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Similarities Between the Publishing Industry and the Food Industry

November 30, 2009

“I have no desire to scale up or get bigger. My desire is to produce the best food in the world and heal. And if, in doing so, more people come to our corner and want stuff, then Heaven help me figure out how to meet the need without compromising the integrity. That’s where I am. I have absolutely no desire to be at Wal-Mart. As soon as you grasp for that growth, you’re gonna view your customer differently, you’re gonna view your product differently, you’re gonna view your business differently. You’re going to view everything that is the most important, you’re going to view that differently.” — Joel F. Salatin, owner, Polyface Farm (emphasis his)

This statement here encompasses everything I feel about self-publishing and independent presses. The moment you set your goal to be on the bookstore shelf, on the bestseller list, making a lot of money, you immediately compromise your product. If you’re only concerned with writing what will sell, you lose sight of creating a product that you’re proud of.

Tyson foods is the largest producer of chicken in the world. They can do this because they genetically engineer the chickens to grow faster and larger at a smaller price. But by selecting only for size and quantity, they homogenize the product to the point that things like taste and humane practices fall away. Similarly, large publishing houses that select only for what will profit them without being controversial or risky, end up diluting books to the point that they’re all but interchangeable. Okay, sure, these vampires sparkle while those vampires smolder, but at the heart, they’re both still just Romeo and Juliet being retold for the eight millionth time.

“But the numbers show that they sell, so obviously people want them!” claim the proponents of traditionally published work. But just like in the food industries, people buy what is a) inexpensive, and b) highly visible. Publishing companies don’t profit by putting out books people want to read, they profit by putting out a cheaper product, and flooding the market with it. When all the public sees are these watered-down, derivative works and is convinced by the big publishing houses that this is all there is, then they buy it because they don’t believe they have the option.

But when success isn’t measured in money, but instead by putting out a quality product, your methods completely change. You don’t mind doing your own promotion and marketing, because you know it’s worth it to get the work out there. You don’t mind staying small, because it means you have the time and the space to focus on making the work good rather than diluting it through editors and agents and publishing house restrictions.

The self-publisher is no less interested in success than a traditional author. Where the disconnect comes in is that the self-publisher defines success in different terms. I don’t want to make a lot of money. I don’t want to sell enough copies to be noticed and picked up by a big house. That’s not how I define success. To me, if I can produce books that I am proud of, that I enjoy creating, and that the readers who buy them want to read, then I’ve succeeded. If I make enough money off that venture to be self-sustaining in my publishing, then I’ve succeeded. More than that, and I feel that I risk becoming distracted from those core goals.

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