6 Things I Love—and Hate—About Self-Publishing

by | Jan 17, 2011


Did you ever feel like you lived on both sides of a border, an issue, a trend?

  1. I love self-publishing because of the absolute finality of the process. At the end, you are left with a book in your hand, one that will probably outlast you and most of the people you know. There aren’t many occupations where you get to leave such a tangible mark, where you can hold the results of your hard work and your investment of time, money and attention.

    But . . . when I cruise writer’s websites I’m reminded of just how much I dislike the prejudice that persists in many parts of the publishing world against authors who decide to publisher their own books. Despite the explosive growth of self-publishing, the invasion of a tradition-bound industry by the indie spirit, many writers continue to heap scorn on self-published authors. Even more infuriating is the obvious ignorance about self-publishing that these writers exhibit in their comments.
  2. I love the creative expression that self-publishing provides to the entrepreneurial author. It’s an old truism that the power of the press belongs to the person who owns the press. Modern self-publishing has taken this idea to an extreme. Now, you only have to own a computer with an internet connection to “own the printing press.” A writer who wants to share her work with others, or to profit by selling directly to interested readers, has a significant amount of influence that was unavailable before.

    But . . . many writers have used this power to publish unreadable, unresearched, and uninteresting books that nobody will read, let alone buy. For many of these books, this didn’t have to happen. Like everyone else, authors can be lazy, prejudiced, inept, or close-minded, and self-publishing brings more of these books into existence.

  3. I love how when you self-publish you get to decide what your book is called, what it will cost, what it will look like, when it will be published, and how you will sell it. Do you want a book with a completely black cover, 5″ x 8″ and with 700 pages? Hey, why not? There’s nobody to tell you not to do it, and the expense involved can be held to such a low level that there’s no reason not to experiment with what you think might be of interest to your readers. I love that the freedom to make these decisions is in the hands of authors.

    But . . . it amazes me that fear and elitism continue to rule many writers’ ideas about publication. I can’t tell you how often, reading a writer’s blog or a discussion of publishing, that I’ve come across this sentiment: “Well, if I keep getting rejected, it means I’m not ready for publication. Agents and editors are the best judges of what should and shouldn’t be published and, if I never get an acceptance, I’ll just accept that my work was never good enough, and that’s okay with me.” And every time, it leaves me heartbroken.

    How did we learn to hand so much power over our creative life to someone else? This kind of respectful timidity has condemned many writers to a life of frustration. I want to grab them by the shoulders, give them a big shake, and tell them “Wake up! It’s not the 19th century any more. Publish your book and let the dictators be damned. If you sell a bunch of copies, they will line up at your door. You are the creative one, you are the content creator, the idea generator. Don’t give up your autonomy so quickly!”
  4. I love when there’s a close collaboration between an author and the publishing professionals they bring in to help get their book to market. Skilled editors, designers, printers and marketers in the service of a clear concept and a sound marketing strategy can produce truly unusual and valuable books that might never have seen the light of day from a traditional publisher. I love being involved in these projects, where the author has determined to put out a book that competes with the best books coming from big publishers.

    But . . . it’s still true that self-publishers can’t match the distribution power of a traditional publishing house, and the entire book distribution system is geared toward only the books of big publishers and well-established niche publishers with a line of books. I hate the way the distribution system works—and I’m not alone on this—to make the bookstores of America into a vast consignment operation, where your book, if it doesn’t sell in a few weeks, is likely to get returned to your warehouse (or your garage) with barely time for the ink to dry.

    The “blockbuster” mentality can only work for big companies with deep pockets who are willing to make big bets. The careful, community-nurturing, personal type of publishing that works for self-publishers has virtually no home in the book distribution system, and that’s a shame.
  5. I love the digital printing revolution and the print-on-demand distribution model that have produced such big benefits for self-publishers. This technology has allowed thousands of people to publish a book with almost no financial risk, and without the depressing sight of their garage filled with unsold books in aging cardboard cartons.

    Print on demand has done more for self-publishing than any other innovation to date, and I love the ability to quickly and economically issue a book. We can respond quickly to events in our niche, or simply experiment with content focus, size, cover graphics and other parts of the product cycle because the risk and financial exposure of printing books has been almost eliminated.

    But . . . when authors go looking for a way to get their book into print, all too often they are seduced by misleading or downright fraudulent advertising by the industry that’s sprung up to sell services to these authors. So-called “self-publishing companies” sell inflated “packages” of services, of unknown quality to unsuspecting authors who are confused about the process of publishing or unwilling to take the time to educate themselves about the difference between a book printer and a subsidy publisher.

