Self-Publishing, Finally

ETA 10/9/2011: Welcome to all who are here for the “hysterial diatribe!” As you read, please remember that this article was written over a year ago. Not sure why a blogger decided to dig deep into the archives and cite this one now. As the publishing industry has evolved, so have many opinions on digital and self-publishing, including my own. For more of my thoughts on electronic and independent publishing, check out KidlitApps.com. Thanks!

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I have never talked about self-publishing on this blog. Why? Because some people who self-publish usually use gatekeepers like agents and editors as an excuse, like we’ve literally driven them to Lulu.com with our cruelty. We are The Man. We keep literary geniuses down. So they circumvent The Man and self-publish. Since I’m The Man, what do you really expect me to say?

What finally got me to articulate myself on the topic is a fantastic Salon article. This is the closest I’ve come to reading my own thoughts about self-publishing.

The average person has no idea what lurks in slush. The writers querying agents obviously think their stuff is up to snuff, or they wouldn’t be querying. Even so, most slush is not ready for human consumption. Why? Because writers are notoriously erroneous judges of their own work. A lot of them think they’re ready for “prime time,” and that is often not the case. It is my informed opinion — having read what most people call their polished work — that most self-published books, unless professionally edited beforehand, will read like my slush pile, not like the New American Literature.

Most of the time, when you get a rejection, it is really saying, “This isn’t ready for publication yet.” The questions going through my head when I evaluate submissions are: Is this saleable? Can I sell it? If the answer to one or both questions is “no,” I reject. If the answer to both is “yes,” I’ll pursue the project. It’s really no more complicated than that.

I do have to say one thing in defense of self-publishing: it is a very useful tool for people who have a niche audience or their own book sales channels. Ideally, both. Most traditional publishers may not do “niche” projects (not a large enough target market to justify general trade publication). If you have a book about a very specific subject, say, a kid with heart disease, and you also have access to the American Heart Association’s mailing list, for example…you might be successful at zeroing in on your target readers through direct sales.

But most people who self-publish don’t have a niche book or a good marketing strategy: they want to target the mass market. They have a project that would appeal, in their opinion, to everyone and anyone. And self-publishing a book intended for a trade audience is where these would-be authors get in trouble. Because reaching a mass audience — casual readers — with a self-published fiction project is nearly impossible.

From now on, I’ll be talking about these people self-publishing. The people who don’t believe what editors and agents keep telling them: their work isn’t ready. Just because a shortcut and a loophole exist, doesn’t mean you need to use them. And just because you use them, doesn’t mean you’ll get the same results as people who publish traditionally (your book distributed in stores…readers for your work…reviews…sales…any kind of profit).

The Internet disproves a simple, old-fashioned idea: “If you build it, (throw it up on Lulu or Amazon or any of these other websites) they will come.” Readers will not come. They have too much other stuff on their browser. It’s just like trying to get your band discovered by putting up an mp3 on MySpace. Every other band is putting up their mp3, too. (Not that MySpace is relevant anymore, of course.)

The Internet is flooded with content. As a reader, my time and psychic space are limited. I seek only the things I’m looking for or already know about. I don’t go trolling for complete unknowns just to check out a new ebook, and I certainly would never pay money to try random self-published wares.

But it’s not my job to sway anybody from wanting to self-publish. All the people who want to self-publish, should. We clearly disagree on a few key issues and I, as The Man, have better things to do than argue. When folks actually self-publish, they’ll figure out firsthand how difficult it is to get their books in the hands of readers. It’s also one thing to self-publish once you already have a reader base, like Kindle evangelist Joe Konrath, who now has Amazon releasing his books, but quite another to rustle up some hungry eyes as a rank debut.

The decision, in my opinion, is this: do you work through the rejection, finesse your writing craft, earn traditional publication and make the dream come true in a big way, or do you find a loophole and “publish” your work to a very limited audience? It all depends on what will make you really feel like you’ve accomplished your goal. I’m a writer in my spare (ha!) time. And I want to target the mass market. I would never, personally, self-publish. To me, a self-published version of my work wouldn’t be an achievement. It would just be a printout of my manuscript bound between two thicker pieces of cardboard, and about as fulfilling as my pile of scratch paper. Blogger Christoper Keelty goes as far as calling self-publishing, “selling your failures.” (Thanks to Colleen Lindsay for the link.) There are agents who will consider self-published projects, if they have gone on to sell big (like, thousands or hundreds of thousands of copies). But I’m not one of them. I prefer to focus on bringing something to market for the very first time.

The writers who self-publish because they’re sick of rejection aren’t writers I’d like to work with, anyway. I’m only interested in people who grow, learn, polish, adapt, and set their sights on the difficult goal of traditional publication. It’s hard for a reason. Not everybody gets to do it.

I went to one camp as a kid and, at the end of summer, the counselors held a lavish award ceremony for our families. Every camper got a ribbon for being special. Parents cried. Camcorders hummed. Kids tried not to embarrass themselves on stage. The counselors had to write something nice to everyone, so campers got contrived ribbons for “Best hair” and “Funniest laugh.” Anything, really, that the adults could think of at the last minute. Did that make everyone feel more special in the end? No. It cheapened something that is supposed to reward an extraordinary achievement. Call me a snob if you like. But I have read lots and lots of slush. And I wouldn’t wish most of it on the reading public. America has enough problems with declining literacy, as it is. We don’t want to scare people away from reading altogether by unleashing a tide of bad writing.

Sure, there are exceptions. Joe Konrath’s success with bringing his existing readers to a new format has been noteworthy. And there are self-published books for the mass market that have sold huge. Two things come to mind: the work of Christopher Paolini and an adult book called THE LACE READER. And you know what happened to them? Both moved on to traditional publication. You know why? Because that was probably the writers’ goal in the first place, and they took a circuitous route.

