Self-publishing became commercially viable with the internet. It’s available, affordable, and offers possibilities of a career. It seems as though it’s been with us forever, but twenty years ago, this simply wasn’t the case. Self-publishing was once a last resort for the desperate writer of fiction, and possibly the death knell to a career. The literary trade was fairly exclusive, and did everything in its power to stay that way. Self-publishing was a costly old business, a road many people simply couldn’t afford to tread, and even if they did the possibilities of actually selling the work were slim. There was a niche-market possibility for non-fiction; if you loved steam engines, and were known in those circles as an expert, steam engine fanatics might queue for it. But a novel? By a nobody? How would you sell it when bookshops refused to put it on the shelf? Added to which, the stigma of self-publishing was deliberately propagated by the literary profession, to maintain a financial stranglehold on the market. Self-published authors were branded fools, not entrepreneurs, and one has to ask why, when the whole book-selling business is a commercial enterprise. It’s not some mystic highbrow artform. It’s about making money. For a mainstream publisher, the literary tag is a sales tool. The profession is a self-congratulatory business where critics ride on the back of financial successes. The publisher might shout and scream about literary value, about a stunning debut-author, but many of their choices disappear without trace, whether through lack of advertising or lack of consumer interest.
The fact is, though many rejected books undoubtedly were deserving of rejection, many weren’t. Purchasing an intellectual property is as much a commercial exercise as any other. The buyer is interested in making money. It’s a number-crunching exercise. Sometimes works didn’t just fit in with a publishers’ immediate needs or forecasts – and we all know how accurate a science that is. Yet without acceptance, many good authors were left hanging in limbo, unable to call themselves authors, unable to publish, unable to gain the readership or acclaim their works might deserve.
As long as publishers have existed, they have invested in books that flopped dramatically, for a whole bundle of reasons, had unexpected runaway successes with others, and rejected some that go on to hit the market in the face. Hands up, all you publishers and agents who rejected Harry Potter? Though there are still die-hards trying to suggest that self-published books are necessarily worse than traditionally accepted books, they’re shouting into the face of a rising storm. A few years back, the mainstream acquisition of a novel with little literary value, that bizarrely snowballed on the internet, is testament to the fact that it’s all about the money. Did they care that it wasn’t well-written? No, because it sold by the millions.