Self-Publishing Pro and Con(temptuous)

by | Mar 26, 2010

Self-publishing can be good business
Just when you think the fires have gone out, they flare up somewhere else. Did you see the blog post earlier this month at Rachelle Gardner’s Rants and Ramblings called Think Hard Before Self-Publishing?

Rachelle, an agent with a specialty in the Christian market, was advising a correspondent that due to the difficulty of getting distribution, reviews, major media, and because it took time and money to self-publish, it wasn’t the right path for everyone.

Rachelle, of course, is part of the traditional publishing landscape, and says as much on her blog. All the points she made were reasonable topics of discussion, and she has a pretty balanced approach to the subject which obviously doesn’t interest her that much.

No, the real story to this article is what happened next. Many commentators—there were over 80 comments on this blog post—talked about their experience self-publishing. Some said they might decide to self-publish at some point in the future.

But there was also a large group of writers who expressed an amazing variety of contempt for self-publishing, and for the people who do it. Here are just some of the comments, taken word for word:

“Buyer beware”

“… writers not having the patience to seek agents/publishers and then wait for answer”

“… will not only end up depressing you, it will waste away the time that you could be writing… ”

“I think it’s a scam. You can’t buy acceptance… ”

“they believe anything that means they don’t have to be evaluated, judged and potentially rejected is a good thing … ”

“for me, it would be giving up, or taking the matter into my own hands. SO I’ll write, work hard, and keep plugging along …”

“I was surprised how many aspiring writers believe that THEY KNOW BETTER than agents or editors… ”

“they, in their arrogance, believe all that editors do is “stifle their muse”…. ”

“they don’t see their flaws and think too highly of their skills…. ”

“it seems to be a place authors go when they can’t produce the quality to attract an editor, they don’t want to take the time to improve their craft … ”

“I don’t have enough ego to believe I know better than editors who pick and choose who to publish for a living….”

“most of the reading public won’t pay real money for a self-pubbed book…. ”

“I’ve found that those who self-publish are rarely any good at their craft and very often are living in a fantasy land…”

“I will exhaust all other options, or die trying, before I will self pub … ”

“I am praying it never comes to self publishing for me….”

And In the Other Corner…

The very next day, over on the other side of town, Alan Rinzler published a blog post called How Self-Publishing Can Lead to a Real Book Deal.

Rinzler, a legendary editor, gives his credentials on his blog:

For more than 15 years, I’ve been Executive Editor at Jossey-Bass Publishing in San Francisco, an imprint of John Wiley & Sons in New York. Prior to that, I was director of trade Publishing at Bantam Books, Vice-President and Associate Publisher of Rolling Stone Magazine … Simon and Schuster … Macmillan … Holt … the Grove Press.”

Sorry for the editing, it just went on and on. Rinzler is also responsible for acquiring books for Jossey-Bass

Here’s how Rinzler begins his piece:

A successfully self-published book can propel you down the road to a book contract at a commercial publishing house. That’s the truth of the matter, despite the worries I hear from writers that self-publishing could doom their hopes of ever landing a real book deal. Don’t listen to those persistent rumors and urban myths that agents and editors won’t take on books the authors have published themselves.

He goes on to tell the stories of two self-published books he just acquired for Jossey-Bass, and tells about a self-published novelist who just got “picked up” by a literary publisher. Rinzler flat out states his position on self-publishing in no uncertain terms, when he says he’s a strong advocate of self-publishing and explains why.

How to Make Sense of it All

How can we have such completely opposite outpourings within the space of 24 hours? Is there any possibility of reconciling the people who have dedicated their lives to snagging an agent, an editor, a book deal, with the Executive Editor out looking for books that have been “successfully self-published” in order to acquire them?

Two things leap out at me from these opposing sides of the issue. The writers who have staked their writing life on getting a contract from a traditional publisher seem to have romanticized the process. They have so much invested in getting that contract, and the validation that goes along with it, the mere existence of self-publishers seems to threaten them.

Self-publishers are people who have, by definition, abandoned the course these “devotional” writers are on. They have strayed from the path, abandoned the true religion and are, consequently, treated almost as heretics, apostates who must be ostracized, rejected by the “real” writers.

On the other hand we have the pragmatic Rinzler, a man who has to fill his list several times a year, and an expert at recognizing quality books that will sell. He includes in his article a list of the “Top four reasons self-published books get signed up.” It’s all about eliminating risk.

