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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Is the book business dying — or diversifying?

1. Nearly all the traditional publishers have been absorbed by large corporations. This tends to shift their decision-making processes toward quick and sure successes — toward books that are much like the ones that are already selling. Books that could find a modest but solid audience, or may take time to build one, seem much less often to be getting the chance.

2. On-demand digital printing technology, plus ebooks, means that anyone, basically, can publish a book today, and the Internet creates the chance to market it. Not long ago, publishing a book meant a pretty hefty investment — and without a publishing company’s marketing operation, authors who went their own way tended to feel marooned and ignored. Now that doesn’t have to be so.

3. Just because nearly anyone can publish a book doesn’t mean that anyone can publish a good book. Without the traditional system of editors, copyeditors and proofreaders, even a professional writer is challenged to bring out a book with really professional content on his or her own. It can be done — I think True Shoes is the best book I’ve produced, out of 14 published so far — but publishing independently with competitive high quality is not easy at all.

4. The old molds are cracking open — and nobody quite knows what new forms of book publishing are emerging. I think what’s happening in the book business is very much like what happened over the last 10 or so years in the music industry. The prominent music labels got swallowed up by big corporations, and began looking just for the next Mariah Carey or Backstreet Boys. Bands that were good but had individual style — the emerging talents the industry should have been cultivating — couldn’t get signed. But at the same time, digital recording technology gave anyone with a laptop the chance to make a CD — and MySpace first created the chance for bands to market themselves. As the old mold cracked open, the indie music scene became a major force — but not without a whole lot of determined work by the best independently publishing bands.

That’s what I think is happening with books. More and more published writers like myself are choosing to publish independently. The book establishment doesn’t like it and will not help us; True Shoes will not get reviewed, for example, in any of the traditional review journals. That’s okay. If I work very hard and am smart about exploring today’s networking opportunities, I can find my readers.

Does this make me part of an indie-publishing movement? I think so, yes. Is this a deadly threat to the book business? Only to its most corporatized, distant-from-the-actual-reader forms. Is that a bad thing? I don’t think it is at all.
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