And you know why I know about these exceptions? Because they’re news. They’re rare. The other hundreds of thousands of self-published books? They’re unvisited websites and unopened boxes in somebody’s garage that I don’t really need to know about. I’d rather work with the writers who are approaching me to pursue traditional publishers, and focus my attentions there. There is a lot of talent in the world that’s worth being found and developed. I wouldn’t be an agent if I didn’t think so.

But like I said, I’m The Man. You’re either with me, or you wish you were with me. 🙂 (And I’m a cheeky Man, at that.)

71 Replies to “Self-Publishing, Finally”

  1. I’ll be honest – I wouldn’t want to self-publish because I need the validation. I need someone I’m not paying (someone who’s paying me, in fact) to tell me my writing’s worthwhile.

  2. Hi Mary,

    Thanks for the post. Maybe it’s not politically correct, but I agree with you. Traditional publishing is hard. It’s an accomplishment received for the blood, sweat, tears and midnight nervous breakdowns put into your work. You can be a writer in soul and not be published….it doesn’t take that away from you. Instead, traditional publishing and all its gatekeepers force us to toil away at our craft and keep learning. For me, that’s the real win.

  3. In the on-line community that I used to post in, they said that the self-published weren’t published. They were printed. I really agree with that statement.

    There is so much more I want out of my writing than to see my words in print. I would love to have an editorial agent that helps me make a good project great. And I would like to not have to do all my own marketing. I want a relationship with a publishing company. I know my chances are slim, but, in my world, self-publishing would be settling.

  4. Mary,

    Great post! I’ve been wanting to blog about my thoughts on self-publishing as well and have held back from fear of backlash. Perhaps I’ll use your post as inspiration to write my own (with appropes linkage to this post, of course). 😀

  5. Good post! And here I do agree with The Man. 🙂
    I have come to this conclusion:
    I want to write for the masses. The agent knows what the masses will buy/read. If the agent (a good cross-section of agents, not just one) reject my work, then I did not do my job, and I need to try again. I’m not saying that the agent dictates my writing self-worth, but only that he/she knows what will be read. Which is what I want in the first place.

  6. I think that being a writer is hard enough and I don’t think I would do a very good job of taking on the tasks that a very good editor, agent, and publisher do. They are professional and knowledgeable. Also the job of cover designer!

    I just want to write and hope to reach a mass audience at some point, with all the support, advice, and expertise of the people who know what they’re doing!

  7. I agree with you here. I read a self-published fiction book once. Eek, no bueno. And I LOVED the analogy to “everybody gets a trophy”. I do have a question though. If you self-publish something only intending it to go to a small group as a gift (like a family story, etc.), and not to circumvent the man, does the fact that you did that make you less appealing to the man? Amy

  8. T.S. — Natch. 🙂

    Amy — I had, in my original version of this post, a note about people who self-publish for personal reasons…to have a nice, bound gift for family and friends, for example. I would not look down on anyone for doing this, but I might feel a bit squiffy if you then wanted to try and publish the thing traditionally. I want to work with manuscripts that haven’t ever been uploaded anywhere before.

  9. When I scoff at self-publishing, I have a friend who reminds me that Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville self-published. That used to shut me up. Then I realized how different our world today is. That these men received a very different education, were exposed to higher quality literature than most people today are (possibly owing to the glut of what’s available). Their worst efforts–maybe a bit purple prosey–would still stand head and shoulders over much of what appears in the slush piles today. They lived on a diet of classics that informed their style. I’m not saying you MUST be overeducated to be a good writer. But I might be suggesting that our standards today aren’t nearly as abundant as they were back when these men were self-publishing.

    And I’d be willing to bet both would have preferred traditional publishing in a heartbeat.

  10. Thanks for the plug – and well said! Your camp story illustrates exactly my philosophy, which is why I strive to be one of the “people who grow, learn, polish, adapt, and set their sights on the difficult goal.” I’ve even considered putting that into query letters, but it seems a bit cloying.

  11. This is a great post, very insightful but there is only one problem I see. As far as I am concerned and after visiting bookstores all the time, I see quite a good amount of traditionally published ‘slush’ out there. The question is, who monitors those that allow slush to be published?

  12. Oh, Bongo is going to get attacked, but Bongo likes it. Recently “Writers of The Future” mentioned that only 3 out of 10,000 proposed manuscripts ever gets published. 3 out of 10,000!

    That’s why a lot of people self-publish. Because they believe their book has merit and know the odds of getting a traditional house to publish them, REGARDLESS OF THE QUALITY, is extremely low, so low as to be almost pointless. 3 out of 10,000!

    Bongo is sure many of Mary’s readers have read many, many bad published books. How do these authors get published? Because they have connections or platforms and aren’t the son of Moroccan chinchilla farmers.

    That said, anyone self-publishing should be realistic and do his homework. It’s not easy to make money at it, but it’s probably not as bad as 3 out of 10,000 being successful.

    What does Mary want all these writers to do? Why not take a chance and see if you can make your dream come true instead of looking for outside validation or a savior to rescue you. Isn’t that what makes America great? And why Bongo came to America even if he will soon be forced out because no one will marry him?

    One could argue that paying for a writing course is a waste of time. Or going to college and taking writing classes (talk about big bucks!). Because almost all writers will never see a return on their investment. And if a writer spends 1,000 hours writing a novel, he just lost at least $10,000 he could have made if he’d gotten a second job instead of writing.

    And yes, Mary, you are the MAN. Even if you probably look very nice in a short skirt.

  13. Well, we are among those who decided to pursue self – (not subsidy) – publishing. And for us, it has resulted on a part-time basis in 100,000 books in our children’s series sold. And counting.

    Your point is well taken regarding a niche. Most of our books have sold in New York state and have been picked up by public schools to be used in elementary curriculum as well. We did not know if there would be life for our stories outside of the region, but happily we have found as our work has been discovered by readers in adjoining states, so has the call for books from stores in those places.

