Self Publishing: Good or Evil?

Mwah-ha-ha!

I guess that depends upon whom you ask…

An interesting debate is going on about the issue of self-publishing. Now I’m not referring to vanity press publishing, I’m referring to bypassing the traditional route to publishing – and therefore avoiding such obstacles to success as literary agents and submissions editors (or their assorted lackeys), who appear to operate as the sole arbiters of taste for the entire world’s book-reading public.

So what exactly is self-publishing? It is taking control of your product and seeing that it actually gets published. This generally happens via electronic books (e-books) and print-on-demand (POD) publishing platforms, both of which are available at little to no cost to authors. These very same platforms are now being utilised by traditional print publishers such as Random House, who have discovered that they can continue to sell their back-list and dead-wood titles without spending any money, not to mention flog additional copies of their more viable books – again, without spending any money. Sounds like a good deal, eh?

Then why is there such a negative connotation placed on authors who also choose to follow this same road? I guess in this case, what’s good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander.

The consensus seems to be that traditional publishers dislike authors who employ these forms of self-publishing. It kinda makes you wonder if maybe they’re seeing the writing on the wall. I mean, if more and more authors go this route, there will be less books on offer to publishers – and less books means less revenue. Just think: what if authors decided to avoid the endless hassle and rejection of dealing with agents and publishers and opted instead to do it themselves? Can you imagine if Stephen King told his publishers to go take a flying leap and went into full-on DIY? Imagine how much money his publishers would stand to lose (and how much more he would make!). Oh man, doesn’t it just get your mouth watering?

Granted, Stephen King has a name; he doesn’t need to worry about his books sitting all lonely and unloved in a corner of a bookshop near the toilets. Not a lot of authors are as fortunate as he is. They need to rely on their publishers to push their material into the public arena, to actually SELL it. Err… hang on a minute, did I say “sell”? Aye, there’s the rub. How many publishers put forth any real effort on actually selling a book? Sure, each book gets a marketing budget, but more often than not, it’s barely enough to buy a pack of chewing gum. And don’t think just because you have a big publisher they’re going to break the bank to promote your little book – not when they have to earn back all those ridiculous advances they’ve paid out to their so-called “star” authors.

Now most people who know me know that I work my backside off promoting myself and my various projects. Heck, if I don’t do it, who will? So when my efforts start to get attention from the right people, I expect those who handle “marketing and publicity” to at least follow through when I place leads into their laps. After all, I’ve pretty much done their work for them, right? What I do not expect is to see these leads ignored because said marketing person’s either continually out of the office and not replying to phone and email queries, or just can’t be bothered to do his/her job. For example, awhile back I found out that a television producer had been trying to find me and not having any luck. He later informed me that he’d pretty much given up hope after three attempts to contact one of these aforementioned marketing persons for information on where to reach me (his phone calls were never returned). He finally had his assistant Google me, which resulted in my email address.

So much for the advantages of traditional publishers and their marketing and publicity departments.

One of the main arguments used against self-publishing (which tend to be put forth by traditional publishers) is that self publishing will diminish the quality of books on offer. Really? Have you been down to your friendly neighbourhood bookseller lately and seen some of the crap on offer? I mean, did someone actually wake up one day and decide to publish say, Katie Price‘s scintillating series of memoirs or autobiographies whatever in hell they are? Whether they sell or not is besides the point, especially when the argument these publishers are brandishing about is that the “quality” of books and literature on offer will be severely diminished by these nasty evil self-publishing authors.

I talk to a lot of writers, and I mean published writers, who’ve been there and done that in the traditional way – only to see all their hard work go nowhere (that’s if they even get a book deal). Many of these writers are now realising that they can enjoy a very high royalty rate in this self-publishing game – and they don’t have to share the pot with any literary agent either. Not only do they get to control their product, but they can avoid a lot of ulcers arguing with book editors over editorial changes that may (or may NOT) improve the work. Sure, they may have to work harder to get the word out, but is that any worse than seeing your “baby” being neglected and shunted aside? – only to later be told that it didn’t sell very well, if at all? Well, of course it didn’t sell. No one made any effort to sell it!

