The first time I attended a mystery writer’s conference, I was talking to another, more experienced writer when I noticed a woman purposely walking around handing out cards to everyone. “That’s X,” my new friend said, her voice dropping to a whisper, “she’s self-published.” It was a bit like that scene from St. Elmo’s Fire when Wendy explains her mother: “There are certain words my mother finds too horrible to utter so she whispers them…” Self-published used to be one of those horrible words, right up there with “cancer,” “divorce,” and “ointment.” The term conjured up sad, frustrated writers who, after years of rejection, gave up on traditional publishing and did it themselves. It was assumed by most in the industry that these books were subpar, lacking, and amateur. In short, they were assumed to be crap, and publishing your own work was considered nothing short of career suicide.
Of course, that’s utter crap. Yes, some self-published books are awful, but then so aren’t some traditionally published books. We all know of one story in which a writer who has been turned down by every editor on the planet is finally published and then is hailed as genius (A Confederacy of Dunces, anyone?). Being rejected by an editor is no more an indication of your worth than not getting asked to prom by the class hottie is.
Since that first conference, much has changed in the world of publishing. E-books – once regarded as the bane of civilization or a sign of the coming apocalypse – are now mainstream. Stephen King published one and proved all the critics wrong (of course, everything that man does goes against all the traditional publishing rules, so perhaps he’s not the best example). Kindles and Nooks are commonplace. Even I now own a Kindle – something that I swore I’d never do. “I like to hold a book!” I’d protest adding, “I like the smell of a book” and “I don’t want to read off a computer screen.” Then my husband bought me one. I played with it a bit, but I didn’t really use it much, that is until this summer when we went on vacation. We were only allowed so much weight in our luggage, so instead of trying to creatively pack guidebooks and beach reads, I downloaded them onto my Kindle. Slowly, I began to see the benefit of e-books. However, it wasn’t until I finished my beach read and was “bookless” that I really appreciated the Kindle. I merely bought another book and downloaded it, all in a matter of seconds. I was hooked. The Kindle is perfect for today’s culture of “I want it NOW” consumerism.
Of course, the downside is the disappearing bookstore. There used to be wonderful ones all around the DC area where I grew up. There was one that just catered to mysteries, and on Friday’s they would serve afternoon tea complete with sherry and little cookies (they eventually had to stop serving the sherry because underage kids were coming in to help themselves). I miss having a neighborhood bookstore. I miss browsing amongst the rows and rows of books and talking to knowledgeable staff. But, I suspect there are those who yearn for the return of the milkman and a butler banging a gong for dinner. With technological advancement comes change. We just have to adapt as best we can.
While I do mourn the losses that the e-book has caused, there is some to celebrate. More writers are getting a chance to share their stories, which in turn allows readers more choices.
And if you attend a writer’s conferences today, you will meet authors who are not only self-published, but aren’t pointed out with a whisper. Unless, that whisper says something like, “That’s X. She started out selling her books out of her trunk. Then she got on Amazon and made $5,000 in one day.”