sloth and that with all those inferior and dangerous cupcakes lurking out there, how were lovers of baked goods to sift through the chaff to find the wheat of goodness that they themselves produced?
That’s crazy, you say. Well….
Let’s say your passion is not baking. Let’s say your passion is writing. And let’s say you’d love nothing more than to write a novel and publish it yourself–hire editors, proofreaders, designers, and, being entrepreneurially minded, sell it directly to readers. Just a few short years ago, you’d have been be a pariah in the publishing world. How could you–a writer?!–deign to write, package, publish, and market your own book? How could you create an actual business around that when obviously (the publishing world would say) your recipe and your ingredients and your processes are so inferior as to be dangerous to the culture at large. How could you even KNOW if your product is ready for the marketplace if it hasn’t gone through the processes established by the major players in the industry? And publish your OWN WORK? It’s permissible to start a small press and publish OTHER people’s work–but your own? No, no, no! No writing and publishing for you–unless your work has been vetted by the Hostesses and Entenmann’s of the publishing world. Unless you hand over your recipe to a traditional, established company to produce, your work is of no value at best and dangerous at worst.
Unfortunately, it’s not. That attitude still exists in some corners of the publishing world, and the only reason it changed at all is because of Amazon–that horrible, terrible, no good, very bad Amazon that developed the technology and opened up a platform to entrepreneurial authors and revolutionized an industry. Of course there is a difference between baking a cupcake and writing a book. So let’s expand the cupcake example out to cooking in general.
Imagine the presidents of such culinary behemouths as McDonalds, Applebees, Olive Garden, Chick-fil-A and Subway taking a stand and telling the world that Grant Achatz–owner of Alinea in Chicago, recognized leader in molecular gastronomy and someone who has revolutionized cooking and dining–and his recipes and his processes are of dubious quality and that he is a threat to the culture of food because he didn’t franchise his restaurants through one of their companies. After all, although he might have a degree from an established culinary school, he can’t just run around starting restaurants using his own recipes. That’s, horrors, self-restauranting!
The idea that any group that publishes books by “writers” like Snookie and the latest YouTube cat sensation owns the moral high ground and should be taken seriously when they run around declaring they are the only true arbiters and protectors of culture is ridiculous. And the idea that they need to be protected from competition is even more ridiculous. We’re in the middle of a publishing revolution, and, I’m afraid, as in most revolutions, blood (metaphorical, in this case) will be spilled. War cries are echoing far and wide as publishers and authors take sides, declare loyalties and allegiances, and brand one side as the devil incarnate and the other as innocent victim.
I have, my whole life, been a writer. I’ve written bad poetry, worse short stories, and started and completed several novels. But it was only in the past five years or so that I ever attempted to actually get published. I polished off a novel, sent queries to about twenty agents and editors, got lots of rejections and a few requests for partials and fulls and even an if-you-edit-this-a-bit-more-and-send-it-back-we-think-it-will-fit-our-list maybe from one editor. So I hired an editor, reworked the manuscript, and then didn’t send it back. Why? Because in the meantime, technology changed, Amazon single-handedly created a forum through which authors could publish their own work, and, after looking at the book covers and reading plenty of books repped by or published by those I’d queried, I decided I could do the publishing end of the job just as well as they could. After all, don’t I run a small press? Don’t I publish other people’s work? Why should I be ashamed to publish my own? As a restauranteur, would I only prepare and serve other people’s recipes?
Oracles of Delphi, my historical fiction set in 340 BCE in Delphi, Greece and put out under the name Marie Savage, will be published by an imprint of Blank Slate Press this fall. Why the pen name? Because I’ve also co-written and am in the midst of self-publishing a sci-fi/YA trilogy with my daughters under the name K. Makansi and I don’t want to confuse the two author names in the marketplace.
