Don’t Bury Publishing Yet: 8 Self-Publishing Canards

Last week, David Vinjamuri wrote a thought-provoking piece on the future of publishing, entitled “Publishing Is Broken, We’re Drowning In Indie Books—And That’s a Good Thing.” The article is nuanced and non-partisan, the comments less so, as respondents tend to line up behind one barricade or another…but even Vinjamuri’s article contained several canards about mainstream publishing that I see everywhere and feel compelled to address.

Let me start by saying that I’m as excited as any writer by the advent of self-publishing and the opening up of some distribution networks, as well as the ability of writers to reach readers more directly than ever before through social media. There are already several excellent applications for self-publishing, including:

1. Niche nonfiction. Books on very particular subjects with a defined readership that is too small to attract mainstream publishers can do very well as self-published books. I have worked in and been published by mainstream publishers throughout my career, but if I ever get around to writing that book on editing fiction I plan to write, I would definitely consider self-publishing.

2. Genre fiction series. Good writers who can write very quickly and keep churning out a consistent genre “product” can build a following, provided they are also smart entrepreneurs and social media pros—not a very common combination of talents, but there are some. Amanda Hocking is the poster child for this sort of writer.

3. Backlist. This is my favorite application, for purely selfish reasons. As a writer, I had two dreams: to be the answer to a clue in the New York Times crossword puzzle, and to see all my books in print at once. The first of these remains, alas, unfulfilled; but the second is happening as we speak. Simon and Schuster just released my three last novels, and another publisher is preparing to release e-books and paperback editions of the earlier titles. If my publishers hadn’t, I would have. A privilege once reserved to the top 1% of writers is now accessible to all.

No doubt as this infant industry develops, additional applications will arise. In its current state, however, it’s a more problematic choice than its advocates admit. If a writer goes into self-publishing with his eyes wide open, then good luck and more power to him. What I don’t like is seeing writers lured into an enterprise that will cost them dearly, in time and/or money, on the basis of false claims and misleading arguments. When I look at self-publishing in its current incarnation, I have to conclude that for fiction writers in particular, mainstream publishing offers important advantages over self-publishing, for reasons that self-publishing advocates gloss over or occlude. Here, in no particular order, are some of the canards I see bruited about, followed by my own take.

1. By signing with a mainstream publisher, writers give up the rights to their work forever.  Not true if the writer has an agent, and most fiction writers who sell to mainstream publishers do. Their contracts include reversion clauses that return the rights to the writer if the publisher is not selling an agreed-upon quantity after an agreed-upon period of time.

2. Publishers dictate what writers can write. This claim is based on a misunderstanding of the author–publisher relationship. Publishers cannot dictate what a writer writes; they can only dictate what they will publish. That’s their right. It doesn’t stop writers from writing for other publishers and/or writing under different pen names.

3. Self-publishing is free, or almost free. Yes and no. It is free if you do it on the cheap: no design, no editing, no paid services at all. But such a book is unlikely to be worth reading and, according to a recent Taleist survey, unlikely to sell. Edited books, especially books that were previously edited and published by mainstream publishers, outsell unedited books by a wide margin. Of course, self-published writers can hire freelance editors, and many do. But good editors tend to be expensive, and a single editor cannot duplicate the multi-layered editing process of trade publishers. There is also the sad fact that many self-published novels are not really editable. One would have to basically rewrite the book to make it readable. So, while writers can always find editors willing to take their money and correct their grammar, they will never find one who can make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear.

4. Mainstream publishers don’t edit their books any more. The story I hear most often is that trade publishers, in order to cut costs, have stopped editing their books and now simply proofread them. This is certainly not the case with my current publisher, Viking/Penguin, which has put my upcoming novel through three rigorous stages of editing, both concept and line editing, to its great benefit. Nor is it the experience of the many writers I know who are publishing with mainstream publishers, large and small. The level of editing is the one thing that most (not all) published writers, an obstreperous lot, are satisfied with. Duplicating that kind of attention to detail by top experts would cost many thousands of dollars. At the price-point of most self-published e-books, the great majority of writers would never earn that money back.

