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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.

SLJ, librarians, and the rise of indie books

School Library Journal’s February issue has a big feature on the rise of small presses and self-publishing, and what this means to librarians. The article’s essence: there’s a big and growing flow of fresh books from non-mainstream sources. And librarians, though often open by nature to new possibilities, are challenged to sort through everything and dig out the good stuff.

Fair enough. But the article’s headline capsulizes the challenge that faces the people, such as me, who’ve taken to producing books independently. The head: “Fringe Factor.” Its implication: do we really have to wade through all this junk?

Then the article quickly tells why indie books in this fast-changing landscape are not always fringe. “Decades of consolidation among larger publishers” has left just five major corporate New York houses, and these “often pay enormous sums for fewer books that they target for best-seller status.” In other words — okay, in my words, having worked with two of those five houses, for eight books in total — the traditional publishers are now giant corporate entities that focus more and more on formulaic products. This is less and less the wellspring of fresh original work.

“The bigger [the largest publishers] get, the more valuable independent publishers become,” notes Meredith Barnes, senior publicity manager at Soho Press, in the article. Exactly.

Three years ago, frustrated by trying to work with an ever-more corporate entity, and with a good YA novel in manuscript that I knew had a market but which my publisher had casually dismissed, I started my own little enterprise, Long Stride Books. I now have two collaborators, a page designer and an artist, and this April we bring out our third title, Treasure Town, an early-reader chapter book that Kirkus Reviews is calling “a boisterous, slapstick adventure that will entertain budding readers.” (End of plug.) And in this time I have learned a lot. Primarily I've discovered these two things:

1. The first big challenge is distribution. Just as for indie filmmakers, most of us can’t get our work into mainstream channels where, in our case, librarians and bookstores can order it. I’ve been lucky: largely because I had a good sales record, Long Strides got picked up by an excellent national distributor, the Independent Publishers Group. Without a distributor, you’re ghettoed on Amazon, and/or you're trudging boxes of your book to local bookstores. Gradually, though, new distribution options are setting up and opening up to the indies — and the same, I hope, will soon be true for my second learning experience.

2. The review and prize system is wedded to the book establishment. Reviews are, of course, how overstressed, under-funded librarians mainly identify worthy new titles. “Multiple professional reviews are usually a criterion” for most librarians “to consider a book,” says SLJ — “and much self-published material has not been reviewed.”

There’s a proliferation of fresh ways to get your book out there — recently, the Independent Book Publishers Association, of which I’m a member, looked over the data and discovered that 48% of all new book titles in a single year had been brought out by small and independent publishers. But the system for evaluating and recommending them hasn’t yet figured out how to adjust. Or if it wants to adjust. SLJ, to give a notable example, will not even consider reviewing self-published work.

Yet more and more professional authors have come to the reasonable conclusion that if the big houses still expect to take 95 percent, more or less, of a book’s proceeds, yet they almost invariably now expect writers to do all or almost all of our own marketing ... well, why should we do that? So we consider the options. And we find that indie and self-publishing, in this new age of globalized independent media, more and more look like respectable, even inspiring prospects.

So the book world is changing — and I find that those who are most invested in its long-established system can be the most dismissive of what’s going on. Even snidely so. And it's true, most self-published books are not very good; but it’s also more and more true that neither are a whole lot of corporate-published books. The key question, I think, is how will the system adjust to find the good ones in today's full flow of new titles?

I don’t mind saying that it can be discouraging, as an indie, to get a good new title noticed, reviewed, recognized. But it is just as exasperating to get the same work through the corporate publishing system. Still, writers keep trying. We find new ways. What else can we do? And, little by little, over time and often with grudging reluctance, the establishment adjusts.

And hey — if you’d like to see the video book trailer for Treasure Town, featuring second and third grade excellent readers, here it is.

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