Do You Believe These 3 Publishing Myths?

by | Sep 19, 2012

At last week’s excellent San Francisco Writing For Change Conference, I was honored to sit on several panels where the participants attempted to help authors navigate the often rocky trail to publication.

Many of the authors in attendance were firmly set on pursuing a contract with a traditional publisher, while others seemed to have an interest in the self-publishing option.

Writers conferences are increasingly including information on self-publishing, because it is becoming a more regular part of the whole discussion about how you get into print, how you establish a career, and how you can get the kinds of results people are seeking in exchange for all the hard and lonely work of creating really great books.

And many of the players in publishing are being forced to deal with a subject that, until recently, seemed about as appetizing to them as a whole tub of rotting fish (substitute your own image here).

In other words, what once made them turn up their noses in disgust is now a subject of interest, especially since many traditional publishers now think they can make a lot of money from authors who will pay for their own publishing.

The Persistence of the Old

However, even in this new world there are troubling traces of the past, the bad old days when no self-respecting author would walk into a room of publishing professionals and announce, “Yeah, I published it myself.”

Three of these traces were visible at the Conference in the form of mythology about indie book publishing.

  1. “Freelance editors (or by extension, other publishing professionals) can’t provide the objective feedback and work they do in publishing houses because they are being paid by the author.”

    Putting aside for a moment the fact that many freelance publishing professionals were in the room, this attitude ignores the history of publishing while insulting a whole class of dedicated, experienced and committed editors, book shepherds, designers and all the other people who work on our books.

    You know, years ago, when the stigma of self-publishing was very real, we went to considerable lengths to make our books every bit as good as the books coming from big publishers.

    We were able to do this by hiring the same people to work on them. By various publishing ruses we were able to publish books that went on to have a lot of success for their authors.

    I guess we did our job too well, because now it seems that the only books anyone remembers that were self-published were the ones that looked that way. They never noticed the other ones.

  2. “Publishing is a business. The only reason people are in the publishing business is to produce a profit, to make money.”

    Traditional publishers and independent presses certainly are businesses, and we all know that the business of being in business is profit.

    But having spoken to hundreds of authors over the years, I can assure you that the vast majority of self-publishers don’t have money as their primary motivation for publishing.

    In fact, in my video training program participants go through a whole inventory process to articulate the goals of their publishing project.

    There are many reasons to publish. The funny thing is that when authors get to decide what gets published, and not an editorial committee that has to answer to shareholders or bosses, the whole business changes.

    Efforts to understand today’s indie publishing scene are doomed to fail if you don’t understand this basic fact.

  3. “People think they have a right to be published. There is no such right. You don’t have a right to be published if you’re not good enough to get an agent, a contract.”

    This one enshrines all the hierarchical thinking of businesses that sprung to life a long time ago. It’s the essence of the gatekeeper mentality, the existence of people who just know better than you what you should be reading.

    Maybe you’ve noticed, but this attitude is already in our rear-view mirrors. As an old revolutionary reminded us at the conference, to publish is to “make public.”

    A huge part of self-publishing is self-expression. It may end up being commercial, or it may not. That’s not the point. The point is that now we are each in charge of what we will make public, without need for gatekeepers.

    Readers are the new gatekeepers, and they will decide who rises to fame and fortune.

    But authors are each their own gatekeepers, because we decide what will be published. And we’re not giving back the keys.

All Publishing All the Time

I admit it, I love books. I bet you do too. Virtually all the books that have changed my life in one way or another were published by traditional publishers.

And the people at this conference were intelligent, dedicated, highly accomplished people who love what they do and produce great books for the companies they work for.

Many of the best books being published today are published by traditional publishers. There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact it’s great.

But self-publishing has a seat at the table now. Lots of authors want to publish both ways, and why shouldn’t they?

Traditional publishing isn’t sacred, it’s just a business model. That model is changing, and authors who pick up the tools of publishing, who use epublishing to make the fruits of their efforts public, and the readers who can now get directly in touch with authors, together they are the ones who will help remake the old business model.