    Although there are reputable and enthusiastic subsidy houses if you look for them, the biggest operators seem to capture all the advertising space and media attention, leading even more authors into the clutches of what may well become an expensive, restrictive and frustrating publishing situation that can be hard to disengage from.
  6. I love the ability to take ideas you’ve been thinking about for many years and translate them into a medium that can be read and appreciated by any interested person. I love the power it gives to thinkers and writers to spread their concepts and solutions to problems. Without having to survive the rigors of querying agents, or the year or two of waiting until your book comes out, you can take an edited and prepared manuscript to print in a matter of weeks.

    But . . . many of the authors who’ve decided to “let someone else do it” and ended up at one of the less palatable subsidy publishers often have reason to regret their decision in the first place. Having dealt with authors who got substandard editing, lackluster book design and book prices that doomed their book as unsaleable, these authors sometimes come to the conclusion that they never should have started at all, and that’s a shame.

    Even the self-publishers who want to migrate to a better supplier have a hard time escaping the subsidy publisher when they find out they cannot get their cover artwork, even if they paid for it, or request a PDF of the book interior to use elsewhere, and find their subsidy publisher will only supply them with a “watermarked” version that will need substantial work before it can be used for book production. That’s just mean, and I hate it when it happens to unsuspecting authors whose only crime was to skip a bit of homework, or who got taken in by hyped-up marketing.

What About You?

Having been a self-published author, a publisher of other authors’ books and a book producer designing and helping authors bring their books to market, I’ve seen the best outcomes, and some of the worst. There’s a lot to love about self-publishing, and a lot to hate.

What would you add to my list?

Photo by hahatango

tbd advanced publishing starter kit

34 Comments

  1. Suzanne Schultz Pick

    I like that I can work on the book as a project with my husband who does my cover art and illustrations (I write middle grade and YA.) Without self-publishing I’m working alone and hoping someone else cares about what I do.

    Reply
  2. Sean Ammirati

    Hey, I know this is pretty late on from when this was written, but I can’t help but think many of these things are still relevant. Which is a surprise, with e-books being as they are now. But each of these things I found myself agreeing with.

    Traditional publishing is a bit of an elitist clan, I think. It’s near impossible for a first time writer to get anywhere with them. And then people get discouraged, and think their writing is awful. Granted, some of the writing is not necessarily the most interesting or well-written stuff out there, but to think that just by getting rejected by an agent or publisher means this is complete nonsense.

    I have never submitted my work to an agent or traditional publisher, and I have doubts that I ever will. Self-Publishing is not a curse, it’s not a dirty word, and I really think people are starting to believe it. That, with the failure of bookstores all over the place (which I hate to say is a bittersweet thing for me) means that in the next ten or twenty years, self-publishing will be the norm. I can’t predict the future, but I can make an educated guess, and that’s mine.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Sean. I agree that the article is still pretty current. What seems to be happening is that self-publishing is become a more accepted part of the publishing industry as a whole, with agents and others helping authors publish their books. And a lot of “hybrid” authors who publish some of their work traditionally and some by themselves. Lots of options, that’s a good thing.

      Reply
  3. JL Williams

    Your article was right on the money. I know first hand about author mills. These are publishers that only want to sell the authors book to the author and their friends. They lock you into publishing contracts that can last up to ten years. Trust me when I say as a self publish author take the time and do the research when it comes to a company offering to print your book. Last tip get your OWN ISNB#

    Reply
  4. Marit

    I love this article – you are spot on and wise.
    Wondering your thoughts or recommendations on finding a suitable editor? I’m thinking of going the self-publishing route but want to put my very best work forward before doing so – this in need of the best fit for hiring an editor.

    Reply
  5. Suz

    Oh, I don’t know. All my writer friends support me, and they know I’ll most likely self publish. I have author friends who wish they’d gone the self publishing route first! They’re also helping me with contacts in publishing with editing and book cover design. I think the self publishing stereotypes are fading faster than you might think. Readers know how to pick out good books amongst self published eBooks. The lazy writers aren’t winning and big publishers are having to find their authors from best selling eBook writers. I for one would never sign with a publisher without keeping eBook, editing and cover art rights.

    Reply
  6. Judith Briles

    I love it that authors choose to publish their books, bypassing the myths that you should only be published by a major publisher. The day of the book publishing snob joining the dinosaur is here.