The point is, the days of self-publishing have changed. No longer is it your senile old granddad publishing his war memoirs to give the grandkids at Christmas. You’ll be seeing more and more talented and name-known authors going this route, as traditional publishing continues to push more and more talent away from their doorsteps in lieu of publishing more and more tripe they can’t sell in their endless game of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Well, perhaps Peter has finally had enough!

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29 Responses to “Self Publishing: Good or Evil?”

  1. Sinead Says:

    I am currently writing a book and will be finished it in a few months. I am dreading trying to sell it so much, as I have heard how hard it is… I don’t think I would go the self publishing route though, as I wouldn’t have any idea how to sell my own books! It sometimes feels like going the mainstream route is the only choice if you want to be noticed!

  2. Art Says:

    the self-publishing route has intrigued me but, like Sinead, I don’t see myself going that route. First, I’m horrible at self-promotion. Second, I’m not sure I see a market in it yet for non-established writers. A writer such as Stephen King could very well make a killing going this route for the reason you noted. He sets up a facebook page, a twitter account, he’ll instantly have thousands of followers and everyone will know where to go to buy his book. Me, I get maybe ten views a day to my blog (and am happy for it).

    What I would hope to happen is maybe have more known authors, such as Stephen King, go the self-publishing route to maybe open up space at publishing houses for the little guys. After all, for every King/Patterson/Rowling/Rice/Grisham/et al. who leave a major pubilshing house, that publishing house will have to look for new faces. Without having to dish out the massive contracts/advances to the blockbusters, maybe they would be more willing to sink more time/effort into new voices.

  3. Gene Stewart Says:

    Amen and brava. You will indeed be seeing more of this, especially with such deals developing as Kindle offering a 70% royalty for writers who offer work directly through Amazon only.

    About the only thing big publishers can do for us anymore better than we can do ourselves is get the word ouit and, as you say, when did they ever do THAT?

    And I’ve mentioned before a friend who had his first novel, a brilliant realistic fantasy, accepted by a publisher whose name is roT backwards. They wanted to publish it as a genre fantasy, which it is decidedly not. Booksellers loved it and said, “We’ll buy 5000 copies if you use a genre cover, but 25,000 if you use a mainstream cover.” So the publisher went with the more literary cover, only to see sales go through the roof. They were even getting around to a second printing, but then the editor in charge of the book, when an idiot at PW reviewed the book’s first 50pp rather than actually read it all, (which gives a skewed perspective), decided he hated mainstream literary crap and in fact wanted to “teach” the writer “how” to write genre fantasy. He scotched the second imprint and backed off from various promotions; in short, he dropped the push to make it a best-seller. It could easily have become such, and every one who has read it loves it, and considers it an unknown classic.

    Right now, having signed a 3 book contract, the writer is in hell, being tortured into writing crap he hates and seriously considering just posting his stuff for free online, rather than bothering with the publisher anymore.

    Mitzi, email me for the title; yes, I’ve told this story before but it sure sobered me on big publishers.

  4. mitzi Says:

    gene, i know how he feels, as i’ve had books mislabelled as “erotica” that were not erotica because someone who didn’t know jack decided to classify it willy-nilly (excuse the pun). i blogged on that too – http://mitziszereto.com/blog/book-labels-good-bad-or-ugly/ – and i know damned well it affected book sales in a negative way.

  5. Alessia Brio Says:

    Totally with you! Last October, I left my traditional small press publisher and struck out on my own. I created a label (Purple Prosaic) and self-pubbed my entire backlist in ebook. It’s working! Sales are better than ever, giving new life to older books. I did the same with my charity series, Coming Together.

    With the free & easy platforms available to authors, I see no reason NOT to self-publish.

