Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Are Authors Losing Their Special Status?

Even if you love to write, it’s a lot of work to write a book. It takes imagination and creativity to envisage the book you want to write. It takes energy, perseverance, and focus to organize your thoughts and set them down. It takes training and practice to hone your writing skills so your work is readable and communicates what you want to say. Until recently it’s been commonly believed that only a few special people—that revered group known as “authors”—are capable of accomplishing this feat. Most of us knew few published authors, and when we met one, we were impressed.

But it’s different today. Many more people are writing and publishing books. The number of books published or distributed in the United States jumped from 300,000 in 2006 to 400,000 in 2007, according to an essay by Rachel Donadio in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. That’s a 33% increase.

What’s going on? Have thousands of people suddenly figured out that they can write a book? No. Thousands of people have found out that they can publish a book. Lots of people have ideas for books and many of them have manuscripts sitting in their desk drawers. But getting books published has long been an endurance contest characterized by jumping through hoop after hoop only to accumulate a batch of rejection slips. The obstacles to getting published were so well known that many would-be authors didn’t even try.

Print-on-demand technology has changed all that. With minimal investment, authors can start their own publishing companies and have their books printed as needed through Lightning Source, CreateSpace or others. Or, if they don’t want to be publishers, they can have their books published for a fee through subsidy publishers such as iUniverse, Xlibris, and others.

Authors are using these options to get their work published in unprecedented numbers. In ten-plus years of operation, Lightning Source has printed over 500,000 titles from over 5,000 publishers. iUniverse publishes 500 books/month and has 36,000 in print, according to Donadio’s NYT essay. Lulu has turned out over 236,000 paperbacks since it opened in 2002 and its number of new books is rising each month, according to a January 2008 AP article by Candace Choi.

So is writing easier than we thought? No. And that’s the rub. It’s still just as hard to write well as it ever was. Simply writing and publishing a book doesn’t mean it’s a book readers will enjoy, find informative, or want to share with their friends. And unfortunately, now that publishing is so much easier, we are seeing more books that don’t meet minimal standards of quality. I recently searched inside a subsidy-published book on Amazon and found the word “quiet” repeatedly misspelled as “quite.” This is the sort of carelessness that leads critics of non-traditional publishing to label all our books as trash.

Are we all capable of becoming authors? Maybe. But it takes work, training and a willingness to accept and respond to criticism. If those of us whose books are self-published, published by small indie publishers, or published by subsidy publishing companies want our books to be taken seriously, we have to make sure they are well-written, edited and proofread. Take classes, join writing groups, hire editors, do whatever you have to do.

I’ve been a strong advocate for authors whose books aren’t traditionally published. And I will continue to be. I also will continue to insist that books be judged by their merits, not by their publisher. Ergo, to be judged highly, a book needs to have merits.

This brings us back to the question of specialness. I think much of the tearing down of non-traditionally published authors by traditionally-published authors is due to the traditionally-published authors’ fears that when anyone can get a book published, authors lose their special status.

In my opinion authors aren’t special—never have been. Writing and publishing a book doesn’t in itself make someone special. Having a book selected for publication by a major publisher doesn’t make someone special, nor does publishing your own book.

But lots of books are special. And that’s not going to change. In fact, with more books being published, we can expect to see even more outstanding books. So let’s keep our eyes on the ball—or in this case, the book—and honor what really matters.

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