Self-Publishing Pro and Con(temptuous)

POSTED ON Mar 26, 2010

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

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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.

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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