Wednesday, 4 March 2009

What do you think of self-publishing?

As you may or may not know, the publishing industry is in convulsions. A business model forged in the fires of the Great Depression is now hopelessly out-of-date, but is so entrenched that it will take dynamite to move it.

And dynamite is what it's getting. The digital revolution combined with the economic situation is a pretty formidable double-whammy. While the music industry got blasted into the air a number of years ago (the dust is still falling from the skies and its new shape is starting to be visible), the book industry managed to duck most of the impact, primarily because very few people wanted to read book-length text on a computer screen. It's hard on the eyes and there are too many distractions. Amazon and mega-bookstores did change the rules a bit, but mainly for retailers and publishers.

But the recent successes of the Kindle and the Sony Reader are starting to shake things up for readers as well. And if they follow the well-worn path of electronic innovations and drop their prices significantly over the next few years, the impact will be seismic.

So what has this got to do with self-publishing?

Simple. The rules are changing. Self-publishing is looking ever more attractive. The traditional advantages of traditional publishers are eroding.

The first advantage was distribution. The publisher - not the author - did the hard work of trying to get the book into actual stores. This is still true. But the advent of new technologies makes it a less wonderful advantage. Print-on-demand technology and digital distribution are making a physical presence in a physical store less necessary than it has been in the past. And if present trends continue, this advantage will continue to shrink.

The second advantage was marketing. A publisher would - in theory - take on the publicity responsibilities and do everything in its power to make sure the book sold. (Is that the sound of cynical laughter I hear?) In actual fact, that is now rarely true. Blogs and social networks have become the most effective way of marketing books and authors are generally expected to work these angles on their own. They are often exhorted to plow their advances back into their own publicity: publishers are too busy with the spaghetti strategy: throw a whole bunch of books at the wall and see what sticks. More and more writers are wondering what the point of signing with a publishing house is if so much of the hard work is left to the writer anyway. If you're not one of your publisher's A-list authors, this advantage has pretty much ceased to exist. (Some of the agents I am querying want to know my marketing vision right in the query letter. What does that tell you?)

The third advantage is editing. This one really matters too. But so many editors have been laid off, the survivors are dizzy with fatigue, trying to handle the workload of two or three people. How much time and energy are they really able to put into a book nowadays? A self-published author can also hire a free-lance editor to do the work, although that obviously means a financial outlay.

The fourth advantage is credibility. This one is a doozy. What if every kid that auditioned for American Idol set up a page on iTunes and released their basement-recorded singles? That's pretty much what you're facing as a reader in the self-published world. How much dreck do you want to wade through to find the rare voice worth listening to? How many dreadful books do you want to read before you find a good one?

Yet even that is not an insurmountable problem. A savvy author who knows how to generate word-of-mouth publicity and who posts an excerpt or two online might be able to do an end-run around the credibility issue. And with a good-looking website selling digital downloads, it could be done without the financial risks of publishing hardcopy books.

I'm still thinking finding a publisher is preferable, but to be honest, I'm going to be looking very hard at what they're offering in terms of editing and publicity. Because if they don't offer much in that department, it's hard to see the advantage to me of signing up with them.

What do you think? If you're a writer, under what circumstances would you self-publish? If you're a reader, under what circumstances would you buy a self-published book? If you're an industry insider, is there something important I'm missing here?

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Bill Fullerton said...

Good piece. This is just MHO, but, self-publishing is a much more viable option for non-fiction than fiction and will remain so for the immediate future.

Janet said...

Thanks Bill. I do note you didn't answer any of the questions. Ever been tempted by self-publishing? Or bought one online?

Janna Qualman said...

I think you bring up some great points, Janet. My first reaction is still to cringe - because of the stigma attached to self-publication. But that said, it can work for some people - because of all those reasons you so clearly explained.

I think self-publication would be a last resort type thing for me. First, because of the monetary cost to me. Second, I'd fear not being taken seriously - and could I prove myself when left to my own devices? As for buying... I've made the mistake of snapping up self-pubbed fic before, without looking through it thoroughly enough. One in particular reeked, and I wasted $16 on it. So now, if I were to buy another again, I'd have to dissect both covers, read the first chapter and skim the rest.

You've thought it all through, for sure. Do what's best for you! It certainly CAN be done - many a self-pubbed author made it work swimmingly. Keep weighing those pros and cons, and the answer will come to you. Good luck!

Ed said...

I believe that to some extent the stigma of self-publishing is based on a self-fulfilling prophecy. Unprepared writers with unprepared manuscripts meet shady printers who want the writer's money, corners are cut on both sides, and the rest is history. The tragic results reinforce the impression of self-publishing as a fantasy-driven last refuge of the failed.

Reversing that image is conceptually simple but very difficult (and potentially expensive) in practice: do everything a regular publisher does, with as much objectivity and professionalism as they do - starting with the questions "Is this manuscript print-worthy yet? Can it be made print-worthy or is it doomed to be a carcass in my trunk?" Too many self-pubbed books fail right here, and we haven't even gotten to the physical book's quality control yet.

I'm sorry, what were the questions? :D

I'm a nonfiction guy (reader and writer) so if I ever get around to writing a book, I'd be inclined to consider self-publishing; though it wouldn't be my first choice, neither would I spend ten years gathering 1,200 rejections first. As a reader, I really don't pay much attention to the publisher of the books I choose. Although, if I were approaching a fiction book, I'd be much more skeptical of self-pubbed works, there's just so many more ways fiction can screw the pooch than nonfic.

