Tuesday, November 2, 2010

World of Tomorrow Week, Part 2 of 4: Self-Publishing

It's no secret how I feel about self-publishing, mes auteurs. Granted, the publishing world of tomorrow is fast approaching, and with the rapid and pervasive transformations currently occurring in the industry, it's not surprising that the arena of self-publishing is also undergoing some changes. Ultimately, however, I still don't think it's a good idea to self-publish your work in an attempt to make money or establish yourself as a legitimate author. Here's why—

Faster ≠ Better

These days, nothing stops you from converting your beloved ms to a .pdf and posting it on your blog for the world to see. Not that many people do this; I'm just saying that if you're looking for quick and dirty, you can self-publish your work in a matter of minutes.

If you want your book to look a little more slick and reach a wider audience, there's a panoply of options open to you, including—but not limited to—Lulu, iUniverse, Xlibris, Trafford, and (increasingly) Amazon (via CreateSpace). Be forewarned, however, that the vast majority of titles produced via these self-publishers do not compare to their traditionally pusblished counterparts: they are not as well-written, they contain significantly more grammatical errors, and their overall design (typesetting, cover image, &c) are not as good. They also don't sell very well at all (almost all sell fewer than 100 copies).

I'm not blaming the printing technology for the general inferiority of self-published books; devices like the Espresso Book Machine can produce copies virtually identical in quality to mass-produced, traditionally published books in a matter of minutes. Frankly, I'm blaming the self-publishing authors.

You're authors, folks. You're not graphic artists, you're not marketing gurus, you're not salespeople, you're not copywriters. (At least, most of you aren't.) If you're all these things and you've written a very niche book that publishers won't touch, go ahead and self-publish. As usual, I'm not aiming this advice at the outliers: I'm aiming it at the vast majority.

So, by all means, eschew the traditional method of publication and save 18 months (minimum) if you'd rather produce a sub-standard text that no one except your friends and family will read.

This Goes for E-books, Too

More on this below the next header, but just because you're not creating a physical book doesn't mean you should skip traditional publishing altogether (so long as you're writing something you believe will appeal to a wide audience; your family's genealogy or a book that will only appeal to Kazakh agronomists living in Indonesia are good candidates for self-publishing).

As e-books become a larger and larger component of the market, more and more people will flock to e-self-publication as a means of getting their words out there. The more voices there are competing for attention, the more difficult it becomes for any one voice to succeed on its own merits. Not only does your e-book have to be phenomenal, it has to command attention in some way; in other words, someone has to vet it. (More on this under Brand Management and The Democratization of Publishing is a Myth.)

Every Author Needs an Editor

When you write a book for publication, you're creating a text for someone (generally many someones) besides yourself. This means, mes auteurs, that the presentation of your story that seems optimal to you may not be optimal for the greatest number of readers; there are probably a myriad grammatical, typographical, and stylistic errors/problems to which you are blind; and the aspects of your work that you find most clever/entertaining/engaging might distract or turn off a large number of potential fans.

That is to say: you need someone else to read your work before it goes to press.

Not only that, you need (à mon avis) someone who is familiar with the current market, someone who knows the ins and outs of your genre and can speak to what is effective and what isn't, someone with whom to collaborate to produce the best piece of art of which you're capable.

Brand Management

In the world of publishing, meine Autoren, you are the brands. As a début author, your goal is to establish yourself as a brand in your chosen field or genre; you want people to say, "Guys! The next Francisco Battlebro thriller is out!" Or, "Oh man, I just got the new Sylvia P. Conundra mystery from Amazon!" Your reputation as a writer, your name or pseudonym, are social currency in the Land of Books; you need to establish yourself if you want to succeed as a working writer.

Here's where publishing houses come in. When your book comes out from a publisher (big or small, venerable or brand-spanking-new), it says that someone besides you has read your work and loves it. (Or, at the very least, can sell it.) Further, that house is investing in your talent (they paid you instead of the other way 'round, remember?) and wants you to succeed! They want the world to know your name and buy your books and make them (and you) money. That house uses their team of professionals to design, market, and sell your book, and it's their job to help brand you and make you a household name.

When you're flying solo, that's all up to you. And the vast, vast, vast majority of the time, the author who attempts to do this on his or her own does not succeed.

Past Sales Affect Future Sales

Remember BookScan? Well, if you decide to self-publish in any meaningful way and receive an ISBN, BookScan will be able to track your sales. And, as I've mentioned before, a poor sales history can scare off an otherwise interested agent or editor.

If your poor sales are the result of publication through a previous (legitimate) house, you can at least explain to your new agent or editor that those sales were, at least in part, the fault of said publisher (poor positioning, little or no marketing money or co-op, mishandling of stock, &c). If those poor sales are the result of your efforts at self-publication, you've got no one to blame but yourself. Yourself, and the reading masses who you tried to reach directly because agents and editors were keeping you from your adoring public.

The Democratization of Publishing is a Myth

Finally, there seems to be this rumor floating around that the rise of the e-book and the sophistication of current POD systems (where physical books are concerned) will not only make editors, literary agents, and publishing houses obsolete, but will usher in a Golden Age of Publishing where a true merit-based democracy will rule, and the reading public will determine, by show of electronic hands clutching electronic dollars, who will succeed and who won't. No more gatekeepers; no more insiders and outsiders.

Alas, mes auteurs, this myth has existed since the time of Gutenberg (and probably before) and is no closer to reality than it was six hundred years ago.

