Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Self-Pubbing: the Great Debate

Riding on the coatails of other blog posts at BookEnds and Writer Beware, I'm jumping on the bandwagon and adding my two cents.

I have to start out by saying it's true--agents and editors do not look upon self-publishing as a viable method of platform-building in most situations. "John Smith has published 5 books with SelfPubInc" sounds to us like "John Smith has failed 5 times at getting anyone he doesn't pay to look at his work." Also, it must be said that among the self-pubbers, there are a lot of crazies--people who are really not qualified to write their books, who are terrible writers, who barely speak English. Trust me. I used to work at a self-publishing company. I know all the ins and outs. And I know exactly how many totally ridiculous people use those services as a vehicle to publish books that no author or agent would take seriously.

There's also the very valid point that Jessica makes--if no agents or editors are willing to touch your book, it's possible you should step back and ask yourself as honestly as you can, is this book ready to be published yet? Or is is a book that should be published at all? Is there a concrete market that can be directly reached, and is the plot/premise/set of characters/writing style really as polished and appealing as the author can make it? But ALL authors should be asking themselves these questions, all the time.

Now that I've gotten all the bad stuff out, I'll give you my honest shakedown. This isn't sugar-coated and I have no loyalties--this is just how I feel.

There are many, many writers in the world today--as we become more educated overall and as we have more word processors among us, more people find they have a novel in them that's just bursting to be written. There is not, however, appreciably more room on bookstore shelves (in fact, there is usually less). If you are an author who writes for him/herself and would simply feel rewarded at seeing their book in bound format, self-pubbing could be the way to go. Your family and friends would have it, and if you are appreciably networked and are comfortable with hand-selling, you could do ok for yourself. We all know the story of the self-pubbed meditation guy who hand-sells 60 copies of his book each week online (straight out of his garage). It does happen, if you can make it work for you.

You might wonder why a publishing company misses this opportunity when a book is obviously making money. The truth is that a book costs a substantial amount of overhead to a company--time in marketing, publicity, sales conferences, human capital spent discussing the title in editorial meetings. To make up for all this overhead lost, it's important that books be able to sell in bulk--unlike meditation guy's single-copy hand and internet sales--and that they be appealing to the mainstream vendors with whom the publishing company does business. Although meditation guy might be a genius at meditation, if he doesn't have a meditation license of some kind places like Borders won't want to carry him (in their eyes, he's too unaccountable). This means the bulk of his sales have to be made through individual pitches to open-minded venues. In the end, a minimum commitment is required for each title, and for the meditation guy's book, the commitment required for each copy is too high for a publishing company. This book would never be able to compete (from their perspective) with their top-selling titles, because the billings from the brick & mortar stores would be so disproportionate. This is why meditation guy still hasn't been snapped up by a major trade publisher. If your story is like meditation guy's, you really SHOULD consider self-pubbing.

There are also dream scenarios--I can name off the top of my head 5 authors who got major book deals out of being self-pubbed, selling themselves well, and taking off, but since I don't want to out any of my editor or agent friends here I will only name one. Linda Berdoll is the author of the DARCY AND ELIZABETH series--you know, the one that has sold about 800,000 copies or something since finding a home at Kensington. But Linda was "discovered" when she got tired of distributing herself--I think she had already sold multiple thousands of self-pubbed copies. (Details here rather fudged, sorry, but the message gets through.) A self-pub certainly does NOT preclude a contract--unless you do the self-pub the wrong way.

There are downsides you do have to consider, however. No editorial team will touch your work unless you pay for it--that means you're risking publishing your book in a much less polished format than it would be if you went through a major trade house. If there are significant editorial flaws in your book when it is self-pubbed, you have really killed off any potential for it to be anything else, since it is a lot of trouble making changes to a manuscript that already exists in a different published form. And while many authors believe in the quality of their own work, it is absolutely essential that someone besides yourself look at your book. A friend, a parent, a child, or better yet--an editor. We are here for a reason. So if you're self-pubbing, do yourself the service of making sure you don't trust yourself.

You also do have to be comfortable with hand-selling. I, for one, am too shy. It helps if you have a venue and an expertise, of course. If you're in the Junior League and you have a perfect women's novel that no publisher has picked up, well, go forth and plug yourself to all your fellow League members! (Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Berkeley alumni, veterinarians, Igloo Dwellers of America, hula dancers, Nascar fans, Trekkies, whoEVER your people are.)

Anyone thought about it? Any opinions?


Maprilynne said...

I think self-pubbing is perfectly fine for people who go into it wih wide eyes and know exactly what they are in for. However, 99% of all the people I know who are that level-headed also know how ot write a book that can--at the very least--find a home at a small indie publisher. Most people who self-publish have badly skewed delusions of grandeur and that is why self-pubbing has such a bad rep.

Kris Eton said...

I was also over at the discussion on BookEnds the other day...I was the one that mentioned trying an e-publisher who will often take risks on new writers that a traditional publishing firm would not. And it doesn't just have to be erotic romance.

Everyone just seemed to skip over that comment. I'm not sure why. Some epubs have sold thousands of copies of a single title. I think that is pretty impressive. And many epubbed authors have eventually found themselves agents and a traditional publishing contract because of their experience in epublishing.

You must admit, a traditional publishing company doesn't like to risk too much by taking on projects that may be cross-genre. But the epubs have proven that some of these genre-bending books have an audience...and a decent-sized one at that.

Just my two cents...

Self-publishing is mainly for those who don't want to learn and improve their craft. Not all, mind you, but MANY of them. Some are even completely delusional.

moonrat said...

thanks, kris. i did miss your post--i might have been commenting at the same time! i'm going to blow this up into a whole post if you don't mind.

Kris Eton said...

go for it.

Anonymous said...

Hello. I am so thrilled to have found your blog. However, I disagree that ALL writers who self-publish can';t write well.

I am noticing that my queries lead to some agents asking for partials, so they find the subject matter interesting, but they LOVE the writing, or so they say, they say it is wonderfully descriptive, well-written, but it's not for them. One said, "issues" such as "these" should be weritten from a distance. Who would want to read that? Funny, one chapter was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, one chapter WON a literary prize. I think alot of agents are afraid of hot topics. SO, I might HAVE to self-publish to get the information out.