    I was just recently amused to learn some traditionally published authors who are having a difficult time in this economy contracting their new work have themselves turned to self publishing. They are doing exactly what we have been doing now for 9 years, but are being described as those engaged in ‘hybrid self publishing” – I suppose in an effort to distinguish themselves in some way from those of us who simply, “self-publish”.

    The bottom line for us is we are signing case upon case of our books on a regular basis and are so honored and blessed to have thousands of fans who eagerly await each new release.

    Thanks for a thoughtful, candid article on the subject.

  14. Agree, agree, agree. For every “I woke up from a dream, wrote a mediocre book and became a billionaire” story, there are thousands upon thousands of “I worked my butt off until I learned how to write a truly special book and publish it traditionally, while still not become an instant billionaire” story. It IS supposed to be about work. And NOT EVERYONE who works has the talent to do it. NOT EVERYONE can publish, or should.

    Thanks so much for the honesty!

  15. Gary — Thank you for sharing your experience. I tried to be as thoughtful as possible and tried to include as many angles as space would allow. It’s good to hear that you’ve had success with your books in a limited (regional) market. I think this is a good use of self-publishing. You also bring up authors who already have books published traditionally who are switching to self-publishing. I alluded to that in the article with the likes of Joe Konrath.

    It’s important to repeat here that I am talking about people who want to self-publish for the trade market (not restricted, niche, or limited in any way) and those who are attempting to break out with a debut. Even though you do not fit this profile, Gary, I commend you for great numbers and what sounds like a successful venture!

  16. Thanks for the blog post on self-publishing. It was a subject I didn’t know much about. From the sound of things, there is a time and place for self-publishing, but the majority of us will probably want to find a traditional market for our novels.

  17. Mary – I agree with most of what you say about self-publishing, but I am curious: of the 288,000 traditionally published books in 2009 (per Bowker), how many do you know? Do you believe that their quality is uniformly tops – that every one of them “should” have been published? Do you think, in general, that you know the ones that sold well, made news, or are by authors you love OR do you simply know about them because they’re traditionally published? Now, I’m sure you know more traditionally pubbed books than self-pubbed (me, too!), but I think the argument you make has been weakened by the publishing business itself.

    Also, the idea that because anyone can publish we’re moving to the lowest common denominator seems dangerous to me, certainly from a business perspective. It strikes me as the same mindset that the music business and newspaper business had – keep everyone else out of our sandbox. In the past we needed the full infrastructure of the publishing/selling business to get our words out there. Now, we don’t. This change doesn’t mean that consumers will all be swimming in mediocrity or worse. We’ll still have gatekeepers – trusted sources from booksellers to reviewers to friends – but the main gatekeepers simply might not be traditional publishers anymore.

    None of that means that self-publishing for the mass market will be any easier. Your points on that are all right on. It also doesn’t mean that most self-pubbed books will be “good” by, say, my standards or yours. But I don’t think that’s the right way to be viewing the shift.

  18. Good post, Mary. Thank you. I’ve had great doubts about self-published books, fueled by general thinking, but also emphasized by the advertisements I see for them. Those in The New York Review of Books, for example, are stunning in their difference from those in the ads of traditional presses. The self-published titles are often clunky, quirky without being clever, or just dull. The cover art is generally trite, and the descriptions lack the zing of a real story. It’s clear just from the ad that these writers haven’t worked with an editor. And it’s so very, very sad. These authors are trying hard, believing in themselves, persisting despite all odds.

    But this goes back to a point you’ve made, and others have made, about perfecting the novel before sending it to agents. Writers aiming for a broad audience must polish and slave over their novel for all the many months or years it takes, think through it completely, and make it as humanly perfect as possible before it reaches an agent’s desk. And once there, once truly ready, the novel will have a very good chance of acceptance–with the right agent. After that, the writer will see their good novel evolve (thanks to the help of editors and editing agents) into a really stellar one. It’s hard for writers already slaving away to realize that they need to work harder, but it is hugely liberating to come to the realization that more effort is all it takes: this realization means you haven’t failed.

    Thank you again, Mary, for such a thoughtful post. You deserve much praise (certainly not flaming, as you feared on Twitter!) for sharing these thoughts.

  19. Some can find inspiration here:

    FAMOUS SELF-PUBLISHED BOOKS:

    Remembrance of things Past, by Marcel Proust
    Ulysses, by James Joyce
    The Adventures of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter
    A Time to Kill, by John Grisham
    The Wealthy Barber, by David Chilton
    The Bridges of Madison County
    What Color is Your Parachute
    In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters
    The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield
    The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. (and his student E. B. White)
    The Joy of Cooking
    When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple
    Life’s Little Instruction Book
    Robert’s Rules of Order

    OTHER FAMOUS AUTHORS WHO SELF-PUBLISHED
    Deepak Chopra
    Gertrude Stein
    Zane Grey
    Upton Sinclair
    Carl Sandburg
    Ezra Pound
    Mark Twain
    Edgar Rice Burroughs
    Stephen Crane
    Bernard Shaw
    Anais Nin
    Thomas Paine
    Virginia Wolff
    e.e. Cummings
    Edgar Allen Poe
    Rudyard Kipling
    Henry David Thoreau
    Benjamin Franklin
    Walt Whitman
    Alexandre Dumas
    William E.B. DuBois
    Beatrix Potter

    (Thanks to Dan Poynter’s website for this info; see http://www.parapublishing.com)