Jessica said...

Hi Janet,
I saw that you're in the querying stages on Camille Eide's blog so I hopped on over. Great post, something I've been thinking about.
I don't think I'm really tempted by self-publishing too much. I've thought about it, the pros and cons. I do agree that the recent successes of the Kindle, e-publishing, etc. has made the climate kinder for self-publishers. Though I haven't bought a self-pubbed book, I did win one and it was really good. A Lever Long Enough, by Amy Deardon. She actually created her own publishing company in order to market her book better.
I think Bill is right when he says self-publishing is better for non-fiction. But still, a few recent self-published books (such as The Shack and the regency by Linore Rose Burkard) have been so successful that it gives some hope that a well-written book can make money, even if it's self-published.
Interestingly enough, both those books' rights have been bought by major publishers.
Good luck with your querying! :-)

Bill Fullerton said...

Janet said...

Thanks Bill. I do note you didn't answer any of the questions. Ever been tempted by self-publishing? Or bought one online?


Oh, I have plenty of answers. My only problem is getting them to match up with the right questions. :)

Q: Have I ever been tempted by self-publishing?
A: No. If/When I give up on traditional publishing, I'm more likely to go the e-publishing route. My preference would be an outfit that has a print option, either on their own or with a traditional publisher.

Q: Have you ever bought a self-published book online?
A: YES. With very few exceptions, they were books put out by friends.

Melanie Avila said...

I agree with what Janna said. My focus is traditional publishing but I respect people who choose self-publishing if that's the best option for them. And Bill makes an excellent point about the difference between fiction & non-fiction.

I don't think I would ever self-publish, and I've never bought a SP'd book. I tried to buy Robin's Shrink Rap but couldn't find it. We do have one SP'd book floating around the house that a guest gave my husband, and it's awful.

Janet said...

I have to admit, my first reaction to the word "self-published" is to cringe too. I've seen slush pile manuscripts, I once inadvertently bought a vanity-published book (worst book I ever read, hands down), and I know how bad a non-vetted book can be. Having said that, I know there are exceptions too. But before I bought a self-pubbed book I would want to read an extract and have a trusted recommendation. For non-fiction, I'd have to know why I would trust that particular author.

A year or two ago I would have said there was no way I would ever self-publish. Now, as a last resort, I think I would make it available as a downloadable file, and let people pay whatever they liked. The investment would be minimal and if I'm supposed to be doing my own publicity anyway... What would I have to lose?

But I'd still prefer to have a solid publisher behind me.

Thanks for all the comments. I think you guys have summed things up pretty nicely. (Gee, nobody to fight with...) :o)

Janna Qualman said...

Whew! I'm glad there are no arguments. :)

Coming back to say I've tagged you today. Check it out!

Paul Wilkinson said...

As a bookseller who was also trying to market a manuscript, the one thing that mattered to me in choosing a self-publish, print-on-demand supplier was making sure the book would be listed on two particular websites which I felt were integral to the book's market (even if the people who verified its legitimacy that way ended up ordering on Amazon.)

I only know of one such company that would do that for me, and I couldn't get them to answer any of e-mails; even as they kept sending me generic e-mails telling me how much they wanted my product.

I gave up and posted the book online for people to read for free.

Janet said...

Paul, have you thought of following the Radiohead model? Make it available for free download and let people pay what they want for it? There's a publisher in Britain who will be trying that out with a June release this year.

But it sounds like a very frustrating experience. From what I hear, the reputable self-publishing companies have been bought out by the disreputable ones, so it's hard to find a good one now.

Grace Bridges said...

Let's not talk self-publishing so much as independent publishing. Theoretically it's the same, but instead of publishing in your own name you form a company to do it for you. This helps deal with the issue of credibility, but does not diminish the need for quality control. Many books are rejected by publishers not for bad writing but for their niche genre. So if you are certain you've made it the best it can be, why not do it yourself? With some coordination it's easy to garner good online reviews, blog tours etc. Have a look at my first novel Faith Awakened on Amazon.

Grace Bridges said...

Forgot to say - I consider print-on-demand very environmentally friendly and also financially sensible in these tough times. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to publish at little or no cost.

Janet said...

Grace, thanks for stopping by. I'm going to be taking a close look at your site and your experience. Although I still hope an agent and publishing house will want to take me on. I very much understand about being in a niche market. Galleycat had a post today about a best-selling author who got 46 rejections. And I was thinking, "There's no way I can find that many agents who will rep a Christian fantasy." If none of the few want me, it doesn't necessarily mean that I'm not publishable.

Grace Bridges said...

I know where you're coming from. However, the whole submission/rejection, agent/publisher system is in place to stop certain stories from being published, and usually the speculative genres are the first to be trashed. That's why I don't buy into the established system. It does not reward quality but rather saleability. At least with fantasy you have better chances than my sci-fi at present! I wish you well.

Jena said...

I'm counting on self-publishers around here to want to put out the best books they can; I'm a freelance editor. But truth be told, I have a hard time seriously considering most self-published books when I'm browsing. Our local stores stock the books of local SP writers, but I've only bought a couple, and only then, after much page-flipping in the store.

I have, though, read a self-published book on self-publishing--a great book for those wading into the fray, especially Canadians.

Janet said...

Jena, I'm curious. How did you establish yourself as a free-lance editor? Is it hard to find work?


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