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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Reader Question: To Self-publish or Not to Self-publish, That is the Question

Blondishnet recently asked:
What are your thoughts on 'self-publishing?' Would you recommend it? And if so, for whom?
This is a good question, the answer to which will not be remotely surprising. No, I do not recommend self-publishing except in the following instances:
  • You are writing a family memoir that you only intend family to read.
  • You are making a photo book of some sort and have no intention of selling it.
Unless you're creating something that will only be appealing to people close to you, such as friends and family, avoid self-publishing like the plague. The reason? Because it can damage a potential writing career, there are too many companies that intentionally and unintentionally prey on people who don't know any better, and almost nobody fully understands what they are getting themselves into when they do self-publish. But I will elaborate here just a bit.

When you decide to self-publish you need to face the stark reality that you will not only get absolutely zero respect in the publishing community, because you likely don't deserve it, and that most likely your writing will be atrocious--and people will notice. Most people who self-publish do not pay for editing services, and those that do rarely pay for decent editing service, settling for line-by-line work, rather than having someone actually tear apart the manuscript. If you've been rejected by legitimate publishers, you should probably start asking yourself why. Is it possible that you suck? Or maybe your manuscript isn't good enough or still needs a lot of work? This isn't like the short story market where there can often be a flood of good stories that get rejected simply because there isn't space. Legitimate publishers reject novels for very good reasons and very (and I do mean very) rarely do they reject perfectly good manuscripts--yes, it happens, but when that happens you'll likely know about it, which should be an encouragement. If your novel was rejected, you should ask yourself why rather than throwing up your hands and self-publishing.

And here's the thing: self-published authors feel like they should get respect by default, as if being published by a firm like Lulu or Booksurge or whatever is the same as being picked up by Tor or Randomhouse or some other legitimate press. You are not the same as Stephen King, because you have opted to cheat the system, a system which works and which pays authors for their writing. In cheating, you've put out a manuscript that will most likely be seriously flawed, and now you expect folks to take their hard-earned dollars and give them to you because you say your book is good, even though it was not professionally edited, has a crappy cover, and was essentially paid for by you to be put into print by a company that doesn't give a flying fig whether your novel is any good. And that's just it: self-publishing firms DO NOT care if your book is good or utter filth. They want to make a quick buck, and I won't begrudge them that, except where they lie and misrepresent who they are. And consumers generally know this. How they have managed to become smarter than a lot of writers is beyond me, but consumers are not likely to buy your self-published book when they can get one from a professional publisher for the same price, or cheaper, and have some guarantee of quality.

And you can damage your career by self-publishing. You might get lucky and still get published by a real press, but the chances of that are slim to none. Most likely you'll get so entrenched in the self-publishing world, and even bitter about it, that you'll never leave it. In the process you'll lose out on any chance to not only improve your craft, but to also develop a career.

Self-publishing is also manipulative. Yes, there are decent companies out there that do a fine job of not misrepresenting what they do (such as Lulu), but there are also a lot of companies out there that will do everything they can to snatch up your book and make you pay to have it printed. They prey on the unsuspecting author and are the only ones who profit from it.

Be smart about your writing. If you honestly think it is good, don't give up after a few rejections. Keep trying. Just because you're having it rough now doesn't mean you won't get a break later. You won't get anywhere by giving up, and there are a lot of benefits to persisting in the writing world. Self-publishing should only be the answer if you have a certain kind of product, but if you do decide to self-publish your fiction, be fully aware of what you're getting yourself into. Don't expect respect and come to grips with the reality that you will be looked down upon as an inferior author for legitimate reasons. You'll have to work even harder to get anywhere as a self-published author, and if you're willing to put that kind of effort there, why wouldn't you do it in the more legitimate market?

Self-publishing certainly has some benefits (you have greater control of your intellectual property), but again, is it worth it? I say not.


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  1. While I agree with your basic premise, I disagree with this statement:

    "Legitimate publishers reject novels for very good reasons and very (and I do mean very) rarely do they reject perfectly good manuscripts . . ."

    Several people I know online have agents--and good agents--but have been unable to find a publisher. Presumably, they would not have found agents without a good manuscript. But still, they can't sell their novel. Read any agent blog and you'll see this come up. Good manuscripts get rejected all the time.

    I think of landing a book deal as akin to landing recording deal. The nightclubs are full of good singers and great musicians, but very few of them land recording deals. Landing a book deal is just as hard, and involves a lot of luck.

