I have been a literary agent since 1987 and have written 25 editions of the book currently titled Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents. During this time, I’ve experienced and documented the various seismic shifts that everyone in our community often talks and thinks about in fearful, puzzled, and resentful ways. These are understandable sentiments, especially since the changes are externally directed without concern for our self-assumed prerogatives and habits. But instead of beating the usual dead horses, let’s shine a light on a crucial game changer that tends to be misunderstood and underestimated.
We can agree that traditional publishers are powerful because they provide the most effective way to be credibly published and are extremely selective. In any given year, traditional book contracts are offered to only a very small percentage of the writers struggling to get one. Agents are powerful because they provide the most effective way to access publishers. However, publishers and agents are facing a massive transfer and dispersal of their ancient power, to the benefit of the emerging self-publishing movement.
I hear the disdainful litany of rebuttals: only a tiny fraction of self published titles sell more than 10 copies. Bricks-and-mortar booksellers don’t like to stock self-published titles. Readers won’t purchase self-published books by authors they haven’t heard of, since they aren’t sanctioned by traditional houses.
All of the above are true. It’s also true that the first airplanes were repurposed bicycles, and that early computers were bigger than Godzilla. In both instances, critical masses of people were determined to develop new ideas. Time doesn’t reward complacency; tomorrow is the status quo’s greatest nemesis. Ironically, the same conditions that undermine self-publishers today will eventually liberate them to seize the future, even if it means shredding the past. The more they fail, the closer they get.
Traditional publishing is archaic. We insiders are simply scrounging for the remnants from days gone by, while hoping that whatever it is that’s happening will just stop. But it won’t. Amazon is much better suited to help self-published authors publish their books and sell them than traditional publishers. Digital technology and the Internet are still largely undiscovered country waiting to be developed by waves of entrepreneurial, innovative self-publishers. Technology has never been wholeheartedly embraced by the Church of Gutenberg. Any of the traditional houses could have accessed the necessary capital and expertise to develop a functioning e-reader years before Amazon did. Their passivity has demoted them to a form of serfdom; publishers still act like equals with Amazon, but they are far from it. Who is making the decisions, and who is doing the whining?
Self-publishers generate hundreds of millions in sales in ways few of us know how to track, even if inclined to do so. Fifty Shades of Grey was the breakthrough success that finally caught everyone’s attention. “How did that happen? It’s so poorly written,” is what we are still saying to each other with more resentment than admiration. True, E.L. James sold her books to the establishment, but we are dangerously misguided if we think that affirms our indispensability. Even more importantly, James wouldn’t have succeeded inside our traditional community. Was her success a flash in the pan, or a visit from a future we can’t or won’t decipher?
Like the early stages of any revolution, self-publishing is a mess, and the vast majority of its well-intentioned soldiers are struggling to find their way. However, each one who falls is replaced by an entire legion willing to take self-publishing risks. The urge to self-publish is irrepressible, and authors won’t stop coming. It doesn’t matter how many are fodder for scammers and dream weavers, because enough self-published authors are surviving and evolving. They are destined to surpass what we are clinging to. There’s justice in this: they are the uninvited we reject, deflate, and humiliate. We wouldn’t take them to lunch; they will eat our dinner. We got fat; they will get even.
The traditional houses possess solid platforms upon which new alliances can be structured. They own valuable backlist licenses and copyrights, and exclusively provide the highest level of credibility writers can achieve. Celebrities and successful authors choose traditional publishing (unless better options supersede it). Textbook publishers are protected by their close relationships with academia and the educational establishment. But self-publishing, while still largely an ungoverned colony for lost causes, is full of authors with the energy and determination to create their own place in the publishing marketplace.
Jeff Herman is a literary agent based in Stockbridge, Mass., and is the coauthor of Write the Perfect Book Proposal.