Self-Publishing Has Arrived

When this site started up in December 2008, self-publishing was still something you didn’t really talk about in polite company.  It was really big news in January 2009 when the New York Times published a piece called Self-Publishers Flourish as Writers Pay the Tab.  There were detractors to the rosy picture of that article, but it seemed like a breakthrough.

Now, in 2010, self-publishing is everywhere, rightfully so.  It’s not always flattering – but even when it’s being criticized, it’s seen as inevitable, and that inevitability isn’t seen as a bad thing.  Recently, there was an epic post in the Wall Street Journal: “Vanity” Press Goes Digital.  Today, working off of that article, there’s a piece on Salon.com called When anyone can be a published author.  Salon’s the kind of place where self-publishing would never have been seriously considered.  It spreads some negativity, but not all of that negativity is unfounded.

One thing is true: Aspiring authors have never had more or better options for self-publishing the manuscripts currently gathering dust in their desk drawers or sleeping in seldom-visited corners of their hard drives.


You’ve either experienced slush or you haven’t, and the difference is not trivial. People who have never had the job of reading through the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts sent to anyone even remotely connected with publishing typically have no inkling of two awful facts: 1) just how much slush is out there, and 2) how really, really, really, really terrible the vast majority of it is. Civilians who kvetch about the bad writing of Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer or any other hugely popular but critically disdained novelist can talk as much trash as they want about the supposedly low standards of traditional publishing. They haven’t seen the vast majority of what didn’t get published — and believe me, if you have, it’s enough to make your blood run cold, thinking about that stuff being introduced into the general population.

The article makes the age-old severe generalization that self-publishing is full of “inept prose, shoddy ideas, incoherent grammar, boring plots and insubstantial characters — not to mention ton after metric ton of clichés.”  The better point it makes is, “if the prophecies of a post-publishing world come true, it looks, gentle readers, as if that dirty job will soon be yours…this possible future doesn’t eliminate gatekeepers: It just sets up new ones, equally human and no doubt equally flawed. How long before the authors neglected by the new breed of tastemaker begin to accuse them of being out-of-touch, biased dinosaurs?”

That’s true, but I prefer the democratization of many, many bloggers and readers making the decision about a book’s success via consensus, rather than that power being put into the hands of a dwindling number of editors.  She’s absolutely right that this system will still reward a certain type of book – mainstream-style books will always be successful, even if the books are published independently.  Independent doesn’t always mean cutting edge.

Where this post misses the mark is that it’s coming at self-publishing from a literary fiction standpoint – i.e. “good” writing.  I’ve given into the fact that the success of self-publishing rests on commercial fiction becoming successful via the self-publishing route.

The fact is when it comes to “inept prose,” many readers don’t care. Inept prose is very frequently extraordinarily popular.  Setting aside Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer – who are monstrously successful – there’s a much larger wing of midlist authors that are doing very well regardless of the quality of their prose. Saying “quality” is subjective is too easy – it’s very obvious when something is more plot-based than character-based. And more often than not, plot-based fiction is not as caught up in sentence structure.  So: self-publishing is on the map for the express reason that “low quality” prose (by Salon.com’s standards) is successful.  One person’s slush is another person’s beach read.

Yes, there is true slush – something that misspells words in the first sentence.  But this type of book will largely be forgotten.  It’ll get limited traction, so most readers won’t have to take the time to wade through it.  A reader should be able to tell a book’s quality from the types of reviews and an excerpt.  Sure, this is more work for a reader, but it also gives more power to both the reader and the writer, as they’ll be making the decisions about a book’s future – not an editor who may be selecting books based on dubious criteria.

All in all, articles like this fault self-publishing for not being perfect.  Flooding the market with bad writing is a side effect of this democratization – just as someone who’s elected might not be the “best” person for the job, it’s still a good system of government.  In the old system of publishing, it’s like only a handful of people selecting who should be in office. That’s just not a fair system.  If “slush fatigue” is the worst side effect of self-publishing being a viable option, this is a fair trade off for good books not being released at all.

  • Adding this nice comment on Salon:

    Are you sure you’ve been involved in the publishing industry?

    To say that one manuscript out of ten thousand in your “slush pile” is a gem is to be grossly out of touch with realities of what’s going on in publishing now.