    REJECTED BY PUBLISHERS
    Pearl S. Buck – The Good Earth – 14 times
    Norman Mailer – The Naked and the Dead – 12 times
    Patrick Dennis- Auntie Mame – 15 times
    George Orwell – Animal Farm
    Richard Bach – Jonathan Livingston Seagull – 20 times
    Joseph Heller – Catch-22 – 22 times (!)
    Mary Higgins Clark – first short story – 40 times
    Alex Haley – before Roots – 200 rejections
    Robert Persig – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – 121 times
    John Grisham – A Time to Kill – 15 publishers and 30 agents (he ended up publishing it himself)
    Chicken Soup for the Soul – 33 times
    Dr. Seuss – 24 times
    Louis L’Amour – 200 rejections
    Jack London – 600 before his first story
    John Creasy – 774 rejections before selling his first story. He went on to write 564 books, using fourteen names.
    Jerzy Kosinski – 13 agents and 14 publishers rejected his best-selling novel when he submitted it under a different name, including Random House, which had originally published it.
    Diary of Anne Frank
    Stephen King’s first four novels were rejected. This guy from Maine sent in this novel over the transom, said Bill Thompson, his former editor at Doubleday. Mr. Thompson, sensing something there, asked to see subsequent novels, but still rejected the next three. However, King withstood the rejection, and Mr. Thompson finally bought the fifth novel, despite his colleague’s lack of enthusiasm, for $2,500. It was called Carrie.
    During his entire lifetime, Herman Melville’s timeless classic, Moby Dick, sold only 3,715 copies.

  20. I agree with you about writers not being ready, although they think they are. It’s a tough pill to swallow sometimes-I had to, and reluctantly, I did. I am glad I did. Through the SCBWI, I have been very fortunate to learn where my flaws were/are.
    However, many great authors self-published. I believe Mark Twain did and others I can’t recall at the moment. I think everyone just has to find their own way and trust their instincts!
    CB

  21. Thanks for this post. I have to agree with you about many self-published manuscripts not being ready.

    I’ve been traveling the road to publication for quite some time. It’s a long, hard road, full of potholes, twists, turns, warning signs, flat tires, the whole works (I like to blog about it). I’ve seen the paths to self-publication that branch off the main road. When I first started out, I considered veering off and traveling those paths instead.

    After looking down the path, I realized the scenery wasn’t much better; there were still potholes, twists, turns, warning signs, flat tires, etc. Had I gone down the path, I’d be published now, but I’d be unhappy.

    At the time, the novel I thought was ready was far from ready. It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t ready. Had I turned down the self-published path, I’d be disappointed and regret it. That horrible manuscript would have my name on it, and I’d be embarrassed.

    After not seeing a huge difference in scenery, I decided traveling the self-published road wasn’t for me, and I’ve continued with the more traditional route. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve learned so much more than I ever would have by self-publishing. I’ve had to crawl out of many a pothole, fix more flat tires than I’d like to admit, and even overhauled my engine . . . but I’ve grown as a writer and as a person. I don’t think I would have otherwise.

    If others want to self-publish it’s okay by me (I’ve read and enjoyed a few), but it’s not the road I want to travel. That’s the beauty of this life; the ability to choose our own way.

  22. A-freaking-men!
    “It cheapened something that is supposed to reward an extraordinary achievement.”
    And that is exactly the feeling I get when I talk to a self-published writer who is comparing my struggle to publication with theirs, and figuring me trumped.

  23. Another superb post, and some fascinating comments.

    My only experience is as a bookseller, receiving unexpected (they knew better than to call) visits from authors repping their own self-published books. There was about one a month as I recall, and they all shared the same expression of hopelessness. their books were routinely of poor material quality, often dog-eared (reselling returns?) and generally rubbishy looking. I never got to read any of these books, and perhaps some were well written, but in a modern retail enviroment their cheap and tacky appearance meant they could never hope to compete with the wax or gloss of the real thing. Surely everyone knows that customers judge books by their covers.

    I always said no, as per company policy, and vowed never to be tempted down that deadend myself. Not for mainstream fiction, anyway. The point about niche markets is well made.

  24. All first place winners at the San Francisco Writers Conference get a free Premier Pro package from iUniverse, good for six months. That’s a $1600+ deal and I let mine expire. Why? Because, fair or unfair, there’s a stigma attached to self-publishing and I didn’t want my fiction debut to be considered an act of desperation.

  25. This is absolutely my view. You have explained what I think about this tricky subject to utter perfection. So, I’m going to do the shortest post I have ever done on my own blog, simply saying, If you want to know what I think about self-publishing and whether you should do it, visit this link…

  26. I agree and disagree with much of this post. 🙂 But I’ll start by saying that I am not the average person who has no idea what lurks in slush. I spent many years in the trade, going through those very awful slush piles you write about.

    That said, this does not mean that every acquisitions editor working for a major publishing house would know slush if it came in a cup. There is plenty of junk out there that is sitting at the bookstands right this second. Some of it is written by bestselling authors or celebrities, ie, the publishing companies know it will sell. To imply there is some rigorous high standard that always goes along with book publishing is untrue. It’s about money, pure and simple.

    And I think it’s misleading to tell writers that when your manuscript is just as perfect as perfect can be, you have a very good chance of being picked up by a traditional publisher. I think that’s overly optimistic.

    “I’m only interested in people who grow, learn, polish, adapt, and set their sights on the difficult goal of traditional publication. It’s hard for a reason. Not everybody gets to do it.” What about the indie music scene? Should my husband’s band not put out their own CDs because they are pining for some major label to sign them? What about indie movies? Are they any less of an achievement because they are not produced by some major film company?

    I say there are plenty of self-published authors who go into it with their eyes wide open and their expectations realistic. It’s unfortunate that with the advent of the so-called “self-publishing companies,” way too many people dive right into “self-publishing.” I have a real issue with these cookie-cutter, assembly-line service providers who enable authors to publish their slush on the cheap. Would I consider publishing these books an “achievement”? Not usually. Do I consider truly self-published authors who work hard writing a good, salable manuscript; have it critiqued and edited by professionals; and have the book well-designed as having achieved something? Absolutely.