5. Good writers will rise above the dross of the many inferior self-published books. How is this supposed to happen? How are readers supposed to find these needles in a haystack? This year 211,269 titles were self-published, according to Bowker. Last year it was 133,036. Next year it may be half a million, and remember, the older books do not go away, so these numbers are cumulative. Most of these books are dreadful, though you wouldn’t know it by the frenzied self-promotion and circle-jerk cross-reviewing of some misguided self-published writers. There is a reason that literary agents reject 95 to 99% of submitted work. Unless you have read through the slush pile of a literary agent, you would not believe how many people who cannot write a single grammatical or coherent sentence nevertheless undertake to write a book. Many of these people are now self-publishing. I don’t doubt for a moment that there are some excellent writers in the mix. But how, in the relentless barrage of self-promotion, and given the lack of creditable reviewing of self-published books, can readers hope to find the pearls among them? In his article, Vinjamuri acknowledges the problem but predicts that reliable indie reviewers will soon arise, replacing the “gatekeepers” of mainstream publishing and reviewing. Maybe so; at least, I agree that this is what needs to happen for the industry to advance instead of implode. But given the vast quantities of inferior books flooding the market, I wonder how any reviewer could possibly sift through them all.

6 . Distribution is now open to all. True for e-books only, not print. Self-published books are seldom carried in brick-and-mortar bookstores or the other chains that now sell books, including Target and Walmart. Libraries rarely buy self-published books, and that is a huge factor, because for many mid-list writers, library purchases make up the bulk of their hardcover sales.

7. Writers make more money self-publishing than by being published. This is a complicated question that will vary from writer to writer and case to case, but most self-published writers will never earn as much as a writer with one of the Big Six publishers makes as an advance; and self-published writers have to pay out of their own pockets for services, including editing, that published writers get as part of the deal. Of course, most published books don’t sell enough to cover their advances, but the writers still get to keep the money. It’s true that self-published writers earn a larger percent on e-book sales, typically 70% of retail price as opposed to 25% for published writers. But while royalty rates are higher, book prices are lower. Which is more: 25% of $10 or 70% of $3.00? And that leaves out print sales, which are still nonexistent for most self-published writers.

8. Writers grow by putting their books out there and testing the market. This might be true if the writers were getting detailed, informed feedback on their work– not the sort they get from Amazon readers’ reviews or the paid reviews that some self-published writers resort to. The only real feedback most self-published writers get is from sales, a very blunt instrument that doesn’t necessarily correlate with quality and does nothing to show them what went wrong or how they could make their work better. Good writers thrive on detailed critical feedback from editors and serious reviewers, and they grow by doing the hard work of writing and revising for as long as it takes. My greatest concern about the ease of self-publishing is that the temptation to shove a book out into the world in its first or second draft is enormous. Even good writers succumb. The result is many bad self-published books that might have been good, and, worse yet, a few good books that might have been great.

It’s hard to see into the future, but a few things are already clear. Self-publishing will continue to evolve. It will alter long-standing trade publishing practices. It will change the balance of power between writer and publisher by providing writers with more options. But self-publishing still has one inherent flaw that will not be easily overcome: the temptation it provides writers to rush prematurely into print.

It doesn’t take a weatherman to see change coming. There’s an old Jewish curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Me, I look forward to seeing what happens.

Coming soon: an interview with prominent literary agent and e-book pioneer Richard Curtis.

11 thoughts on “Don’t Bury Publishing Yet: 8 Self-Publishing Canards

  1. Hi Barbara,

    I read your comments with great interest and agree with almost everything. And yet I am on the brink of self-publishing (with iUniverse, recently acquired by Pearson/Penguin) my first novel, the one you got me started on in 2008, the one you evaluated in 2009 and the one I’ve been revising ever since. I don’t think anyone would accuse me of rushing into self-publishing. No doubt the 67 uncommented rejections (or lack of responses) from agents pushed me further and harder in my revisions. Especially that first chapter, the hardest part of any novel,has been re-worked countless times. In that respect I suppose I should be grateful to the traditional system for spurring me on.But we all know that a lot of what gets published today has a lot to do with bottom lines and not always literary merit. So despite being shunned by the gatekeepers of the known publishing world, I still believe in my story and its right to be out there. I am trying not to be naive and believe that bestseller-dom awaits me. On the contrary, I’m keeping my feet on the ground and will use this experience to become a better writer. I will promote my book as best I can and then resume work on the next novel.

    Yes, we are cursed to live in such interesting publishing times. Of one thing I am certain: the last chapter in this saga has yet to be written.

