by Jerry Payne
July 7, 2019
The New York Times book review section made big news back in 2012 when it published, for the first-time ever, a review of a self-published book. There was talk that maybe this would set a new precedent, that maybe self-published books would now be taken seriously. Alas, there have been precious few self-published books that have been reviewed by the Times since. (Have there been any?) So what’s wrong with self-published books?
Nothing. But don’t expect traditional reviewers to acknowledge this any time soon.
Self-published books, as the name implies, are books that the author has printed and distributed on his or her own. This contrasts with traditional or mainstream publishing where the book goes through a publishing house. Large publishing houses were many back in the days before the internet. Now, you can literally count them on one hand. The “Big Five” are: Macmillan, Hatchette, HarperCollins, Penguin-Random House, and Simon & Schuster.
Why only these five? Because the internet (read: Amazon), though a terrific boon to consumers, has been not so kind to producers. Much of the profit was taken out of the book industry and the publishing houses have suffered. Consequently, they’ve become very selective over what they’ll agree to publish. If you want to get published by a major publishing house, you’d better already be famous or already have a successful publishing track record. That leaves most writers out, providing them little choice but to self-publish.
Of course the growth of self-published books has made things even more competitive for the traditional publishing houses. But they’ve got one thing the self-published authors don’t: the ear (more precisely the pen) of the critics. Nothing sells a book faster than a decent review by a national critic.
For years now, I’ve been hearing that since so many books are now being self-published, it’s just a matter of time before they start getting seriously reviewed. I want to believe that, but book critics, especially the New York variety where all the major publishing houses are located, tend to be an arrogant, snobby, elitist bunch. Break into that club, and you’ll do okay. Unfortunately, most writers remain on the outside looking in.
How will things change? The way things always change. From the bottom up. Grassroots-style. Eventually, there will be enough of a groundswell of movement towards self-publishing legitimacy that the critics will either take notice or get left behind. A lot of great writers with important things to say have written a lot of compelling books. Just because the major publishing houses don’t have the wherewithal to take a chance on them is no reason to ignore them. It’ll be a great day when the critics finally recognize this. Let’s hope that day is sooner rather than later.