    Authors who win Pushcart Prizes are unable to sell their collections of short stories. Authors of fifteen published books find themselves unable to sell their manuscripts and if they do publish them, do so as the winners of university-sponsored contests. These books may not meet your definition of “gem,” but they don’t deserve to be called “dreck” any more than the average offering from Putnam or FSG.

    You write as someone taking a wild guess at what the publishing world is like.

    Unfortunately, it is actually the case that authors of intricately-crafted, compelling works find themselves in slush piles on a widespread basis. And I’m sure any editor of any publishing house or any literary nationally-distributed literary journal will tell you the same.

    —Jeff Maehre

  • I note that no one is bitching about all the drek on Youtube. Sounds like sour grapes to me.

    I think some people are just upset that it’s now possible for an author to self-pub, be successful, and be accepted as a ‘real author’ by READERS before or without any involvement from NY.

    • As someone comments there: “What if the major record companies spent as much energy and bile reviling garage bands? Wouldn’t it strike you as ridiculous? Wouldn’t you wonder what the heck they were so afraid of?”

      The criticism of DIY books is not one that will die quietly.

      • True. But it’s a good point. Why ARE people in publishing SO hung up on obsessing over what self-publishing authors do or do not do? I mean seriously? If we aren’t a threat, why waste the time and energy?

    • klcrumley

      What I continue to find ironic is that none of them complain when someone like Paris Hilton or Tori Spelling get commercial publishing deals, and dub themselves as authors.

      But let a talented, yet unknown writer independantly publish their own work and it’s the end of the literary world?! Tsk. They have messed up convictions and priorities.

      There’s also the fact that they don’t consider celebrity authors any real threat, because books like that come and go all the time…and are then forgotten. But we are seen as their competition, especially when it comes to ebooks where the playing field is leveled. They are threatened big time. The jealous devils are starting to show their horns.

  • I really thought we had begun to get beyond the “everything self-published is vanity publishing” stage, but guess not.

    What I think that most people in traditional publishing don’t think about is that a self-published work is largely going to go un-noticed unless it has some value. Without being positively reviewed by an online reviewer or on Amazon, few people are going to bother to even check a work out unless it’s free. Then they are going to look at an excerpt, which will tell them in seconds if it is really terrible, and finally, if no one buys the book, these works will sink like a stone on the e-retailer’s websites, which are set up in most cases to feature those books that are selling best at the top of their lists. So that huge slush pile of terrible books are generally books no one but friends and family are going to see.

    • klcrumley

      Absolutely! The cream will always rise to the top, and it’s happening more and more with GOOD self-published fiction. Bad self-published fiction disappears, and the writer(s) move on to discover what they really ARE good at.

      However, BAD traditionally published fiction is out there for all the world to see; revealing that “The Emperor has no Clothes.” Ironic that articles like this never mention that…

      Ironically, I am currently boycotting the purchase of any traditionally published fiction. I’ll still finish reading the last 2 that I bought, but I won’t purchase anymore. I’ve recently bought 8 indie/self-published titles that were awesome. Not just great, original storytelling but well-formatted, beautiful cover art, and flawless in content.

      Not all of that holds true for those 2 remaining self-published titles. Tsk.Tsk.Tsk. So much for the “gate keeping” system.
      So much for “professional” editorial staff.

      What’s really ironic is that they compare all SP titles to a “slush pile” when in reality, those “bad writers” with works in the “slush pile” are only ones who don’t believe in indie/self-publishing so they DON’T self-publish.

      The majority of self-published writers are ones who have either been offered traditional publishing contracts/agency and have turned it down, or formerly traditionally published authors who realize the system was not benefiting them. I find that to be the case more and more often, as of late.

      Many of these nay-sayers wouldn’t know a self-published book if it hit them over the head. Unless they see “Xlibris” or “Lulu” on the spine, they assume that it’s just a small press they never heard of before. I was once told by someone that I’m not really a self-publisher either, I’m a small independent press (because of my magazine). Whatever.

      The haters can say whatever they want to soothe their wounded egos while 20-plus indie titles dominate the kindle best sellers list. I don’t care. Their opinions matter as much to me as that of the spider on my ceiling right now. LOL

      • Well said indeed. I think they feel threatened by the publicity SP books are getting. Amazon has really put the power in the hands of the readers.

