One Last Self-Publishing Post

A lot of great comments have been flying around on my two previous self-publishing posts (post 1, post 2). And a lot of great points have been brought up. There’s one last thing I really want to delve into on the subject of self-publishing. Let me be perfectly clear: I do not think publishing is perfect.

It is one thing to be published, it is another thing, entirely, to be published well. What does being “published well” mean? That you get in bookstores, that readers hear about your book, that you get both old school (print ads, radio) and new school (web, social) advertising and media attention, that you start building a brand, that you generate sales numbers, that you, ideally, earn out your advance (if any) and earn royalties (if any).

And I would say that not all books, by far, are published well. One of the biggest problems with traditional publishers is that far too many don’t give the books on their list the time or attention necessary to generate sales. It is not a secret that a push from the publisher in terms of publicity will correlate positively with a book’s relative success in the marketplace (even if, during the infamous DOJ trial, certain publishing executives claimed that a book’s success was entirely “random.” You know who you are and you’re an embarrassment.)

Publishers can definitely boost a book’s odds of being successful (though their powers are not mystical—sharp readers will still call out a bad book, even if it has a huge marketing budget). That begs the questions, though: Why don’t they do that for each book? Why publish a book if you can’t publish it well?

This is definitely one shortcoming of the traditional model, and one big frustration for everyone involved (agents, editors, and especially those authors who are slighted by this system). It’s not that publishers are purposefully withholding their marketing money or attention. It may look like that since, in recent years, marketing budgets have gotten smaller and smaller. (Some would argue that they no longer do book marketing for most books at all.)

There are fewer book tours and advertising placements, fewer book review opportunities and media appearances. Newspaper book review sections have shrunk down to (checks notes) single digits. The industry is changing. And houses publish many, many books. Not all of them have the same chances to reach a huge market. Publishing professionals always hope for the best, plan for the worst, and know that every product is a risk. (For more great thoughts on “What’s wrong with traditional publishing these days?” go over to Barry Lyga’s blog. He just did a really intelligent series on this topic.)

Traditional publishing is not a perfect system—far from it—but at least there are others on your team to advise and support. In self-publishing situations, more than traditional publishing, you are all aspects of a house. You are the writer, the editors, the designer, the printer, the sales force, the publicist, the marketer, the distributor. (Or you hire out these services freelance, at your own cost.) Successful traditionally published authors do wear some or most of these hats these days, but they do have contacts and channels for their outreach and promotion work through their houses.

So whether you’re using the traditional publishing machine or self-publishing resources, it’s not the tools that matter, it’s how you use them. In many industries where people are creating a product to sell to other people (at the end of the day, that’s what a book is), entrepreneurship is becoming more and more important. Since traditional publishers are putting less behind some of the books they publish, and since self-publishing is absolutely self-driven, all authors need to become more proactive about the products they create.

I don’t believe that traditional publishing is over. But I do firmly believe that the old days of the recluse genius sitting in some attic, who only writes and doesn’t do a lick of outreach or publicity, are gone. There are too many enthusiastic, driven people out there who will gladly talk about their products all over town. I don’t think you can afford—whether traditionally published or self-published—to shy away from promotion.

The marketplace and technology are showing the holes in traditional publishing. This industry is not, by any means, immune to the same upheaval as happened in the music business when digital music and iTunes came in. Traditional publishing needs to embrace new technologies and models of publishing instead of deny that they’re competition. Traditional publishing needs to bend in the direction of the future. But authors need to heed this warning, too. Take classes on book marketing. Start learning about publicity tools and how to use them. You can no longer rely entirely on your publishing-system-of-choice to get your book out there. Even if you are traditionally published, take a look at what self-published writers are doing. Adopt some of that entrepreneurial spirit. Find some of that dogged determination.

There are a great many thing to be learned from each side. Traditional publishing writers can learn the entrepreneurial zeal of self-published writers. Self-published writers can strive toward the same dedication to editorial and design quality that traditional publishers uphold (rather than using self-publishing in the way a small but vocal minority uses it … to shortcut around gatekeepers but without learning much about the craft or the business in the process).

