Self-Publishing Then and Now

I love my blog and I love my readers. But whenever I post on something with wider implications to the publishing landscape, I always get new readers who come and rabble-rouse in the comments. Don’t get me wrong. I love getting new readers. And new readers can agree with me or not. In fact, I love it when they bring intelligent dispute into the comments. But if I post on anything contentious, I can guarantee that I’ll get some new readers who just want to vent their spleens. This happened in the comments for yesterday’s post. I would usually let it go, but the pro-self-publishing argument some of them are saying is just ridiculous, so allow me a quick rebuttal.

These people are citing the literary geniuses of old who self-published their books in a completely different era, as if it had any bearing on what is going on right now. (As Thomas pointed out in comments. Thanks!)

I really hope that my readers, who I know are savvy about today’s publishing realities, can tell the difference between self-publishing, readership, distribution, and publicity then, when self-publishing was one of the only options available to writers (and called for a large money and time investment, as it still sometimes does), and those same elements of the book trade now.

That self-publishing has a rich history is a totally irrelevant argument because the industry of publishing and technology in general have changed so much. Sure, Walt Whitman self-published. But I bet he didn’t code his poetry into an interactive iPhone app that he tried to hawk for $2.99 per download. In fact, if I delve into Walt Whitman’s history of self-publishing Leaves of Grass, it says, “The first edition of Leaves of Grass was widely distributed and stirred up significant interest.”

So that’s where, already, the story of self-publishing in the old days is different from self-publishing in the 21st century. On two very crucial points: distribution, and significant interest. Back then, books were more difficult to come by than they are now. Most people could become a visible competitor on the playing field just by showing up. And the printed word was usually one of the only ways for people to express themselves publicly AT SCALE. Now, anyone can start a blog (hi there!) and rant. Back then, you had to get up on an actual soapbox and shout or you had to self-publish a pamphlet, book, or article. Whole towns could start a lively discussion based on one pamphlet that got read, passed on, distributed widely. People would clutch books and pamphlets to their chests and duel about them in the town square. If only today’s self-published, or traditionally published, for that matter, books could stir such passion!

It’s interesting that self-publishing used to be the norm and, now that traditional publishing is in flux, the curve is arcing back toward self-publishing again, but, other than that, all the sarcasm about literature’s greatest voices self-publishing is overstated.

And now that traditional publishing has amassed market share, guess who publishes the greats of yore now so that they they can enjoy a mass audience? Traditional publishers. I’m sure that James Joyce and Charles Dickens aren’t rolling over in their graves when they see their work on shelves around the world.

Also, to the guy who made the huge list of classic books that got rejected … that’s not an argument for self-publishing. That’s a fact of life. EVERY SINGLE BOOK AND AUTHOR THAT IS PUBLISHED TODAY HAS GOTTEN REJECTED AT LEAST ONCE. Stephenie Meyer. J.K. Rowling. Stephen King. James Patterson. For every publisher who buys a project, there are at least five or six who pass on it (either because they reject it outright or they get outbid in a competitive situation).

Which only goes to prove perhaps my biggest point about publishing in general, one I’ve made many times on this blog: publishing and writing and literature are subjective. Some people love self-publishing. Others don’t. To each their own.

21 Replies to “Self-Publishing Then and Now”

  1. I actually do know of at least one book that was never rejected. Alane Fergeson’s mother had published a few dozen or so books by the time Alane started writing books. Her mom sent Alane’s first book to her editor, who bought it.

    Even though I agree with everything else you said, I just thought I’d bring up an annoying exception. Just to be all contrary and stuff.

    I could mention body fluids somehow, too… 🙂

  2. “Back then, books were more difficult to come by than they are now. Most people could become a visible competitor on the playing field just by showing up.”

    That is the statement that makes all the difference. There ARE amazing self-published books out there. Self-pub doesn’t *always* equate with bad writing. But how does anyone find out? Unless you can pay to have your voice heard–unless your writing is superb and you can market like a madman, it’s doubtful you’ll ever become visible on the playing field. Readers have to sludge through too much garbage to find you if all you do is “show up.”

  3. Kerry — Thank you for this! I will have to ask Alane all about it!

    Kat — I am getting really excited for Monday’s post. More on this then!

  4. My day-job (a-hem) is in science. When you come up with a scientific discovery, you write a paper and submit it to a peer-reviewed journal. It’s the peer-reviewed part that’s important. Other scientists get their hands on the article first and look for flaws and weaknesses. So, even if I’m not an expert at neurobiology, I can be pretty confident that the paper I’m reading isn’t crap.

    That’s how I see the publishing industry–as the literary peer-review process. Sure, without peer-review you might get scientific discoveries that are ground-breaking but you would have to wade through a boat load of articles with bad technique, bad logic, and poor science. Without agents and publishing houses being involved, there might be a few literary gems but you’d have to wade through the poorly conceived, poorly written, and poorly developed.