As I said earlier, the sheer volume of voices competing for attention guarantees that a system of separating the proverbial wheat from the chaff will be necessary. Consumer recommendation systems (like those employed by Amazon) are helpful, but insufficient; people often give five-star and one-star ratings to books for nepotistic, spiteful, or downright bizarre reasons, and while this might not affect titles with large followings (read: established brands), it can wreak havoc on lesser-reviewed titles. Which, if branding is determined by consumer review, will be all of them.

All this to say: there has to be a way of identifying, cultivating, and branding talent such that the fresh, engaging, and important voices are heard, and the rest are left to their own devices. While word of mouth is a necessary condition for this to occur in a free market, I don't think it's sufficient. Another filter is necessary, and that filter is the publisher.

That's all for today, bros and she-bros. Tomorrow: what I think the publishing landscape will look like by the year 2020!


  1. "If those poor sales are the result of your efforts at self-publication, you've got no one to blame but yourself."

    I don't think that's true. If publishers are wiling to overlook lower sales figures due to a small press's limited resources, they should be able to apply the same reasoning towards an indie author's limited resources. I'm pretty sure that most of the self pubbed books picked up by major publishers had low sales (compared to sales numbers with the big 6) when they were picked up. I mean, that's why those authors ended up signing with big houses, right? To improve their sales.

  2. Sounds to me like self-publishing follows the same basic rule as seeking traditional publication. You'll have to work extremely hard and your efforts are unlikely to succeed: if that thought puts you you off, you should probably just walk away. Only difference is that if people think they can do a better job than the big publishers, self-publishing lets them go ahead and put their money where their mouth is.

  3. Or to put it another way, you can upload a video of you singing to YouTube, but don't expect to come in second on America's Got Talent unless you are truly amazing.

    One author beating a lone drum isn't going to make the same noise as the sales and marketing staff at a publisher.

    I think the allure of self-publishing is that something could go viral. That may not be justified, since most things that go viral are free, so a sales campaign is a different beast.

  4. I agree with most of your points. The biggest thing is still distribution, and a publishing house is set up for that.
    That said, the occasional breakout novel emerges from the DIY pile.

  5. There will always be exceptions to the rule, but I agree with your POV in terms of self publishing. Unless yours is a niche market, or you just want the satisfaction of having a book in print, self publishing could do more harm than good in terms of establishing yourself as a credible author.

  6. So, should I give back the $9,000 I made last month on Kindle?

  7. Self published authors could get their manuscripts edited professionally and learn to market. It would be an expensive option but not impossible. Distribution is where self published authors really suffer. They simply don’t have the clout of established publishing houses with bookstores. Not yet.

  8. Go Delle, indeed!!!

    Me, myself, I think I'm just going to go the Emily Dickinson route. I'll put everything I write into a locked chest until I'm dead and whoever finds it later can decide whether I was ever any good. If they hate it, I'll never know or if there's an afterlife after all I'll be too happy to care one way or the other.

    That plan has got all the benefits I need. I won't flop at self publishing, I won't have to worry about trying to become marketable enough to impress the Big People and I still get to write. Added bonus: I don't have to let a single person in the world edit my work if I don't wanna. I win.

    $9000.00 in a month on Kindle though whoa... and you could do that without everyone and their brother rewriting your small black cat into a zombie llama...hmmm...

    ...again I say, Yay Delle!

  9. I think a lot rides on what you're writing. I don't know what could/does motivate someone to read a self-published novel, but if you have a non-fiction book on a topic with wide appeal (some sort of "how to") then self-publishing might be a good option if you have a great marketing plan.

  10. While I agree with you that self-publishing is a route for those who are not aiming to garner any significant success with fiction, I have to blink at the idea that authors are not capable of doing a halfway competent job at any of the tasks you name.

    While it is very common for self-publishing to be an amateur affair, surely there's the occasional self-publisher who has an ounce or two of design sense (or is merely smart enough to hire a talented professional)? Could the message not be to accept the distribution limitations of self-publishing, and if for whatever reason you do it, do it to the highest possible standard?

  11. The self-publishing option may indeed be full of challenges, and many authors who choose that route may not succeed. On the other hand, no one should assume that getting a publisher to look at your manuscript is simple.

    Unfortunately, the big publishing houses would rather publish the garbage produced by celebrities, regardless of the inherent value of their books. If you're a prostitute who has slept with a politician, your lurid story appeals to the major publishers. If you are some practically illiterate sports hero with nothing original to say, you will find publishers bidding for your ghost-written manuscript like a pack of dogs on the scent of a bitch in heat. However, if your book has value but does not fit some marketing model already in place, you will be the one pursuing the publishers. You'd better be prepared to have the door slammed in your face!

    Publishing companies are not gods, and do not always know what will sell. Jack Canfield, co-author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, was told by a publisher that no one would be interested in the heart-warming stories he and his partner had compiled. Now there are more than 200 titles in the series, and more than 100 million of these books in print!

    Here are some titles of books that began as self-published works:

    What Color Is Your Parachute?
    The One-Minute Manager
    Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun
    The Celestine Prophecy
    In Search of Excellence
    Sugar Busters!

    I do not suggest that all authors who choose the self-publishing route will enjoy such remarkable success. What I do suggest is that both traditional publishing and self-publishing present challenges, and both present opportunities.

    Bill Palmer
    Little Frog Publishing