Don’t rely solely on your publisher to publish you well. Never rest on your laurels and think your job as a writer, publicist, editor, marketer, book distributor, salesperson, etc., is done. Publishing is a career that’s passion-driven. Most people really don’t get into it for the riches or the acclaim. They get into it because they can’t do anything else. That should give you the right idea about work ethic. And whether you publish traditionally or you self-publish, I think that being published well should always be your goal and highest standard.

22 Replies to “One Last Self-Publishing Post”

  1. Thanks for all these posts on publishing, Mary! You gave me a lot of information I didn’t know about.
    It looks like there’s a lot of ways to go about promoting a book once it’s published–I’ll have to keep those in mind.

  2. Excellent follow-up to your self-publishing posts! Really it wraps it up quite nicely. Because it’s not an either/or situation anymore. Everyone in this industry, regardless of the route you take, can learn from everyone else. It’s a changing industry right now, and has been ever since Amazon and POD popped up. And now with ebooks it’s changing even more. We need clear heads about this, not outrageous claims of easy money because NOTHING in this business is easy. Not if it’s done well. Thanks for doing this series.

  3. Greta Marlow says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more. It should be all about putting out the very best product. Both self-published authors and commercial publishers sometimes get impatient and put a book into the market before it’s really ready. Self-published authors may finish writing and think the next logical step is publication, skipping the essential editing and revision that would make the work top-notch. Commercial publishers may rush something to market to take advantage of what’s hot at the moment. Either way, the quality of the final product is going to suffer in some way.

    Thanks for this thoughtful series of posts!

  4. Well said. I believe that is the essence of the issue. I applaud your bravery in addressing this. Self-publishing is a topic rife with tender feelings and egos. There are some who self-publish who have not honed the craft of writing well and are unable to be published traditionally. They don’t want to admit that. Then there are those who chose the independent route for other reasons of their own.

    I, personally have no interest in self-publishing. I want to write. I know I’ll have to promote to the best of my ability and I’m okay with that, but as for all the other things: distribution, printing, design, etc I’m no expert on those things and have no desire to be. I don’t mind adding my two cents into the mix, but as for tackling all that myself…no. I have absolutely no desire to deal with it–at all.

    Best wishes and kudos to all those that do. I salute you. I mean it. I’m not trying to be facetious. It takes a lot of work and effort to do it and you have my admiration.

    Thanks Mary for laying it all out there as it is, once and for all.

  5. Thanks for an informative post, Mary.

    A writer can definitely learn from the traditional and the new self-publishing. I think it’s an exciting change and I feel we’re all riding the waves. How you land on the beach is how you take what’s on offer.

  6. I agree. It is now commonplace for authors to get out and promote themselves. It’s the difference between a book making a splash or a tsunami.

  7. Not only is self-promotion an important tool when you are published, but it’s also vitial even before you get your foot in the door. Indeed, it is a great way to do just that. Building a fanbase isn’t as daunting as it would seem. It just takes some effort and some knowledge of how to do it.

  8. I think you did a great job with this second post. It wraps things up nicely, especially your point about itunes. A few yrs. ago, I told my friends and family to support artists by buying the whole cd not just one or two songs on itunes. I never thought I would buy one or two songs on itunes. A few yrs. have passed, and I have bought several songs on itunes!! I still try to buy the cd’s of my favorite artists thought. I can’t wait for the new Goo Goo Dolls cd due out in late August. Things change. They always do. After your first post, I thought, wow, what a great post on the eve of the fourth of July weekend. The spirit of independence is what made this country great. To each his own-I think. I wish everyone the best of luck with their efforts to become well-published!