  6. Arlington Nuetzel Says:

    Sorry, you have to work just as hard at self promotion with a Random House as you do with a non-traditional publisher. It’s just part of the deal. And you may not make any money with either one with the trend now toward debiting advances.
    I have five books out on POD and about to birth my sixth and I wouldn’t do it any other way. I have a professional editor and I also have experienced can-do marketing help (myself). Grisham was discovered selling self published books out of his car trunk in Arkansas.
    The criticisms are unjustified. I can pick five or eight typos, writing flubs or grammar offenses out of any King, Clancy, Vonnegut, Rowling, you name it. Just go to the Bulwer-Lytton “Stick and Stones” Website for a bunch of laughs.
    Thanks, Mitzi, for a great treatment on this subject.

  7. Don Luis de la Cosa Says:

    Mitzi,

    I’ve recently gotten the bug to do the self-publishing route. After two separate pieces that have seemed to fallen flat because the ‘publishers’ simply didn’t promo them enough, I’m looking at putting out a couple new pieces that follow themes from upcoming films on my own. Thanks for posting this, it’s a real reaffirmation of something I had been feeling for quite some time. However, I’d debate the quality issue slightly, there are still some self published authors who are truly in desperate need of an editrix!

  8. Sylvia Petter Says:

    Mitzi, I hear you!

  9. Lorna Says:

    I am all for self-publishing for many good reasons. However, it is not for everybody. There are trade-offs as with anything else; but I believe that the benefits of self-publishing outweigh going the traditional route in this age. The real education is into Marketing your product and proper research before you attempt to put your book out there.

  10. Sharon Bidwell Says:

    Totally agree with you. Of course, there’s the view that if a writer is good they’ll find a publisher but this simply isn’t true. What a lot of readers don’t realise (as there’s no real reason for them to investigate) and new writers quickly come to know, is that the quality of the writing doesn’t translate into a publication deal. Self-publishing has changed — a lot! It should in no way be mistaken as vanity press, which is just someone else taking advantage of the struggling author and no better than pirating (a.k.a. theft). I’m not knocking a good publisher but the emphasis is on ‘good’ and there are just as many bad publishers and there are bad authors, good/bad being subjective anyway. There are many reasons why a writer may go the self-publishing route, although I feel that some kind of writing resume does helps, even if that’s just a few short stories in small press. And (forgive me for the faux pas of beginning a sentence with ‘and’) what about all the previously published titles? How many times does the writer see ‘previously unpublished works only please’? Is the author supposed to let old titles just rot away in a dark, damp corner, disintegrating their creative spirit at the same time? I think not. Any of my work that is currently out there, when the contracts end as they invariably must do someday… Well, then if I cannot find another home for them, I’ll put the works out myself.

  11. Sue Collier Says:

    I come across SO many authors who think that getting picked up by a traditional publisher means the burden of marketing and promotions is off their shoulders. But as you say, publisher marketing budgets are practically nil for midlist authors. Self-publishing (and thank you for differentiating this from subsidy/vanity publishing!) means maintaining all the control and keeping all the profits. (Just make sure YOU own the ISBN and are listed as the publisher of record; otherwise, you haven’t self-published.) The key to successful self-publishing is to make sure you have a high-quality product (get a good editor and a good cover designer!)–and you promote the heck out of it.

  12. Patricia Fry Says:

    This is a good discussion and an important one to become involved in way before your manuscript is ready. You all have some good points–self-publishing (establishing your own publishing company) is not for every person, nor is it for every project. I’ve been writing for publication for over 35 years. Believe it or not, this business has supported me for most of them. While article-writing was my mainstay for a long time, I am also the author of 31 books–some of them published through traditional publisher, some with co-publishers and most of them through my 25-year-old publishing company, Matilija Press.

    It’s true that no matter which publishing option you choose, you–the author–is responsible for promoting his/her product. Yes, once a book is published, it becomes a product. This is how you must view it in order to succeed.