    Back in the day, I wonder how many bad things ended up in print (because untalented but wealthy people could afford to have them printed) and just didn’t survive the test of time.

  5. I don’t really think listing the 19th century writers is all that persuasive either, except for this – it shows that writers with longevity have self-published. The argument against self-publishing is that it’s hard to sell a book. But one should look at a writer’s entire career, not just the sales figures on the last book. Self-publishing might be a step in the process. And so 100 years from now you might be hearing about some important writers who published via Lulu or something else. Even if that Lulu book sold 100 copies. That’s why saying – self-published books don’t sell, therefore they’re bad, doesn’t make any sense.

    And this is what’s gone wrong with the trad publishing system – writers are given no room to grow and build an audience. Self-publishing might be the outlet to do that, b/c you sure can’t build an audience when a book is left in a drawer. Momentum can build if you get a book out there.

    There’s no doubt that you’re much more likely to find something readable from a traditional press, but “peer review” has been expanded to readers now – blogs, forums, etc. The truly horrible books will be largely forgotten – better books will reach people. Really, this seems like the way it should be.

  6. I agree that mentioning old dead writers that self-published 100 years ago is pointless.

    Your reader should have mentioned these recent self-publishing stories: The Shack, The Celestine Prophecy, What Color is My Parachute, Bridges of Madison County, Daemon, The Lace Reader, Who Is It That Can Tell Me Who I Am?, etc.

    Paste in this link to see many more self-published hits: http://www.bookmarket.com/selfpublish-p.htm

    But we should all be honest — most fiction writers, no matter how long and hard they work on their craft, will never get published. That’s a fact and it is disingenuous to suggest that traditional publishing is a more viable option than self-publishing. Because it isn’t.

    The writing schools and conferences love to shovel that shit and keep making money from writers hoping to get “better” or “make connections.” And who else makes money? The agents and editors who are paid to show up at these places. This is one of the biggest frauds that no one talks about.

    It always comes down to this: follow the money.

  7. Apologizes for typos or grammatical mistakes, I’m dictating this with voice recognition software.

    Kate B – as a fellow scientist, I thought I would expand on the peer review analogy. The frustrations many scientists face while trying to get their research published parallels that of many writers. And I, for one, am glad to have the gatekeepers in both fields. There are a few differences however, between the two. For one thing, the standards for judging research are more objective. Also, almost all research that passes a certain standard will get published – perhaps in a lower journal than you’d like , but it’d get out there. Traditional publishing, however, might better be compared to getting an article in a top journal like science or nature, where there is also that subjective judgment of scientific worth, and where there are many more manuscripts than there are slots.

    Mary – I hope I am not one of the rabble-rousers *grin*.

    I agree with the following points:
    1. It’s irrelevant to talk about self publishers under years ago, when publishing was not as established.
    2. All good books have been rejected.
    3. There was much less competition for people’s time in the past.

    But I hope you’re not trying to argue that it was easier back when you had to physically carry pamphlets in your horse and buggy from town to town, to distribute manuscripts than it is in the age of the Internet. I will bet that many of those folks who hawk their manuscripts as iPhone apps (which actually seems like a clever idea to me) get a bigger distribution than Walt Whitman did with less effort. They may not be as famous, because there are more of them. But this ease of distribution is the whole reason why self publishing is growing.

    There is a middle ground which I would be interested in hearing your opinion on. Many would agree that if you can’t get an agent, you have no business self publishing. But what if you get a good agent, who’s well-respected and regularly make sales, who thinks your work is good but still can’t sell it? In that case, the chances of your work not being up to snuff goes down, and the chances that you’re not selling due to random market pressures go up. I would consider self-publishing in that case, not in hopes of trying to get a traditional publisher, but just to get it out, and perhaps build an audience for a stronger platform when trying to sell the next book. I’m guessing you don’t agree with that, but I’d like to hear your thoughts.

  8. I get most of my classics not from traditional publishers but from Gutenberg, where anyone with some kind of text-reading device from a computer to a cell phone can get them for free. Not that I’m against traditional publishers making money on public domain works, but it’s not a public service of some kind.

    The bottom line for writers is, it’s all a crap shoot. Do everything you can to hone your craft, pay your money, take your chance–whether it’s the traditional way or the new way.

  9. I don’t know. I’m not trying to be difficult here, but I don’t consider “peer review” to include readers and bloggers that don’t write fiction. The work of peer review is to weed out the stuff that isn’t up to professional standards. In the self-published system, there’s no weeding. There’s no standard. Nobody says that it isn’t good enough to self-publish.

    I’m also going to argue that in science, everyone who tries to publish is already at a level of understanding and education. By the time you try to publish, peer review is just making sure that you don’t have logic errors or missing experiments. They assume you are doing the techniques correctly. But, imagine if everyone could perform experiments in their garage, the same way that anyone with a computer can write and submit a book. If people could submit scientific articles without knowing the basis of molecular biology, the same way people submit manuscripts without knowing the basics of story-telling, peer-review would become even more important and it would need to be more stringent.