I have great admiration for entrepreneurs in general. Folks who put it all on the line to create a new business and to put themselves out there. Take indie bookstores. I have often dreamed of owning my own bookstore/coffee shop/wine bar/art gallery and so I’ve always sympathized with and recognized the challenges independent bookstores face when competing against huge retailers. Just a few years ago, it was Barnes & Noble and Borders who were the big boys throwing their weight around and the indie bookstores had to compete against their ability to discount titles given that the big publishers gave the big chains better terms because of higher volumes.
Bookstores–big and small–are wonderful. But back in the old days (last year), your local indie was most likely the only bookstore to take on a book (let alone feature it) by a local entrepreneurial author. It hadn’t been vetted was one reason, and it might be awful (and often times I’m sure it was awful) was another. Or it had to be sold on consignment, which is a pain. And if a store took one self-published book, it would open the floodgate to a gazillion others begging for limited shelf space. Certainly no chain bookseller would touch a self-published book–at all. Period. Unless, of course, somehow the book had sold a gazillion copies already.
All that has changed thanks to Amazon. Amazon, along with advances in digital printing and companies such as Ingram/Lightning Source, created opportunity for entrepreneurial authors–authors that everyone else in the publishing world treated with scorn–and now every big publishing company on the planet wants a piece of that same self-pubbed author’s purse. These big publishers are snapping up companies like Author House or are creating their own paid self-publishing platforms. Amazon created a market for authors to reach readers (and in the process allowed many authors to make real money off their writing for the first time ever) and the very publishers who decry Amazon’s dominance are scrambling to get a piece of that same market–a market they wouldn’t have touched with a 100-foot pole just a few short years ago.
Yes, Amazon’s dominance in this new marketplace is real, but I suspect part of the reason large publishers fear that dominance is because through the democratization function of the self-publishing platform, power has shifted away from the publisher as gatekeeper to the author as creator. This is, as a small publisher and self-published author, a welcome development, and I don’t understand how anyone who believes in free and unfettered access to the marketplace could see this as a bad thing. With lower barriers to entry, there will be more suppliers and more choices for readers, a more competitive market that will drive authors to strive to improve their work in order to stand out from the crowd, and lower prices to the consumer. And, readers, authors, publishers and retailers benefit (not to mention trees) when books sitting on “online shelves” don’t have to be returned and pulped to make room for the next big (or small) thing. At the end of the day, the best thing for the marketplace is a diverse ecosystem in which consumers have the widest choice, authors have agency over their product and are valued and monetarily rewarded for their creative content, and publishers and retailers can make a profit. There will naturally be give and take on all sides as the marketplace evolves.
My mantra in life is that if you meet anyone who insists they KNOW the THE TRUTH, turn and run the other way. Life is complicated. Nothing is black and white. Markets are messy. Companies put their own self-interests first. If publishers believe Amazon is out to ruin them and, in the process, usher in the end of books and of culture itself, why continue to do business with it? If authors truly believe Amazon is the devil incarnate, why are they not stipulating in their contracts that small independent bookstores be the only outlets for selling their books?
As a reader, I ADORE brick and mortar bookstores (especially the small, often quirky indies!), and I have spent countless hours in them browsing, finding new gems to read, and generally soaking up the ambiance. But, as an author, I THANK my lucky stars that Amazon has revolutionized the technology to democratize publishing and to give writers like me (and my co-authors) the ability to compete for readers without bias or without being segregated or scorned for daring to be entrepreneurial. As a small press publisher, I LOVE BOTH indie and chain brick and mortar stores AND Amazon and other online retailers for allowing me to connect the authors I believe in with the readers who will enjoy their books.
I’m not great at baking cupcakes or at creating innovative recipes, but as a writer and a publisher–both of other people’s work and of my own–I shouldn’t be ashamed of the desire and the drive to be entrepreneurial, and I am thankful that Amazon created the market environment in which I was able to transform my passion into a business.
Now, I need a cupcake.
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"Writing is a struggle against silence."
“There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be.”
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“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is … the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”