Self-Publishing: Are We There Yet?

by | May 3, 2010

Yesterday’s New York Times Magazine had a brief and cheery write up by Virginia Heffernan in a section called The Medium. Heffernan uses the release of last year’s numbers of books published to contrast the self-publishers of old, disrespected by the marketplace for their odd, not “booky” books, with the situation today.

I also covered the release of these numbers and what they might mean for the outlook for self-publishers. But Heffernan at first ignores the fact that the vast majority of the 764,448 books attributed to “self-publishers and micro-niche publishers” are in fact public domain reprints coming from just two or three vendors. The top three of these vendors produced 687,565 of the books cited (just amazing) so the maximum number of truly self-published books would have to be about 76,883.

Compared to the output of traditional publishers, put by the survey at 288,355, self-publishing is a small but growing phenomenon. This doesn’t support one of Ms. Heffernan’s main conclusions:

Book publishing is simply becoming self-publishing.

Stranger and Stranger

As I’m reading this article I’m a little dumbfounded. I know what the survey said, and I’m astonished that Ms. Heffernan, who I enjoy reading, is playing so fast and loose with the facts. Anyone who read the original article by Jim Milliot in Publishers Weekly is aware that the numbers don’t support the contention in these articles.

At one point she even says,

. . . reprints of public domain titles account for the biggest category of self-published books.

But it gets stranger as the article continues, and Ms. Heffernan starts to describe the companies that produce the majority of the books cited in the report, the so-called “micro-niche” publishers.

These companies scan public domain books—those which have either lost their copyright or never had one—and “publish” them, but only in the sense that they are available on a server somewhere. In the unlikely event someone wants a copy for research or some other individual purpose, they will be ready. It’s an interesting business model but one that has, obviously, absolutely nothing to do with self-publishing.

Every Which Way But Up

Ms. Heffernan acknowledges that “self-published books also look great these days—altogether booky. This is no trivial matter.” Well, that’s nice to hear, although soon Ms. Heffernan is back chasing the stereotype of the self-published author as a “crackpot” and his books as “vintage kookery.” Perhaps attitudes haven’t changed as much as Ms. Heffernan implied at the beginning.

I get pretty excited when I see news articles about self-publishing, or about authors who’ve had a big success, or broken a story that no one else bothered to tell. It’s a little like seeing your town on the national ten o’clock news, you perk right up and glow with some kind of reflected glory.

But this article was disappointing and rather superficial. The Medium isn’t a place for deep thinking or long arguments, it’s a brief piece in the front of the Sunday Magazine that’s intended to survey or introduce trending topics to the paper’s readers.

The story is accompanied by a sidebar offering ways to find out more online, and it’s nice to see April L. Hamilton getting a little well-deserved media attention there, as well as

For the rest, a list of possible resources that lumps together,,, BookSurge (which announces on its website, for those who click through, that it no longer exists, having merged with CreateSpace) and rounds out the choices. We’re also treated to the opinion of David Canoy that “indie books are bad.”

Frankly, this whole report reminds more of something I’d find in our local Marin Independent Journal, not the New York times. Inaccurate, out of date information and dubious conclusions all to serve . . . what? A “trending topic?”

I did guess what kind of argument I was going to encounter in this article, when I read Ms. Heffernan’s statement:

Perhaps a book is just a cluster of symbols, printed and bound and distributed, or not.

Oh, right.

What Self-Publishing is Really About

Self-publishing is incredibly healthy and growing at a pretty amazing rate. Even the “low” number of almost 77,000 books published amounts to over 210 books a day, 365 days a year. And as far as quality, why is it that no one ever looks through the huge piles of schlock that are included in the 288,355 books from traditional publishers?

The self-publishers I’ve been dealing with since the 1990s routinely turn out books that are every bit as good as those coming from traditional publishers. And we’ve been doing it the same way for the twenty-odd years I’ve been involved in independent publishing: by paying attention to detail, hiring in professionals where needed, and knowing the market because we are the market.

There’s no secret to this, just intelligence and hard work. You can find these books, and the people who produce them, throughout the self-publishing world. They’ve been there for quite some time. And I hope someday Ms. Heffernan gets to meet them.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your opinion. Am I asking too much of the New York Times?

