Friday, February 03, 2006

A note about self-publishing

It used to be that getting published was a big deal. You worked with literary agents, and authors of books and periodical articles had to jump through hoops. You submitted hand typed drafts and were careful about making physical copies. You were very conscious about what other people wanted to read. Publishing, like everything else, had its turf to protect, and publishers were properly concerned about the public credibility of the author and would go to great lengths to do the legal due diligence before putting books out. Over time, trade publishers have become even more concerned about their numbers-driven business, and have tended to be less willing to continue working with “midlist” as opposed to "best selling" authors. Small presses and university presses have taken up a lot of the slack with specialty content. For years, subsidy publishers or "vantiy presses" offered newbie authors a chance to pay someone else huge sums to publish their books. Nevertheless, old economic models in media would have seriously reduced the variety of media and book content available to the public had technology not come along to empower individuals and very small businesses and organizations.

In the 1980s, with personal computers and printers, the potential productivity of writers started to improve. By the early 1990s, desktop publishing had become economical. For a reasonable price, you could prepare a manuscript with a word processor and publisher’s software (like Quark Express), get your own ISBN (International Standard Book Number) from the “Books in Print” people, and hire a printer to do a print run. Printers varied enormously in what they charged, with web press technology making small runs cheaper, and then specialty book manufacturers made the process even more economical. The author would set up her own publishing company, which could be either a proprietorship or a corporation (sometimes a partnership).

Around the year 2000, “print on demand” began to take off. A company will store an electronic copy of a book on a database and print specifically only the copies ordered. E-commerce retailers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble began to work with “print-on-demand” products, which could either be self-published or be legally published by the POD company, which then would be known as a “cooperative publisher.”

In the mid 1990s, personal publishing on the World Wide Web took off. First, large ISPs like AOL offered their personal publishers, but quickly individuals became able to obtain their own domains and present their materials for others to find through search engines. Blogging (a particular format where entries are usually presented in reverse chronological order) took off. Even if one could not make much money, one could get an audience for subtle points of view about things that organizations, who had to be loyal to dues-paying constituencies, could not afford to express. Debate became more honest.

One fact about self-publishing is that it tends to streamline the legal due diligence typically followed by large publishers. Technically, self-published materials are held to the same legal standards (regarding copyright infringement, libel, invasion of privacy, obscenity, and other matters) as trade books, periodicals, and movies. Large trade publishers have liability indemnification clauses that would require authors to replay them if any legal judgments are entered against. Typically, ISPs and print-on-demand companies also have the same clauses, although in practice they are rarely invoked (with the generation of spam being the one big exception). Even so, media perils insurance companies have often been unwilling to insure self-publishers.

Which brings us to the nexus of the controversy. Self-publishing seems to bring capitalism and its opportunities down to the individual. However, some people do not see it as legitimate; “self-published doesn’t count!” There is a certain appearance of a lack of accountability, since self-publishers typically do not have to answer to outside interests and investors. A third party's interest (that is, "other people's money") gives the author credibility by keeping a "Chinese Wall," although, truth to tell, even mainstream trade publishers have put a lot more responsibility for sales back on authors in recent years. Along these lines it's noteworthy that sometimes writers have paid to have their books reviewed. With less outside supervision, there is the risk that controversial self-published materials could inadvertently affect others associated with the author, certainly in the workplace (depending on the author’s job, if he or she makes most of his income outside of writing), or even the author’s family. Sometimes there is a suspicion that a writer wants to create a stir because he does not like more conventional social intimacy and interchange with other people against his will, and sometimes the author may not have accepted the personal or family responsibilities of those whom he is criticizing. Ultimately, there may evolve legal questions as to whether the “right to publish” is really equivalent to “freedom of speech.” In certain circumstances the established press may have certain rights and protections not enjoyed by individual authors (a point that has come up in the discussion of blogging and campaign finance reform, the next topic).

Writers, after all, must often defend what they do as a real profession. With me, there is writing and then there is writing. Often when writing is paid for by a client, it must express a particular point of view for some interest and therefore cannot be objective. That’s been a rub that I have with “professional” writing, although certainly journalism as a profession insists on objectivity as a professional standard. But ultimately, the writer has to satisfy other people; his readers are his customers. Some guilds and organizations accept for membership only those writers who prove that they can get advances and make a real living at it; they insist on this in order to maintain the view that writing makes a real career.

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