Why Do People Hate Self-Publishing So Much?

Part of the reason I’m so attracted to self-publishing is that it’s so reviled.  It’s for misfits.  It truly is the publishing version of punk rock – something that anybody could do and something that people snubbed their noses at.  Something that inspired conservative outrage.  Really, when you boil it down, self-publishing is a very positive development: the ability for writers who were not able to get a book deal in a highly competitive industry to be able to find readers.  It’s totally democratic and a great example of free expression.  Why you’d want to crap over something that has so many positive implications reveals something – not about self-publishing, but maybe about those who are doing the criticizing.

The ways that people criticize self-publishing fall into several camps:

Exhibit A: The quality of self-published books is poor.  I agree with this.  The quality of some self-published books isn’t great.  But then the quality of traditionally published books isn’t that great either.  I am left to wonder just how many self-published books these critics have seen.  If I wasn’t running this website, I wouldn’t be seeing too many other self-published books, so how these people are seeing dozens upon dozens of self-published books to make a generalization about their quality is puzzling.  My guess is that most people haven’t held too many self-published books in hand.  Thousands of books are self-published books every year, in all types of genres, so to say “they’re bad” is an absurdly blanket statement.

Exhibit B: Self-publishing services misrepresent themselves and unsuspecting authors lose a lot of money.  This I don’t get.  There are places like Publish America, which is a terrible service.  But the criticism is that all subsidy publishers are taking writers for a ride, giving them a false sense of their prospective success.  Some writers have been ripped off, sure, but many more understand that self-publishing is not the same as traditional publishing and that it’s going to be hard to sell books.  Given the difficulty of selling traditionally-published books, writers would have to be pretty deluded to think that self-publishing is an easy road.  That delusion is not necessarily the fault of the subsidy house – the writer just hasn’t done his or her research.

Exhibit C: It’s too easy.  There should be a vetting process and writers should get a stamp of approval from a traditional press.  What I think is happening here is that traditionally published writers like the validation of having the book bought by a publishing house.  To them, it means their writing is better.  Which it doesn’t: any more than getting good reviews means your book is good.  It just means someone liked it.  There are people out there who will love or hate anything.  Check out the reviews of any movie on IMDB, for example, and go straight to “Hated it.” People hate masterpieces.

Yes, professional validation is different than reader validation, but it still is not proof that a book is “better,” just that one person liked it.  It may just mean that the book is more marketable than others, which is no measure of a book’s literary longevity.  But traditional published writers like this validation – they want the gatekeepers to keep defining what’s good and what’s bad because they want the gate to keep having the same meaning.

Under this umbrella are those who think if a book was good enough it would get published.  Again, “good” and “marketable” are different things.  It’s harder and harder for good writing to break through, which is not the fault of the writer.

Exhibit D: It makes all books harder to sell because it dilutes the number of books with a lot of poor-quality work.  This was argued recently in an interview.  A writer said:

I think when an author self-publishes a book, it hurts all writers.

I have a theater background. Theater is a near-dead art form, and I think some of that has to do with community theater. Community theater dilutes the theatrical pool the same way self-publishing dilutes the literary pool.

People do community theater. Most of them aren’t that good at it and, since it’s community theater, they have no real reason to get better. But they do shows and they force their friends and neighbors to come see them. This is the only taste of theater that most of these people get. They never go to anything else, they never even consider going to anything else, because the community theater production was so unprofessional. It leaves a bad taste in their mouths.

Authors that self-publish are doing the same thing with fiction. A lot of people already hate reading because of books they were forced to read in high school. Then a friend or neighbor comes along with their self-published book. The poor victim buys the book, tries reading it and never wants to crack open a book again.

That’s a pretty unique criticism of self-publishing that I haven’t heard before, but it just illustrates the variety of vitriol leveled against self-publishers.

Exhibit E: It’s a sub-par form of publishing.  It’s harder to get reviews and get distributed.  So it’s inferior to traditional publishing.  This is the one that I agree with.  It’s true: self-publishing makes it harder to sell books.  Still, this doesn’t mean that writers shouldn’t do it – because reaching any amount of readers is important – but just that it is difficult.

All in all it’s not readers who are criticizing self-publishing so much.  A lot of readers might not even know the difference between AuthorHouse and Random House. The criticism of self-publishing most commonly comes from traditionally published writers.  And there’s got to be a reason for that – that they feel threatened in some way.  It’s not that they feel protective of those writers who get suckered into spending money.  It’s that they don’t want the competition and the lack of validation.

Seriously, the hatred spewed against self-publishing is weird. Why bother spending so much time to criticize a system that already puts writers at a disadvantage?  It’s as if people don’t want it to be a successful medium.  They want the old system to be the main way that people get published now and forever.  That’s something of an ulterior motive.

