In the August 8 issue, Book World ran a letter from Dan Poynter, author of "The Self-Publishing Manual," criticizing Book World's policy of not reviewing self-published books and including a lengthy list of successful books that originally were self-published. Book World's editors responded briefly and asked for reader reaction. The floodgates opened and dozens of readers replied, mostly via e-mail; they were overwhelmingly in favor of self-publishing as a legitimate alternative to the conventional variety and overwhelmingly against the Book World policy. A sampling of those letters follows. Meanwhile, we at Book World continue to rethink our policy . . .
Shame on you for your archaic philosophy of refusing to review self-published and independently published books. Just as the Internet and superstore chains have changed the retail end of the book industry, technology has changed the production end. Amazon.com and other online services keep growing because they have eliminated some of the layers in a business that has way too many. So can self-publishers. A self-publisher who puts out a quality product can start making money by selling a few thousand copies, compared to the tens of thousands of copies needed via a traditional publisher. He or she can also have control over editing, design, artwork and release dates, as well as copyrights. The role of self-publishers will only keep growing. Desktop publishing, word processing, e-mailing and web design are now common skills taught in any good high school.
My independently published novel has just crossed the break-even point of several thousand copies sold, and with the upcoming Christmas season we are confident we will reach our goal of 5,000 copies sold in the first 13 months. We have been picked up by two national distributors, all the major online services, and my Web site gets hits everyday from people checking out the book and reading the first 20 pages before they decide whether to buy. The book can be bought in almost any bookstore in Ohio, ordered from any other store in the United States, and can be bought online from almost anywhere in the world. As the author I have retained all rights to my work, as well as the design and cover art. And my accountant regularly keeps me informed of where each dollar is spent. If the book had gone the traditional route I'd still be waiting for a release date, haggling over cover art, and receiving monthly statements telling me not to hold my breath for any real cash until I get my guest spot on "Oprah." And I would find myself just one of many people in the machine who now would own a piece of my work.
The only negative I have encountered has been the archaic view shared by yourselves and other newspapers and magazines who think they should only review books fed to them by the publishing machine. But you too will have to change your thinking. For each publication that shares your view, I have found just as many that have judged my book as fairly as the new Stephen King release. Self-publishing is not an easy endeavor. You need the proper working capital, a good business/marketing plan, access to talented people and the latest technology, and a strong belief that you have a quality product that has a market.
I admit that I was shocked at the Washington Post article. A refusal to critique self-published books is reminiscent of the times when books were burned in the city streets because of their controversial nature or the censorship of dictatorial states. Rather than avoid the situation, if reviewers truly want to do a service then they should review all books in order to weed out the less desirable.
But alas, it probably all boils down to time and money. The reviewers probably are swamped with books from traditional publishers worldwide. They may not have the energy or resources [to preview them all]. That is the same problem of the literary agents who are deluged with manuscripts. Most never even read them. They reject most of the manuscripts they receive. This isn't because they aren't good. The agents simply don't have the time to spend on the many good ones they do receive because they concentrate on the ones that they know they can sell. The authors they concentrate on are those who have a national reputation for good or bad and those who already have a publishing track record of success. To thank those agents for weeding out the undesirable and "weird" subjects is to not understand the economic process.
But the new process of publishing called print on demand (POD) will soon revolutionize the industry. The reason that publishers can't afford to accept books is that they must carry an inventory of the books that they know will sell. Much of their capital is tied up in that inventory. POD, on the other hand, requires absolutely no inventory, and as little as one book order can be processed within 48 hours. This means that publishers will now be able to take a chance on new authors. The Washington Post and others need to seriously consider their policy. Soon, those publishers who do not convert to POD could be out of business. Then what will The Washington Post review?
JOSEPH C. TAYLOR
Just a note to echo many of the points Dan Poynter made regarding the vitality of the self- and small publishers to America's freedom of the press. I'm sure you are feeling the sting of the Internet, and it is having an impact on your huge infrastructure. So it goes with the book publishing industry as well. Soon you will have to adjust to covering e-books in your own Internet publishing effort. How will you survive if you refuse to keep pace with your public's real world? The times, they are a-changing! Best wishes for your survival.