  9. Thanks for a great thought promoting discussion and round up.

    I love to read people’s views on self publishing and it seems that although there is still a strong lean towards traditional, the line seems to be fading a little. I like to stay neutral and listen to both sides because one day I hope to be traditionally published and will continue to strive for that. But going the self-publishing route is allowing me to build a reader base and web presence so when my dream does come true one day, I’ll already have a “leg up” so to speak.

    Thanks again!

  10. I love what you said about being willing to self-promote your books even if you’ve been published by a traditional publisher. It’s not like you can write a book, find an agent, get a publisher, and then just move on. You need to be willing to put yourself out there and promote if you want to be successful.

    Thanks again for these posts about publishing!

    Hope you have a great birthday (tomorrow)! Eat some cake for me. =)

  11. You did a great job of stirring up some controversy. It’s obvious that agents don’t like self-publishing. It takes them out of the loop, gives them no income and no control. Your posts and the comments you received were great fodder for my own blog post today. Of course, it’s simply my opinion, just like yours was.

  12. I totally agree, Mary. The world is changing and we must change along with it. In fact, we must anticipate the change and be in front of it, leading the way. I know for the niche products I’m involved with (two glossy magazines, niche Web sites, non-fiction books, etc.) we market across all social networks and multimedia platforms. I know for some of my fiction work, I’ve done this as well. And honestly, I love it. It’s tons of fun. I think the right attitude can make all of the difference. Are you going to go into this kicking and screaming or are you going to say, “Bring in on, baby, and I’ll do my best.” I say “bring it on.” Writers should have fun with this. Grow and learn and meet new people. Anyway, sorry for rambling.

  13. Cumpleaños feliz,
    te deseamos a ti,
    Cumpleaños, Ma-a-ry,
    que los cumplas feliz!

    Happy birthday Chilean-style. Have a great day!

  14. Note to self: Learn how to self promote.

    Dear Lord.

    Thank you Mary.

  15. Mary, I’ve enjoyed your balanced, thoughtful posts on self-publishing. I had a very strong reaction to the Salon.com article last week, which set off some of the recent debate . The heart of what I objected to were the broad, brush strokes in the article that seemed to paint self-published writing as naturally bad, just because it’s self-published. It’s not hard to imagine why those of us who work very hard at editing and revisions, and want to grow our writing, object to that assumption. Thank you for reminding all of us that in addition to good writing, promotion remains a huge factor in a writer’s success.

  16. Great tips. I like the merging of traditional media (don’t forget your newspapers!) with modern social media. I’m a journalist and author and see so many simple things authors could do to help themselves. Keep the passion.

    Scott Nicholson

  17. I don’t get it. In your original salvo, you mentioned the two traits you look for in a book: “Is this saleable? Can I sell it?”

    Here, we have someone who notes “It should be all about putting out the very best product.”

    Is Sarah Palin the best product? Is Never Fall in Love at the Jersey Shore the best product? Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter?

    What do we mean by “best”?

    You, as an agent, obviously mean “Will sell well.” In which case, I suppose, Palin, the Jersey Shore, and mash-ups are, in fact, great products.

    But when did we start talking about products and stop talking about books? Sarah Palin may be a great product, but Going Rogue is a terrible book–badly written, terribly structured, obviously polemic and self-serving. Ditto the Jersey Shore.

    One of the reasons more authors have gone the independent route is the knowledge that publishers seem to be looking for products, and agents don’t read manuscripts hoping for good but wondering whether they can sell it. Really, nothing you’ve said over these three posts has been much in the way of new, but while so many seem to disparage self-published authors and their “tender egos” and etc., a lot of readers and writers are sensing the fear and desperation with which the publishing industry is clinging to an obsolete business model that really never made sense in the first place. Too many agents, editors, and publishers are merely screaming about how relevant they remain despite the enormous ways the worlds of reading and writing are changing.

  18. Mary,

    Thanks for braving the controversy to provide your POV on this tough issue. In my opinion, you did a great job with it–especially knowing the fire you would be under in doing so.

