By Brenda Peterson
In the 1970s, when I was an editorial assistant at The New Yorker magazine — and getting many rejections — I used to fanaticize about being my own publisher. “Give yourself ten years to finish a book,” one of the revered New Yorker editors advised me. “Think of it as an author’s apprenticeship.”
After five years, I left the magazine to publish my first novel, River of Light with Knopf. To support my writing, I took a lowly job as a typesetter, so I could complete my working knowledge of books — from creation to production. My second novel, Becoming the Enemy, was even set at a fictional publishing house. I worked for decades as an editor and taught writing.
After publishing 16 books with traditional houses — from Norton to HarperCollins to Penguin — I believed I was finally ready to become my own publisher. But there was still a stigma against the “vanity press” of self-publishing, no distribution, and little consumer demand.
I would have to wait until the 21st century when digital technology, direct distribution channels like Amazon, iBooks, and Nook, plus the popularity of inexpensive e-readers have finally made it possible for authors to become publishers. My first task was to bring my backlist into print as e-books. The journey into self-publishing is like discovering a new territory with evolving rules and a swiftly tilting culture. This is one of the most exciting and innovative times to be an author. Everything is in flux.
An esteemed editor said recently at a national conference of Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), “It’s the Wild West out there for e-books. And publishers should not be afraid to embrace them.”
With the proliferation of e-books and self-publishing will the book business become more sustainable and egalitarian? Will we finally see an end to the bloated advances for celebrity memoirs — those non-books for non-readers written by non-writers? Will we see the re-education of the bottom-liners who turned this once genteel profession of publishing into corporate Raiders of the Lost Authors?