Then maybe the old myths will finally die.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Molly Campbell

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am an Indie author, and boy–there is still that stigma out there that unless a “real” publisher puts out your book, you aren’t really a “writer.” And the truth is that unless you are a big name, that $5000 advance you get from a publisher and the very brief few months (if that) that you get in bookstores is about all you will reap. Good Indie books make money over the LONG HAUL, which is something that traditional publishers can no longer assure their authors. I will pass this article on!

  2. Carol Houle

    I just wanted to say that editing and making covers that look professional is doable if you’ve got the patience and the time. It took 14 months to format, edit and create covers for my 7 printed 6×9 paperback novels and their sidekick ebooks. The only money I put into it was for copies of the printed books to evaluate their quality, covers and contents, plus S&H. I should approve the last 4 paperbacks in the next couple days, then real travail will begin ~marketing them. I am researching this now and it’s how I came to read this article. I’ve never heard of free reviewers so I’m going to search that article next. I also want to add that as a writer, especially when I write fiction, I am never lonely. I am full of characters in situations which I control. I can go anywhere, be anyone, do anything. That’s far from lonely :~)

  3. carol brill

    wow. I am impressed with your system, and that you can accomplish all that in 20 minutes. thanks for sharing carol

  4. Turndog Millionaire

    It’s getting there, but stigmas still exist. To an extent, maybe they always will.

    But to say that self-published authors aren’t talented, haven’t put in the care needed, and all such things, well, it is rather unfair. Some may take advantage, but many do not

    Matthew (Turndog Millionaire)

    • Will Gibson

      Matthew, stigmas exist because most self-published works today are still not professionally edited or proof-read for clarity or typos or a continuity of the text. But they won’t always be viewed that way in the years to come when self publishing eventually becomes the main stream in publishing, where the author is able to maintain his or her rights and is able to easily control content.

      As far as putting in “the care needed” to have a professionally represented and traditionally published quality book, most self publishing writers don’t put in that effort. And until they do, self publishing will not advance to that next level, where independent voices can finally be heard, easily and comfortably in a professionally published and easily entertaining format.

      • Diana Douglas

        In addition to being a control freak, one of the main reasons I decided to self-publish was my disappointment in the quality of the books that the traditional publishers were putting out. In my opinion, the ‘gatekeepers’ are doing a lousy job. I’ve found more quality books by searching through the Kindle bookstore than I have at the local Barnes & Noble. Yes, there are a lot of self-published ‘duds’ written by writers who don’t know what they’re doing, but the overall selection is so vast that there also more ‘gems.’ And once you learn the system, those gems aren’t hard to find.
        Until traditional publishers open their eyes to more new and talented writers, offer better contracts and find a more efficient way to distribute their product, they’ll continue to lose ground.

        • Carol Brill

          “And once you learn the system, those gems aren’t hard to find.”
          Would love to hear more about that system. Thanks carol

          • Diana Douglas

            There are a ton of sites that promote free/bargain and/or newly published ebooks. You can find most of these sites through Twitter or just by surfing the web. Once you sign up they’ll email you daily with various titles. I quickly scroll through them & download the free ebooks that look interesting or if they aren’t free I download the first 10% through Amazon. That way I’m not out any cash before I know if I like the book.
            Some days I don’t download any ebooks, others I might download 6 or 7. Then I start reading. Poor editing and writing is usually obvious in the first few pages. If I like the book, I keep it and go on to the next. If I don’t like it, I immediately delete it from my Kindle, to avoid a glut of books that I don’t want to read.
            This takes a lot less time (20 minutes tops) than looking through a book store or the library. It’s also eco-friendly. The number of returned print books that get shredded is astounding.
            I’ve found some wonderful authors using this method. It’s also helpful if you have favorite genres that allow you to zero in on what you want.

  5. Joseph

    Wow! The comment at the conference,“People think they have a right to be published. There is no such right. You don’t have a right to be published if you’re not good enough to get an agent, a contract.” is very disheartening. Writing in any form is an art and is our constitutional right under the First Amendment. We the people have the right to decide for ourselves.

  6. Phil Simon

    Editors are like caddies. They work for the writer/golfer, so there is an inherent bias. However, the best editors, caddies, writers, and golfers know that a book only becomes great if everyone does his/her job.

