Thursday, October 27, 2011

Opinion — "Self-Publishing," Still A Dirty Word

I sent an inquiry email to a small public relations firm specializing in book promotion. Judging by the client list (which included an Irish bar, a good sign I thought) on the company’s web site, the firm appeared pretty strong in the genre. I explained that I was seeking their help for books I was reissuing — books originally published by St. Martin’s Press, but now out of print. I explained there would be a modest advertising campaign to support the rollout and that I might seek support later for my other books published through traditional channels.

I received a prompt reply. They were “unable” to represent “self-published” work. They were able to represent a local bar, however. I tried to make sense of supporting an Irish bar and rejecting a series whose main character is named “Shanahan” written by a man named “Tierney.” What was the difference, I wondered. Just as the bar owner, I had a licensed business, Life Death and Fog Books. And my product was certainly more attuned to their core clients. It was, I know, the dirty word, “self-published.”

I have a great deal of sympathy for nonprofit author organizations and book reviewers that tow a discriminatory line in this regard. They face a terrible gate-keeping problem if they let the floodgates open. They haven’t the resources — staff and time — to make judgments on each, individual book and must rely on the preliminary work of others to qualify or disqualify. Most would probably be among the first to admit that this system does allow for drivel to advance and good work to flounder. But there may be no other way for the moment. The prejudice will go away, I’m convinced. But for now the world hasn’t fully adjusted to the tremendous and ongoing shakeup in the publishing world.

However, if I can be indulged a mixed metaphor, “self-publishing” remains a dirty word in the eyes of many. Even independent bookstores, businesses that should understand more than most what it means to be a mouse in a house full of cats, approach self-published books with trepidation. In addition to the shelf-space issue, there is the problem of separate accounting, not to mention dealing with author egos. Even traditional (or legacy) publishers have problems with that, which is a major reason why agents exist. I understand the wariness.

I admit I was angry when I received the email. It wasn’t so much the dismissal (writers get used to that) as the wording of it. “Unable.” Can’t be true. “Unwilling,” perhaps. But the company is a public relations firm. It is practicing its craft. “Unable” likely seemed a kinder word. It was as if representing self-publishers was beyond their physical capability or maybe against the law. How could you be mad at them? It wasn’t their fault.

The truth is, of course, they have a perfect right to establish their own business model. And I maybe I’m just parsing the word “unable” a little too closely. More than anything, besides venting, I wanted to let writers know that many doors remain closed to us if we step outside the system. No big surprise, I guess. At least this firm was kind enough to reply.

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