    I have more respect for self-publishers than I did in the past, mostly because I've seen some genuinely good stuff come through my Discovery Showcase program. Sure, they could have used an editor who specializes in fiction, but the talent is there. I've also seen the opposite.

    And I still agree with you. Self-publishers don't have much respect, and they have an uphill battle from the get-go. If you can't sell your novel, the best thing you can do is write another one. It will likely be better.

  2. "Good manuscripts get rejected all the time."

    Not true. A publisher has a very specific kind of book they are looking for. It has to be something they can sell, something marketable, well written (for the most part), and interesting. Sometimes a book you might consider good isn't what is considered "good" by the standards of the publisher. Rarely do books that the publisher would normally publish get rejected, and when they do it is usually due to not having space. But, a good manuscript is not necessarily just a well-written story. You might have the best science fiction novel ever written, but if you submit it to a publisher who only publishes cook books, would you be surprised if they passed up your "perfectly good" manuscript?

    Good to a publisher is different from what you or I might think of it, and that's because the publisher has a certain idea in their head of what they want and what they think people who buy their books will want.

    The same can be said of singers/musicians. Record labels aren't looking for someone who just sings well, because just singing well doesn't work anymore. You can be a fantastic singer, but if you don't embody all the other things that make for a great singer/entertainer, then you're likely to stay in obscurity.

    The problem with self-publishing is that while there are a handful of really good books put through them (which has nothing to do with the self-publisher, but everything to do with the writer, since the SP has absolutely nothing to do with selecting manuscripts), the vast majority of stuff published through self-publishing means is atrocious at best. There are clear reasons why a lot of these folks never got anywhere elsewhere: because they suck. If you have a darn good manuscript, there's no reason why you can't get published by a legitimate press. None whatsoever. There are so many small presses with very niche markets that almost anything has a place in the market, so why people who actually are good still go to self-publishing is beyond me.

    That's the thing I never got either: Why can't you just write something else? If nobody is biting right now, that doesn't mean they won't like the next thing you have. No writer should stop writing once they've finished one book. Keep writing novels. Your first one probably won't sell anyway, and that's okay, but the next one might, if you're any good, or the one after that. Look at some of the great examples of authors who have gained a lot of popularity who were rejected all the time, and who wrote many novels! Stephen King got rejected. Ursula K. LeGuin got rejected. Frank Herbert got rejected by practically every publisher he submitted Dune to. Almost all successful writers have been rejected, and they moved on and wrote other things and kept pushing at it. There's no reason to give up and take the easy way out if you truly believe in your work.

  3. Wow, way to propogate a load of half-truths and misconceptions as if you're some kind of expert.

    What you say about self-publishing is certainly true in a large number of cases, but not for every case as your post implies.

    Indie publishing is a fast growing movement and one that is producing a lot of quality work. Don't just take my word for it - ask Jeremy Robinson, Matthew Reilly or Simon Haynes (to name just three) who self-published and have gone on to great traditional publishing deals.

    In fact, just about every single point you make is wrong, as you imply that it counts for every indie author out there. Is every Muslim a terrorist? Is every gay guy a camp little blond Ken-doll that loves Barbara Streisand? You do yourself a great disservice posting things like this.

    These days any indie author will make their work available in excerpts for people to "try before they buy". Let the public decide. At the end of the day readers don't care where or how something was published. They just enjoy a good read.

    The world of publishing is changing and views like yours are fast becoming archaic and will soon, quite rightly, go the way of the dodo.

  4. Indie publishing is not self-publishing. That's the improper term to use, because indie publishing refers to small presses which are largely separated from the enormous publishing apparatus that places like Random House, etc. are a part of.

    And what the hell are you bitching about. You're published by a small press, an independent press, as noted on their page. If you believed in self-publishing so much, why didn't you do it yourself? Unless you invented that press yourself, in which case you're being deceptive and reinforcing everything I have said about self-publishing, since you yourself are willing to deceive people to sell your self-published book rather than let it stand on its own merits.