  • A very well written article.
    I agree with everything you said; I don’t understand why people put down self-publishing.
    I’ve read great books that were self-published, and horrid books that were traditionally published.
    The quality of the book has nothing to do with the publisher.

  • Actually, A.F., I would argue that, when it comes to self-publishing, the quality of the book has everything to do with the publisher.

    As for the article itself, I wonder if it suffers from a somewhat insular view that comes with writing, publishing, and self-publishing. Nowadays, with the iPhone, the Kindle, and the Internet, I tend to think that each new article concerning the so-called debate about self-publishing v. regular publishing is fanning the flames of a fire that just wants to go out. I’ve only ever read an article about this written by either a “media professional” (which I only put in quotes because it can mean so many things nowadays), whether that professional be an editor or a communications major, or a self-published author, and the basic premise seems to claim a dichotomy I simply tend not to see.

    I agree that I don’t think readers care. I’ve never seen one do so, at any rate. I’ve never seen a reader purchase a book based solely on the publisher, be it Bantam or Doubleday or Exciting Books. I’ve seen major publishing entities “discriminate” against self-published books but then award their prizes to self-published books, anyway. Dave Eggers’ What Is the What? is the most famous example I can think of.

    I also tend to think that the best way to treat the debate, at least for authors, is to ignore it. To understand that traditional publishing and self-publishing are both just tools in the big ole’ box we all have. To remember that blogs are, technically, self-publishing, as is so much of our user-generated content system.

    • kbrigan

      Dave Eggers is NOT a self-publisher. He is a “hybrid” writer, meaning he has a proven reputation in traditional publishing. He wrote for Salon for years. His memoir was published by Vintage. He had a long history of writing and editing magazines. He has establilshed himself as a professional and is miles away from being a “self-publisher.”

  • I was referring to the quality of the writing; not book format. Sorry if there was confusion.

    As for the article, bias against self-publishing does exist, as I certainly have encountered as a self-publisher. I had a debate not long ago on a social networking site, when someone said he did not consider the self-published “real authors”. So I don’t think ignoring the issue, in my opinion, is helpful. I prefer to educate.

  • A great article that provoked a few thoughts:

    1. The comparison in the quoted section between self-publishing and community theatre is wrong on two levels. First, community theatre doesn’t dilute the theatre experience. Stupid, boring, pretentious plays do. If playwrights write and produce material that audiences like, they’ll respond. Second, self-publishing doesn’t equate to amateurism. In fact, the best self-published works now are being published by experts in various areas or experienced writers, many who have been paid to write for years at a professional level.

    2. The asymmetry of traditional publishing and self-publishing is striking, as you note, but also the terms of acceptance are different. For example, an author only has to convince 1-2 people (an agent and a publishing acquisitions editor) that their work is marketable. A self-published author has to convince hundreds or thousands of readers that their book is worth reading.

    3. The vitriol is out there, but I think it’s going dormant as traditional publishers’ eyes are being opened by the economic recession/depression, the changes in the publishing macrocosm, and the unrelenting tide of steadily improving self-published works. It seems like we’re in a period of watchful waiting, and there’s a suspicion that the outcome won’t favor the status quo.

    4. What is “marketable” is a definition often filled with mimicry, misreads of current tastes and culture, and sometimes downright insulting. My favorite line from your post sums it up beautifully: “. . . the quality of traditionally published books isn’t that great either.” From cheap paper to crowded margins to derivative writing to poor plotting to sloppy character development to monotonous dialog, modern mainstream fiction deserves the competition self-publishing can deliver. Now, let’s deliver it!!

  • My last play, “Memorial Day” was showcased by Masquers Playhouse in Richmond, California. This ia a company that is self-defined as “community theatre” but brave enough to take on a very contentous anti-war (Iraq War) play. It gave me the feedback I needed for rewrites. When I reviewed community theatre productions in the Chicago suburbs for the Pioneer Press newspapers, I saw some productions which were as good or better than those of professional companies, and since I started my career as a Stage Manager, I see a lot of details that most theatre-goers miss.

    The canard about self-publishing not being well-distributed is true, but also a result of the prejudice against it. Best-sellers these days are not the result of any literary merit, but of brute force promotion and distribution. When books occupy shelves under the same kind of schemes used to push cereal in supermarkets then small press and self published work is pushed out of the store. If ti is there at all , it shelved in an area that makes it hard to find and the the “slow-seller” tag a self-fulfilling proposition.

    Quality can be attained simply by exercising sufficient care and effort. That’s true in theatre and in publishing, regardless of the “professional” status of the players. The final result is a reflection of their passion and engagement.

