11 August 2004

Self-Publishing Rationales (Wrap-Up)

Although I'm sure I'll return to this topic in the future—frequently, and maybe even tomorrow, depending on how a couple of obvious things break today and upon the viscissitudes of "publishing news outlets" desperately seeking something to talk about in August—I want to wrap up this entire discussion with an invocation of Yog's Law:

Money flows toward the [financially successful] author.

Two additional thoughts to add here:

  • I did not use the word "professional" in those brackets that I added for two reasons. First of all, it's ambiguous: consider the lawyer, who is a professional, who also writes wretched "lawyer-as-hero" mysteries on the side, or the doctor who decides that he can do things better than has Robin Cook (admittedly, this is not a very high standard). Second, it's a mirage. There is no such thing as a "professional author" or "professional writer." There are no nonfinancial entry barriers to the field; there is no minimum educational or training requirement, passage of which is judged only by current members of the profession; there is no regulation or licensing requirement; there is no internal discipline, code of conduct, or central authority; there is no ability to remove "bad actors" from the profession. As all of these are essential aspects of a "profession," we can't say that authors form a "profession"—even when they form trade groups, like SFWA. There's nothing wrong with trade groups; they just aren't professions. And given that this entire conversation is based upon deceptive misuse of language it's inappropriate for me to slip something equally misleading into my summary.
  • Note that this does not say that there is never any nonfinancial rationale justifying self-publishing of a particular work. As noted previously, individual circumstances may arise. The point, though, is that self-publishing is not a rational part of a purely publishing oriented business plan for a work. If the work is an adjunct to, or coordinate with, other money-making activities, or narrowly focussed in one of the publishing industry's many blind spots, and that blind spot is also capable of generating profit, or actually accepted by the author as a "practice effort" on the way toward improving the writer's skills and ability to participate in commercial publishing, it makes some business sense. Anything else does not, contrary to the boosterism so prominent these days (and in twelve-year cycles, for some oddball reason that I can't fathom, since the end of WW2).

Counting on winning the lottery is not a rational business plan. Even card-counting in the casino is not a rational business plan, because the casino will take countermeasures. In publishing, those countermeasures have included treatment of all sales figures as confidential, and essentially unaudited/unauditable; selective provision of information; and a distribution system that makes it virtually impossible for small players to enter the field using only the same distribution channels as established market participants. Further, thanks to the secrecy inherent in publishing—and I've been questioned on exactly what this is, but that's a book-length topic—one can't even tell reliably what advantage(s) the house has.

And none of that results in a rational business plan. For anything.