  • The comment section of this post is really something to behold. Self-publishers are described as “the ghastly multitudes of damaged people who believe they’ve got what it takes, but who really are in truth sadly undeveloped, deformed people with worse than nothing good to say — to the point that “you’re” left stunned that they aren’t on, even in the smallest degree, to the gaping extent of their own awfulness.”

    Perhaps we should start wearing patches on our arms to single us out. I mean, wow.


    • LOLz. I’ll tell you waht, I’ll take my sadly underdeveloped deformed personhood and laugh all the way to the bank. I’m making good money now from my “delusional self-publishing venture.”

      I mean it may not be the level of money a lot of people are used to making, but it’s the most money I’ve ever made in my life. And it’s certainly more than full-time burger flipping wages.

  • steeleweed

    Re: “…the democratization of many…”

    “Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.” – H L Mencken

    • Yes, democracy is also flawed. What’s your alternative?

      Adding to this: What’s Laura Miller’s alternative – that these books not be allowed to be released? Probably not, so this seems like complaining about something for the sake of it without offering any solutions. Sort of along the lines of Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows. Yes, the internet can affect the way we think, but it’s also very positive. But making a sweeping negative generalization will get you a lot more attention.

  • While I’m cribbing other people’s comments, this comment at JA Konrath’s blog gets to what I’m getting at:


    There is lots of self-published sci-fi in the Kindle store right now that I would never buy. The premises sound silly and derivative, the plots [when you can determine them from the description] sound hyperactive and unbelievable. And these books are selling. You know why they’re selling? Because there is a fanbase that wants that kind of material.

    In horror there’s a huge group of fans that wants blood-splattering gorefests with limited character development. Coherent plots are optional. They want it.

    I think a lot of what you think is “terrible” quality work is actually just pulp. Pulp got driven out of the market for a few decades, but now ebooks will bring it back. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that.

    The material that I would put in the ranks of the truly terrible is instantly identifiable in the descriptions, because the author can’t write a coherent paragraph. It takes virtually no effort to avoid that material.

    So if the question is “How will the public avoid books written by crazy people who can’t write basic English?” the answer is “With ease.”

    • I think that was in reply to the little goober who… not a fan of paranormal romance, and unable to appreciate camp, decides that I’m an amateurish writer and Stacey Cochran is a train wreck. Truth is, he went in LOOKING to not enjoy it. It’s not a genre he reads, he just wants to tear someone down.

      In fact, from his attempts to tear down me, Stacey, AND Joe, I assume he doesn’t read genre fiction anyway. Doesn’t like genre fiction. Doesn’t know the standards of the different genres or what readers of the genres are looking for, but just wants to pee on somebody.

    • klcrumley

      Well said, Henry.

      Not to mention the fact that your description(s) also describe 90% of traditionally published sf/horror fiction. LOL

      Some TP fiction is very, very bad. the Pro-TP may claim “but it’s so bad it’s good” but that is a rather lame argument. Twilight is not “SO bad it’s good.” It’s a bad book with a good marketing campaign, and a film with attractive young people in it. If S. Meyers was self-published we’d never even hear about it.

      Traditional Publishers do not care about writing quality, they care about what is marketable and to whom…anybody who thinks otherwise is delusional.

      • I did not think, at this point in life, that I’d be defending traditional publishers, but I need to call this as I see it, from experience.

        Most Big Publishers care deeply about writing quality. Even in this bastardized period, they’re willing to lose money in the name of =some= good writing by unknowns. But they need money from =somewhere= in order to lose it. So they publish high-volume shit, because they know it will sell enough to pay for itself =and= well-written revenue losers. (At one time, in my genre, I was one of the guys they paid plenty to shepherd well-written little books for the soul to publication.)

        BTW, high-advance celeb memoirs rarely earn back the advance, though most are net revenue winners. The high advances are paid because of imprint branding issues, not normal revenue considerations. The high-profile hoo-hah leads to spikes in submissions.

        • klcrumley

          Well, maybe there are some traditional publishers with very poor taste? And maybe the quality of writing is subjective?

