I was astonished to read a story on the blueblog (the blog of bluechrome press) about YouWriteOn.com, a group offering to produce books for the first 5000 people who apply from either the UK or USA free of charge. They’ll produce the books before Christmas so, essentially, this is a Christmas present for the 5000 to give to friends and family. Anyone wanting an ISBN has to pay a small sum (less than £40) and their book will become available in the usual outlets.
It’s self-publishing. Nothing unfamiliar about that these days. But how can this organisation do this free of charge? The answer is that ACE, the Arts Council of England, has funded the project. This is the real controversy for me. Why should public money be used in this way? It’s no longer possible to argue that the project is democratic, that it gives people a chance to publish a book who otherwise couldn’t have done so. Groups like Lulu.com enable this very same thing. Lulu charges, but doesn’t rip people off like traditional vanity publishers – the charge is reasonable. So why should UK taxes be used to fund a self-publishing project without any attempt at quality control? Funding isn’t easy to come by. Other literary publishers will have lost out on the funding that has been given to this organisation. I’d like to see the Arts Council try to justify this decision, and they ought to justify it – it’s UK taxpayers’ money that finances them.
Self-publishing has become a controversial topic in recent times. Anthony Delgrado (at least I presume the blueblog is written by AD – if not, I’ll make a correction) asks what has driven the change in attitude over the last few years, given that organisations like Lulu are now seen as “cool rather than seedy.” Well, there are no doubt many answers to that question. One can argue, for instance, that the presence of organisations like Lulu make it less likely that naïve writers will fall victim to the worst vanity press merchants. Why pay a fortune to have your book published by a traditional vanity press when Lulu will do it for a relatively small sum? The worst vanity presses might be kicked out of business for good.
Also, while most books published via the likes of Lulu have no literary merit and will largely sell only to the author’s friends and family (if that), some writers of genuine quality have taken a deliberate decision to self-publish (even though their writing is of sufficient quality to have had a chance with literary publishers) – people like Julie Carter, Rik Roots, and Nic Sebastian, for example. They have the capability of selling copies using their profile on the Web, and their work is of good quality. Their motivations may vary. It might be simply because they can (successfully), or because they distrust the ‘win-our-competition-and-be-published’ scene in North America (high charges for entry and a [allegedly] suspiciously large proportion of winners from specific college MFA programs contribute to this distrust), or because they can’t be bothered to submit in the traditional way, or because they regard their work as too unfashionable to interest a publisher etc.
Of course, a recognised literary publisher can offer things that self-publishing can’t, and I think it's true that there is an automatic suspicion of self-published books, an expectation that the quality will be poor (usually, but not always, justified). Most literary awards won't consider them. There's a sense that they don't "count" as publication, not really, and I can see why. If publication means no more than "printed" (to use the blueblog's phrasing), then publication means nothing, given its technological ease. However, I’d hazard a guess that quality, self-published collections by such as Rik, Julie and Nic will sell more copies than many books published by traditional publishers. And this is the key factor - for those with a quality product and the ability to market themselves, the World Wide Web has opened up new avenues to sell books far beyond the usual family and friends who bought self-published books in the pre-Internet world. I don’t see that changing.
However, I don’t think this will adversely hit the more traditional literary publishers, particularly those who use the Web to good effect. They should always be able to extend a writer’s audience wider than he/she could have managed if self-published and – if they typically publish good books – they create trust in a list among writers and readers. Good writers will always want to be published by good publishers and, if you read a few books from bluchrome and enjoy them, chances are you’ll be interested in more. That will never be the case with Lulu!