    I hate it that authors who choose to publish their own work RUSH to publish … not getting the editing, the design … the plan in place. Of the 1,000,000 total books published in 2009, over 800,000 should have been a pass, and that includes many by the traditional publishers. The saying: if you are going to do it … do it right applies to publishing. Get the team, your team, to create a terrific book.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Great advice, Judith. It does “take a village” to put a book together properly, and when you decide to do it yourself it makes sense to find the best providers you can to help turn out an excellent product. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

      Reply
  7. jodi lapalm

    I love how self-publishing has opened doors to a world I once believed was closed to me. In addition, I love the fact that we, as readers, are able to choose from more than just what the traditional houses deem to be of value. The power is truly mine…more than ever before…

    I hate how my navigation of the “learning curve” may negatively affect other self-publishers. For while I’m a stickler for detail and give 100% to my work, I know I’m by no means at the top of my game. In fact, I consider my initial works to be an investment, of sorts, into my “education” due to the priceless knowledge I gain with each self-publishing experience.

    Great site, Joel – thank you!

    Reply
  8. Mary Tod

    Hi Joel – what a great post and comments. I really like Leslie’s comment about ‘it takes a village’! It’s interesting to see that your blog has created its own village of expertise and insightful people. I usually try to extend the conversation but everyone has said it all!

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Mary, that village is the best part of writing this blog, and you are certainly part of it.

      Reply
  9. M. Louisa Locke

    I love the fact that with self-publishing when the book was complete, within days the book was in the hands of readers. I didn’t have to wait months for the final product to show up on shelves, and I didn’t have to wait for months to discover if anyone was buying it.

    I hate that readers who buy self-published books (myself included) seem to be either ignored or demeaned by both traditional writers and publishers who disparage self-published books, and by implication the readers who buy them.

    I love the willingness of other self-publishers to share information about what works and what doesn’t (about sales numbers, price points, formatting, outlets for books, marketing strategies, etc).

    I hate the continued secretiveness of the traditional publishing industry that refuses to give information on royalty rates, sales (unless it is a bestseller), return rates, advances, etc, because this makes it so hard for authors to make informed judgments about whether or not to go the traditional route for a particular book.

    ps. love the concept, love the post, and love the comments so far.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      M. Louisa, thanks for adding to the conversation. I’ve really been enjoying your blog, too, and the way you’ve been documenting your self-publishing journey.

      Reply
  10. John Betcher

    Great article! Will be tweeting and have already linked in The Self-Publishing Daily.

    You may want to see my blog at Self-Publishing Central as I regularly confront the same realities as you mention in your article.

    Thanks for taking the time to publish the above thoughts.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, John. I will certainly take a look at your blog, sounds interesting.

      Reply
  11. Leslie

    Publishing a book takes a village. The good news about self publishing is that the author can choose their own village.

    Reply
    • Michael N. Marcus

      Instead of building a village, self-pubbers can rent a tent and hire freelance villagers.

      Reply
  12. Chris

    What a creative approach to outlining the tension and opportunity writers face in today’s book publishing environment. And great comments. Go Caethes!

    Self-publishing and POD have certainly changed the publishing landscape and access to the real estate, but not what we consider quality. Regardless of where you find them, details like editing, professional cover design, typesetting, cover copy, etc., are a must. Thanks for your contributions, Joel (and all) for making this a reality.

    Reply
  13. Linda Nagata

    Great points, both positive and negative. I started out in traditional publishing with six novels published by New York houses, but next summer I’ll be bringing out an original novel under my own imprint. Meanwhile, I’ve been re-publishing my backlist as ebooks, and will eventually offer them as print-on-demand. I love the sense of control, and the sense of responsibility. If things don’t work out, I have only my self to blame. On the other hand, I can afford to try different promotion strategies, since the profit per book is so much higher than if I were collecting a royalty via a publishing house.

    And thanks for your blog, Joel! The information contained here makes the process so much easier.

    Reply
    • B.D. Anderson

      There are many learning curves for the first time self-published author, including the new focus on E-Pub choices. We selected different publishing companies for our first two novels, and received very different levels of customer service, quality, and communication. Add to that the mystery of tracking sales, and the entire experience can be frustrating. However, it still is exciting that unknown authors can get into print, be marketed by giants like Amazon, and write. After all, writing is the whole point. Isn’t it?

      Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Linda, you are welcome, glad I could help. Good luck with your books, it sounds very exciting.

      Reply
  14. Shelli

    I recently read a book by an indie author who is a friend of mine. I so wanted the book to be “as good as” a traditionally published book. The opening to the book raised my expectations and I hungrily read on, only to see my enthusiasm fade half-way through. By the time I’d finished, I knew that a traditional publisher would have caught the flaws, would have strengthened her writing and her plot. She definitely has the talent to overcome the glitches. I think it would have been a best-seller. As is, it is merely a good book with flashes of brilliance.

