Mainstream Publishers: Some Perspective

April Hamilton posted about mainstream authors defining legitimacy for other writers.


Ignoring for a moment the fact that writing is a very personal endeavor with very personal wants and needs attached to it, that are unique to every writer, I want to talk about what mainstream publishing is to a writer.


Maybe it’s because of the early cost barriers for self publishing, and maybe it’s because of all the vanity press scams that got perpetrated on desperate authors, but somewhere along the way mainstream publishers began to be seen, not only as the holy grail of writing, but as some sort of salvation and validation of the struggling writer.


We somewhere along the way, gave the power of gods and magical elves to these otherwise normal human beings, and became dependent upon them for our worth and validation as writers.  And since our identity as a writer is so often such a big part of who we are as people, for some of us, our worth and identity as people.

That’s a big boatload of validation responsibility for a mainstream publisher.  As a business entity, they just can’t meet that need.


So let’s add some perspective back into the mix.  What is a mainstream publisher really?


Two things mainly:

1. Financial backing

2. Distribution


That’s it.


I’m sorry if you were misled into believing this is still the world of Maxwell Perkins, and that you would be nurtured and coddled.  While it still seems to be true for some writers published by mainstream presses, it’s no longer the general rule.


1. Financial Backing.


Every necessary skill needed to bring a quality book to market is available on the free market.  You can buy it with cash/credit/selling your child into slavery (just kidding on that last one.  Maybe.), or you can barter for it if you possess skills/products that the individual you want to hire needs.


Mainstream publishers have clearly demonstrated a lack of ability to be infallible when it comes to quality. (Which to be fair, they never claimed to be infallible.) There are many books that are very well-written but are rejected either based on the arbitrary taste of a given publisher, or marketing trends.  Very often the latter.


Which is fine.  It’s a business, not a charity.  No one expects any other company to put out a product just to fulfill the hopes and dreams of that product’s creator.


Mainstream publishers do not have magical editors, interior design people, or cover artists.  All those same skill sets and quality exist on the free market.  And in this shrinking downsized corporate world, chances are good your average mainstream publisher is using a lot of freelance editors, artists, and interior layout people themselves.  


If you’ve got the finances or ingenuity to create the book, then that’s one of the two above things a mainstream publisher brings to the table, that you don’t really need. 


I was a wedding coordinator in a previous life, and using the knowledge I gleaned, I coordinated and planned my own wedding.  A few good friends were very surprised by how inexpensively I got everything.  It’s because when you start thinking in a budget-conscious way, you figure out what you really have the skill-set to do yourself and what you don’t.


Common wisdom says you get someone else to do your flowers.  I had wanted artificial flowers and I knew I could arrange what I needed myself with a few simple books and could save myself a ton of money on the labor.  So I did, and no one knew the difference.  But I didn’t bake my own cake, because I recognized that a wedding cake was way outside my scope of expertise/abilities.  But I still compared prices until I found something reasonable.


As I started to consider indie authorship, I realized I was in very familiar waters.  While I may be able to do one facet of the process myself, another would have to be hired or bartered out for.  But in the end, guaranteed I’ll have laid out much less money for the whole thing, than the casual observer might be led to believe.


2. Distribution


Mainstream publishers can get your book into bookstores, Walmarts, and Costcos across America.  But will they?  Walmart kind of has limited shelving space for books, since that’s not their primary function.  So in all likelihood we’re looking at the big chain bookstores.  The big chain bookstores that in this economy aren’t doing so well.


Or, there’s the internet.  Internet bookstores don’t have limited shelving space and Amazon especially is very indie-friendly.  Every year more and more consumers are becoming more comfortable with buying at least some, if not most of their books online.


I used to shop in bookstores, but no matter how large a bookstore, the chance that they’ll actually have any given book I’m looking for, unless it’s a new release or a bestseller, is constantly shrinking.  Eventually I just gave up and started shopping on Amazon.


And I’m not the only one.


And then there is the whole ebook thing that is now starting to really rise.  When was the last time you saw ebooks for sell in a brick and mortar bookstore?  Or maybe the question should be: Have you ever seen them there? 

I won’t dispute the fact that mainstream publishing distribution still is a nice deal when you can get it.  Though it’s nicest if you’re their debut darling of the season and your name gets splashed in front of the faces of everyone in the known reading public.  But the argument that a mainstream publisher is necessary because of distibution is wearing thinner as time goes on, the economy continues to not be great, the internet becomes a bigger factor, and the barriers just keep lowering for indies to play this game in their own way.


In the end, I wonder if mainstream publishers, with the exception of those rare times when a writer gets a really plum contract, aren’t just there now to validate our egos.  Even if that isn’t their stated purpose, I wonder if that’s the purpose writers have invested in them now.  And maybe all the other reasons you really "need" a mainstream publisher, are all just so much fluff touted by those who got their big break already.


If so, the only thing you have to let go of is your ego. 


Viva la Resistance!