  27. Hey Mary,

    I agree with 95% of what you said. At this point in time, I wouldn’t self publish because, as an unpublished writer, I need the platform that comes from making it through the vetting process. It’s like having a college degree — you can be successful without one, but having one gives you that stamp of approval. And I also agree that it’s a good way to tell if your manuscript is actually up to snuff. Because I’m obnoxious though, though I’m gonna raise some objections to the last 5% 🙂

    1. In the J.A. Konrath case — it’s true that he signed with Amazon for that one deal, but in two other recent cases, he turned down a traditional offer to self publish instead, because he thought he’d make more money.. http://kindlehomepage.blogspot.com/2010/06/ja-konrath-king-of-kindlesphere-gives.html So it’s not always the case that self published authors run to tradititional publishers as soon as they get the offer. As it becomes easier to distribute self published books on the internet, more and more established authors will undoubtably follow this path.

    2. Likewise, Konrath addresses the “it worked for him because he has an audience” argument also, by pointing out a list of other authors who are also doing well on kindle. Some, in fact, are outselling him. http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2010/05/platform-shmatform.html Sure, there are people who self publish and don’t do well, but you have to account for the fact that these successful writers exist too, and it’s not just a case of one or two.

    3. The figure I’ve heard for self published books going to traditional publishing is 5%. (http://blog.liviablackburne.com/2010/04/helpful-tips-from-harvard-writers.html) That’s certainly not as high as most self publishers would like, but it’s not a low number too, compared to the number that go through the slush pile that actually make it. (Although — one caveat — there’s no distinction in that figure between nonfiction and fiction.)

    4. I’m not quite sure from your post, but it almost seems like you’re saying that even if a self published book sells as well as a traditionally published book, it’s somehow still less worthy because it didn’t get accepted by a publisher. If that’s what you were saying, then I couldn’t disagree more. If you didn’t mean that, then never mind, jklol, rofl.

    Sorry I’m always arguing on your blog 🙂 It’s just cuz your articles are thought provoking.

  28. Mary,

    You bring up several good points. First of all, there does need to be an evaluation process. We have a wall of shame full of bad self-published books submitted to us by authors who did not take the time to either develop their craft or to pay someone to help them polish it. We ask ourselves the same questions you do when we look at a project–will it sell? If the answer is no, we pass.

    The second point is that publishing is not a one-size fits all venture. Authors need to realistically assess their goals, market, writing ability, and appeal. Based on what they learn, they should choose a model which best fits their goals, needs, project, and resources.

  29. Your post, and especially the linked article, articulate many great points in really useful ways. And I agree with nearly every word of both. Thanks especially for the link.

    One additional thing I wish all aspiring writers would hear more often, and a point which made a big impact on me early on, was the idea that many very popular authors wrote three or four manuscripts before their published debut. For a long time I didn’t really believe it. Then I wrote my first complete manuscript and thought it was pretty good. It got a couple of rejections, and I wrote my second. I never sent that out, instead working on getting some short fiction published. When I finally finished my fourth manuscript and went back to read my first, the growth in those few years was staggering.

    If I’d self-published that first manuscript years ago, I would be embarrassed by it today. It’s not unreadable like the slush you describe, but now that my skills are so much more mature I see that it’s not something I’d want the world to judge me by.

    PS: I think your comparison to the awards at summer camp is a bit off the mark for this discussion. The summer camp awards are not really for the children and not really for achievement. They are for the parents and reward participation, not excellence. As a parent, sports coach, and cub scout leader, I can say with authority that such “everyone gets an award” ceremonies have a legitimate place in the growth of children. But that type of approach clearly does not apply in serious competition or in a product marketplace. Consumer Reports, for example, does not give a “most electrifying” award to the toaster most likely to cause an death by electrocution.

  30. Here’s what makes self-publishing tempting, though. You’ve already said in a response to my question that the market for historical fiction is “tough.” Agents and publishers don’t see potential profit in that genre, so the odds of being picked up probably go from 3 in 10,000 to 3 in 50,000. I can spend years developing my writing and editing my manuscript, but even if the writing is top-notch, if the idea is not something that the Man thinks will sell, none of that matters. At least self-publishing offers a chance that the story will get to live.

    Here’s my analogy: Every school has its varsity basketball team. Not everyone is going to get on that team, whether because of a lack of ability, a lack of motivation, or other priorities that are more important. But some of us still want to play the game we love. That’s the value of an intramural team. Does the intramural program threaten the varsity program? No. It just gives more opportunities for people who want to play — and for people who want to watch.

    Don’t worry; I’m not going to do it. I buy into the Man’s argument that I need someone to tell me my work is good enough first. I’ll just hang out in my backyard shooting baskets and working on my game.

  31. I investigated the self-publishing option very seriously for a picture book series for a niche market a few years ago. After spending a lot of time really researching the process, the main issue came back to distribution. Whether we like it or not, the reality is that it is almost impossible to get good distribution for self-published material. And the cost involved with producing a top-quality picture book was prohibitive (I was looking at a $40 – $50K investment for a single print run). As I didn’t want to compromise on quality or be associated with a sub-standard product, I decided self-publishing wasn’t for me. I only wanted to self-publish if my picture book could sit alongside the best of the best and hold its own.

    I also realised that I had to decide what I wanted to be: a writer or a businesswoman. Although I understand that a commercially published writer still needs to take responsibility for assisting in the business of selling their book, the self-published author takes on sole responsibility for every aspect of the business. With the limited time I have to devote to writing while raising my three (soon to be four) children, I decided to choose to invest time and energy into developing my craft and be patient for just a little while longer. By doing so I accept the rules of the commercial publishing game including the small odds of success.

    Thanks for facilitating an interesting discussion 🙂

  32. Too bad James Joyce, Walt Whitman, or even Charles Dickens didn’t read your piece. I’m confident none of these men would have ever deemed to self publish their work. Of course, stupid women like Virginia Wolff shouldn’t have self published their work either.

    Because truly, the world doesn’t need Ulysses, The Dubliners, Tale of Two Cities, or any of the poetry of Walt Whitman & Virginia Wolff.

    This is not a new topic. Thanks so much for iterating what every publisher, agent, and editor has said since King James.

