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:
- Marketing and distributing a book entirely by yourself, out of your own pocket.
- 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
Author of The American Book of the Dead, which won Best Fiction at the DIY Book Festival and the Gold IPPY Award for Visionary Fiction. Largehearted Boy says it's "reminiscent of Philip K. Dick and Haruki Murakami, a book that boldly explores the future and defies genre." Also the author of North of Sunset, winner of the Hollywood Book Festival Grand Prize, and The Golden Calf - first published by Soft Skull Press, with editions in the U.K. (Rebel Inc.) and France (Hachette Littératures). Henry was a finalist along with Alan Moore and Dr Brooke Magnanti for his novel " God's Wife" at for Best Writer at The Erotic Awards London UK in 2013. He lives with his wife Cate Baum in Los Angeles. He is the founder of SPR. Visit henrybaum.com for more information.