Is Self-Publishing a Dirty Word?

The quick answer:  Yes, it is.

That’s why many authors taking this route call it by different names like Independent Publishing and Author Publishing.  There is a legitimate distinction to be made.  What these authors want to convey is that they are approaching the (self) publishing of their books in a business-like manner.  Many incorporate.  They’re not publishing the unedited first draft of their first manuscripts either.  Nor are they rushing in blindly and signing a contract with the first subsidy publisher that waves a contract at them; they’re making careful comparisons and business decisions after crunching the numbers.

None of this sways the critics, it seems.

They correctly point out that the vast majority of self-published books are poorly written and few will sell more than 50 copies to the author’s family and friends.  There are no gate-keepers; the various companies publish anything and everything as long as you pay.

So what?  As (Theodore) Sturgeon’s Law says, “Ninety percent of everything is crap.”  If only 1% of all manuscripts submitted to New York publishers get published (a figure I’ve heard more than once)  that still leaves 9% of those manuscripts that are worth reading.  Why sneer at authors if they choose an alternate route to getting their work in front of the public?

The risk is that an inexperienced writer has no way of knowing on her own where her work stands.  Without a critique group or a teacher she may never learn.  It can take a long time and a lot of pages to learn the craft.  She may waste her money self-publishing when her work really isn’t ready.  But this is a question of self-knowledge, not self-publishing.  And submitting to New York can’t provide that guidance.  Agents and editors are swamped with manuscripts.  They don’t have time to give useful feedback.  Authors don’t get personalized rejections until their work is good but “just not right for us at this time.”

The critics of self-publishing also declare that money should flow TO the author, not FROM the author.  But we pay for professional memberships, don’t we?  We pay for workshops, computers, paper, conferences, and websites.  Why isn’t printing and distribution seen as just another business expense?

Approached properly, with lots of research and a careful eye on the bottom line, self-publishing can be a viable business choice if your goals are realistic.  It doesn’t have the cache’ of being validated by the New York gatekeepers, but if an author believes in her work, why shouldn’t she let the public vote with their wallets?  Her success (or failure) doesn’t take anything away from those taking the more traditional path, after all.

9 Comments

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9 responses to “Is Self-Publishing a Dirty Word?

  1. Self-publishing is definitely a choice that authors need to consider. I decided against it because I needed a bit of guidance in preparing my work and I didn’t feel confident to go it alone but a lot of authors are using the self-publishing route and it is only getting easier with e-books and the like.
    Thanks for sharing this post and getting us all thinking.

  2. Benita

    I believe the author needs to ask themselves “WHY do I want to be published?”
    I was thinking about other forms of arts & crafts and the gate-keeper relationship there.

    For fine art are they aiming for a high-end gallery? Or mid-level, where most of the money will be made from prints/production pieces? Or do sales matter at all? Do they have some other source of income and just want to put the art out there? (For examples of totally non-commercial work, check out the pieces done by art professors at your local university.)

    And for craft, you can park your truck on the side of the road, rent a space at the local flee market, buy into non-juried arts & craft fair, pay the entry fees for other local art events (including sci-fi cons). Here you are truly your own boss and the market will teach you what will and won’t sell.

    If you are aiming higher, you go for the juried shows, where your work has to meet a certain standard to get in. And then you still might not get in as they will want a “mix” of painting, ceramics, fiber art, etc. Or you can shop your work around to galleries that take stuff on consignment.

    And, yeah, the non-juried shows get no respect from the serious art world, but if the artist/craftsperson is making their living, only a few with higher ambition care.

    So is self-publishing equivalent to a non-juried arts & crafts show, where you pay your money for a chance that someone will want to buy what you have to offer?
    And if it is, does it ever lead to the next step up?

    • Yes, knowing why one wants to be published is a question that every author should ask themselves, preferably before they even start writing. And the answer can change over time.