    And you name a whole lot of people who a) I've never heard of and b) almost nobody has heard of. You could walk in downtown New York City and ask people if they know who those people are, and almost everyone would say no. But when you look at the track record of legitimate publishing you get Stephen King, Jim Butcher, Ursula K. LeGuin, and hundreds upon hundreds of household names who have sold tens of thousands to millions of books. I have heard of no case in which a self-published author has done that. Paolini does not count. Why? Because he was picked up by an actual press and marketed through them, rather than by his own efforts. And your examples are exactly proving my point: if self-publishing were so great, why would these folks even want to be with a traditional publisher? And they are exceptions, rarities that do not represent any sizable portion of the self-published populace. They represent less than a tenth of a percent of all self-published authors and to sit here and pretend that they represent legitimate success for self-publishing is disingenuous.

    If you actually read my blog you would know that my stance on self-publishing has been to acknowledge the exceptions, but not to make them the end all be all. Just because I did not utter that here does not mean I never said it. You've been to this blog all of two times, and maybe a handful of other times.

    And again, we're not talking about indie authors. We're not talking about "try before you buy." We're talking about the ridiculousness of the "promise" of self-publishing, the one perpetuated by self-published authors who had little to no success while self-published and who only gained notoriety in any fashion by being picked up by legitimate presses. That's the important part. It's irrelevant whether there is a "try before you buy" thing. People largely don't read online in the first place and bookstores rarely, if ever, carry self-published books, which makes browsing by methods most people use nearly impossible.

    And publishing has been changing, but it hasn't been changing towards self-publishing. If anything, all the changes in publishing in the last 10 years have strengthened the traditional publishing platform. Traditional publishing isn't going away and it likely never will unless we have a complete and total economic collapse, in which case no publishing will be readily available.

  5. And another thing to add, since you brought up the "try it before you buy it" thing. Why should a consumer be expected to do any significantly extra work to determine if your book is worth spending money on? It's not a lot of work to pick up a book, look at the cover, skim the back cover, and then decide. That's what most readers do, because they have an expectation: that the book will be decently written with little to no mistakes, etc.

    But you're saying that now a consumer should have to start reading the book beforehand to figure out if the book is even worth the paper it is or will be printed on? Why? They can just go to Borders and find a book published by a legitimate press that they know they can trust to at least be properly edited. There is absolutely no trust in the self-publishing world because most authors published that way are not professionally edited--and it shows.

    The consumer makes the decision in the end, and until self-publishing improves its quality, it will remain in the den while traditional publishing and small presses stay on top. That's the way it will be until something changes.

  6. Anonymous6:18 AM

    I totally agree with you (for once :p). There are some folks out there who do well with self-publishing, and I do admire them, they take the time to market themselves and keep in touch with their fans and they work really hard to get their novels up to scratch before they have them printed.

    I would guess those people make up less than 1% of self-published novels. Maybe less than 0.1%

    I just searched 'fantasy' on Lulu, for example, and it came up with approximately 7930 books. If you sort these by 'bestsellers' then I have never heard of any of the top ten. This top ten is dominated by books costing on average a crazy £25. 500 page paperbacks costing £32, and 220 page paperbacks costing £14! I suspect many of these are selling as download-only ...

    Anyway, 0% of Lulu's fantasy novels have made it to a point where a fantasy nut recognises the name. Not a casual browser, or a random person in the street, but someone who spends a heck of a lot of time browsing online and reading about the fantasy market. By my standards that's not a good thing--you're not only missing your market entirely, you're missing your niche market as well.

    That is, of course, just Lulu, and doesn't include any of the many other options.

    I, like Shaun, have been unfortunate enough to read some self-published novels, or at least portions of them. They have been, largely, appalling. I've seen better work produced by 13 year olds who haven't heard of editing yet. I wish that were a joke. There have been some where the writing was decent, but the plot wasn't tight enough. In short, 99% of self-published novels haven't been worked on enough. It's not even that they need a professional editor: I'm pretty sure I can edit myself to near-publishable standards, given enough time and a few beta readers. Most people pursuing the self-publishing route seem to be so confident of their own talents, they don't even want to edit their work that much.

    Anyway, besides the usually awful standard of self-published novels, my main problem is the way they swagger around saying 'I've been published'. No, you haven't, you've been printed. I printed my second novel off on a laser printer so I could red-pen it. Slap a binding on it and a cover made in Photoshop, and by their standards I could call myself published. Hooray! Anyone want to buy my book? It has many typos, plot holes, and the beginning is boring and amateurish, but that shouldn't matter to you because it's been PUBLISHED!