    Writing is intensely personal. Publishing is not. If we want our writing in the hands of the masses, it is our job to make that happen. We are responsible for good writing and self-promotion. It’s hard work. Period.

    As a reader, I want a good product that interests me. This happens with the cover blurb and the first few pages. A publishing company’s name never factors in. In this respect, I’m selective in the books I purchase based on content and prose.

    As a writer, I expect readers to also be selective with their puchases. I would rather remain unpubbed my entire life than peddle poorly written material–traditionally or otherwise.

    Thanks for putting this out there and taking the heat!

  19. I much prefer this post to the other one that implies self-publishers are lamers with no common sense or business sense.

    Given that you admit all the issues inherent in traditional publishing it should not be a shock at all when those of us who CAN DO, DO when it comes to self-publishing.

    Arguing against self-publishing from the “most people are deluded and can’t do it well” position is no different than traditional publishing. Most people who fancy themselves writers, can’t write, and the slush pile proves it.

    But there are good writers out there, and whether they trad pub or self-pub, if they’ve got some business sense, they will succeed. If you have the ability to write and market, you have it, no matter which road you go down.

    I don’t wear every hat. I have a paid editor (a good one), and I have a cover designer. I do my own interior layout because it’s not rocket science and it allows me to interface with the text more and find more little typos before they go out into the world. And I market like a monkey on speed.

    This definitely isn’t right for everyone, but I’d really appreciate it if people could stop making sweeping generalizations about self-publishing and the “desperate souls who do it.”

    Producing and releasing a professional product under your own steam is hard work and deserves respect. It’s quite a bit harder than JUST writing a good book and finding an agent to help you sell it to a publisher who does everything from there.

    The problem is that most agents and publishers at some point in the process are going to mismanage your project. I can count on one hand the authors I know who HAVEN’T had some major issue or other with their agent or publisher. And really, who needs the drama? My work is mine.

    I get that massive distribution is awesome sauce. But as you mention, the problem is that most books aren’t “published well”.

    And in the end, it’s all about that.

    The more realistic likelihood for those who make it through the gates, is that they will languish somewhere on the midlist until their publisher drops them, no one else wants to touch them, and they either have to make up a new pen name and start the whole stupid process again, or self-publish. I’d rather just build my own thing and cut out all the stupid in the middle.

  20. One other comment. A lot of people complain about how self-publishers, many of them, aren’t “ready” to be published and rush a book out to market. Like self-publishing authors are trying to take a shortcut and are “cutting them in line” to publication.

    But publication isn’t the point. READERS are the point. Building audience is the point. There is no shortcut to awesome. Those who put out sub par books and can’t market will fail. Period. So I’m always confused by why those against self-publishing get so intense about it. Why even bother disparaging it? Those who aren’t ready for prime time will sink into oblivion, never to be heard from again, unless they get their act together.

    With all the vitriol from so many against self-publishing, you’d think it was a threat to them. If it’s all crap that’s going to sink to the bottom anyway, how is it a threat?

    My personal opinion is that people know that there are many good writers out there. And those good writers self-publishing “would” be a threat and competition if enough people did it. So the easy answer is to shame everybody into not doing it by talking about all the self-publishing authors who suck and are stupid. I’m not saying I think writers do this consciously with some agenda. I think it’s mostly subconscious, but it does seem to be the psychological battle that’s being waged.

    Build the stigma higher, so there is no threat. And it works on some level because a lot of writers seem to be followers, much more so than in other artistic industries. Writers will let publishers and agents verbally abuse them all day long (Some of what agents tweet is appalling. Makes me wonder why anyone wants an agent.) where most musicians would say “Screw you!” And go do their own thing.

    Obviously there is a threat. The threat is the savvy people self-publishing quality books while others sit on their manuscripts and put them all under their bed to gather dust, instead of polishing something and taking a chance.

    A lot of people are scared to take chances. They’d rather cling to the old ways of doing things with reassurances from on high that they are on the “one true right path” to publishing success. But there is no such animal, in my opinion.

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