Takeaway: Although it’s gratifying to see self-publishing getting some media attention, sloppy, inaccurate and out of date information doesn’t help anyone.


tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Jaye Manus

    Apropos of nothing in particular… I realized as I read your excellent article that it’s been a long, long time since I’ve heard the term “respected journalist.”

  2. Joel Friedlander

    Thanks, Michael, interesting article. I had been looking for self-pubbed authors who have had a movie made from their book, so this was well-timed.

  3. Dana Lynn Smith

    Great article Joel. There is so much misinformation about self-publishing floating around, it’s sad to see that even the Times contributes to it.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Yes, it’s a bit frustrating, but that’s why a lot of us are intent on educating authors coming into the world of publishing about the reality of self-publishing their books. And you do a great job too, Dana! Thanks for your comment.

  4. Joel Friedlander

    Hey Guys, thanks. I noticed this weekend I really looked at that column differently. Just kind of skipped it. Oh well. Nice to have you here!

  5. RJ Keller

    Me too, Z, although I’m ashamed to admit it.

    Great summing up of the article, Joel.

  6. Zoe Winters

    No wonder Americans are so stupid. We can’t help it. The dumb starts at the top. I remember when the article first came out, I was excited both for April and Amy (of Indie Reader) and also for me since I’m the IR blogger, because… WOW NY Times mentioned us. My brain didn’t really go farther than that with it. It should have though.

  7. Zoe Winters

    Ironic that such a poorly written article came from the hallowed halls of “traditional publishing” and from a major magazine name to boot.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Makes you wonder about all the other stuff you read there, just kind of taking the factchecking for granted.

  8. Joel Friedlander

    Toni, I had a similar reaction. Actually went back and started reading it over again because I couldn’t believe what I was reading. It’s a very confusing article, and the number of people remarking positively on it are due probably to the same “moment of elation” we both felt.

    Nice to have you here, thanks for commenting.

  9. Toni

    My first instinct upon seeing that the esteemed NYT had an (outwardly) positive article on self-publishing was to be thrilled, and that’s a reaction I’ve seen in post after post from other blogs. My elation (much like yours), however, waned as I actually read the article.
    It’s disappointing to see such a great opportunity for the self-publishing sector squandered with, like you said, “sloppy research and out-of-date information.” It seems we’re fighting a battle with the minds of the general public, but I’d like to be optimistic and say that perhaps it’s a two-step-forward/one-step-back fight, instead vice-versa. I suppose it could also be said that any attention is good attention!
    As always, wonderful post and analysis, Joel! It is much appreciated — I’ll likely the linking to it in a similar upcoming post on our site.

  10. Vincent Nguyen

    Hi Joel,

    Just to rephrase my first paragraph there. I meant that it was an unfair look at the self-publishing industry and that you revealed how misinformed they really are about it all.

  11. Vincent Nguyen

    Hi Joel,

    I definitely felt the darker spectrum of self-publishing thanks to your in depth analysis of the New York Times article. Sadly skewed perspective.

    However, on the brighter side of the self-publishing spectrum.
    The three most enjoyable and thoughtful self-published books to read were:
    1) The Power of Less by Leo Babauta
    2) The 4 Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferris
    3) Linchpin by Seth Godin

    All brilliant writers with a very unique style of writing and energy into their books.
    Hmmm… all were self-published and made it bigger than most traditional books?

    Nuff Said

    • Joel Friedlander

      Good one, Vincent, nice collection of pretty valuable books. Sure, there is a brighter side, and it’s the work being done every day by authors no matter where they’re published. Thanks!

  12. Steven Crandell

    Thank you, Joel, for a valuable post.

    I think it’s important to remember that self-publishing can be a way to create much higher quality books than might be possible in the traditional publishing area.

    I wrote a book about my father. Called “Silver Tongue — Secrets of Mr. Santa Barbara”, it was a natural, very high quality self-publishing effort. Who wants to create a legacy for future generations that is anything but first rate — in writing, design or prodcution? Here is the website, which was part of the plan:

    I used a very different approach for a fictional work with a wider readership and an unusual approach, my serial novella “A is for Amy & Adonis” . I decided I wanted to roll out the novella week by week as a serial romance. So Huffpost was perfect.