  • Excellent article.

    The book publishing industry is fighting tooth and nail against what it’s brethren industry – the music industry – has already gone through – the rise of the independents. Independent musicians effectively are the writer’s equivalent to self-published. The music industry has dealt with the issues that the publishing industry has failed to acknowledge. If the publishing industry DOES NOT learn from the mistakes that the music industry has succumbed to then it too will go the same way.

    Self-publishing is a misnomer. If a writer goes to a publisher like Lulu, they are doing EXACTLY what a band does by going to their local studio to produce their CD. If a writer owns their own ISBN they are the SAME as a musician who owns their own UPC on their independent CD. I can keep on going.

    Just because a writer is independent doesn’t mean they can’t reap success. Just look at the Chicken Soup for the Soul series! There are tonnes of others out there.

    What truly makes a famous author/musician/artist is the business of marketing and publicity and most authors don’t have a clue about it, whether or not they are trad published or self published. The stats on how many books fail to even break even in trad publishing proves this.

    If I writer wants to publish and sell books beyond their friends and family, then they had better understand that they are embarking upon a new business and have a business plan. They need to stop thinking like a writer and start thinking like a business person who has something to sell.

  • I enjoyed your post, Karen.

  • I love what you say about the main people complaining about self publishing being trad published writers (or trad published hopefuls), and people who make money through trad publishing in some way. No, that’s not a biased opinion at all. /sarcasm.

  • To clarify, I’m saying it’s biased for people who make money or hope to make money through self publishing, to be the loudest complainers about it. That other post could be read two ways, hahaha.

  • I don’t understand either comment – “loudest complainers” about what?

  • bwahahahaha, sorry. Loudest complainers about self-publishing. I’m having a weak-communication day, LMAO. I promise some days I really can express myself coherently.

  • Henry – interesting piece. Re point D. I think that is just a form of elitism in disguise. I am certain the exact opposite is true. First off, people who have never been to the theater before are unlikely to dismiss a community performance so baldly – they have no point of comparison – and it is their friends for crying out loud. Next, my experience (as a confirmed theatergoer all over the world) is that people who go to community theater also go to the regular theater and see it as a feeding/breeding ground. You can see the fallacy in the argument more clearly when you transfer it to a more commonplace activity – let’s say sports and baseball. His argument is like saying that Little League baseball is the reason why major league baseball is dying out – except of course that it is not and if anything little league contributes a huge future fan base.

    I would argue the EXACT OPPOSITE. Self publishing is starting to create a class of writer, publisher AND READER that may just be what saves book publishing.

  • Owen, that is a really great point: self-publishing is increasing people’s interest in writing and books. It’s not something just for other people. With readers diminishing, the interest in self-publishing could increase people’s interest in books overall.

  • Great article. It’s also a viable choice. My own reasons for self-publishing can be read in my blog. Have published authors turned their noses down at me as less than capable of writing a good book before it’s been released? Of course, they have. Frankly, I find no shame. I’ve read published books that were awful, full of editing goofs, and misspelled words by reputable publishing houses, and a rotten plot. I do not need the validation of a publisher or their permission to tell me that I, as a human being, have the right or not to put my writing out in public. Frankly, I think there’s a huge amount of misconception from published authors on the benefits of self-publishing, and they judge without full knowledge of what the process is all about, the distribution methods, or the quality that some self-publishing houses can provide.


  • Renee

    What I’m curious about is, when you are self-publishing, who is doing the fact checking, the editing and the proof-reading? Who is checking to see the author is not plagiarizing another author? I think I know the answer, and that frightens me.

  • Renee,

    I don’t think you know the answer. Most “serious” self-publishing authors, or indie authors bring in OTHER people who are qualified to edit and fact check and proof-read. As for plagiarizing there have been cases where NY published books had to be pulled because of plagiarizing. Even a NY editor cannot possibly know the content of every single other thing ever published. The legal onus for that sort of thing in contracts ALWAYS falls back to the author. So ultimately, no matter how you’re published, as an author YOU and you alone are ultimately responsible for the plagiarism issue.

  • Other people always proof-read and fact-check my books. My upcoming book involves baseball. Now, I know a fair amount about baseball, but I asked a local sports reporter who covers the Boston Red Sox to read the book and give me any technical advice he could. Most everything was fine, but some terminology around how they refer to pitching rotations needed to be updated.

    It’s easy to think that because something is corporatized, it’s better. I’ve worked in and with major publishing operations, and frankly you get a range of quality — based on the people involved, how much they care, and how much they know.

    The mode of publishing doesn’t define the quality of the finished product.