    It reinforced my idea that if at all possible, I need to get traditionally published. I will be patient. I will continue to revise and conform to agents’ and editors’ demands, because they really do know what they’re talking about. I believe I’m a good writer… on a good day, I believe I’m a great writer. But I’m not going to let my ego push me into self-publishing a book that just isn’t ready, that doesn’t reflect the very best of me.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Shelli, I applaud your desire to produce the very best work you can, and urge all my author clients to embody this same attitude. On the other hand, publishers don’t shape and edit books, editors do. Many fine editors are now freelancing and available to work on indie books, turning out the same quality they always have. I’m sorry your friend didn’t find someone capable of turning her manuscript into what it might have been. Luckily, that’s not true for many other writers. Thanks for your contribution.

      Reply
    • Sue Collier

      Shelli–I have to second Joel’s comments here. A good editor can shape and edit a manuscript–and there are plenty of excellent editors out there who don’t work for a traditional publisher. I would also like to point out that there are plenty of not-so-excellent editors working for trads because I’ve certainly come across plenty of books that were not self-published but were still pretty crappy.

      Reply
    • Will Entrekin

      I had the same experience not long ago with a book published by Viking. Promising opening, then flagging second act and a third that collapsed.

      Reply
  15. J. Tillman

    Mr. Friedlander, this is a great article. You’re right on the money on all six points.

    Reply
  16. Mchael N. Marcus

    I love the freedom to experiment, and to correct experiments that turned out poorly.

    In my first few self-published books, I was a renegade — like a rebellious teenager flouting tradition. I decided that it was stupid not to have numbers on all pages. I even put a number on the title page. It didn’t take me long to realize that the traditionalists were right, and a number “1” on the first page looked silly. The revised versions of my early books, and my later books, start numbering farther back.

    At one point I decided to shun the Oxford University Press and follow the style of the New York Times and put a space before and after each em dash when the dashes indicate parenthetical remarks. I declared that this way, the dash seems to unite thoughts, not just words.

    In my next book, I had no spaces adjacent to the em dashes. For the life of me, I could not figure out why I was so bothered by attached dashes just a few months earleir.

    I hate the sloppiness made possible by the freedom of self-publishing. I’m certainly no expert, but I can easily recognize ghastly typography, misspelling, wrong words, factual errors and more — that could have, and should have, been avoided.

    Because of the prejudice against self-publishing, self-publishers have an extra burden to do a good job so we don’t reflect badly on other self-pubishers.

    Just as I feel sorry for the person whose first encounter with pizza is at Domino’s and decides that all pizza is lousy and never tries another source, I am disturbed by the possibility that someone’s first encounter with a self-pubished book is with a really bad one — and never tries another.

    Michael N. Marcus
    https://www.BookMakingBlog.blogspot.com
    https://www.Self-Pub.info
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series: https://www.silversandsbooks.com/booksaboutpublishing.html
    — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” https://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661750

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Michael, I really liked your emphasis on the community aspect of self-publishing, where we sometimes rise and fall on the successes and failures of other self-publishing authors. Luckily, good examples are easier and easier to find.

      Reply
  17. Caethes Faron

    I love the control that self-publishing gives you. I love the entrepreneurial spirit of it.

    What I don’t love is how people assume that self-publishers do it because they couldn’t get a traditional publishing deal. Or the sentiment that self-publishing is a last resort only if you get rejected so many times. I have never queried an agent and never plan to. I’m an indie author because it’s part of who I am. It’s simply in my personality to do it independently. The thought of spending so much time querying agents or submitting to publishers and then having to wait another year and a half or longer to see your book actually hit shelves seems ridiculous to me. I can’t fathom going that route. For some people self-publishing is a choice, not a last resort.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Caethes, I think you speak for a lot of authors who have come to the same conclusion.

      Reply
  18. Christopher Wills

    I love the idea of self ebook publishing. It finally gives the art of writing back to the artist. OK, so most may not sell many but that doesn’t take away the pleasure of being able to do the whole process yourself without having to get past the bouncers at the publishing house door.
    I hate the negative attitude of some big publishing houses and big agents towards self ebook publishing. Stop whingeing about it and start asking yourselves how can you get involved. And you’re going to have to think very hard about that one. An author recently sold over 100,000 copies of ebooks in one month and was visited by a top agent, who wanted part of the action (and the profits). The author asked the agent “what can you do for me?” End of that conversation.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Christopher, ebook publishing gives authors an even faster and less expensive avenue to put their work in front of people than print on demand, and as more books move to “straight-to-digital” production, it will be interesting to watch how that affects the rest of the industry.

      Reply

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