    I try to remember that we writers are by nature originators. No template for success? Perhaps that is a blessing. See if you can figure out the means of conveying the words as well as the words themselves. In a sense, self-publishing means we have more creative control, and we get to choose the frame as well as the picture. All the best and thanks for your perspective.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Steven, thanks so much for your comment. Your production of “Silver Tongue” is exactly the kind of book that fits perfectly with self-publishing’s strengths. And I can see it was essential to control the entire project, since your website is so well integrated with the book. Beautiful job.

      And yes, we are originators, content creators, and traditionally we haven’t been at the top of the food pyramid in media, but I think the rise of independent media is changing that. In book publishing, when the publishing houses started to rely more on the authors to do their own marketing and promotion, they also handed over quite a bit of power in the relationship, and I think authors are beginning to realize that and make use of that power.

      Interesting times. Thanks for visiting.

  13. Betty ming liu

    Interesting to read your thoughtful analysis. Btw, LOVE your redesign. The blog looks great!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hey, Betty, thanks for that. I was a bit surprised at the NYTimes and, in fact, it’s made me doubt a lot of other things I read there (as a dedicated NYTimes reader for many years). I mean, this article was such a mess, and in the Sunday Magazine no less.

      Yeah, Matt Cheuvront did a terrific job, despite a difficult client! Looking forward to your new “look” also. Let me know when you get it going.

  14. KL Crumley

    This article is everything that Ms. Heffernan accuses self-publishing of being. Sloppy, and blah, and she needs a good fact checker.

    Out of the last 10 indie books that I’ve read, only one was really bad…and it was written by a teenager hoping to get input on how to improve his skill. I also previewed one that was downright unprofessional and childish, but it was also written by a teen.

    Out of the last 5, merely 5 commercially published titles I’ve read, only 2 I really loved. Two were absolutely HORRIBLE, and one was just okay.
    Poorly edited and/or printed crapola comes from major publishing houses every single day. I have mass market paperbacks on my shelf where the pages were printed at an angle, and the text fades off in spots. So many of them are over-hyped formula fiction, with boring and overdone story lines. Some “best-sellers” are garbage. Twilight saga is horrible! Who decided to publish that crap?!

    When I go on Amazon, I’d gladly preview and perhaps even purchase indie titles because I know that at least they would be original. I’m tired of all of the “copy cat” fiction and glorified fanfic that passes for “good” commercially published books these days.

    Don’t even get me started on the tons of bad cover art put out there by traditional publishers. Really. It’s hard to tell fantasy books from other genre’s now a days. There was a time when I could see the artwork for fantasy books hanging in some museum. It would be the one thing that attracted me to at least pick up a book and thumb through it. Any more, it’s suddenly okay to have a totally blank yellow cover with a symbol on it that does NOTHING to convey that it is fantasy, A chess piece, a bloodied rose?! and how many variations of the bloody rose have we seen in various fantasy/horror titles?
    Seriously. And you see one vampire couple snogging on the cover, you’ve seen them all.

    Okay, end of my cover rant. Mr. Bookman, I really appreciate your insight and sticking up for the indie community.


    • Joel Friedlander


      Thanks for that. And for this:

      Poorly edited and/or printed crapola comes from major publishing houses every single day.

      This whole idea that self-published books are somehow all crap, and that traditionally published books are just wonderful is absurd and always has been.

      And hey, if you feel like ranting, come on over anytime!

      • Michael N. Marcus

        Traditional publishers support books that are expected to make money, regardless of literary merit. The perfect proof is Sarah Palin’s advance.

        Also… the “professionals” are not necessarily better in book design than the amateurs are. I received two books today from Amazon, that are big disappontments.

        One is a 350-page paperback from Harper, with tiny type and small margins.

        The other is a 354-page hardcover from Algonquin/Workman, with small type and oversize leading. It would be much easier to read with bigger type and less leading.

        When I worked in advertising, the art directors were warned against using “fly shit” size type. Book designers should be aware that not all readers are 20 years old with 20-20 vision.

        After owning an iPad for three weeks, I’ve realized the advantage of variable type size in eBooks, and being able to enlarge pieces of websites, including magazines. I can’t do that with paper pages.

        • Joel Friedlander

          Thanks for the tips, Michael, I’ll try to remember the “older generation” when designing my clients’ books.

