The only thing I know for sure about Web. 2.0 and the current state of literary affairs is that it is in constant flux. Until the dust settles, if it ever does, all we can do as writers is hang on for the ride, keep writing and try to keep up, looking for opportunities to insert ourselves into the swirling world of publishing whenever we can.
What I know about self-publishing is even less. In fact, what I know about self-publishing, or what is really known better now as self-publishing-on-demand can be summed up in four words:
Lulu, Amanda Hocking, E-books. One of the central players in publishing on demand (or POD), Lulu is the go-to site where you can upload your book of poetry, your literary magazine, your novel, and people can instantly order your book online, in hard copy or as an ebook and have it delivered directly to them. Poof -- the middle people, the agents, editors and publishers, disappear. Several people I know, including my husband, have done this and not only have they made some money at it but more importantly, their work has gotten into the hands of readers who have really enjoyed it, and when you get right down to it, isn't that what this is all about?
Yes... and no. The thing is, with apologies to Peter and Gordon, I don't know how long I can "stay," as a reader and a writer, in a world without publishers, specifically without the editors they employ. From my vantage point, they serve a real, indispensable purpose. Publishing entails a lot of players: acquisitions editors, copy editors, publicists and sales reps to name a few. In a large publishing company, these are all different people, in a small one, they might boil down to one or two. I appreciate all of them but I have a special place in my heart for editors. Editing is an art; something that only certain people can do well and usually an art that those very people have been cultivating for many, many years. Editors take what authors have given them, seeing the potential in it, and then carefully, painstakingly work with the manuscript and the author until this potential is realized. The editors I have worked with, most recently Anthony and Karen Hayes at Professional and Higher (the former of whom has also written recently about the dangers of throwing out the publishers with the bathwater) always challenged me to take my writing to the next level, asking all the right questions, probing further and deeper in ways I couldn't see myself because I was too close to the work. Without editors, almost everything I have published would be a mere shadow of itself.
This is to say nothing of copy editors, whose painstaking efforts ensure that when my work finally greets the public, it will contain virtually no grammatical errors, inconsistencies, typos or erroneous information and, what's more, the writing itself will be stylistically air-tight. In short, even though I have proofread my work repeatedly, aiming for the cleanest possible copy of which I am capable (and I am no slouch) it's the copy editor who makes sure I don't embarrass myself. This is much, much harder to do than people realize; in fact, it's a highly cultivated skill that is extremely time-consuming. After revising and copy editing my work ad-infinitum, asking my husband to do the same, then revising once more (and remember, we're both writers who edit our work all the time), I am always astounded at what the copy editor catches. This is why when someone who is self-publishing balks at paying to have the work professionally edited I always die a little inside. Professional editors are worth every penny and are probably underpaid to boot. Whenever I read something that has been self-published, I can always tell whether or not the author has hired a professional copy-editor. Usually, they haven't.
The other process publishers cover quite well is publicity and promotion. Good publicity is a stunning amount of work and unless you have the time -- and the budget -- to devote to it (and the most successful self-published authors were also tireless self-publicists who did put in that time) it still is the very rare self-published book that will sell well. Even Amanda Hocking, the wunderkind of self-publishing, admits that part of the reason she went to the "dark side" of traditional publishing (besides the fortune they offered her) is that she just wanted to focus on the writing and not all the other stuff that has to happen to get books sold. Hocking also has high praise for the editing process at publishing houses. When her self-published books were acquired by traditional publishers they were all edited and re-written before they were released and, she acknowledges, the books are far better for it. In fact, she says quite clearly in her advice to writers that if there is any place that self-publishers tend to shortchange their readers, it's in the editing.
Many agents function the same way. Often former editors with years of experience, they have a keen eye for good storytelling and they know, often in subtle, nuanced ways, exactly what a story needs to make it effective, to make it the kind of experience that will leave the reader coming back from more. Once you take editors and agents with this keen eye out of the equation, good storytelling suffers. Maybe people read a little less because they can't quite put their fingers on why but reading is less satisfying than it used to be. And a world without readers? That, my friends, would be the worst world of all.