  33. Yuck, in so many ways. The first person says that she needs the “validation” of a traditional publisher. Is this the kind of writer you want to work with, one who wants to “adapt” to the current market, i.e. make it more homogenized?

    Other point, what are you saying – that these books shouldn’t be released? You wouldn’t say the same about terrible blogs or terrible music. But somehow terrible books are in a different category.

    No one says it’s easy to self-publish your book and find readers (or at least they shouldn’t). That’s not the discussion. The discussion is whether or not self-publishing can be useful to writers if done correctly.

    The argument that writers are not “good enough” to get published is SO tired, given the fact that traditionally published writers are being dropped by their publishers left and right for not meeting difficult selling standards. It has nothing to do with writing quality. It has to do with money – a terrible gauge of a book’s worth.

    In short, your looking through self-publishing through the lens of 20th century publishing. With the difficulty getting published traditionally – even for “good” writers – and the tools now available, it’s old-fashioned to think self-publishing isn’t a viable option. And old-fashioned and art shouldn’t really be used in the same sentence.

    Disclaimer: I’ve traditionally published and self-published. Am I legitimate enough?

  34. Henry — I would say “your” right in your comment. Publishing is definitely changing. I’ll talk on Monday about how traditional publishing isn’t the hot potato most people think it is, either. But all those tools now available to anybody who wants to self-publish? Yeah, they’re available, but how much ROI do they bring to the average self-published writer? How much visibility? How many readers?

    My argument on Monday, in short, will be this: it’s not the tools that matter (whether traditional trade publication or a self-publishing platform), at all, it’s how you use them.

  35. Mary, and how much return on investment do “traditionally published” writers get? And how many more that you represent but fail to place?

  36. Good points from all, and thanks, Mary, for providing a lively topic.

    Lauding self-publishing by using examples such as Dickens misses the point. Current print-on-demand services are vastly different than Dickens — an established author at the time — digging into his own pockets for A Christmas Carol to be printed because his publisher was wary of the project.

    Self-publishing today is not about selling books. It’s about printing for people who want to see their story with a shiny cover. Print-on-demand services don’t make their money because thousands of their books are being sold across the country. They make most of their money from people whose work wouldn’t see the light of day otherwise, and rightly so. It is no different than printing it at Kinkos and hawking it yourself. Do some people make it? Yea, a few. Very, VERY few.

    There are good reasons to self publish. Personal projects, niche markets, family history, etc. Becoming a wildly successful author is not one of them.

    Yes, there are ‘bad’ books that come from publishers. But they make their money buy finding the good ones and getting them to readers. They have a massive incentive to print ‘good’ books. Self-publishers make their money printing whatever shows up at their website and has the cash to pay for it. There is no quality control. They’ll print anything, as long as you front the money.

    There is a Grand Conspiracy. Agents, writers, editors and publishers all want the same thing. They want to sell books. Lots of them. They want people to read them. I, for one, would love to be a part of the Grand Conspiracy. And, for the most part, it works.

    Self-publishing, for the most part, fails.

  37. “The questions going through my head when I evaluate submissions are: Is this saleable? Can I sell it?”

    But not: is it good? Is it written well?

    I think that’s interesting. Which is more than I can say about much of the “You go!” discussion here.

    I think the most major problem here is the unspoken-but-implied assumption that corporate publication with conglomerated publishers through traditional means including agents and editors is still a vetting process only the best, most well-written, most excellent books will make it through. I don’t think that’s a valid statement.

    It’s okay that traditional, corporate, conglomerated publishing wants to sell a lot of books. McDonald’s has sold a lot of hamburgers. People love McDonald’s hamburgers. Millions of people eat them every day, despite the fact that we all know how bad for their health and well-being do so can be. McDonald’s is fast and consistent, and the taste is acceptable to the palate, for the most part (taste, as always, being subjective). If traditional, corporate, conglomerated publishing wants to serve Big Macs like Sarah Palin, Stephenie Meyer, and the cast of The Jersey Shore, that’s great. I’m sure they’ll make a lot of cash, and sell a lot of copies of a lot of books to a lot of readers.

    I’m not saying that what is popular can’t be good. Stephen King. Shakespeare. Dickens. Rowling. Good, quality stuff.

    Let’s not pretend it all is, though. In recent years, it seems like publishing’s sold out to focus on books publishers think will sell a whole lot of copies to books publishers think are really good. It’s okay to sell out. It’s okay to admit it’s a business enterprise and quality books just don’t sell as many copies as the sort of authors and trends publishers have lately thrown their weight behind, like Abe Lincoln hunting vampires or sparkly vampires or otherwise vapid personalities. It’s okay to say, “Look, this is what sells. This is what we have to focus on. You keep writing well and put some stuff out there and maybe someday we’ll consider publishing your stuff along side the abs and the helicopter-hunters. Until then, we can’t take a risk like that.”

    That’s okay. It’s a business.

    But we have to stop using salable like it’s synonymous with good. It’s quite obviously not. One hopes that what is good will sell, but very often one can’t pretend that what sells is good.

  38. At the end of the day, it is about goals and how you want to go about achieving them. I have a big goal and I want to take the hard road to achieve it.

  39. @Marisa Birns makes a particularly good point re) everything that goes into publishing a professional-quality book and making a success of it. For an author going the traditional route, whether with a big publisher or an indie, most of the work ends when the manuscript is polished. Sure, there’s still some marketing to do, but the author doesn’t need to know how to typeset and design a book, or how to do the cover, among other things. Relying on a publisher for that frees the author up to create more, and hone their craft.

    That’s one reason we publishers still exist…not just to be gatekeepers (although dear god, Laura Miller ain’t kidding about the horrors of inflicting the slush pile upon the WORLD to weed through), but also to shepherd the technical end of publishing through to create a beautiful product. Yes, you can just upload your 12pt Times New Roman file to LuLu, put a photo and some text together for a cover, and call it a day, but in the end, if you spent the requisite time and energy putting together a truly spectacular manuscript, you’re doing it a disservice by half-arsing the production job. And no author can honestly be expected to ALSO be a good designer and typesetter…

    All of which is a longwinded way of saying: Hear, hear! Self-publishing has its role, and is a very good option for some, but it’s definitely not a panacea for content.