      In my case, I don’t need the income to eat, though additional income would be nice. Mostly, after writing and revising four books, and learning more and more about how squeezed the publishing industry is, where good books fall by the wayside and only great books are published (great=as close to a sure ROI as NY can guess) and only a few of them are promoted, I just want my books to be read by someone besides my friends. I would still like to be anointed by the Powers-that-be. I have another book off at Berkley right now. But when a book has made the rounds, received numerous complementary rejections, and there are low cost ways to self-publish, why not?

  3. I think the big, big question every author thinking of self-publishing has to ask, even after they resolve to their satisfaction the question of whether their work isn’t selling for lack of quality or lack of a place in the market (which, as you say, is hard to see objectively), is this: What is my plan for reaching readers?

    If one has a niche book and audience (say, a book about stuttering that one knows one can sell to members of the stuttering association one belongs to), then the plan is clear. If one has a not-so-niche audience (say, all teens who like fantasy or all adults who like romance), it’s not at all clear to me that a self-published writer has any good way to reach that audience.

    Above all else–even above the considerations of making a living–we write because we want to be heard. And most self-published books, in general, don’t have a viable plan for achieving that, as far as I can tell–even a “failed” traditional published book (one that sells only a few thousand copies) has reached many more readers than a highly “successful” self-published one (a thousand copies is considered pretty good in self-publishing, as far as I can tell).

    I’d say that at most, with my traditionally published books, I’ve managed to sell 200-300 books directly to readers. Were I self-published, those would be all the books I would have sold, even had I managed to bring my books to the level my publisher helped me bring them to on my own.

    Then too, all those genuinely crappy self-published books aren’t irrelevant–because not only do you have to get your work in front of readers, you have to convince those readers your book is different from all those other self-published books, and I think that’s no small hurdle, too. I hear booksellers say regularly that they won’t even look at self-published books for their stores, because the time they’d have to invest versus the likelihood they’ll find a book they can carry just doesn’t make it something they can afford to do.

    Lightning strikes on occasion, of course–but that’s true in traditional publishing too. And I think it’s very difficult to come up with a plan for how to make self-publishing work when lightning doesn’t strike.

    • Janni, thanks for taking the time to comment.

      I agree, every author ought to have a business plan, part of which is to answer the question, “How am I going to reach my readers?” Niche books do have an easier time in the self-publishing world. Of the top-selling (by Amazon rank) self-published books, only 15% are fiction. But even the middle sellers are, at least, being purchased, and hopefully read, instead of sitting on the authors’ hard-drives.

      I disagree that if you had self-published, your hand-sold books would be the only ones you would have sold. Amazon and other online retailers account for 25% of book sales and the margin is growing. Your books would still have been reviewed by some professionals (Midwest Book Review is open to self-pubbed books) and by customers. Bones of Faerie (especially) would have gained word of mouth exposure, increasing your online sales.

      I agree the majority of unpublished books would benefit from an editor’s critical eye. That’s why most books on the subject of self-publishing say hiring an editor is imperative to bring the work up to a professional level. This is an expense the author has to shoulder, and be defrayed (hopefully) by increased sales due to increased quality.

      As for the amount of money a self-published book can make, I agree: most will not make a lot. But each self-published book sold earns two to five times as much per unit (depending on the publisher) in royalties as a traditionally published book does (especially after you pay your agent). Where the traditionally published author wins is that she gets her money up front. Whether her book earns out or not (and most don’t) she gets to keep the money. Of course, if her book(s) don’t earn out, she may not sell another book to NY unless she changes her pen name.

      Another way the traditionally pubbed author wins is that if her books do well, she can expect her advances to increase with each new contract. The self-pubbed author may have gained a following if her books are good, but each new book has to be promoted and earn its own way.

      You’re right, the best a self-pubbed author can hope for with respect to brick-and-mortar bookstores is to be listed in Ingram’s or Baker and Taylor’s catalog for special order. Maybe an Indie bookseller will order a few, but probably not. Online is the only realistic sales avenue for self-published books. But since online sales comprise 25% of the market, that’s not too bad.

      As for poorly written self-published books clogging up the system and burying the good ones, online buyers don’t pay attention to publishers. They look at the cover, use the “search inside” feature to see if they like the writing, and read customer reviews to make their buying decisions. It’s the same for traditionally published books. Everyone is trying to catch the buyer’s eye (and dollars) in a crowded pool.

