Monday, June 14, 2010

Democratization of the Slush Pile

There's an interesting article by Mark Medley in Saturday's National Post called Self-Publishing: Doing it yourself and doing it better which is part of an Ecology of Books series examining the interrelationships comprising Canada's publishing industry.

The article begins by looking at Terry Fallis who took the self-publishing route a few years ago after several aborted attempts at going the traditional way.  And thank goodness Fallis didn't give up when he faced those brick walls, because when he self-published The Best Laid Plans in 2007 he proved something. Sure, publishers do a fantastic job of selecting great books to be published each year -- but each year, many more great books don't end up seeing the light of day.

Fallis went on to win the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour for his first novel and then landed a publishing contract with McClelland & Stewart who republished the book and is releasing the sequel The High Road this fall.  (Last week I was raving about how progressive M&S is being in letting Fallis podcast the novel prior to the book's official print release)

The Best Laid Plans is currently the "One Book One Community" selection for the Waterloo Region and has been receiving consistent praise since it first came out.  I've already begun listening to Chapter 3 of the podcast for The High Road and am enjoying it as much if not more than I enjoyed the first novel.  Slipping back into Fallis's fictional world which takes a satirical look at Canadian politics is like being reunited with long lost friends.

The National Post article also mentions the Espresso Book Machine at my bookstore at McMaster University along with the huge success we've had helping self-published authors realize their dreams. Since Mark Medley interviewed me about it I've been thinking a lot about that.

I have been a bookseller for almost twenty years now and have certainly seen my share of self-published books that were obviously self-published for a reason.  (The reason, of course, is that no publisher was willing to touch the book)  And yes, I hate saying this because I as an author I'm also quite sensitive to the criticism of the world at large, but so many of the self-published titles that have crossed my path since I began bookselling are ones that rarely pass the "first page" test.  Often they simply weren't "ready for prime time" -- they either didn't capture my interest or else read like a first draft that needed either a major re-write or a fantastic editor to help them polish it up.

I'll even admit that when Fallis, a McMaster graduate, approached me about doing a book signing for The Best Laid Plans back in 2007 I went to his website to check out his book and a sample of his writing.  And yes, I was leery, cautious and somewhat dreading the whole experience. Sure, I wanted to support a Mac Author but setting up a book signing, ordering in a bunch of books that are more than likely going to just eat up shelf space and not sell takes a lot of time and expense. Booksellers everywhere need to make difficult decisions like that every day -- deciding to put a particular book on your shelf becomes an investment in the hope that that book sells; every single book you bring in that doesn't sell is akin to lost money.  And while it may be easy not to order certain titles from a giant catalog, it's more difficult to say no to the hopeful smile of a local author standing in your store.

So, yes, I did approach the Fallis novel with caution.  However, I wasn't more than a couple of sentences into The Best Laid Plans when I was immediately charmed, hooked and swept into the fictional world Fallis had created.  Despite the fact that I had virtually no interest in reading fiction about Canadian politics (I mean, really, can you imagine a more dry topic?) he had me pretty much by the first word and kept me rivetted until the end. His characters, writing style and plot were top notch. I was haunted by the ghost of Robertson Davies, I was reminded of the slightly off-centre humour found in John Irving novels. All my instincts told me that Fallis was indeed a writer to watch and so I immediately called him back and practically begged him to come to our store to do his book launch at Titles. And from that day onward, I've been proudly watching this author rise to a much-deserved success.

Yes, the experience Terry Fallis had going the self-publishing route is a unique one and, as Fallis himself says in the National Post article, akin to a "lightning strike" -- however, since getting the Espresso Book Machine at Titles bookstore back in November of 2008, I've seen hundreds more self-published authors.  And no, I haven't read the books of every single one of them, but giving them the first line test and first page test I have to say I've been quite impressed by the quality of many of them.  In fact, in the past couple of years, I've been more impressed with the quality of the self-published titles I've seen than at any time in my bookselling career.

Several of the titles that I helped work on, such as the Alicia Snell biography Me Minus 173: From 328 Pounds to the Boston Marathon affected me in the same manner as the Fallis novel. No, I'm not a fan of self-help biographies, but Snell's prose pulled me in and didn't let go. I simply couldn't not read the whole thing. In fact, her book, which is as inspirational and entertaining as listening to Snell speak (she does fantastic motivational talks) inspired me to new heights and helped me change my life for the better.

When I asked Snell why she was paying us to print her book and suggested she send it to a publisher, she explained that the book had already gone the rounds with at least 4 major publishers. In each case, the book made it as far up the chain as an editorial round-table -- but with each major publishing house, the book was rejected due to reasons such as: "oh we already did a self-help title last month" or "we already have a diet book on our fall list."

Yet another case of a great book that didn't see the light of day in the traditional world due to nothing more than timing. Had those publishers not produced similar titles at the time Snell's manuscript crossed their desks, it would have been published by them.  But instead, the timing wasn't there, and now Snell, who has produced the book herself, is enjoying the success of having to return and getting more books printed because she keeps selling out of them.  A good problem to have, I suppose.

There are many more titles like that which I've had the pleasure of experiencing thanks to the self-publishing services offered through our bookstore. Books that are not only allowing authors to have their voices heard, but books that end up touching the lives of others and making a positive difference.  And it feels really good to be a part of not only being able to sell these books to customers, but helping the authors achieve their goals of getting the book out there.

Admittedly, yes, there is still a stigma attached to self-published titles -- but I've seen dozens upon dozens of great titles come through the print on demand option offered by our services at the bookstore at McMaster. Yes, some are published merely to be shared among a small group of friends or family. But some will reach a broader audience, be lifted beyond being carried in a single bookstore and championed by a small group of independent booksellers.

It strikes me that the publishing landscape, particularly one in which more than half of all the books published in 2009 were self-published titles, is becoming more diverse and dynamic than ever before.  I'm reminded of a comment that Richard Nash made on stage at the 2010 BookNet Canada Tech Forum -- he described the golden age of publishing as a bunch of white men in tweed jackets publishing each other. In addressing the publishing industry I must borrow the slogan from Virginia Slims: "You've come a long way, baby!"

It strikes me that the publishing world is undergoing an interesting shift, where a title might become big not because it was originally selected as a "million dollar advance" title from a major New York publishing house, but because word of mouth from readers and booksellers (typically combined with a heck of a lot of sweat and hard work from the author) helped it get there.  That the community aspect of publishing and bookselling is becoming more important than ever before.

Thanks to emerging technologies, many different companies and services geared towards helping authors choose an alternative path, and the tireless efforts authors are putting into promoting their work, the democratization of the slush pile is beginning to happen and writers who would normally not be given a chance to shine are having their voices heard.

Interesting times we live in.

1 comment:

Mayowa said...

Amen Mark.

Quality is a huge issue in self publishing and it has a lot to do with that stigma you mentioned. The only solution is for self published authors to produce higher quality works.