  40. Why are all these examples of nineteenth century self-publishing being wheeled out in this discussion? Are they supposed to be relevant to 2010 in some way?

  41. I’m a self-publisher.

    Please hold the rotten tomatoes; rayon stains.

    I chose self-publishing before I ever got a rejection slip (I’ve gotten three since, but they were half-hearted submissions and I was neither surprised nor offended). Why? Why would I do such a stupid, misguided, lunkheaded, poverty-inducing, desperate, shameful, and did I mention stupid, thing?

    –Because most blog posts and tweets I’ve seen from agents lately boil down to, “Don’t bother. We’ll turn you down.” Nothing addressed to me personally, just general advice. Okay, says I. I won’t.

    –I’ve already put the draft out on the internet. “Instant rejection slip. It’s already been published,” says the CW. “Abandon the project. Move on to something else you can sell.” Well, says I, this is the project I want to write. So I’ll move on–from the traditional path. Maybe I’ll submit something else later. Who knows.

    –Putting the first draft out on the internet–and I am the first one to say it’s craptastic–garnered me 2,000 readers a day and a few thousand dollars in donations. That does not include almost $2,000 in book pre-sale packages at $50 apiece so that I could hire a professional editor, cover artist and typographer. Read that again: my readers paid to put the book out properly. I personally know exactly one of the people who bought those packages.

    –And finally, no publisher out there is going to give me what I want. Which is not billions (though billions? AWESOME). What I want is control over my work. A Creative Commons license. Non-DRM distribution of the electronic versions, and as many different electronic formats as possible. Posting of my work online, freely available, albeit in fun-size pieces dribbled out like breadcrumbs through the forest. Stuff like that. I have no illusions that my work is so amazing, so hot, so likely to start a bidding war, that I could possibly get any one of those conditions from a first-timer’s contract. Nor do I have any illusions that I might get a contract at all.

    Mind, I’m not the average deluded writer. I don’t think agents, editors and publishers are horrible soul-crushing talent killers who just don’t understand me. I have a couple of decades of professional, successful nonfiction writing under my belt. I’m a professional web developer, too–didn’t have to pay for my site. And I would never, ever recommend that a writer go it without an editor, whether at a publishing house or an independent. I sure didn’t.

    I’m not the average deluded writer. I’m a very specifically deluded writer.

    If I don’t sell a single copy past the 40 or so I’ve sold for $50 apiece, I’m okay with that. I got to work with a terrific editor, I’ve learned an absolute pile about my craft, my audience and my brand, I’m not out more than a hundred or so bucks of my own, the people who paid to get the book out get the book, and we all had this incredible experience together. “Joyful” is not too strong a word, and I’m as amazed as–more amazed than–anyone.

    And so I’m doing this stupid, misguided, lunkheaded, poverty-inducing, desperate, shameful, and did I mention stupid, thing. You’re all probably right, but I’m okay with that.

    And then, you might be wrong. 🙂

  42. Most underrated point in the article:

    “Most of the time, when you get a rejection, it is really saying, “This isn’t ready for publication yet.” ”

    Greatest thing an agent ever said to me. Happened last week, from someone I think we’re all familiar with :). None of the usual b.s. about voice, style, or any of the other codewords for “this sucks.” Just straight out “sit your butt down and work on this until it’s better.”

    Thanks, Mary.

  43. Self-publishing is another reason I’m going to be staying away from the ebook market.

    All of these self-published books are going to be posted as digital copies on ebook sites like Amazon, because it’s free and easy for the aspiring novelist.

    The Amazon site is going to become a repository for badly-written, poorly-worded first novels about fat detectives in space and IT managers with telekinetic powers.

    Do not worry Kidlit, the positive result of this is that the printed book market will still be sacred, because no aspiring novelist with a bad novel is going to get past the wall of literary agents and publishers.

    The secondhand printed book market is going to be even more special, as most of the books will come from the time before digital copies.

    Thanks,

    Patrick

  44. 1) Anything digital and online – books, music, photos – will be pirated. It would be nice to have book/music equivalents to the watermark process used on photos – it doesn’t mean they can’t be copied but it is hard to erase a high-quality watermark.

    2) Self-Pub is quite viable for non-fiction if the author has the knowledge, time and willingness to promote.

    3) Patrick: Self-pub does not necessarily imply either Ebooks or Amazon.
    Some self-pub paperback and digital, Amazon and other places.

    4) Agents/editors/publishing houses are indeed gatekeepers, but it seems to me like swatting flies with a sledgehammer. Besides that, what I see on the shelves of B&N etc, does not impress me with the quality of the gatekeeping. The same function could be performed much faster and cheaper by professional reviewers. (As Self-pub/ POD grows, I expect to see an entire industry arise – reviewers who are not tied to existing media companies. Now, if we can just figure out how they can make a living…).

  45. Often a rejection isn’t about the quality of the writing. It’s about marketability. A writer can have a great story and great writing, but in this economy the agents and pubs are looking for a home run — not a single or double.

    Should a writer of a good — but less popular — genre book self-publish?

    Yes. In today’s environment (ebooks) it’s much easier to find your niche audience. The long tail of the internet means an author can sell to a small, dedicated fan base. A good book the large publisher can’t take a chance on has a very good chance in the new ebook economy. Micro publishers can make a living alongside the big boys.

    Moreover, there is no cost and very little risk to self-publishing in digital format. Thousands of writers are doing it successfully.

  46. Readers are going to prove to be better judges of what sells than the Manhattan publishing folk as they are the actual consumers. So what if 99% or more of self-published books are junk? The readers are already busy culling through blurbs and free samples and reader reviews and making their buying decisions, shooting the best of the lot to the top of Amazon’s charts. There are many readers who don’t mind going through this process. Today people volunteer their time so to speak for all kinds of interesting projects, including Wiki and Linux, for example.

