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Self-Publishing in the Blogosphere

There’s a lot of interesting discussion about self-publishing going on in the blogosphere, beginning with Victoria Strauss who writes for the Writer Beware blog.  She calls out a recent article on CNN that paints too rosy a picture of self-publishing.  Not revealing, for instance, that a successful self-publisher also had a high-powered PR firm working for her.  I would argue this is the case with a lot of journalism in general – it errs on the side of being overly positive.  That’s the nature of the puff piece.

But she’s right, in a way.  Self-publishing is not yet a replacement for traditional publishing.  It’s a hard slog to get a book noticed and distributed.  It’s also a hard slog to find an agent and get published in this climate.  The talk about the new paradigm is not necessarily saying self-publishing has replaced traditional publishing, but that it can and possibly will.  This is one story that has not yet fully been written, and it has great potential that has not been fully realized.

Currently, though,  I would make this argument, which may come as contrary to the purposes of the site: self-publishing sucks.  This is my view and possibly not the view of other people who write for this site, but self-publishing is a last resort.  Though you can find distribution and recognition as a self-publisher, it is far easier to have the advocate and machine of a traditional publisher.  What’s preferable:

  1. Marketing and distributing a book entirely by yourself, out of your own pocket.
  2. Marketing a book yourself with help from a publisher, who will also be more likely to secure widespread distribution.

I would much rather not have to hustle so hard to find readers for my books.  While, yes, the criteria for Barnes and Noble carrying a book published by a traditional publisher is narrowing, it’s even harder for a self-publisher.  Plainly, at this stage, getting traditionally published is preferable.  All power to April Hamilton, who has a great piece as a response to this Guardian post.

My indie books DO sell.

My indie books are distributed by Amazon, the #1 bookseller in the world. I could also get them stocked by independent brick and mortar booksellers if I wanted to, and in fact have done so in the past, but I’ve found it’s much harder to move those brick-and-mortar store copies than to simply keep selling online.

Anyway, IMO the brick-and-mortar chain bookstore in its current incarnation is an endangered species, and investing heavily in brick-and-mortar distribution is a waste of money for all but the biggest-selling mainstream books. To be clear, yes, I AM saying that it’s a waste for MOST mainstream-published books, not just indie books. I blogged about it: Big Chain Bookstore Death Watch.

My books get reviewed on Amazon and elsewhere, and they get recognition in the form of personal recommendations, recommendations on Twitter, blogs, and Facebook, and mentions in publications as well known as The Wall Street Journal, Business Week and The Huffington Post.

That’s great, and it can happen, but given the fact that a writer’s going to have to market a book anyway, it seems better to do this in conjunction with the marketing and distribution efforts of a trad publisher.

My purpose for this site is not to say writers should drop everything and self-publish because it’s all gold and rainbows, but to say that self-publishing is a legitimate and entirely useful fallback plan.  So Victoria Strauss is half-right.  She’s right when she says that self-publishers will scratch and claw to get visibility with limited results.  But she’s wrong when she says,

The plain fact is that most self-published books–just like most manuscripts doing the slush pile rounds–are not publishable.

The problem that needs to be continually expressed is this: “Publishable” too often means “Marketable.”  There are self-published books that deserve to be published, traditionally published books that don’t deserve to be, and a lot of things that shouldn’t be either.  But to make blanket generalizations like self-published books aren’t publishable is more than a little old-fashioned.

The New Paradigm

All the talk about the new paradigm is really talk about what the future will be like.  We are on the edge of that future and the rules and system of publishing may eventually be entirely rewritten, with new and better models for writers to reach readers.  This could happen when e-readers are as ubiquitous as cell-phones. This could happen when publishing is all print on demand.  But to say that – right now – self-publishing is preferable to traditional publishing is too much of a fundamentalist position.  It’s a great development, but with serious limitations.  That traditional publishing also has severe limitations does not negate self-publishing’s own problems.

One thing I don’t understand though is the careful attitude towards writers – stating that writers are coddled into thinking that self-publishing is a route to instant success.  Frankly, if you think this way, you’re a strange kind of gullible.  Self-publishing is hard – there’s no way around that.  But it’s also an enormously positive development that will become an increasing part of the overall fabric of publishing.  Are we there yet?  No. Traditional publishing isn’t dead – there’s no reason to dance on the grave yet.  But dying?  Wounded?  Needing to be reworked?  Certainly and self-publishing is an important and exciting part of that process.  It’s something that readers, writers, agents, and editors should embrace.

