By Justine Tal Goldberg
It’s often said the book fairs are no place for writers. But what about at a conference organized specifically to help writers publish?
According to writer Joseph Epstein, “81 percent of Americans feel that they have a book in them — and should write it.” That’s approximately 200 million people who aspire to authorship. Excluding those who want and never do, and those who do but never publish, we’re still looking at millions of folks hungry for the literary limelight. In light of recent trends in publishing — the fact that self-published titles have dwarfed traditionally published works nearly 2:1 — one would expect that the Independent Book Publishers Association’s 27th annual Publishing University, a concurrent event with BookExpo America at New York City’s Javits Center this week, would have been swarming with author-publishers on the prowl for a much-needed literary education. Strangely, it wasn’t.
“So where are the writers?” I asked IBPA’s executive director Terry Nathan between panels. He explained that despite efforts to attract author-publishers in addition to small presses, attendance has dropped in recent years. 2011’s conference saw approximately 250 attendees, “mostly publishers and a few authors who take their publishing seriously,” Nathan told me.
What I then wanted to ask but didn’t, due to a potentially misguided sense of propriety was, “What authors don’t take their publishing seriously?” The sad answer, of course, is many; these days, perhaps even most.
I sat in on panels aimed at self-published writers (“Hands-on Guide to Marketing Fiction,” “Editorial Basics,” “Book Design that Gets Buzz,” and more) and watched in horror as panelists prompted the writers in the audience to identify themselves and, panel after panel, one or two tentative hands rose above the crowd.
It’s no easy task to determine why people do certain things, attend certain events and not others — market researchers make a good living this way — still, I’m bothered. “There’s good stuff here!” I felt like shouting, felt like running up and down 11th Avenue to shake sense into every pen-wielding, notebook-toting wannabe I passed. This year’s Publishing University was brimming with valuable information about working the market, producing a quality product, and writing like a writer that every self-published author would do well to understand:
“There are so many of us humans who are ready to self-publish or publish with little or no more thought than we would give to having a meal at a fancy restaurant,” says Cynthia Frank, independent press publishing consultant and publisher at Cypress House, a small independent press and book publishing consultation service on the north coast of California.
“Self-published books are almost uniformly badly published,” says Deb Werksman, acquiring editor and editorial manager for Sourcebooks, the largest women-owned independent publishing house in the country.
“If a book looks self-published, buyers are not going to buy it,” says Tom Dever of TLC Graphics and Narrow Gate Books, a book design, production, and distribution outfit in Austin, Texas.
And yet, where are the writers?
It seems reasonable that self-published books feel self-published and, despite some advances in reputation largely due to the popularity of the movement, continue to carry the stigma they do precisely because the authors of these works fail to take the endeavor seriously.
Epstein wonders “if the reason so many people think they can write a book is that so many third-rate books are published nowadays that…it makes writing a book look fairly easy,” and thanks to self-publishing, anyone can do it. (To wit, a brilliant video produced by open source movie-maker Xtranormal).
And therein lies the rub. The do-it-yourselfers need education in the task they’ve undertaken — they need Publishing University — but they don’t know it, and they won’t know it until they do. If book publishing really is becoming self-publishing as so many professionals predict, the book as medium may be looking at a bleaker future than any self-respecting bibliophile would care to admit.
“It’s not that easy to write a good book,” Werksman reminded her writer audience of one. Take it to the streets, shout it from the rooftops, tell every author-publisher you know. If you can find them.