Seventy thousand authors defied the vanity press stigma last year and launched their titles online as print-on-demand or eBooks. But absent the editorial, marketing, and sales infrastructure of a supportive publishing house, most of these creators struggle to reach readers. Social media permits an energetic few to break out, but for most authors, the vision of seeing their books in brick-and-mortar bookstores and libraries seems unattainable.
As a bookseller who speaks frequently with hopeful DIY authors, I’ve learned to suspend the same critical judgment I employ when evaluating “traditionally” published books. I used to yield to the obvious temptation to condemn self-published books—after all, the majority do not measure up to the quality of most formally published books. But I now try to assist self-published authors in achieving their creative goals.
Judging by the sometimes vitriolic tone employed online by self-published authors discussing their experiences with bookstores and libraries, I differ from the norm. Evidently many professionals tell self-publishers that their books must have a “real” publisher in order to be acquired.
Local librarians and indie booksellers like myself claim the mantle of champions of freedom of expression. But when it comes to our prerogative as knowledgeable book critics, we are obstinately unwavering. We refuse to change our acquisition criteria because the books we stand for are unpopular, but we also are unable to recognize that “censorship” occurs when we reject a book based on what we judge to be lack of literary merit.
Surely we booksellers and librarians have an unexamined responsibility in this era of easy self-publishing. Our professions are shifting as our stakeholders reposition themselves relative to us. Customers and patrons are self-identifying as “authors” in astounding numbers. Can we rest comfortably suggesting that these neighbors and friends are not “real” authors? Shouldn’t we instead embrace a proactive stance?
Some do. Zines—those handmade underground DIY productions emerging from music and alternative lifestyles—are actively collected and distributed by specialty librarians like those at Barnard College in New York and bookstores like Quimby’s in Chicago. Writing and book-production seminars are hosted by energetic bookstores like Book Passage in Corte Madera, California, and nonprofits like the Independent Publishing Resource Center in Portland, Oregon. Festivals like the Brooklyn Zinefest, the New York Art Book Fair, the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, and the Museum of Comics and Cartoon Art Fest, in Manhattan, allow traditionally published and self-published authors to rub shoulders. DIY authors who have taken their creative lives into their own hands can meet and get advice, assistance, consolation, and encouragement from many kinds of peers. Some seek mainstream publishing deals, using their self-published work as calling card and proof of concept. Others continue to refine their writing and their business tactics, hoping that their authorial careers will thrive.
Bookstores and libraries can benefit by adding these festivals’ programming innovations to their rosters. Stores like WORD UP, in Manhattan, have learned that open mic events and poetry and story slams can help self-published authors promote their work, even when their books haven’t been formally acquired by the venues hosting the events. Bookstores and libraries can also act as clearinghouses for freelance sales of editorial, production, and marketing services often sought by self-publishing authors. Bookstores and libraries can even acquire and operate print-on-demand devices like the Espresso Book Machine created by On Demand (below), with fifty-seven current locations, such as in Village Books in Bellingham, Washington, and the Brooklyn Public Library.
I predict that ten years hence, self-published print-on-demand titles and eBooks will represent a much larger part of what will be a much larger book market. The Book Industry Study Group has been reporting steady increases in publisher sales since 2010. Meanwhile, eBook self-publishing is driving price expectations down. Many readers initially experiment with self-published authors because their eBooks are cheap, then discover that there are special pleasures to reading DIY books. Authors will promote their self-published works in community spaces, attracting patrons and helping these places retain their centrality and viability. Brick-and-mortar storefronts and libraries will remain central to many readers’ book selection processes, and self-published authors will be central to fortifying that role.
Andy Laties has launched five book-selling companies and is the author of the best-selling Rebel Bookseller.