I enjoyed reading your exchange with Dan Poynter, and I think I understand the reasoning that shapes your policy against reviewing self-published books. Please change it. Your reliance on the commercial publishing process to legitimatize books for you could be stretched just slightly further to argue for a new international news policy that stories will be covered only if they're generated by press releases from embassies or other government agencies (O.K., so maybe that's stretching your argument more than a little). As a citizen of a world that's intellectually shrinking because of the consolidation of the sources of published ideas, and as the self-interested, thoroughly biased author of a small-press novel that's going nowhere despite rave local reviews, I ask you to rethink this policy. It's a small part of a very big problem.
Designs for Living
I am a book designer and also a small publisher. I am not a self-publisher. I am writing to you as a reader of The Post and as a book designer. Lately I have designed several books by authors who have chosen the route of self-publishing. I am amazed by the quality of the writing in many of these books. I design for Perseus, the University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern and Hampton Roads Publishing, among others. I also design for the "little guy." When I design a book for a self-publisher, they get the same quality from me as the larger houses. Self-publishing today is not what it was even five years ago. It has come of age, and those who are self-publishing are taking the process seriously -- hiring professional editors and designers for their books, and following all the "rules" of publishing, including finding national distribution.
It is time for The Post to review its policy. Why not judge a book by the quality of the production, writing and availability? With the onset of the Internet, many small companies are breaking through with good products into the mainstream. It would be nice if reputable book reviewers such as yourselves would consider (without having to lower your standards) books based on their quality without a bias as to who the publisher is.
This policy of The Washington Post robs the reader of having a full selection of quality material. There is no doubt there is much garbage out there and reading such a quantity of garbage is a waste of a reviewer's time. Yet garbage is as much a product of the big corporate publishers as of the small publishers or the self-publishers. I am also sure a glance at a foreword and a couple of chapters will tell a reviewer if a book is of quality material and of significance to review. Perhaps there is some kind of "weeding" system that could be in place? However, to give not even one glance of consideration to a work is paying homage to large corporations who control a small part of the market. It is a marriage contract that amounts to monopolizing. I just can't believe this is Washington Post policy.
I appreciate Book World's problem with sheer volume in choosing which books to review, and I applaud Book World for its apparent willingness to consider Dan Poynter's points and to solicit the view of other readers. I'm a published (nonfiction) author and not yet a self-publisher, though I've been giving it serious consideration. The system that's served literary artists and the reading public so well for so long really is in need of rejuvenation.
Start with the domination of the retail book market by Barnes & Noble and Borders, with Crown a distant third. I'm told that the selection of stock for Barnes & Noble stores all over the United States is made by a handful of people (18, I'm told) in a steel-and-glass tower in Manhattan. It seems likely that there's another 18 over at Borders headquarters. Amazon.com looks like the maverick outsider in this system, stocking not only the output of the major houses, but small presses, too -- and not indiscriminately. Amazon.com exercises quality control without slamming the door on the small presses, many of whom are self-publishers.
How smart are these fellows in discerning what the public wants to read? I've no way to verify it, but I've read that only three of 10 books going through the traditional system today ever repay their advances. Batting .300 may be pretty good for baseball, but it really stinks in business. The wave of consolidation of venerable publishing houses has left the traditional system at the mercy of the large retailers. Agents are in no position to defy the opinions of the retailers because the publishers aren't. The word comes down from the steel-and-glass towers in Manhattan, and the publishing houses salute. Then the agents salute. Why represent a book the publishers won't print because Barnes & Noble and Borders won't buy it?
Authors stubborn enough to persist in trying to publish their stories and their views don't have a lot of places to go if the traditional system turns them down. Look at today's system and ask yourself: From what source does the system draw inspiration and innovation? The small presses have a crucial role to play here, it seems to me. And if the critics and the reviewers line up with the dominant retailers by systematically removing self-published work from their buffet, how does this serve the reading public? I don't know how Book World will solve this problem, but you do need to know that categorical discrimination against small presses and self-publishers isn't part of the solution.