          You can’t deny the convenience of the eReaders, and that’s one of the reasons people, once they get one, seem to like them so much!

        • Alain Miles

          Mike, yes it’s good that readers can format the ebook page to suit their preferences. I’m sure that writers and publishers will soon realize that an ebook doesn’t need to be formatted like a printed book, and we can do more to help the reader.

          For example, all contributors to this thread have left a single-line space between paragraphs. Perhaps this is because it’s hard to indent paragraphs in comments. But personally I feel the space helps the reader. Since we don’t have to worry about saving paper, why not give paragraphs room to breathe?

          Most ebooks still use paragraph indents, not paragraph spacing. I don’t, and reviewers have often told me that they find my novel an ‘easy’ read. I’m sure the comment has more to do with the spacing than with my writing style.

          • Joel Friedlander

            Alain, I agree. This topic came up in another context last week. It seems to me that reading a book and reading on screen are fundamentally different. Also, look at the environment within which we read things like blogs: a very busy space with lots of stuff going on. Quite unlike a book.

            I don’t think I’ve ever considered printing something in rag-right Verdana with paragraph spacing, but it’s the most readable format I’ve found for this blog so far. Context is everything.

  15. Michael N. Marcus

    Virginia wrote, “It’s hard to remember the stigma that once attached to self-publishing.”

    Apparently some of Virginia’s co-workers have not yet gotten the news that the stigma has been removed, because it’s extremely hard to get the Times to print a review of a self-pubbed book.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Oh, you mean that 800-pound gorilla in the middle of the room. Yeah, I thought I smelled something.

  16. Sue Collier

    Thanks for the great comments, Joel! (You beat me to it…haha!) What an appalling article. I am getting so tired of the inaccuracy of how self-publishing is being portrayed. I found Heffernan’s article to be sarcastic and uninformed…and just pretty pointless.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hey, jump into the party, Sue, we can all take a turn bashing this unfortunate article. Hardly seems to qualify as “journalism” and not really what you expect from the Times.

  17. Cheryl Anne Gardner

    I agree Joel. I was intially excited to see the article come through on my feed, but then was equally horrified after I read it. Sloppy, just damn sloppy journalism is what it is, and it does nothing to help the cause. In fact, articles like this only offer open forum for those who wish to continue to bash self-publishing. It’s a disgrace. I was hoping to cross post it, but after reading it, I can’t ignore it enough. And then to use The Pod People title as a leader without concern, it almost make it look like we were endorsing those companies. Thank goodness the writer didn’t research the name and so didn’t link back to us in any way. I feel good for April and Indie Reader, but feel bad that they are linked to terrible article.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Yes, I noticed the “POD people” and thought I might find a link to your site, but it seems like research has taken a back seat in this case. Thanks for commenting, Cheryl.

    • Alain Miles

      You’re right of course, Joel. The article doesn’t reflect the vibrancy and the quality of some of the writing in the indie market.

      But, on the other hand, at least the NYT is discussing self-publishing. Last week as I read the weekly Book Review page in the local newspaper here in Cambridge (UK), it occurred to me that the only reviews I ever see are from the major publishers.

      I can see that coverage of indie writers could be a Pandora’s Box. There’d probably be 76,883 submissions a week. And there’s the problem with independents – most of them work as a 1-man band.

      Perhaps a little organization is needed. An independent review panel perhaps, seeking out the best of the best self-published writers, and submitting a list for review each week. Syndication? A concerted effort to explain to the potential reading public the benefits of ebooks and how easily they can be acquired? Would that give self-publishing the respect and credibility we feel we deserve?

      Or do you feel that centralized marketing goes against the grain? That the independence of the self-publisher would be at risk?

      • Joel Friedlander


        I think your suggestion is good, and the self-publishers who do not want to “threaten their independence” can simply not opt in.

        There are already several sites that seem to be trying to do what you’ve outlined, in terms of finding indie books and reviewing them straight up, just like any other book. This seems to have potential if they can get enough readership, because it seems to that’s the way self-published books ought to be treated.

        I suppose there’s always the chance that we might end up swapping one gatekeeper for another, but most self-publishers I know would welcome a fair and honest appraisal of their book.



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