    Some authors jump the gun and start thinking about publishing even before they have determined if their project is a viable one. I always ask my audiences and readers to ask themselves two very important questions right up front. They are, “Why do I want to write this book?” and “What is the purpose of this book.” Make sure your responses are valid and not frivolous. This will help you to a) determine whether you should publish the book at all and b) help you to decide which publishing option is right for you and for your project.

    My book, “The Right Way to Write, Publish and Sell Your Book,” has a chapter on how to choose the right option for you and your book. I think you will enjoy the process once it sort of makes sense to you and you have some parameters (which I provide). Check it out at amazon. or http://www.matilijapress.com/rightway.html.

    Visit my informative blog often: http://www.matilijapress.com/publishingblog.

    Patricia Fry, Executive Director
    SPAWN (Small Publishers, Artists and Writers Network)
    http://www.spawn.org

  13. Elle Robb Says:

    Great post. I published my first book on POD, largely because I am a municipal liaison for our local National Novel Writing Month group and I wanted to be able to show people what we NaNo’ers do during the month of November. That was in 2006. I am still receiving royalty payments every quarter, have been featured in local newspapers and local television news. It has been a wonderful experience. I’m trying to get my next book published via the traditional route – no luck finding an agent yet, but am going to give it a bit more time. If I don’t get a response I like, I’ll POD publish it. I’ve seen lots of “real” books that have typos and are poorly written (Scarpetta, for instance) – and I’ve seen lots of POD published books that are fantastic.

    At a recent writer’s conference a “real” publisher and a “real” editor told us that we had to spend thousands of our own money to even BEGIN to be published via traditional routes (more at this blog post: http://blog.ellerobb.com/2009/10/12/ozark-creative-writers-conference-2009.aspx), which was beyond depressing. I sat there and thought, wow, you could spend that at a vanity press & actually have something to show for it. Or, you could do it like I did, via a POD publisher . . . and actually make money! That conference left me feeling much more positive about POD publishing – which I’m sure was not their intent! ;o)

  14. John Pawson Says:

    A great article – very enlightening. I’m currently writing my first novel and to me there has never been any question of being able to self-publish. Self publishing, for me (as with a lot of new writers I would imagine) has always had negative connotations – that the author must have failed to gain any publishers’ interest. In my opinon the education of new authors is important to help us realise that we don’t (necessarily) HAVE to bow to the BigWig publishers.

    The more articles like this (along with the positive responses from practicing self-publishers) and the faster these negative connotations can be destroyed, the better for us all. We may even eventually be able to get the BigWigs worried enough to change for the better too – nothing like the impending doom of your industry to get you to buck up your ideas, eh.

  15. G. A. Endless Says:

    This article was great. Gives me a little hope of getting out of the loop Im in. The only thing about self-publishing that scares the hell out of me is marketing. I dont know shit about it. Ive never been any good at promoting myself. I do crazy stuff like hiring a professional editior and three reviewers before I even submit. Submission has become a nightmare. Different houses want different formats. Getting a traditional contract is getting harder than ever. I’m sitting on two completed novels and a third in the works. I procrastinate on submissions because I remember all the hoops I had to jump through to get the first one out. I’m seriously considering self publishing those manuscripts. E-books terrify me cause of all the piracy going on once a book is in digital format. It’s information like what I’ve read here that will finally get me out of this quagmire. Thank you.

  16. Arlington Nuetzel Says:

    G.A. you are condemned to self marketing no matter how you publish. Your success is up to you. Random House won’t lift a finger for you. You have to create the press kits and the releases and book your own book signings.. It won’t happen without your efforts and your own relentless promotion. That is the reality of publishing, both traditional and POD. Good luck.

