Monday, March 16, 2009

Self-Publishing and the Exception to the Rule

It's easy to see that the publishing industry, like the music industry before it, is undergoing major changes where in future it may not be uncommon to see writers simply bypassing the publishers altogether to sell directly to their readers. The new print-on-demand publishers (like Lulu) make it extremely easy and economical for writers to self-publish, especially where these have immediate access to on-line distribution through Amazon or Chapters. This is good, because in cutting out the middleman (publishers, retailers) costs can be kept down, yet with a much higher return from the cover price going directly to the writer. But this is also very bad, because without a publisher acting as 'referee', the reader has almost no way of navigating through the storm of self-publishing that is threatening to overwhelm us.

Self-publishing is often legitimate when dealing with small niche or regional markets. As small publishers have increasingly been bought out by larger national publishers, and national publishers consolidated into global megapublishers, the big publishers have taken on so much debt acquiring their former competition, that they can no longer survive publishing books with limited appeal. To survive, they increasingly rely on economies of scale, and have been dropping even their formerly profitable midlist authors (those who sell 50,000-75,000 copies). So when authors I know turn up in limited editions from small regional presses or their own personal imprint, no problem. But finding new authors worthy of attention amongst the recent tidal wave of self-published titles is another matter entirely.

Most self-published work is -- not to put too fine a point on it -- dreadful. As a reviewer these last 30 years, a lot of self-published titles have crossed my desk on their way to landfill, and they have generally ranged from dreadful to appalling. There was one author I recall who had a certain naive charm, in an amateurishly painful way, but she was the exception to the rule, and even her work wasn't good enough for me to actually review -- I don't see the point of really negative reviews when there are so many good titles worthy of recommendation.

This history of self-publishing as synonymous with bad writing is a problem for those trying to catch the wave of the future, because professional reviewers have been conditioned to simply ignore any self-published work sent into them. Indeed, not only is it unlikely to be worthy of review space even in the local paper or niche market newsletter, the sort of individual that self-publishes is often the sort who takes personal affront at bad reviews, and there is only so much crank mail, tire-slashing, and death threats a reviewer can put up with before just deciding not to bother. Which sometimes leaves good writers who can't sell to the mega-publishers an uphill battle for acceptance.

Once such title is Lorina Stephens' Shadow Song. From the perspective of the major publishers, Shadow Song is unmarketable for three reasons: (1) as a Historical Romance, it has way too many fantasy elements; as a fantasy novel, it reads too much like a Historical; and as a Canadian novel, it's too down beat for either. So when a marketing department can't figure out which imprint to bring it out under, the project just doesn't go forward. (2) There are elements here that could lead to charges either of cultural appropriation or subtle racism. Both charges would be false, the first person narration merely expressing the authentic views of a European from 1830, but from the publisher's point of view, why take on any controversy when there are a hundred other manuscripts that won't raise any flags. (3) I think this book has real potential as a companion to high school history / novel study classes, but there are three sex scenes that essentially block it from that market. So, I appreciate why the big publishers looking for an easy, surefire hit, passed on Shadow Song.

But none of those considerations should matter to actual readers. It's simply a marvelous book, the exception that proves that sometimes self-published can be great. Indeed, I go so far as to say that the superior writing, backed by meticulous research and authentic characterization, elevates this cultural fantasy to candidate for Great Canadian Novel. As a historical romance, it features a ten year old girl thrust into life in 1830s Upper Canada (after sheltered aristocratic upbringing in England) and eventually into learning from First nation's shaman. The fantasy elements based on First Nation's culture are as convincing and riveting as any based on usual Celtic/Anglo traditions; the historical detail so finely rendered you can reach out to touch the settings; and the authentic voice of 1830s heroine gives narration fine Jane Austin feel-- with maybe touch of Black Donnellys thrown in. Definitely in the best tradition of dark, slow Canadian fiction, Shadow Song packs a powerful punch.

Highly recommended. (If you buy it, go for the green cover pictured here, rather than the original blue cover.)

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