As far as Rinzler is concerned, the self-published author who is successful at selling books is a great prospect for a publisher. She has already proven to have a platform, to be able to sell books, and to have the entrepreneurial gumption to stick with it.

When you finish reading Rinzler’s piece, you feel like the self-publishers are the crafty ones, having kept control, kept the lion’s share of profits, and kept their options open while avoiding the frustration and delay of endless queries.

If we back up for a minute I think it’s clear to see that some books benefit from the resources a large publisher can bring to their publication. There are other books that don’t have any need of big media and 3,000-store book launches. The decision on how to publish ought to be made by what is in the best interests of the individual book, and the author’s goals. That’s it.

Of course there are self-publishers who are bad writers, and who are deluded. Notice that Alan Rinzler is looking for books that are “successfully” self-published. If he could see some of the books I’m working on right now, books by marvelous authors who have spent a lifetime learning their craft, from part-time writers with a natural gift for a story, from academics who know exactly how a book is put together. Books that have been fact-checked, thoroughly and carefully edited, books whose pages will sing with beautiful typography, I think he just might make an offer on a couple of them. I really do.

Takeaway: Although many people still harbor a sad prejudice against self-publishers, the reality is that self-publishing can be both a joyous expression of personal creativity, and a canny business move. An author’s goals and the nature of her book should decide the best path to publication.

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14 Comments

  1. N P Postlethwaite

    I have just self-published my first fiction eBook. Similarly, like Sarah Hutchison commented to this article, I had some great feedback from several agents about my novel but the general consensus was, my novel ‘The First Sense’ was not commercial enough for them to market in today’s competitive publishing industry (its genre is future fiction/sci-fi) . I was told by several agents, if I wanted to write something more ‘mainstream’ or ‘commercial,’ they would be interested. Well, I don’t want to write a commercial novel that a thousand other authors have already written in some form or other. Writing is an art, it is about creative expression and although, of course, I would love a publishing contract, for now, I am happy to stick to self-publishing and will just have to do so with the next novel I am writing, so my work does not become a regurgitation of something else before it. However, I would never put anyone off trying to secure an agent/publishing contract, as of course, it must be wonderful to have a great support system and experts helping you and if you do manage to secure a contract – best of luck, but I am loving my creative freedom.

    N P Postlethwaite
    N P Postlethwaite

    Reply
  2. N P Postlethwaite

    I have just self-published my first fiction eBook. Similarly, like Sarah Hutchison commented to this article, I had some great feedback from several agents about my novel but the general consensus was, my novel ‘The First Sense’ was not commercial enough for them to market in today’s competitive publishing industry (its genre is future fiction/sci-fi) . I was told by several agents, if I wanted to write something more ‘mainstream’ or ‘commercial,’ they would be interested. Well, I don’t want to write a commercial novel that a thousand other authors have already written in some form or other. Writing is an art, it is about creative expression and although, of course, I would love a publishing contract, for now, I am happy to stick to self-publishing and will just have to do so with the next novel I am writing, so my work does not become a regurgitation of something else before it. However, I would never put anyone off trying to secure an agent/publishing contract, as of course, it must be wonderful to have a great support system and experts helping you and if you do manage to secure a contract – best of luck, but I am loving my creative freedom.

    N P Postlethwaite

    Reply
  3. Sandra Hutchison

    I would go so far as to say that for some writers self-publishing is a much wiser strategy than hoping and waiting to get traditionally published. A number of agents told me my book was good but not something they could place in a tough fiction market. In hindsight, I think they were exactly right — it probably wouldn’t be the kind of book that would be a big hit in the bookstores in the one season it gets to live or die. If it had been published that way, I’d be one of those authors with one failed book to her name. But now I can get out there and find my audience at my own speed, even if it takes awhile.

    Reply
  4. Wendy

    I am, I am sure this will come as a surprise, a writer. I am currently weighing the pros and cons of self publishing while I write and send my query letters off to agents in an attempt to break into the industry. I’ve not received any rejections letters to date because, to date, I haven’t sent any letters out. I am just getting started.

    Do I believe myself to be the next Margette Mitchell or Jane Austin? No, but I do believe I tell a compelling story and could have a solid reader base given the opportunity.

    There is so much contradictory information out there on self publishing and even on how to get an agent or your book read that it is a wonder any author ever makes it to the shelf. I am determined, however, to stay the course, whatever route or routes I take to get there, and to succeed at my craft.