    Ok, sarcasm aside, in my experience going around telling people you've been published just gets questions asked (by who?) and then polite nods. Those polite nods usually turn into dirty looks when these people continue to "market" their work to you. They often market in the wrong places--we get them occasionally on our writer's forum, people who have come into contact with self-published authors before, and are heartily sick of their attitude. If you're going to "market" to a knowledgeable audience, you need to be open and say 'yes, I've self-published, but I've done my best to make this a quality piece of work'--and then deliver. You can't fall back on 'well I haven't had an editor', 'every book has typos', 'it's better than The Da Vinci Code/Eragon!'. In the age of the internet, it's not hard to find people who will help you edit your novel--even for free. Yes, every book has typos, and it winds me up in professionally published novels too. And yes, you might well be better than The Da Vinci Code/Eragon, but frankly that's not hard and isn't much to brag about.

    I think self-published authors on the whole just need a few pegs knocking off their self-esteem, and also need to realise that they're not special in any way. Anyone can print anything, and thousands do. If you have a gem, then by all means go for it, but don't expect people with a clue to just ignore the stigma of self-publishing--the exceptions will never become the rule, and so the exceptions will have to fight it. It's a hazard of the option.

    I'm done waffling now ...

  7. Ellira: Yup, I agree 100%. The thing that gets me is how excited some of them get when they sell a hundred books. I read an interview last night with a fellow who made self-publishing sound like it truly was the best thing in the world and that everyone should do it. But at the end he said that he had only sold 230 copies and three years. The reality is that he could have sold ten times that many books in three months (rather than three years) being published by a major publisher like Random House or Tor. And if he put as much effort into getting the word out there about a traditionally published novel as he did about the self-published one, then he probably would have sold many more.

    What I don't understand is why authors sell themselves short and fall into this belief that traditional publishing sucks. It has a lot of benefits, particularly a strong distribution engine and built in respect.


  8. Anonymous3:31 PM

    Well, I'd be excited at selling 100 books, no matter how they'd been sold. I would be more excited that those 100 people had found the books thrilling and were telling their friends how awesome I was, instead of having them say 'eh, it wasn't perfect, not worth buying the next one'. To me, selling a few hundred books is nothing if you're not actually establishing your quality, which is what self-publishing lacks for the most part.

  9. I agree, but you have a bigger shot of selling a lot of copies with a traditional publisher, especially if you're willing to put in the same amount of promotional work as you would with self-publishing. The difference is you don't have to worry about distribution :P.

  10. Anonymous5:54 PM

    I know. :p

  11. Well okay then :P.

  12. Anonymous3:32 PM

    Wow. You really don't know anything about the publishing business do you, SMD? Ask any literary agent or any publisher and they'll tell you that quality, well-written manuscripts get rejected ALL THE TIME simply because there may not be a perceived market for the book at that moment. It has NOTHING to do with the quality of the art and EVERYTHING to do with economics and the physical limitations of traditional publishing. Traditional publishing isn't capable of publishing all of the quality writing that is out there because there is more quality writing being produced than traditional publishers can accommodate.

  13. You should have read the comments, because I clarified that point. I know it has everything to do with economics. Hence why my comment earlier indicated that "good" is not based on quality to a publisher so much as their own perception of good (which means marketable).

    But you're wrong that traditional publishing isn't capable of publishing all the good stuff. There are thousands of traditional publishers, some small, some large, and all with specific markets in mind. There's room for just about any book of quality out there, you just have to be persistent. Making your claim is the equivalent of giving up.

  14. I'd say you're half right. A lot of self-published work is junk because authors don't get the level of editing they need. On the other hand, self-publishing won't hurt your career if the content is any good. When you put out something well written, with a halfway decent cover, readers will judge accordingly. They won't look up the imprint to see whether it's traditionally or self-published.

    Here's my take in more depth.

  15. Susan: I think that's true in some cases, but that's for a specific kind of reader. The problem is that the readers who tend to be exposed to self-pub are folks who shop online, which doesn't always work for cover love.

  16. Anonymous12:23 PM

    I found your post and the subsequent comments very interesting. This gives me a lot to consider, since I am nearing completion of my book (written with a co-author) and we are trying to figure out the best way to proceed. Rest assured our book will be edited and re-edited. In fact, we spend more time in the editing process than we have in the actual writing. However, that doesn't guarantee that a publisher will want the manuscript.
    I just wanted to thank you and the other posters for your opinions and perspectives. It's all food for thought.

  17. Anon: Glad the comments here could be of help.