About Henry Baum

Avatar of Henry Baum
Author of three self-published novels and one traditionally published (Soft Skull Press, Canongate, and Hachette Littératures). Recipient of Best Fiction at the DIY Book Festival, the Gold IPPY Award for Visionary Fiction, and the Hollywood Book Festival Grand Prize. He lives with his wife Cate Baum in Los Angeles. He's the founder of SPR.

4 comments

  1. So much of this is true, and the biggest thing is that none of us really know what’s next. Clearly a nice advance and the backing of a bigger machine is preferable. What about a smaller publisher and a smaller advance? Is it even worth it to take that deal, wait a year+ for your book to come out, and then do most (if not all) of the marketing yourself? I’m not so sure – especially if one doesn’t need that mental validation of being released by a “real publisher”.

    What I do know, is much like the newspaper companies, publishers seem to be taking a stance of “let’s figure out how our old business model works in this new world” as opposed to “let’s look at this new world and figure out a business model that works in it”.

    Subtle but important difference.

  2. Responding to your comment about my comment about most self-pubbed books not being publishable (or marketable, or whatever)…Here’s how I see it.

    Since anyone can self-publish, just as anyone can submit to an agent or a publisher, the catalog of a self-publishing company probably closely resembles an agent’s or publisher’s slush pile–that is, there are all kinds of different manuscripts form all kinds of different people with all kinds of different goals and all kinds of different abilities. So the hard truth of the slush pile–that most manuscripts in it don’t even approach publishability–is also the hard truth of self-published books.

    The fact that most self-published books aren’t publishable, therefore, is a reflection of the larger truth that most manuscripts aren’t publishable.

    Are there good self-published books? Yes, of course. But as with the publishable books in the slush pile, they’re very much in the minority.

  3. Avatar of Francis Hamit

    Well, Victoria, no one said it would be easy. Certainly not me. You admit there that some self-published books are publishable, don’t you? But dealing with the current arrogance of agents, who have gotten a hammerlock on the submission process, is simply maddening. First they demand exclusive access to your work and then take months to reply, if they reply at all. Many of us just got fed-up and refused to play any more. It is a stupid game.

    Among the bad advice I’ve had from agents is to write something like what has already sold and to write to a specific length because the bookstores control how many pages there are in a book. (They don’t. I asked.) Agents are only interested in what they think they can sell and they take big hints from what those editors have already published and offer more of the same.

    With a little care and effort one can turn out a product (which is what a book is) that competes in every way with what the big publishers put out. I actually like taking responsibility for the way my book looks and controlling the editorial presentation. I’ve seen some pretty slap-dash, badly edited and badly printed books from big publishers in the last decade. I’ve seen howling errors in fact that an intern using Google could have caught in five minutes.

    The big bookstore chains all want best sellers because they have enormous overhead and need that velocity, but they still end up returning half of what they order, or more. . Amazon.com harvests this low hanging fruit in abundance by dealing direct with customers that actually want the books, but their real business is the Long Tail. Last year, according to an article I just read, they sold one copy each of two million different books.

    Self publishers would do far better if there were not this rap that says it’s all bad. If we were reviewed on an equal footing with the big publishing houses and if the chains had access policies for small presses that actually would let them in the stores and on the shelves. We don’t do volume sales in “brick and mortar” because few of them give us the chance.

    But, one can break through here and there because some bookstores remember that their business is selling books and not setting cultural policy. So I’ll just have to go on ruining my career.

  4. Why argue with what is? So much time and energy spent on attacking or defending a position when you could be writing about your passion or promoting yourself and your book. Self-publishing in all its forms is here to stay. It just is. So do it, or don’t. What’s wrong with choice? And what makes your choice better than someone else’s?

    I’d rather champion the empowerment of authors to spread their messages however they can, rather than support the suppression of ideas. The reading public can figure out for themselves what they want to read. We don’t need self-appointed gatekeepers to tell us what’s good or bad. Should we not attend indie film festivals because not everything on YouTube is good cinematography?

    Just because something takes time to learn and to do well is not a reason not to do it. Writing is a passion; publishing is a business. To be successful takes time and effort, no matter what the business. As my mother would say, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” But for those who are committed to expressing and sharing their ideas, I say, “Go for it!”

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