The other week I spent a few days at a convention with a large and lively artist’s alley, loaded with people with creative projects galore. Almost none of them had professional-level distribution for their work: it was all DeviantArt, Kickstarter, and word-of-mouth. A couple were allied with what could be called professional publishers or distributors, but for the most part everyone was on their own.
I didn’t talk to as many of them this time around as I would have liked to, but in the past, I’ve gotten the impression many of them feel getting major distribution amounts to selling out. Worse, they think anything they could get major distribution for would be diluted, watered-down from their original intentions for it—because that’s the only way they could get such a thing accepted through a major distributor.
Are they right? I want to believe they are not, but I will start by looking at all the evidence that suggests they are. It would be wrong of me to suggest the truth is otherwise.
The first cold hard truth to accept about publishing is that it is driven by trends. If you happen to be working on something that parallels a current trend (e.g., YA supernatural fantasy), you have that much better a chance of getting it accepted for publication simply because a) the publishers already have a marketing plan devised for it, and b) an audience has been primed to look for it through that marketing.
This all sounds terribly backwards, I know. If the whole point of a publisher is to take a creator’s unique voice and make that heard over all the noise, why do they routinely pick creations that are so much like everything else in the existing noise-stream, and therefore going to be that much harder to differentiate in the first place?
Answer: because, by and large, people look for similarities to guide them. Even all those people doing something on their own were still making references, even if only in terms of genre or influences, to other projects that were orders of magnitude more familiar. You might as well make such a thing work for you, right?
The other day I was in a little cubbyhole-sized bookstore in Penn Station (better cubbyhole-sized than entirely closed, I guess), and saw a new series that had, on the face of it, clearly been rushed out to capitalize on the success of Fifty Shades of Gray. Before I could even finish reading the back flap, a woman came in, took the last copy, brought it to the cashier, and said “Is this that new series that’s supposed to be like Fifty Shades of Gray?” Yes, it was, and so she emptied some bills from her purse onto the counter.
You see now why publishers just choose to go with whatever flow is out there? It’s easier to do that than it is to fight against the terrible odds of rising reader inertia and dwindling attention spans. Profit margins in publishing are slender enough to begin with, so why blow what little marketing budget you do have on wasted breath?
There’s some further irony in that the biggest ad budgets are spent on books, and authors, who scarcely need the promotion in the first place. If you’re promoting the new James Patterson novel, you need do little more than plaster the man’s name, title of the new book, and some vaguely thematically-related artwork on the sides of buses and in subway tunnels. In short, you’re not doing much more than simply letting people know the thing exists and letting his existing reputation do the rest of the work—but that only works for authors who have spent years or decades being in the public eye to begin with. That promotion, redundant as it seems, is an investment, and the sales of a Patterson or a King or a what-have-you justify that kind of expense.
End result: whenever you have a particular work to shop around, its chances of finding a market depend entirely on the prospective publisher’s perception of whether or not there is anyone out there to sell it to, and in what number. Most publishers do not make it their business to court eccentric side markets because they know they’ll go broke doing so. One of my favorite publishers in the business right now, Vertical, puts out a great many things I never believed would see print in English, such as Osamu Tezuka’s manga works—but they have more sense than to bank on those alone to pay the bills, and so offer a lot of other things that are calculated for mainstream acceptance. (When Osamu Tezuka is outsold routinely, by an order of magnitude, by Sudoku books, that’s proof justice is not yet to be found in this universe.)
Even a self-published author has to find a market and court it aggressively. That was, in fact, precisely why those people were in that artist’s alley: there, they had a venue to market to the very people they wanted to reach. It wouldn’t give them the same breadth of exposure as a thousand-dollar ad in a trade publication, but they could afford a $60 table at a convention where attendance was some ten thousand people. And that also gave them the creative freedom to offer whatever the heck they wanted, without a publisher hemming and hawing. The only thing at stake was a few days of their time, and several dozen dollars of their money. Pretty good deal.
That freedom came at the cost of attracting only a tiny fraction of the attention that even a small-scale publisher can drum up casually. On the other hand, that drummed-up attention comes at the cost of having to do something only slightly to the left (or right) of what everyone else is doing. In some ways this is not a terrible thing, because the more maverick, eccentric and uncompromising your work is, the less of a chance you have of getting people to connect with it anyway.
What “selling out” to a major publisher amounts to, then, is finding a way to make what you’re putting together seem like part of whatever current trends are being mined. This is why many project pitches use the “X meets Y” formula, with both X and Y being nothing more than a couple of years old (if even that). If you can find a way to ride that, do it. If you can’t, then you have two choices: you can do your own marketing, or you can learn how to speak the language of the marketers whose attention you want to get.
Maybe, in the end, they amount to the same thing.