  47. My question is… why do you even care? If we’re all such ignorant little peons, who cares? Isn’t that a bit like mocking retarded children?

    If self-publishing authors really are so lame, and ignorant, and obviously multiply rejected hacks, then why not just ignore us and our emo whining?

    Incidentally, I’ve never complained about how “The Man” didn’t want me. My issues with “The Man” are that they publish a lot of crap then feel they can look down on anyone for self-publishing. That they create stupid gimmicky titles for books. That they price ebooks out of the market. I could go on and on.

    The fact is that not all of us self-pubbed because we couldn’t “get” a publisher. Some of us don’t WANT a publisher. Not everybody wants to get wrapped up in the new Hollywoodized NY publishing industry. (And frankly there is nothing a small press could do for me that I can’t do for myself, except take more of my money.) Nor do we want to mess with the myriad layers of BS that midlist authors whine about from their blogs daily.

    Looking at some author blogs, one wonders why they even want to be published at all. “Oh, my publisher did this.” “Oh, I got saddled with an awful cover.” “Oh, my agent is so much trouble.” Whine whine whine.

    There’s so much negativity in trad publishing I honestly don’t understand why anyone wants to be a part of it. I’m happy writing and polishing and publishing and promoting. And people who like my work and tell their friends… awesome. And people who don’t, that’s okay too.

    But I maintain creative control, and more importantly BUSINESS control. Having an ebook priced at $9.99 as a debut author, isn’t exactly something that will build me a readership. And I believe ebooks are the future.

    I think it’s easy to take the strawman of the little self-publishing author who didn’t do her homework and doesn’t know what she’s doing and act as if that’s “self-publishing”. (And there are way more of these people than I want there to be, but it’s a free market.) But there are plenty of talented and savvy indies working hard to overcome stigmas.

    Such people should be lauded, not spit on. But you’re going to do what you’re going to do. Good luck to you.

  48. In the end, the original post boiled down to: “I’m the gatekeeper. Are you the keymaster?” which is the elitist attitude of someone who thinks they are above you because they are behind the gate AND holding the keys to the kingdom.

    “What I can sell.” Not, “What is good.” Doesn’t that say it all? Go into a bookstore like Barnes & Noble and take a look at the complete crap that is clogging up their shelves. It is a glut of D-List thrillers and YA Vampire Novels.

    Is this the kingdom that you as the author are so desperate to be a part of?

    What people like Mary are afraid of is that devices like the iPad, Kindle and nook will level the playing field. Your self-published eBook looks the same to people who are browsing for books on the Kindle, iPad or nook as the book from a big publisher. The playground is level there and everyone gets to play.

    The gatekeeper can’t force you to pay her toll when everyone has the keys to the playground.

    Stay scared and stay classy. Just be aware that the mid-list authors that the big publishers are turning away in droves are going to start going at it on their own.

  49. Well, if I’m not mistaken, Virginia Woolf self-published several of her novels, so there must be some exceptions…

  50. I could point out the number of successful self-publishing authors out there, but full disclosure I’m online friends with them. One already posted her point of view (Zoe Winters).

    I could point out that every rejection I have ever had has been along the lines of “this is fantastic, but we can’t sell it, what else do you have?” I could point out that the indie authors I know (that’s the term we prefer) regularly spend $700 on cover art, upwards of $400 on editing (m/s size dependent) so to say they are unedited is to miss the point. The big publishers are laying off editors, and where do you think they are getting the money to pay their mortgages?

    I could go on to say that it is only the big publishers I am against. I think the small publishers are excellent for authors who aren’t business minded, and who do not love marketing. For what it is worth, I studied business at college, marketing was my favourite subject, and I read marketing blogs for fun.

    I could point out that one of the most respected literary agencies, the Wylie Agency, recently turned its back on the big publishers and put its authors back titles directly onto Amazon.

    I should point out that Lulu isn’t the best option, just the best known, and when people start saying Lulu this or Lulu that whilst bashing self publishing I know they haven’t done any research on the subject at all. The whole post above seems to be conjecture.

    Instead, I’m going to talk about fan fiction. There are no gatekeepers. Some of it is crap. Reading through fan fiction is like reading through the slush pile. So the idea that we’ve never looked at slush is dropped on its head.

    And yet, despite the fact that there is so much crap flooding the fan fiction market, I constantly find good stuff (following reviews and so on). It works.

    It will continue to work.

  51. I am new to eBooks and suppose that it was inevitable that I would have the experience I want to relate. I bought a book about fishing in Alaska from the Sony eBook Store. To say that it was the worst thing I have ever read would be too kind. I quickly discovered that the “book” I bought was only 81 pages long, and that 8 of those 81 pages were an introduction.

    I suppose that people have a right to write poorly and self-publish, but I’m angry at Sony for presenting this dreadful work alongside those of authors whose work I admire and have enjoyed. I paid nearly ten dollars for something which clearly had never enjoyed the attentions of an editor. Had I come across a “book” a quarter of an inch thick on the shelves of a bookstore…well, that might have alerted me that it was unusual in some way. After the fact of reading it, I looked again at Sony’s page describing the “book” and saw that, under the heading of “number of pages”, was the notation N/A.

    I feel that Sony took advantage of me by selling me a stinker of a “book” with no indication that it was published in a non-traditional way – a way in which even the most ardent supporters admit that a lot of garbage comes through.

  52. You can always tell when someone doesn’t know the first thing about self-publishing when they talk about the “unopened boxes in somebody’s garage.” Self-publishers these days leverage print-on-demand technology and even if they don’t sell a single book, the garage remains book free. Just an fyi…

  53. You need a proof reader, “hysterial diatribe!” – I called it “hysterical”. Get it right will you… and by the way, that article was written a year ago. You should check your facts before you put stuff out there.

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