Independent publishing has created an ironic duality. On one hand, the good news about self-publishing in the 21st century is that anyone can publish a book. The bad news about modern self-publishing is, of course, that anyone can publish a book.
The backlash against this state of affairs has been aggressive on both sides of the argument. Proponents of traditional publishing point to the tsunami of poorly written books as proof of self-publishing’s inferiority (See Is the Self Published Novel Inherently Inferior?). Supporters of independent publishing have a more nuanced reaction. Some will admit that the new publishing freedom might produce a lot of substandard product (where the definition of “substandard” itself is often a moving target). But they will also say that many quality books are self-published (and we always find a way to put our own work in the category of quality books for some unknown reason).
Advocates on both sides will also point out that even if all self-published work was great, there is too much of it for the market to support. The industry produces too many books for people to find, pay for and read. I get the sense that many of these writers want everyone else to get out of self-publishing so they can remain and sell more books.
I agree and disagree with each side of this debate. I also feel that everyone can benefit from both writing and trying to sell their own book.
The Sales Sabotage Problem
First, let me address the obvious flaw with my premise. It is easy to see that if seven billion people each decided to write one book, the chances of any book being financially successful dwindle down to zero. My book, no matter how good it is, could never compete in a marketplace that big. I get that. That doesn’t change my central premise. It’s not because I’m some altruistic soul who believes in universal equality and fair play, and it’s not because I believe that my book is so much better than everyone else’s that I welcome that kind of competition. I just believe the filtering and selection processes that we have can solve the sales problem.
According to Worldwidewebsize.com, there were about forty billion websites worldwide in March of 2014. That’s about six websites for every living person on the planet. The vast majority of those sites have little or no traffic, but in spite of the glut of sites, we all still know where to find our cute cat videos, personality quizzes, pornography and e-books. I’m not saying that search engines, SEO and website management is perfect. I am saying that if we can find a way to catalog and manage billions of websites, we can do the same things with books. There is no guarantee that my book or yours would become the next Google or Amazon of books, but there are other benefits that still make universal authorship an attractive utopia.
Looking Beyond the Competition
Writing, like any business, is a competitive endeavor. Each seller in the market attempts to sell as many of their goods or services as possible. Because the number of buyers is almost always finite, the attempt of each seller to maximize their sales puts them in direct competition with all other sellers of the same goods. This concept applies to cars, candy bars and cocaine. But does it apply to books?
On a certain level, it does. There are only so many readers out there and each one has a limited capacity in the number of books they can read. Some writers will sell infinitely more books than others. Not every writer can be a James Patterson or J.K. Rowling. But that doesn’t mean that writing is futile.
Not everyone can be a professional athlete, but that doesn’t mean that people can’t benefit from exercise. Not everyone can open a chain of restaurants, that doesn’t mean knowing how to cook is a useless skill. Not everyone can dominate the stock market, but it is still helpful to understand the concepts of economics, investing and money. By the same logic, not everyone can be a New York Times bestseller, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t write a book. (See How Your Writing Projects Are Like Your Gym Membership). Many of the things you achieve as a writer will come to you even if never sell anything.
Looking Beyond the Numbers
From the beginning of my experience as a writer, I realized that what I gained from writing went far beyond how many books I sold (See Great Expectations). The benefits are less tangible in many ways, but no less important. Writing gives me a vehicle to:
- Have fun
- Be inspired
- Solve problems
- Meet new people
- Learn more about myself
- Learn more about the world around me
- Get better at what I’m doing
- Find out more about the people I already know
- Become more comfortable with myself
The positive things that I get from writing aren’t unique to me. I’m sure seven billion other people might want each of these things, in one way or another. If each one of us developed our craft in an attempt to become better writers, how could that be a negative thing?
Looking Beyond the Rose Colored Glasses
I understand that writing for some authors is not an idealistic, philosophical endeavor. I know that many of us are using our craft to put food on the table, advance our careers or escape jobs that we hate. To these writers, any discussion about flooding the market with product for the sake of learning or inspiration is misguided and irrelevant. Some of us are writing simply to make money. I understand that, but even this group of writers would benefit if everyone tried their hand at writing a book, if only for the impact it would have on the reading population.
Writers understand that writing isn’t easy. No matter how many barriers are broken down with e-books and self-publishing technology, we still have to lock ourselves away and write. We still have to struggle with putting words together and deal with the dark emotional journey those words can create. (See The Benefits of Rejection, Indifference, and Insecurity). And that is just the writing side of the equation. Independents also have to concern themselves with post production, design, marketing, sales and customer service, in addition to writing and their day jobs. (See The Four Stages of Novel Development). Writers know what goes into releasing a book. If more people attempted to be writers, perhaps they would have more understanding of the process. If more people wrote a novel, maybe they would appreciate and be more willing to pay for the work that other writers do.