  17. Jovanna Says:

    You are so right. It seems like whether or not to self-publish is a really hot topic right now. I also blogged about it a week ago. I also wrote about how some of the agents and publishers reacted to me when I asked simple questions. You can read it here:

    I have had a really hard time trying to find an agent or publisher. They seem to think new authors just don’t have the patiences to wait. I started the first book ten years ago. I looked for an agent/publisher for two years before I decided to self-publish. It’s not like I wrote the book yesterday and published it today. Anyway, thank you for the article. I hope you get a chance to read my blog so you can see what I went through before I self-published. I am sure it is not like that for everyone but… GEE

  18. Jovanna Says:

    Sorry the link didn’t show up, anyway it is under geewiz387creations on blogger.com just click on the BLOG ARCHIVE for March. GEE

  19. Jack Keroauc Says:

    aw heck who needs publishing, I’ll schlep these scrolled manuscripts around all the country with me and banter daisy pulling plum pitting beatness with Allen and Neil upstairs at City Lights any time I want except when I gotta get another drink across the street at Vesuvio.
    and heck for all I know if we go the same birthday then maybe you’re a reincarnate me anyway.
    peace y’all,
    ‘Jack

  20. Edward G. Talbot Says:

    Great post and comments. I just want to follow up on the comment from Patricia Fry about asking whether the project is a viable one. For fiction at least, I’m not sure that question is all that important for many authors. Sure, you need to have had people outside your immediate family read it first, but by self-publishing, you’ll discover if it is viable. Obviously you have to do enough promotion to get some people you don’t know to buy it and give you feedback, but that is doable if one is interested in putting in some work.

    I’ve head the argument about bad work poisoning the well and I simply don’t buy it. Do the work a professional should do before submitting to agents and your book should be good enough to see if there is a market for it. Given that the odds of success are so low even if you do get traditionally published, the idea of not self-publishing solely because of the stigma or the worry about the work not being good enough is asinine. If there existed a path that even had a likelihood (forget a certainty) of being able to make a living writing fiction, well then I’d listen to people involved in that path about what to do and not to do. But such a path doesn’t exist, and all the arguments about not doing x,y, or z to protect some path with a low chance of success are laughable.

    Finally, I should say that this does not mean I do not believe in traditional publishing – I certainly do, and I am submitting work when I have it ready to go. But what I don’t believe in is sticking with traditional publishing exclusively, particularly in the face of rejections. Sure, rejection MIGHT mean my work sucks. But with the system the way it is currently, the only way I can find out is by putting it out there for sale and letting buyers tell me.

  21. Alice Says:

    Wherever you publish, money is the bottom line. A conventional publisher wants to be sure they’ll make money on the book, so they look for an author who already has a fan base or is a recognized name in some field of expertise. They want to know there are buyers out there for your book. They’re not going to break the bank to make an unknown author into a superstar. It’s too big a risk.

    Also, don’t expect a conventional publisher to produce a flawless book for you. No matter what, you are responsible for making sure your work is well edited, well designed and that the final draft is of good quality and still true to your message. A conventional publisher runs your work through a team of editors, copy editors and various production staff who have probably NOT read the whole manuscript and may have no idea what your book is really about. You, the author (or your liaison) still have to monitor the changes at every step. I’ve worked as liaison/editor for an author with his publishing company and was amazed at the mistakes that came back in supposedly final drafts. Big mistakes, little mistakes, stupid mistakes, incomprehensible changes all had to be corrected numerous times before I got a final draft that my author could sign as approved to print!

    Self publishing is attractive since you do have control over your work. For my own book, Cook from Your Heart: Recipes for Transformation, I found my own editor to go over the text and my own artist for the cover art. Make sure you educate yourself about publicity, marketing and promotion! I made the mistake of paying for a “marketing package” from my POD publisher – a press release and email campaign written by someone whose first language was obviously other than English. They must have outsourced the writing to cheap labor in foreign countries. I rewrote them myself before I signed my approval. Their website posting campaign turned out to be listings for my book on free classified ad sites! Really cheesy – they obviously put as little effort into it as possible. They have no follow up to find out if these efforts are selling books or earning publicity – basically they’re useless. Don’t pay for extra “marketing” services.

    Educate yourself so that you can either do it yourself or so you can choose and hire people who can do the job you expect. Keep your standards high. After all, it’s your name on your book!