    It’s flat-out wrong to impugn editors merely because they work for writers and not publishers. I’d argue that many editors are so swamped working for big publishers that they don’t have sufficient time to devote to books. Indy editors can be pickier and only select the projects, subjects, and writers they enjoy.

  7. Diana Douglas

    Another misconception is that self-publishing is easy. As I sit here tapping away at my keyboard, I’m sleep deprived, mentally & physically exhausted and overloaded with caffeine. I can attest to the fact that self-publishing isn’t easy–at least not if you do it right. But I’m also thrilled to be a part of this emerging trend that puts success in our hands as long as we’re willing to work for it.

    • Julie Valin

      I had to respond to your comment, because I am preparing to do a workshop/seminar on Self-Publishing this Saturday, so I’m loving reading through Joel’s and commenters’ very helpful insights. But you just hit on a great point –that self-publishing isn’t easy–if you do it right! I might quote you! :-) You are on the right track, though, and I commend you!

  8. Peggy DeKay

    Hello Joel, what a great post! I couldn’t agree more. As a book coach, and as an author I have heard these myths recounted dozens of times. A quick story if you will indulge me. Early on when my book, Self-Publishing for Virgins, was newly released I went to a small book store in Indiana to see if they wanted to carry my book. The bookstore owner was chagrined, “Why would I carry your book?” he said, as I stood dumbfounded with my book in hand. “I think,” he continued, “that authors should ‘pay their dues, and get a real agent or publisher.”‘ He didn’t “believe in self-publishing.” Ironically, several of his books were self-published, because as a book coach, I had contracted with several of the authors. He did end up inviting me to an author’s day event, where I sold books, and he profited from the sale…my money ultimately, was as good as the money from the ‘big six.’ (Most indie bookstore owners are wonderful people and are happy to work with self-published authors). I say all that to say this, today, one year later, I sell hundreds of books in bookstores and thousands online and at events around the country. I haven’t heard this complaint in many months. Self-publishing is an ideas whose time has come. As Bob Dylan said so aptly…”the times…they are a changin.”

  9. Will Overby

    @ Anna – You don’t necessarily need an “army” of people to help you edit your manuscript. Lots of indies have one or two critique partners to trade edits with. The key is that it must be someone you can trust to be as Tracy said, “brutally honest,” and they should expect the same from you.

  10. Tracy R. Atkins

    I feel strongly that self publishing is broadly mischaracterized. These three myths may be the tip of the iceberg for the self publisher, but are probably the most pertinent at this time. Dispelling these myths will go a long way toward bringing rationality into the discussion. I really appreciate that you posted them up here for debunking.

    These are my thoughts.

    1. My freelance editor was brutally honest. I made it clear that I had that expectation of her. I understood that for the editorial and marketing portions, I had to put my creative ego in the backseat and let my business mindset drive. She pulled no punches, though she was never rude and always professional. I waited until I had a 5th draft before submitting it for editing, and there was still enough red ink to fill a gallon jug. I appreciated every single bit of it.

    2. There are as many motives that lead to self publication, as there are self published authors. The traditional publishing industry only opened the gate for a select set of author motivations. Though talent plays a role, I wager that the market viability of a manuscript, and how it fits into the publisher’s lineup, is often the primary reason for acceptance. Self publishing in today’s era allows all motivation types to make it in print.

    3. Again, you are spot on here Mr. Friedlander. People have the right to be in print. They have always had that right since the first printing press was made available. The only thing that has changed is opportunity.

  11. Jo Michaels

    I think your comment on indie authors having a voice and wanting it to be heard is spot on. As indies, we are publishing things that main-stream publishing houses might never take on because of the opinions expressed therein. I love how some indies are trying to create change with their words. Hot topics can be addressed in fiction (or non-fiction) that may not have been published in times gone by. I do try to stress editing and good design are as important as what appears on the pages inside. Funds do play a huge role in that but there are some indies out there doing great work. You showcase many of those every month! Great post today. WRITE ON!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Jo. Lots of authors are also publishing works that have been out of print a long time, books with audiences too small to interest a traditional publisher, or writing that doesn’t easily fit the definition of “book.” In all these cases self-publishing may be the best alternative.