    D C Hubbard, author of The Peace Bridge

    • Debbie, it’s funny, I was just thinking about you and wondering what had become of that novel. I don’t think anything in my piece should dissuade you from self-publishing. You’ve tried the mainstream route–tried it conscientiously—and got no joy. My argument was that writers who have the option are better off publishing traditionally. If you’ve already explored that route AND worked hard on revisions, then self-publishing is a perfectly reasonable course, more productive than sticking the ms. in a drawer and forgetting it. As one of my writers who self-published told me, “Even if I sell only 50 books, that’s 50 people who read my book who otherwise wouldn’t have. As it turned out, he sold a lot more than 50. I wish you every success.

      • Thanks for remembering me and for your good wishes. Of course, I’ve heard that every now and again a self-published book – even ones of better quality than “Fifty Shades of Gray” – get picked up by the trads if they see marketing potential. So, fingers crossed and into the fray! Debbie

  2. Thanks, Darlene. I too hate seeing writers suckered.

    I didn’t get into it in the post, which was long enough already, but I suspect that the smartest course of all might be to combine the publishing with self-publishing: for example, by issuing new novels with publishers while self-publishing one’s backlist, or by publishing novels with a publisher and short stories as stand-alone self-published work. Then the writer has the benefit of the publisher’s marketing and promotion apparatus to spur sales of the self-pub’d work.

  3. I think that’s why I haven’t explored self-publishing yet – I want to make sure I’m not rushing into what seems like an “easy” option (quotation marks, since I know self-publishing isn’t actually easy – you have to do all the work yourself!).

  4. From my experience with self-publishing, I think you’re right to stress that self-pub isn’t easy to do well and most writers will struggle to make any kind of income. For those people who say it doesn’t matter how many downloads they sell, as long as one person reads their work…well, knock on their door a year from now and see if they’re still satisfied with their sole reader.

    My wife and I are almost two years into the process and we’ve only recently hit our 1,000th paid download. It’s probably our own fault — we market poorly and seldom — but it’s tough to make a living at that rate.

    We do it anyway because we like having control over our work. We have battle scars from working with small publishers. Working with a big publisher also left its mark but a work-for-hire book is almost certainly treated differently than what you’ve experienced.

    I appreciate mainstream publishing but it’s not without fault. Depending on the publisher, it can take years to get publishing rights back (ask any Harlequin author you happen to see). If the publisher folds (as Dorchester did), rights and royalties can be frozen for months. Book advances appear to be shrinking instead of growing. And, sadly, most novelists will never see their work inside of a Walmart or Target unless they carry it there themselves. Even B&N are carrying fewer titles than before.

    Mainstream published or not, writing is a rough gig. The flood of self-published titles on Amazon? They don’t make it easier to find a Barbara Rogan novel. Or a Renee Harrell novel, for that matter. In short, I think it’s a struggle to be a financially-successful writer, period.

    Thanks for an interesting post. Now I’m eager to read HINDSIGHT so you must be doing something right!

  5. Hal, you make a number of good points. Making a living as a writer was never easy, even for writers with major trade publishers. It’s really only the top few percent who make a lot of money from writing, then another 10% or so who scrape by with multiple books and a bit of luck. (These are very unscientific numbers, just based on a wide acquaintance.) For self-published or small-press writers, the odds against making a living at it are even greater. But if profit is the main motive, the work you put into writing in general and self-publishing in particular would reap much greater rewards in most other fields. If I’d gone on as an agent instead of insisting on writing my own stuff, I’d be writing this from my summer place in the Hamptons.

    Write-for-hire writers get different treatment? Absolutely true. A lot of publishers are even ousourcing that work to low-wage countries.

    Impediments to reversion? It happens. Some publishers are more accommodating than others. A good agent will eliminate most of that risk.

    Brick and mortar decline? What can I say? It’s happening as we speak. First they took away my Borders. Then they took away my B&N. Next they’ll come for me. Still, there’s the wonderful ease and convenience of ebooks, and the fact that those sales are burgeoning, to give us some hope.

    Advances going down? Yes, and steeply. Every writer who’s lucky enough to have a book contract has seen it, including some bestselling writers.

    Reading HINDSIGHT? Excellent idea. Hope you enjoy.

Your thoughts?