  22. Jim Donovan Says:

    Mitzi,

    Great article and you couldn’t be more correct. I’ve been down both roads, sort of. I self-published my first book, “Handbook to a Happier Life,” knowing essentially nothing about the business, in 1996. Thanks to people who had been there and shared ideas, I managed to sell more than 100,000 copies of that book and several foreign rights deals. I later sold the rights to a bigger publisher, beefed it up and it’s still out there.

    My second book, “This is Your Life, Not a Dress Rehearsal,” is in more than 20 countries and, while it did not take off here, it was a significant bestseller in Japan.

    My suggestion to the people who wrote that they do not know how to sell books is to learn. Learn from everyone. Read everything. Take action every day. Jack Canfield suggests doing 5 things a day to promote your book. I aim for 3. Do what you can.

    Thinking that having a big publisher will solve your marketing and sales problem is setting yourself up for failure. They will not, at least not until you gain some traction.

    The industry is going through the greatest and fastest change it’s seen in 100 years and will offer more opportunity for the independent publisher than ever before.

    Just jump in and go for it.

    Jim

  23. Kathryn Says:

    Everyone has a different story. I just got a request for the first three chapters from the editor of my first choice publishing house. I was at a conference and pitched to her. Most do get rejected at the first three chapters stage, so we shall see how it goes from here.

    I have to say I am not a big fan of self publishing, because most of the people I kinow who’ve gone that route feel they wasted a ton of money on a product few people read and fewer want to review.

  24. Simon Cheshire Says:

    I agree that self-publishing is ideal for a writer who’s already established in the market and wants to branch out. I’ve recently self-published one of my backlist titles, and provided there are no iceburgs lurking on the sales horizon, I’m itching to do more. http://www.simoncheshire.wordpress.com

  25. Jess C Scott Says:

    Enjoyed the post, Mitzi.

    Absolutely right with: “It kinda makes you wonder if maybe they’re seeing the writing on the wall. I mean, if more and more authors go this route, there will be less books on offer to publishers – and less books means less revenue.”

    I independently published two books last year, and have been enjoying the whole process so far (including marketing, etc.). While sales may be initially slow-moving, it is completely untrue that “only friends and family” will buy your book (a notion I have seen several times, with regards to self-publishing). It seems like industry publishers/insiders (the ones with the most to lose) are the biggest naysayers of self-publishing 🙂

  26. Richard Says:

    I gotta say, I’m also a self-published author and I’ve enjoyed it. The one thing I’ve picked up with the whole trad pub and nontrad pub war is this: self-publishing has become a great tool to demonstrate to trad publishers that your book is marketable. The reason trad publishers have a problem taking on self-published authors published work is really all because of the contract the author holds with a self-publishing company. A lot of self-publishers want to keep authors under tight contracts, but there’s a lot of nontrad pubs out there like four doors publishing or booklocker that don’t put on requirements that can’t be canceled at a moment’s notice. They do this so that authors can tell a trad publisher that they’re work isn’t restricted by long term obligations that the trad pub would have to worry about buying out. So keep an eye out for how easy it is to cancel a contract with self-pubs.

  27. Jeanne Ainslie Says:

    Right on Mitzi!! As a traditionally published writer (Dell and Blue Moon) of a bestselling erotic novel (over 64,000 copies), I found my book out-of-print and decided to self publish with print-on-demand. And yes, I’m marketing my butt off and having some success with radio interviews, but I’m still waiting for that breakthrough. I agree with you about agents–my novel, “The Blind Psychiatrist” has been turned down by 50 agents or more. The usual response is not right for their list, although well-written etc. To stay in this business, writing has to be in your blood and what makes your life meaningful, because it sure doesn’t pay. More or less like buying lottery tickets. You gotta love it, right?

    Jeanne Ainslie

  28. mitzi Says:

    … or hate it? Or be totally nuts?

  29. Jeanne Ainslie Says:

    Mwah-ha-ha! A little of both.

    Jeanne Ainslie

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