Friday, January 28, 2005

The unpublished, the published, the unpublishable, and like that

Publishers Lunch newsletter usually includes a reference to something worth following up, and yesterday's was no exception. AP have a report on PublishAmerica and other similar organisations. This is essential reading for any writer who hopes to understand how the publishing business is currently organised, and what options there are for those who want to break in somehow.

The US National Endowment for the Arts estimates that more than 14 million Americans have engaged in some form of creative writing. (A comparable figure in the UK would be, what, 3 million?) Many of these people will eventually have enough material for a book, if they haven't already. So what do they do?

Well, they probably try the traditional route. They send the manuscript to publishers -- or try to. The big publishers now all flatly refuse to read such material. So then the would-be writers try the agents, some of whom also refuse to read unsolicited submissions. And eventually, writers discover that there are now firms (some call them vanity presses) which will publish their book for them, either for modest fees (modest, that is, when compared with the cost of self-publishing ten or twenty years ago), or for nothing. Of these, PublishAmerica is one.

PublishAmerica is somewhat controversial in that it presents itself as a mainstream publisher rather than a vanity publisher, and it doesn't, apparently, charge any upfront fees. But writers do not get the level of editing support that a traditional firm would (normally) supply. And, more important, marketing is pretty much nil; you won't find copies in your local bookstore unless you persuade the store to stock them yourself.

The jury is still out on this one, and I have no particularly strong views. It so happens that I publish my current work myself, through my own small press, Kingsfield Publications, so I know that it is possible to self-publish successfully, provided you have modest and realistic expectations. But I am able to do that because of my long experience in the book trade as both writer and publisher. If you are an out and out beginner, and you really want to see your work in book form, then you would certainly need to look at the services offered by the newer firms.

The AP article deals only with American companies, but there are others in the UK. There are some which look promising, but you will have to search. As I mentioned some months ago, the UK firm Matador looks as if it might do a good job. Deborah Lawrenson was satisfied with it -- see my post of 29 November 2004. And no, I don't get a percentage for referring you there.

What you should remember, above all, is that PublishAmerica has published nearly 11,000 books. Of these, 1,000 have never sold a single copy.

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