Worst Advice I've Heard In A While

By | Sunday, August 07, 2011 2 comments
Adrian Zackheim recently posted a piece called The Myth of Self-Publishing in which he says that self-publishing is a bad idea and his advice is "to pursue the traditional path of agents and publishers to the best of your ability." His reasons are numerous, citing that most self-publishers don't make a lot of money, they usually don't know anything about marketing or book design, and they'll never attract any attention in a sea of other self-publishers without the support of a good publisher. He does acknowledge there are some notable success stories in self-publishing, but "Why take that risk and sell yourself short if you don’t have to?"

Let's set aside the fact that Zackheim is President and Publisher at a division of Penguin Books for a moment, and that most of his arguments come across like he's desperately trying to justify his own job. Let's also set aside the fact that most authors wind up having to do most of their own marketing because, unless they're already a big name, they tend to get fairly minimal marketing support from traditional publishers.

One of the big problems with Zackheim's piece is that it starts with a faulty premise. He seems to assume that every author is trying to become the next J.K. Rowling and have some massively huge hit that makes them boatloads of cash. I don't think I've ever met an author like that. Every one I've met seems to write because they like expressing themselves through the written word and, if they're lucky and write A LOT, they might make enough money to earn a living at it. Not necessarily hundreds of thousands of dollars every year, just enough to pay the bills and go to the movies from time to time. And they all seem to recognize, too, that that NEVER happens overnight, and that even after their first full book is published, they have to keep working on magazine articles and sales copy and technical manuals and whatever other writing gigs they can muster in order to pay the current bills.

He also claims that, while self-publishers can get themselves into online stores readily enough, traditional book publishers have an overwhelming advantage in physical stores. Which is almost certainly true... except that has to be said in light of Borders -- one of the largest bookstore chains in the nation -- going bankrupt and closing up shop. It's all well and good to have the secret password to the bookstore chains, but if those chains close then it doesn't much matter, does it?

Another faulty premise he has is that "it's more valuable than ever to have experts curate the works that are really worthy of a reader’s attention." Again, that is true but given the crap that so many publishers put out, I don't know that readers at large trust big publishers any more than independent ones. With few exceptions (and many of those in the comic biz) I don't know that publishers really even rise enough to readers' attention. Does anyone really stop to check who's publishing Neil Gaiman's latest book? Does anyone stop to check who's publishing a book that Gaiman endorsed with a quote that's on the back cover? Does anyone check who's publishing a book that Gaiman, on his blog, casually notes that he's been reading? I'm pretty sure the answer is a resounding "no." Readers definitely do want/need someone to curate the works that are worthy of their attention, but publishers aren't those curators.

He seems to suggest that getting an agent and publisher is an easier road than self-publishing. He goes out of his way to list all of the hardships a self-publisher has to deal with. I certainly wouldn't say self-publishing is easy, by any means, but to suggest that it's easier than getting a traditional publisher is questionable at best. There are loads of hurdles in the traditional publishing route -- which is why so few people are actually able to get published that way. And they're very different types of obstacles than with self-publishing. From a "hard work" perspective, you're comparing apples and oranges.

Zackheim makes it abundantly clear in his piece that he is not going to publish your book. He essentially says his job is to keep people who come to him from becoming published authors; that his job is as gatekeeper to readership. He is the one who is going to say what is worth publishing and what isn't. With the President/Publisher taking that kind of attitude towards potential writers, why the hell would you want to get your book traditionally published by him even if the rest of his arguments made sense?
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Jeff said...

It seems like he wants writers to use traditional publishing avenues because "that's the way it's always been done". Hey, Mr. Zackheim, welcome to 2011! Things have changed in the last 50 years, much to your dismay.

Ethan said...

Just more from the 'old guard' way of thinking, too. I also ran into many people who questioned both my methods and my sanity when I told them I would run my own freelance comic art career, rather than get an art agent or try to get penciling work with one of the 'Big 2' companies.