Going back several decades I can remember reading ads in the Sunday papers for publishers who would guarantee to turn your Magnum opus into a handsomely bound volume and help launch you as a successful author. The reality was that these companies were strictly there to collect the aspiring authors money and leave them with a pile of neatly bound books that would wind up as either Christmas presents or balancing up a piece of wobbly furniture, or possibly both. I suspect this kind of vanity press is what people still think of when someone talks about self-publishing with the (sometimes) unspoken question; ‘why don’t you go to a real publisher?
One of my favourite science fiction imprints is Baen Books. If you follow that link and check out their publishing schedule you will see that they put out six new books a month, or 72 per year. Look closer and you will discover that a lot of those are either reprints of old classics or paperback editions of books Baen had previously put out in hardback; so of those 72only about 20-30 per year are completely new and the overwhelmingly majority of those are going to be books by authors who’ve already had previous works published because Baen know they will sell.
Now even if you add in all the other publishers of science fiction there’s still only so many new books coming out and they’re mostly going to be from authors who’ve proven their work will sell. Of course all of those authors had a first book at some point; new authors do get published. That brings us to the next problem; how exactly do you get a publisher to choose your work to take a chance on?
A decade ago I completed a novel called ‘Thermopylae Star’ and since this was back when Kindle was a verb not a product range I decided to submit it to a publisher; which was where the fun started. The submission policy of most of the science-fiction imprints was pretty simple; don’t. They simply did not want unsolicited manuscripts. Some suggested that the aspiring author should get themselves an agent; essentially saying that if you could get someone else in the publishing industry interested in your work and they might give it some attention.
Turns out that unsurprisingly literary agents really only want to deal with authors who have been published and aren’t keen on acting as a filter for publishers. As it turned out the one place that would give it look was Baen. They accepted all submissions and would guarantee to read a work and get back to the author; in six months. They were as good as their word and although it was rejected I got a lot of detailed suggestions about how to make it publishable but what happened to Thermopylae Star after that is for another blog.
Consider also that even if your book is a potential bestseller and you get a publisher to read it you still have to overcome a whole host of problems. What if your work just doesn’t fit their style? What if it does but they have something similar already in the pipeline? What if the person who reads your book just plain doesn’t like it? Let’s not even get into the cutthroat nature of the bookstore business where a book has maybe 3 or 4 weeks to start selling before it gets pulled to make way for something else.
In the end the traditional publishing process puts the power in the hands of everyone except the aspiring author. E-publishing give the power to reach an audience for their work in the hands of the writer; of course it also means you have to take all the responsibility for what you’re putting out there in the big wide world…