A few weeks ago I was on twitter and over-"heard" a conversation about who is to blame for the homogeneity in current romance fiction: authors, readers, or publishing companies. To sum up part of the argument, authors can now self-publish, and potentially make more money doing so than they would with publishing companies; so if authors WANTED to write different types of stories, one would expect to see them self-published as eBooks, no? Yet the majority of self-published books follow the current trend in traditional publishing; ipso facto, homogeneity cannot be entirely (or even mostly) the publisher's fault. Either people aren't buying other types of romances, or authors aren't writing them.
To me this conversation reflects the age-old push and pull between the market and artistic expression. On the one hand, you want to make money. On the other hand, you have a vision for what you want to do with your work. Is it really reasonable to expect self-published authors to answer holes in the publishing market? Here are some of my thoughts:
- I'm not super-familiar with self-published works out there, but I do know there's a lot of them. Any person browsing for cheap eBooks on Amazon sees maybe 1% of what's been self-published, and most of what appears in the top 100 is by authors who are already established by traditional publishing. So judging how authors are pushing the boundaries of the genre through that lens may not be entirely fair. There are undoubtedly TONS of books that would never traditionally be published on Smashwords, Amazon, and B&N right now; but they're are hard to find because the authors don't show up at the top of the buy lists.
- Any writer worth their salt writes for an audience, but what is the audience for self-published work looking for? This is largely unclear, especially to writers just starting out. Publishing houses have marketing departments that not only find out what's selling, but tell people what to buy. An author by themselves has twitter, facebook, and their words. This reminds me of a post I wrote earlier this year about how publishing resembles the beginnings of modern art (post here). In that post, I mentioned the Salon des Refusés and how the artists who participated and become scions of modern art actually wanted to be part of the establishment. It took a generation after that Salon for artists to begin to identify and paint for an audience looking for independent alternatives to the Academy. I do think this idea of self-publishing being the place for pushing boundaries of a genre or experimenting comes from modern art. But if we look to self-publishing for the creative energy to drive literature, will traditional publishing become dinosaurs in the same way the Academies did?
- One of the things my students often come into class thinking, and which I try to disabuse them of, is that art is about self-expression. That may be true in our current society, but in fact most artists in history created art for other people. The Pope didn't tell Michelangelo he wanted him to express himself, he said, "Paint me a ceiling about the Bible, bitch." (Maybe not in those exact words, of course...) Michelangelo still managed to express himself in spite of what the market--which in this case was the Church--demanded. Innovation and self-expression usually happens in spite of the market, not because of it.
I don't really have a point here, but based on what I know of history, I think publishers DO deserve the majority of the blame for what's in the traditional market. Writers will write for the market, and if a publisher says they want to publish X, they will get submissions for it. Also, there is a market for everything--the internet and self-publishing proves that. It just may not be a large enough market for the Big 6 to put time and energy into it.