          >>BTW, high-advance celeb memoirs rarely earn back the advance, though most are net revenue winners. The high advances are paid because of imprint branding issues, not normal revenue considerations. The high-profile hoo-hah leads to spikes in submissions.<<

          Yeah, I've heard this elsewhere too. I also heard that the money they do make by publishing Paris Hilton types helps them to earn enough money so that they may take a chance on a new, talented writer. However…
          Celebritante Memoirs are the reasons I quit submitting to traditional publishers. But then, as a short story writer, I am better off as an indie anyways.

          • Of course an editor’s (and a reader’s) take on the quality of writing is subjective. The whole edifice is built on that foreknowledge. If editors knew a sure thing when they saw it, all published books would make lots of money and there would never be a loser. It’s like the psychics’ cable TV channel that went bust a few years ago: They were psychics; why didn’t they know?

            I never heard of anyone going into book editing to make a fortune. Many, many editors would rather be writers, but they understand that’s not in the cards, so they hire on to do something else good with books. Some get jaded, some move up to management, many have to move on to more remunerative professions. Those who are able to defy the odds and stay into their middle years, every one I ever met, takes genuine pride in and is exceedingly grateful for the name writers they helped assist from slush pile to that fame. It’s what most of them live for.

            All: If you can’t get through your day without hating some class of people in publishing (or anywhere), direct your venom properly to the leeches with MBAs, who have done everything in their power to destroy the engine that used to support the entire nation.

            There’s little joke the generation of editors I started with told: “I don’t mind the vow of poverty I took to be an editor. It’s my way of paying dues. But the vow of chastity is a bit much.”

  • lindareedgardner

    Amen amen to that one, Henry. I am mysified by the wailing on websites from self-described readers ( and writers!) moaning that they will be unable to know what they should read in an ocean of SP books, among others, without agents choosing it for them.
    I used to think this was a joke. Apparently it is not. Please tell me that any halfway competent reader cannot look at a few sentences and decide if a book is well-written (from his point of view) or not.
    Read one sentence from a Bernard Cornwell novel, Steven Pressfield, and on and on, and compare it to the same amount of so-called dreck, and try to tell me the difference does not blow you out of the water.
    This is the result of years and years of free public education? Pitiful.
    And as you say, there will always be a market for popular fiction, er, pulp, but please don’t tell me that you honestly do not know that is what you have chosen to grace with your time.

  • At the start of the decade, I spent more than a year immersed in a genre publisher’s slush pile with the ambit of finding stories that I could (as line editor) turn into viable books. Besides writing forty of my own books, I have undertaken line/storyline/content/developmental editing for at least fifty (a guess) other books for my own or other publishing companies in my genre. I have worked on books with great storylines that were, well, inexpertly or inadequately written–nor just grammar or writing style shortfalls, but bad storytelling. (What I did, by the way–develop a well written book from a badly written book with a good storyline–is just about never done in the modern publishing world).

    Just finding those fifty books to even begin to develop and hone, I had to toil through many hundreds of submissions, maybe four hundred, maybe nearly five hundred. I didn’t read nearly any of the non-starters all the way through. That a book is shit is evident very early, from just skipping around to get a feel for the content–something you should do before you buy if you still frequent bookstores. Remember, my job was to locate stories I could embrace. We WANTED to publish books by unknown authors, most of whom were one-book memoirists.

    Like every other peruser of slush, I burned out. I became a screaming basket case. You have to wonder, not that so many people are just plain too stupid, but that they are too stupid for hundreds of pages in a row. Wilfully, serially, even aggressively stupid. Book after book after book after book, going on to a hundred thousand pages of sheer ignorance, tortured logic, stupefying derangement, untreated paranoia, and only then stupidity–=before= the issue of just mere writing ability is broached. Frankly, the whole experience caused me to dwell for unhealthy periods on the importance of potty training.

    Now, today, with the great modern tools we all embrace, all that mind-numbing, soul-deadening, time-wasting, hope-shattering, formerly and properly rejected shit is heading toward an ebook outlet near you. And there it will drown you out if you’re halfway good and halfway rational, halfway deserving, and twice the writer even you think you are.

    Welcome to the brave new unfiltered world.