  12. Anna Erishkigal

    Another great article, Joel. The last few writers conferences I’ve gone to, there is still this superiority complex of authors who have published traditionally and already have their ‘in’ into a publishing house putting down self-publishing (and authors who self-publish). Unfortunately, most conferences are still run by people who traditionally publish and are entrenched in the ‘old guard’ so getting reliable information from them about how to produce a quality self-published product is scarce. Which is why we all appreciate YOUR work to educate us!

    One subject that I feel should be covered more is that gap between writing a quality manuscript a tradi-pub author would write, and then polishing that manuscript into something that would come out of a traditional publishing house. Let’s face it … most self-pub’s don’t have a few thousand bucks to plunk down on a professional editor and -don’t- have an army of friends willing to crawl through their manuscript for free (or coffee and bagels) the way an editor would. Traditional publishing’s gatekeeper attitude is loathsome, but until indie-pubs come up with a ‘formula’ to bridge some of that editorial gap, I think the traditional publishers and tradi-pubbed authors are going to have lots of cannon fodder to lob at indies. I would love to see some more practical step-by-step ‘this is how you edit the way the big boys do’ articles!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Unfortunately there’s no substitute for having a competent editor work on your manuscript. I’ve dealt with how to do this many times on the blog, but you do have to be able to pay for this work in the same way you’ll need to pay a good cover designer to get a book that doesn’t look like you did it yourself.

    • RD Meyer

      There are tons of great things out there that have been rejected, and you have a great list.

      In the indie world, you have to have quality because of the jaundiced eye with which people will look at the work. Plus, there’s no traditional publisher to prop you up. And believe me, I’ve seen a lot of traditional work that needed to be propped up.

  13. carol brill

    Hi Joel, regarding # 1 “Freelance editors (or by extension, other publishing professionals) can’t provide the objective feedback and work they do in publishing houses because they are being paid by the author.”

    I am curious about your thoughts on how that applies to authors paying for book reviews from reputable reviewers like Publishers Weekly, Kirkus
    thanks carol

    • Joel Friedlander

      Carol, I dealt with this in a recent post, Should Authors Pay for Book Reviews?

      But the world is changing, and some of these reviewers have good reasons to charge for their work. I still don’t like the idea of paying for reviews, partly because I think there are many ways for authors to promote their work—including lots of book reviewers who don’t charge—that they may not even be necessary.

      If you have a plan to use a paid review from an “ethical” source, and it fits in with your overall marketing goals, I suppose it could work well for you.

      • carol brill

        Hi Joel, I must have been having a “moment” because I read(and even commented on) that earlier post. I went back and reread today and realized I hadn’t fully understood some of the fine points.
        The good news here is, in the few weeks since that original post, I have learned more about paid for reviews and now the post is more meaningful
        Thanks for all you do for newbies like me to help us learn the ropes

  14. Michael N. Marcus

    The monthly checks are useful.

    The sales graphs are exciting.

    The reviews are comforting.

    But the main reason I write is because it’s fun.

    Words are like toys to me. I love rearranging them, like the pieces of Lincoln Logs or an Erector Set.

    When writing is no longer fun, I’ll stop doing it.

    Michael N. Marcus

    • Will Gibson

      Michael, I have followed your comments on Joel’s blog for quite some time and I always find them enlightening and inspirational.

      And, once again, you are correct. “Words are like toys to me. I love rearranging them.” Writing is its own reward, like any creative endeavor, and the ability to say with words what is in one’s heart is empowering and concise and clear. And that is why we write.

  15. Lori Hart Beninger

    For those of us who have chosen the path of self-publication, your list is painfully true. However, these are hurdles we are willing to leap for the sake of our passion. I see the next challenge to be fording the moat that surrounds powerful reviewers – the subject of another article/seminar perhaps? After all, the public can’t judge what they can’t see or doesn’t know exists.

  16. RD Meyer

    Number three is what I hate most about traditional publishing. Given what’s in bookstores, I don’t think the so-called professionals have any more idea than we peons do about what is a good book and what isn’t.

    That said, indie publishers must realize that they can publish what they want, but the public is under no obligation to buy it. Put forward a quality product, and you stand a chance. Put forward garbage, and…well…you better find another way to pay the electric bill.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Exactly, RD. You may have a right to publish, but you don’t have a right to be successful at it. Big difference.



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