      • Amazon does carry self-published books, true. But how does one encourage readers to find that Amazon page, even if it does have a review or two on it? Making one’s books available is easy; making readers aware they’re available is hard. 🙂 I agree most readers don’t care about publisher once a book is in their hands or its info page is on their browser screen–but how do you get them to the point where they’re looking at the book in the first place? What makes them wind up someplace where they hear it mentioned, or can click on that link for an excerpt?

        Much as I’m honored and complimented that you feel Bones of Faerie would have gained word of mouth on its own simply because it’s a worthy book (and much as I’d love to believe that!), after seeing first-hand how much my publisher has done to promote it, I’m pretty confident the book would be hardly known at all if I’d sold it by myself–that it would have sold a fraction of what it’s sold now. Because I’ve watched how my editor worked with me to make it even stronger–and at the same time more accessible–in ways that drew on both his experience as an editor and his knowledge of my readership; how the art department took the production of the cover, text, and packaging to levels I couldn’t have managed even if I’d hired a professional designer; as people began talking about it before I began talking about it, waiting for it with some anticipation with no encouragement from me; as it got reviewed places that wouldn’t have even considered reviews had I sent them a copy (not just the major review outlets, but newspapers and magazines); as independent bookstores discovered it after the sales force named it their spring pick; as my publisher sent far more copies than I could have afforded to send on my own to book bloggers around the country; and even as first-couple-chapter teasers got distributed not only online, but also on disks (along with several other titles) to teens in movie theaters. My publisher has done so much to get this book out there–though most of it is, of course, invisible to readers.

        I’ve done what I can to promote this book, too, of course, because I love it and care about it and am passionate about it and do think it’s a worthy book. And I do think the book would have had a hard time selling even with all my publisher did had I not written a strong story first. But if not for my publisher stepping in to get that story to readers, I’m pretty sure you’d still be one of the few to know about it.

      • I certainly agree, it’s hard to make readers aware of one book among the millions out there.

        You’re right too, to point out that publishers can do a lot to help the success of a book when they choose to. It was fortunate, and well deserved, that Bones of Faerie was a lead title (if I recall correctly) and got a little extra push. But self-pubbed authors can do a lot to promote their work, if they’re well informed AND have a good book.

  4. Janni

    Actually, Bones of Faerie wasn’t a lead title at all–the book that was the lead title got an entirely different level of push. (Six figure advance, author tour, etc, etc.)

    What extra attention Bones did get came from the early readers I wouldn’t have had access to reading the book and falling in love with it–especially the sales force, who named it their spring pick after reading it (this was a couple years after the book was acquired) and so pushed it harder; and the indie booksellers, who after reading it named it to that season’s Indie Next list.

    It seems to me that it’s a common tactic, in books and web sites on self-publishing, to
    dismiss those traditionally published books that succeed as having been struck by a sort of random good fortune that most writers can’t realistically hope for, while taking self-publishing’s successes as something we all can aspire to. This even though, by the numbers, self-publishing’s successes are far fewer: as far as I can tell, the same handful of successful self-published books get brought up over and over again as examples, while the orders of magnitude more books succeed via traditional publishing (so many that no one even tries to list them all) get ignored.

    But the one thing self-publishing can guarantee that traditional publishing can’t is that in the end, there will be a physical (or more and more, electronic) book in the writer’s hands. Given that the odds seem to be stacked against the self-published author in pretty much every other way, and given that as far as I can tell all a self-published author’s promotional efforts combined sell fewer books than most major publishers’ base-level distribution networks do even when a book receives no extra attention at all–well, I think the one thing self-publishing books often don’t tell authors is that before they go that route they need to think long and hard about whether they’re really doing what’s best for their career (and maybe they are: maybe they’re in a niche field and a book will enhance their standing with colleagues; maybe sales were always secondary, and they just want a way of sharing their work with a community they’re part of; maybe they have a blog that’s so popular that their audience is already right there in front of them) –or whether the lure of having a book-in-hand is obscuring other, more practical considerations.

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