    You don’t need to become a stakeholder in other people’s shit in order to rationalize a place for yourself in the publishing world. As I learned from my first agent as a callow freshman in a world now largely sold out, good books–and only good books–give other good books an opportunity to gain notice and even fame. Embrace the good by touting books you like, publicly call out the books you think are bad. It’s in your own interest to do so.

  • Just a thought, but I keep seeing comparisons on SPR between self-publishing and music or filmmaking. I just flashed on open mike at comedy clubs. Many newcomers come and go, tested by audience reaction and found lacking, but some get good audience encouragement and some reason to hone their act and improve their skills. And even those found wanting in amateur venues are not prohibited from trying again and again with (hopefully) better material and increased skill.

    Every skilled profession under the sun requires growth from wannabe to neophyte to some level of success or a recognition of plain old failure and signs it’s time to locate another dream.

  • The Salon piece conveniently ignores the many, many writers who are being DROPPED by publishers. I know writers — and these are pros, dammit, who can write and have been published multiple times by the Big Six — suddenly finding their work will no longer be touched by a major publisher. And they have careers that really put them beyond the budgets of small presses. So what would Laura Miller have these writers do — never write again, or do it themselves in e and try to keep the audience who *still wants* their writing?

  • Mike —

    I hang out with =a lot= of professional writers–most of them solid, middle-aged mid-list writers–who are either seeing doors closing or are at least facing deep reductions in advances, on which they depend for running their lives. Of these, I know roughly two who are equipped–emotionally and technically–to transition to taking responsibility for whatever remains of their careers. The majority do not see themselves switching careers or taking on the challenges of doing the work required to remain in the business of writing (because nearly all working writers don’t know a thing about the business of writing). They know what I do, they ask me for solutions, I tell them what I think. But they don’t listen because they cannot face the truth: they have been let go, laid off, fired, turned out to pasture, terminated, shot dead. I can’t even get them to assert their rights to request reversion of long out-of-print titles that might have some salvage value. Mainly, they don’t want to “alienate” their former masters. How dumb is that?

    • The wimper of whipped dogs. I’d scream at them until they Obeyed. Rights reversion first!

  • sleepyjohn

    I think the spitefulness of so many comments like that mentioned by Henry Baum gives us the clue to the real fear felt by those who trot out such unpleasant diatribes – it is, I think, a simple snobbish horror at the prospective of the hoi polloi now being able to publish books. The hallowed title of ‘published author’ no longer has the cachet it had when Garrison Keillor carefully posted off his manila envelopes; in fact, it has effectively become meaningless. Anyone can stick a video on Youtube and anyone can record music on a CD, and now anyone can publish a book. The ordinary people are becoming an integral part of the human race.

    This prospect clearly worries @steeleweed, who thinks that democracy is “a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance”. It is not: it is a noble belief in the collective right of even the most ignorant of “the ghastly multitudes of damaged people who believe they’ve got what it takes” to choose who will govern them (or publish them). I believe Winston Churchill showed a greater understanding of this when he said “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others ..”.

    When I was first published, my Editor told me they read everything in the slush pile because ‘you never know what might be in there’. Well, Eric Hammel should be pleased because now the slush pile is being turned into actual books by the authors, and they are presented direct to the reading public, who will plough through the ghastly heap for him. So “all that mind-numbing, soul-deadening, time-wasting, hope-shattering, formerly and properly rejected shit … heading toward an ebook outlet near you” will be well and truly filtered by the real world long before it gets to him, or us. We should not care if millions of badly-written books take up miniscule amounts of hard disk storage. But we should care that millions of readers can now carefully swirl that dross round in a pan in order to seek out the flakes of gold, then tell us about them. And we should also care that much of the ‘dross’ can bring pleasure to many ordinary folk, including the author’s family.

    The people are taking over the world, and the ‘masters’ do not like it.

  • I’ve had numerous short stories published and had 2 of them nominated for a Pushcart Prize. My novel, A Touch of Deceit, went on to win the 2009 Southwest Writers award, yet when my agent tried to sell the novel he kept hearing that I didn’t have a high enough profile. My social media skills were low. Really? That’s what was wrong?
    Good luck to any self-published author out there. The good ones will sell many and the bad ones won’t. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?