The smells of desperation and need were heavy in the air as I stepped into the community room of my local library. I hadn't realized what it meant when I saw the sign, taped to the elevator door in the parking garage, that said, "Welcome, Authors!" As it turned out, my library was hosting local self-published authors to help them promote their work. A ring of folding tables had been set up, each one bearing stacks of colorful and glossy paperbacks. Behind each table sat authors ranging in age from young to old, male and female. Each of them stared up at me with large, hopeful doe eyes, tracking my every movement as I made my way slowly around the circle.
"Please," said one as I passed. "Take one of these." He handed me a marketing pamphlet. "I write political techno-thrillers," he said gravely.
"I ... hope it's well attended," I said lamely, and fled. I had broken the first rule of shopping for books: Never, ever make eye contact with a self-published author promoting his work.
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The fact, tenor and import of being a "published author" in the United States is changing, and changing rapidly. While anyone can be "published" on the Web, would-be writers put much more stock in hardcopy. There is something about holding a real, bound paper book that carries with it a certain weight, a certain validity – and it is this validation, this sense of accomplishment made physical, that a first-time author craves. Given how difficult it is to be selected or discovered by a traditional publishing house, a market has sprung up that serves amateur and first-time writers' need for affirmation. It is the publish-on-demand self-publishing industry.
Self-publishing was once known as "vanity press." Before the popularization of the technology of publish-on-demand (POD), if you were willing to fork over a few thousand dollars, you could have a print run of your book made for you. Then you got a big box of books to keep in your car trunk or your garage, from which you tried your best to sell the book at trade shows and the like. It wasn't "real" publishing, but at least your book existed physically.
Now, thanks to publish-on-demand technology coupled with the popularity and market penetration of online booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, a self-published book is every much as available, and could potentially get noticed as easily, as the countless other books found through online sellers. Most POD books will never make it to the shelves of a book store, but people are buying fewer books in those stores these days – and if devices like Amazon's "Kindle" ever catch on, we may see the further decline of real, paper books. The only thing stopping every aspiring author from publishing his book now is the few hundred dollars needed to sign up with a POD publishing house; eliminate even that cost as "virtual" books supplant paper ones, and we'll see even more previously unpublished authors writing their own tickets.
I say all this as someone who published a couple of his own POD books before becoming a commercial author on what is arguably the lowest tier of the print entertainment industry. I think my own work is good, but then, every author thinks so – and this, sadly, brings me to my point. The information age in which we live is characterized by saturation. We are inundated from all sides, every moment of every day, by more information than we can now process. This includes entertainment, including books. Search engines exist for this reason; they help us find things from among the maddening array of options. Even using search engines, and based on the recommendations we see online or the press coverage we see in the media, we'll only ever become aware of a small percentage of the information and entertainment options available (again, including books).
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Previously, smaller publishing houses like WorldNetDaily's book-publishing arm and Paladin Press catered to the niche market ignored by traditional publishing houses. For example, Paladin offers what is arguably the world's best selection of books on martial arts, weapons, and "knife fighting." Thanks to the technology behind publish-on-demand, in which Paladin invested not that long ago, it can now keep its authors' books in print virtually indefinitely, rather than producing costly print runs, gambling on sales and allowing the books that sell less well to fall out of print, lost to consumers. This is an optimal arrangement because, while such companies cater to markets traditional publishers do not, there is still a gatekeeping function on the content that reaches the market. Authors are screened for competence and marketability and, while the process isn't perfect, what sells is what sells.
This screening, this gatekeeping market-wide, helps cut the information overload we already experience. Remove the gatekeepers and we simply produce ream after further ream of garbage through which consumers must sift to find the content that suits them. While some self-published authors do make it, and even see their first POD works go on to be printed by "real" companies, this is rare. The majority of POD authors' work is chaff, often incompetently written and frequently poorly edited. It gives the POD industry a bad name and makes the majority of POD authors look like what they are – writers who lack the talent, the ambition, or the connections to get published "for real." The result is information overload, diluting the market for print entertainment and eroding the value of what it means to "be published."
As POD and electronic book-reading technology evolve and become more popular, the overpopulation of an already saturated market for published authors will explode. In some cases this means you'll be exposed to work that you like, which you otherwise might never see. Most of the time, however, it will simply be that much harder for you to find what you want. Information overload is both symptom and defining characteristic of our modern technological age. It will only get worse.