Letter to the Editor

Dear SPR,

No matter how much positivity surrounds self-publishing today (it’s a growing trend, more “good” writers are self-publishing their work, etc.), it still has a long way to go before people are able to overlook the stigma that invariably goes along with it .

I agree that it can be rewarding to self-publish. I’ve enjoyed having worked to sell my book, I’ve enjoyed the reviews it’s received absent of a big-name publisher logo often required to get people to read past the cover, and I’ve enjoyed knowing that, even without that publisher, many have been able to enjoy my book.

What I don’t enjoy is the blind dismissal of the writing. Here’s what I understand and know: much self-published work is horrible. Reviewers are inundated with requests to supply reviews, and if they were to seriously consider every self-published book sent to them, they would never get to those that have been published.

Here’s what I don’t understand: even if one does manage to earn one’s place among the “real” writers through the test of critical reviews, the necessary collection of blurbs from known published authors, positive feedback from numerous readers, guest spots on major radio talk shows, and feature stories in mid-sized newspapers,  various influential reviewers will still see “self-published” and automatically dismiss the work as unworthy. Often, these influential reviewers have a trusted following who, in many cases, the author is hoping to connect with. But it matters little to these reviewers what response the work has been given; if an agent hasn’t represented the work and then sold it to a publisher, it is not worth their time.

I would never discourage someone from self-publishing (what the hell, right? knock yourself out), but I would discourage them from putting too much stock in good reviews. Don’t get me wrong – every great review has made my day, boosted my writer-confidence, and has, in fact, helped out in a number of ways. (I was recently contacted by an online radio show and asked for a copy of my book to review.) But the Upper Echelon may forever be out of reach unless an agent and then publisher decides you’re marketable, first. This does not annoy me because I have a misplaced sense of entitlement, or some other trendy and obnoxious personality disorder; this annoys me because I view it as a form of snobbery, and snobbery has always made me a little nuts.


Dear /rant,

I’ve got some good news and bad news for you.  The good news is that you don’t have to worry about this anymore.  The bad news is that reviews don’t matter.  In a recent article about the Kindle, came this nightmare scenario:

Listen to Farrar Straus and Giroux’s editor in chief, Eric Chinski: “Reviews don’t have the same impact that they used to. The one thing that really horrifies me and that seems to have happened within the last few years is that you can get a first novel on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, a long review in The New Yorker, a big profile somewhere, and it still doesn’t translate into sales.”

Of course, for self-publishers “translate into sales” has a much different meaning than it does for traditional publishers, because if you sell 500 copies of a Lulu book, you’re in the top echelon.  But generally reviews don’t mean a lot besides an ego stroke.  It’s helpful, no doubt, but it’s more cumulative than legions of people buying a book based on one review.  It can lead to better things: such as you getting a radio spot or maybe even finding an agent (that’s how it was for me).  But sales?  Not as much.

As you probably know, the stigma around self-publishing is fading – to the point where reviewers may soon take a more serious look at self-publishers.  Still though, you’re asking the traditional media to regard non-traditional media on the same level.  And right now traditional media – newspapers and magazines – are struggling mightily and on the edge of failure.  They’re desperate to be relevant.  Currently, this means holding up the traditional model of media as superior, even as it’s falling apart.  As everything starts to get web-based, Kindle-based, etc. the line between traditional and non-traditional media will be blurred and self-publishers could get more attention.

You yourself say that you understand that reviewers have to reject self-published books because they have to draw the line somewhere.  Authorhouse puts out tens of thousands of books a year – compared to a small pres that may put out ten.  Reviewers just can’t keep up with that demand for reviews.   So drawing the line makes sense.  But even if you’re traditionally published, your competing with well-established writers to get reviews.  Philip Roth is going to be reviewed before your first or second novel – especially as newspaper media is concerned about the marketability of the newspaper itself, not just the books it reviews.

This is a long way of saying, this is just the way it is, but things will change.

P.S. If that quote from the editor of Farrar Straus didn’t depress you enough, here’s an interview with someone who did all the right things to market a book online and still had little to show for it.  It’s a cautionary tale and just further proof that with fewer people reading, and more people publishing, it’s just very hard to make a dent.  That’s the cold, honest truth.

  • Randall Radic

    Read Nassim Taleb’s FOOLED BY RANDOMNESS and then THE BLACK SWAN by the same author. Whether you are published by a traditional publisher or self-publish, in the end, your success or lack thereof is more than likely NOT a reflection of your talent level. It is merely randomness or luck or whatever you choose to call it. Of course, that can be doubly depressing until you realize this: do you want to increase the probability that you’ll be a famous, successful author? Then double your failure rate. Which means write more — faster.