I follow a lot of writer’s forums online (LinkedIn, Goodreads, etc.) and there’s been a lot of debate over self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. Almost every day a newbie or wannabe author/writer will ask about the pros and cons, and all the old mythology immediately starts to surface. Those of us who have already self-published (and some quite successfully, thank you) are quick to point out the benefits, but there are always a few (often with hidden agendas) who pooh-pooh self-publishing and offer up all the old stereotypes.
I am happy to report that those stereotypes, with a few exceptions, are dead.
It used to be that the only reputable way to get published was traditional; that means getting an agent, having said agent send out your manuscript (all 40 pounds of it) to various publishers on either coast, waiting, waiting, waiting, getting back non-informational reject letters (“doesn’t fit our brand; best of luck”), and repeat ad infinitum (or ad nauseum). If a writer wanted to do anything other than this carved-in-stone formula, they would have to go to what was then called a “vanity press.” Vanity press has somewhat gone the way of the dodo, but it does still exist in slightly different forms. More on that later. Essentially a vanity press would print anything you asked them to, if you were willing to pay their price. This was very often in the thousands of dollars and came with much ego-stroking and promises of fame and fortune. The reality was often heart-breakingly disappointing.
The main problem with a vanity press was that they had their money up front. Once they did, there was no incentive for them to do anything to promote your book. You paid them to print it and they did; then you ended up with an empty bank account and countless boxes of books in your garage that you were left to sell or promote however you could figure that out. They had your money; you had your tarnished, dust-gathering dream.
Anyone who knew anything about publishing knew that if you weren’t published traditionally, by a recognized house, you were probably a hack, so any book with a vanity press brand was immediately pigeon-holed as crap. Some have even said such authors became pariahs, which may be true. It was as if once you had succumbed to the lure of the sham, you were branded a fool and no worthwhile publisher would even glance your way. You were dead in the water.
That was in the old days.
Over the last 20 years, publishing has undergone a huge transformation. For some reason (unknown to me) the industry began to pull back into a very fearful and conservative replica of itself. Instead of working to discover and develop the next up-and-coming brilliant author, publishing houses fixated on only proven authors and instant best-sellers. Instead of taking a chance on undiscovered genius, houses banked on household names and sure blockbusters. Uncovering and developing rough talent (of which there is never a shortage) lost out to almost assured (remember Sarah Palin’s book?) million-sellers. A never before published author had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting anywhere with the big houses.
Luckily, the cavalry was appearing on a distant ridge.
The large publishers’ reluctance to take a chance on new authors left a huge void in the writing world, but it wasn’t long before forward-thinking entrepreneurs were popping up to fill that gap. Small presses began appearing all across the country and the world. They didn’t need to have a New York address or populate a 5-story building in Manhattan. Many were small mom-and-pop businesses, started on a shoestring and willing to consider unknowns. At the same time, the internet was ushering in author’s showcase sites where writers could put up a sample of their writing and publishers, editors and agents could peruse at their leisure. It was a match made in heaven.
Then everything changed – again.
Digital printing, print-on-demand (POD) and the immediate transfer of data over the internet spawned the new and now wildly successful industry of self-publishing. Now for the first time, writers could publish their own works easily, affordably, and produce a quality product which paid for itself as readers ordered books. There was no huge cash outlay, there was no huge inventory to warehouse, no huge gamble to take. The old, slow, expensive process of printing, warehousing and shipping large quantities of heavy tomes was replaced by a sleek, cheap and efficient process that brought almost instant results.
The shackles had been thrown off.
So if self-publishing is so great, why does the debate rage on?
From my point of view, people who argue against self-publishing either have their own agendas or they are laboring under old stone-chiseled misconceptions. Here are a few of the arguments you’ll hear:
Self-published books are badly written and are rife with spelling errors, typos and bad grammar. Partly true. People are different and of course some writers may not have the best command of the language and/or believe they don’t need an editor or proofreader. Most, however, have a good understanding of their own limitations and are not shy about calling on outside help to polish their book. We writers are artists; we are creators and when we create a story, we want it to be the best it can be. This argument is most often promoted by (you guessed it) people who work as editors.
People who self-publish are just lazy and impatient and are not willing to do the work or to wait for a traditional publisher to accept them. There are some calcified brains who honestly think that self-publishing is just too easy and that “fact,” in and of itself, is a good argument against it. What they’re not considering is that some authors may have been working on their book for many years and may have spent many more years shopping it to every agent and publishing house they could find, only to be passed over again and again. Most writers are not cranking out a book every three months, slapping a cover on it and pronouncing it done. All the writers I know take their time, write their best and polish, polish, polish until they feel they have an interesting, satisfying story.
Self-published authors become “unpublishable” and are pariahs in the industry. False. By now everyone knows the story of the Celestine Prophecy, how it was self-published but became a huge seller and was picked up by a traditional publishing house. It’s not the only one, just the most famous. Self-publishing does not preclude being traditionally published. As for being branded a pariah, let me ask a question. Last time you bought a book, did you look at who published it? If you did, were you aware if the company was a self-publishing company or not? And if you were, did it influence your decision to buy or not buy that book? I’m guessing the answer to those questions is most likely no. We don’t buy a book according to who published it. We buy books because we want to read the story. We don’t buy an author because of who published their book; we buy them because we like their style and story-telling.
People who self-publish produce inferior books. False. Self-published books these days are quality products with crisp printing and beautiful and eye-catching covers. I would challenge anyone to pick up a self-published book and a traditionally published book and compare them. I doubt they’d find any differences. In one of the online forums, there was actually a guy arguing for offset printing (which just happened to be his business), saying it was still cheaper per unit price—but of course that’s only if you order a run of 5,000 books or so. Not only did this guy have his own agenda but he was advising writers to continue using an outdated and antiquated form of publishing that is expensive, bulky and unnecessary.
What’s really too bad about all this bull is that most of these shrill voices (1) have little or no real experience with the self-publishing process itself and (2) they promote themselves as experts, condescending to advise the lowly unpublished authors about the “truth” of self-publishing. They bank on their criticism and know-it-all manner to lead the newbie by the nose away from self-publishing and (ironically) toward whatever outdated method their business is based on. I find these tactics reprehensible.
Luckily, so do hundreds and thousands of my fellow self-publishers. Take a look at some of these online forums and you’ll see these sharks surface now and again, starting off with a very “helpful” post that includes some of the bashing above. Then watch the fun. My fellow self-publishers don’t suffer these sharks gladly. They zero in, tagging the false comments, rebutting with facts, ripping apart the advice to harken back to the old ways (“Ignore that man behind that curtain!”). It usually doesn’t take too many zinging comments before the shark turns tail to go look for more placid waters to hunt in.
Writers have discovered that they have the power.
And they like it.
Next time: The Evolution of Vanity Press