  • I totally agree, Andrew, that the mode of publishing doesn’t always mean quality. Frankly, I think any self-published author who is serious about writing as a career should care about the quality of their work. We should ensure before it goes to print we have done our due diligence on research and have had others help with proofing and editing. Of course, anyone can buy editing services, but I’m lucky to have a friend who does editing and will be helping me with my fiction novel. I have read published books from publishing companies that were filled with typos, which absolutely amazed me.

    As for plagiarizing, I just recently touched on the topic on my blog at http://thepriceofinnocence.blogspot.com regarding recent news of famous authors accused of plagiarism and my own thoughts regarding the matter.

  • I’m curious Renee, do you think self-publishing authors are more willing to plagiarize another author? Or do you think plagiarizers are flocking to self-publishing? I don’t see how traditional publishing offers greater protection against plagiarizing; editors are only human and don’t have all-knowing insight.

  • I think in all of this we need to ask ourselves where the ‘hate’ is coming from when self published books and their authors are criticized for writing and producing a poor quality. I don’t believe for a second the vast weight is coming from the general reading public. The criticism comes most from with the book industry itself. I don’t think most readers question whether a book is self published or not and for that matter much self published work is not even accessible to the general reader, that is, their branch of high street book store.

    Let us also not forget, whoever criticizes or hates a self published book is knocking books and badly written books as a whole. That is a reflection on book publishing and not just self publishing. It is time we got ourselves away from this ‘them and us’ argument.

    People don’t hate self published books – however, some people in book publishing, be they publishers, authors or retailers do ‘hate’ self publishing.

    • klcrumley

      Hate is a very strong emotion, and should be reserved for the people who deserve it: rapists, murderers, terrorists & pedophiles.

      NOT indie authors, just trying to get their book out…snobs are ridiculous! tsk.

      Notice the fools have no problem with celebritantes putting out books that they didn’t even write because they cannot spell worth a damn due to the braindamage inflicted by cocaine (or whatever drug they chose).
      And, get this…their dogs can get a book deal too!
      OOOH, no problem with that. but let someone with an acutal college degree in english lit put something out there using lulu/createspace and it’s the friggin literary armagedon?! 🙁

      I’m not going to bother arguing with the elitist snobs and haters anymore. “The haters are the help, and I don’t argue with the help.”
      by that, I mean they make me work harder, and with more fervor to make my book the very best it can be…
      better even than thiers.

    • klcrumley

      Oh, and forgot to add: You are right. The general public doesn’t care whether a book is self-published or not. They care more about it being in their favorite genre, or it being a “good read.” They don’t care who publishes it.

      It’s not like people are going around stating things like “I only read Daw books,” the way some women say “I only cary Coach(tm) purses.” It would be a scary world if they did.

      The only 2 complaints I’ve ever heard from the general public are that they are hard to find (not available at Borders and such) and they are more expensive. But there are certainly ways around both those problems now a days…

  • There are also, I think, people who are outraged that anyone should have the arrogance to publish (and market) their own book as though it were actually any good.

    Most of my books are published by conventional publishers or commissioned by clients. But because some are sold online, there is the perception that I publish them myself. Here’s a typical example of what can happen. A few months ago I posted a request for suggestions on a piece of text for a training course I was writing. I got several outraged replies along the lines, ‘You’re charging money for this and you want other people to help write it for you?’ When I revealed that the course was commissioned by a client, the response was basically, ‘Oh, that’s all right, then.’

    It seems a very odd state of affairs to me, though. If I’m working for a client, then asking for advice shows that I’m a hard-working artisan trying to do his best by his employers. But if I’m self-publishing, by asking for help I’m leeching on the goodwill of others. And yet, either way, I’m simply trying to do the best job I can and earn a living.

    It truly is a very strange world at times.

  • Yes, people suck. And I’m working on this new plan where I ignore about 95% of them so they can be stupid on their time and not mine.

  • Anu

    Having just managed to get a book published, the traditional way, I’m coming round to realizing the merits of self publishing – of what could have been.

    Likely advantages of self publishing

    1. you say what you want to – your sentences are not manipulated (political writing)

    2. you can get it edited to perfection (I had it dne for my MS – many typos were introduced in the pdf format)

    3. You save your energies for the pubicity – instead of expending it trying to please agents, publishers and editors – who often are bottomless pits

    4. You have control over the process – where and when your book gets published (I was not told the timing till it was actually available)

    5. If you are a first time author – self publishing is your best bet. Pubisher publishing is too one sided a deal to realy work to any advantage fr you.

    6. besides, readers don’t care (most have no idea whether a book is self published, traditionally published etc. etc.

    I am yet to see the benefit of traditional pubishing (and not the grapes are sour – I did get them)