    I appreciate your thoughtful article and the encouragement you offer writers. It can be a challenging and at times even depressing undertaking as you try to launch your baby on the world. There are a lot of naysayers and at times you can almost hear others’ thoughts “You’re a writer, right and I’m president of the United States.” It is almost as though if you aren’t already an established author that there is no room for you in the industry and yet we know that every writer had to start somewhere.

    At one time Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind was scattered in various chapters around her house and Nicolas Sparks was a pharmaceutical rep trying to feed his family. No one started as a best selling author. So, thanks again for the encouragement. It’s something I think most writers could use a little more of.

    Reply
  5. heather

    Unfortunately, many book industry insiders have found change hard. There are so many innovative options out there for those who aren’t able to get traditionally published.

    Sally, check out http://www.authoragency.com, it is very close to assisted publishing.

    Reply
    • Sally Collings

      It’s intriguing to compare the attitude towards independent authors with the attitude towards independent musicians. Indie musos receive a level of respect that is hard to find in the book world.
      Heather – that’s a great website!

      Reply
  6. Joel

    Sally, thanks for your comment. There are many choices for authors now, many paths to publication. But as we watch the publishing industry adjust to change, it’s clear that we’re going to see more and more options opening up for authors.

    Trying to find your way through this maze of information, misinformation, prejudice and cheer leading is a tough, but necessary job. For any prospective self-publisher, educating yourself is by far the best thing you can do.

    Reply
  7. Sally Collings

    Amazing how fired up people get on this subject. Most still seem to see it as an either/or choice: big trade publisher vs self-publishing. Yet the exciting (and bewildering) thing is how many options there now are, including assisted self-publishing and no-advance publishing. As Joel says, the critical things is finding the approach that fits you – it’s not one size fits all.

    Reply
  8. Joel

    Thanks, Joanna! I’m a big Nathan Bransford fan but I hadn’t seen his terrific post yet. It’s so encouraging when industry insiders like Bransford and Rinzler approach self-publishing with a balanced appraisal, and show that they know that different books, different authors really require different solutions. I’m totally in favor of full disclosure to people considering self-publishing, and I go to some lengths to lay out the options and pitfalls to prospective clients. It’s the best was to ensure practical goals and, therefore, realistic success.

    Thanks for visiting, Joanna, always great to see your comments. And yes, we truly live in a time of astonishing opportunities.

    Reply
  9. Joel

    Mike, yes, that’s the core of the situation: what authors expect, what their goals are, and how realistic these goals and expectations are in terms of what they can reasonably achieve in the market. You seem to have a model that suits your books quite well, and that in itself is a success. On the other hand, have you considered “gory epigrams”?

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Reply
  10. Mike Lipsey

    I think it all depends on what your goals are. I’m comfortable where I’m at (self-pub) because mine are very modest. And it is not hard to get world-wide distribution on the internet. I know that my books of epigrams will never be a mass-market product. With expectations of sales in the low thousands it wouldn’t make sense to try to gain an agent and a major publisher. How would they make money on me? Of course I would love to be proven wrong!

    On the other hand, if I was writing gore thrillers and had my heart set on becoming the new Stephen King, and being rich and famous, I would have gone the conventional route (agent, etc), even in the face of long odds, because I think the chances of getting to mass-market are longer for someone starting out in the self-pub world.

    Reply
  11. Joel

    Melissa, I think you’ve hit it square on the head. It’s always the reader’s choice, and you would think that giving readers more choices would actually be a good thing. I see terrific self-published books every week that would never have come into being if their authors hadn’t had the guts and creativity to launch themselves into the world. Thanks for your comment, Melissa.

    Reply
  12. Melissa

    This argument will go on forever.

    There will always be people that say self-publishing is for those deluded writers who think they have the next masterpiece. And to be fair, after reading myself some self pubbed books, I can see why they say that.

    HOWEVER, I have also had the pleasure of reading some amazing self-pubbed books. And will continue to take the chance on them as when you find that diamond in the rough, it glows from here to eternity.

    The way I look at it, if you don’t want to give self-pubbed books a chance, don’t. It’s not my problem if you want to miss out on new talent. But for me, I like reading the book that no one else has picked up yet. While everyone else on the train is reading the exact same book, I will proudly read my rare find.

    Reply

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