    I’m not saying that you can’t have success with self-published books. Nor am I saying that we should get rid of self publishing in favor of traditional publishers. I’m just saying that I believe that because of the system set up for traditional publishing, the quality of book coming out of that system is better. And when I can produce a manuscript at the standard that a traditional publisher would accept, that’s when I will consider myself published.

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  11. Scientific peer review is a totally bad analogy. To some degree scientific inquiry is based on grant funding, but publishing is entirely different. Books are selected in part because how marketable they are – not how artistically (read: scientifically) valid. The fact is good books aren’t getting published because they’re not marketable enough. If you think, “If they’re not marketable, they must not be good,” then we can’t have a discussion.

    The point of writing is not to impress agents or editors – it’s to find readers. And to think that readers’ opinion counts for less seems like putting emphasis on the wrong people.

    Too often people are looking for the validation from agents or editors as proof that they’re finally a good writer. No. I will fully admit it’s great to have acceptance from an agent and editor (I’ve had both) but my book wasn’t instantly “better” because they liked it. The book exists apart from those people’s opinions. And I see a lot of value in a reader who was moved by the book alone compared to an editor saying – you know, I think we can make some money off this.

    It’s not that in publishing everybody’s smart and everybody who doesn’t have a professional job as an agent

  12. Mary, this is a wonderful post and an excellent discussion. I am an avid reader of several agent blogs, due mainly to the fact I want to learn and absorb all I can about the industry. I have to agree with Henry and also taking into consideration what another commenter said on your 1st post that 3 out of 10,000 manuscripts gets sold. Those are huge odds. When I read agent stats at the end of the year and they tell you that they had 30,000 queries and sold 5 books that is the most disheartening thing you can read.

    I decided to take the self-pub route after much deliberation. I had my book read by several impartial beta readers who loved it, and it was edited by a couple of teachers. I started with the traditional route, of querying, requests for partials and fulls, and being told I was a strong writer but still to no avail, so I took stock of the situation and decided I would take a chance.

    Most of the teenage (girls) population of my town and many of the adults have bought or read a copy and I am always getting recognized in town and getting good comments and feedback. I also (for fun) uploaded it as a podcast and within a couple of months have 750 subscribers and not one bad comment.

    Of course I would love it if an agent ran with it, that would be any writers dream come true but for now I am hoping this experiment will help build a reader base and I am getting my name out there slowly but surely. Okay so it may take several years but let’s face it, it would take several years if you went the traditional route to even get your book on the shelf, and then you’d still have to create a web presence and reader base anyway. I have read that most houses reserve their marketing bucks for the big names not the debut unknowns.

    I don’t see it as a “failure” as someone commented but more “take the bull by the horns and create your own destiny”. If it’s meant to happen it will happen whether you are lucky enough to go traditional or take a chance and self-pub.

    Another advantage with the whole industry now is the e-book. You can download as many e-book samples as you like for free. If the writing is awful you click delete and go on to the next and it doesn’t cost you a dime. I usually know within the first couple of pages if it’s worth reading then I buy it. I read a lot of self-pubbed books (mainly because I self-pubbed myself) and yes there has been a lot of drosh that I’ve wasted a few minutes on, but I have read some real gems too.

    Thanks for a post that really created an exciting discussion.

  13. What does the Publishing Industry (because I am confident that you speak for each and every one of Them) think about an author who self-publishes something under a pen name, then later tries to go the traditional route with a different book?

    If the pen name is not commonly linked to the real name, does the author even have to disclose this initial self-pubbed title? If the self-pub flubs, would The Industry care about its sales figures? Could the author still claim “debut” on the first traditionally pubbed book?

    So many hypothetical questions. I’ll stop there. It’s all academic of course, but it’s still interesting. I won’t even bring up the questions of different genres.

    Can’t wait to read on Monday. Sorry you have to work Monday. For me, it’s a rare holiday. (yay)

  14. Sometimes self publishing can be a means to an end. Look at Christopher Paolini and his book Eragon. I’m surprised no one has mentioned him, or maybe I missed it.

  15. Maria — Check the previous post, from 6/30. It specifically mentions Christopher Paolini. You know why? Because he is the one of the most notable — and rare — exceptions. That’s why everybody, you and me included, know that he started out self-published.

  16. Thanks Mary. I went back and read it. I appreciate your insight.

  17. These posts on self-publishing are great. Not only for the insight, but also for the comments and feedback of the readers.

    Thanks, Mary, for opening up this discussion, and thank you to everyone who has contributed. It’s wonderful! I look forward to Monday’s post.

    Happy 4th of July!

  18. I’m just seeing this post now, not sure how I missed it, but want to comment. I’m a new one because I just met you at the NJ Conference. Didn’t know about this blog before that. But I’m not looking to stir anything up-just looking for as much insight as possible. For me, I explored self-publishing a few yrs. ago based on some feedback from some people who told me that trying to get published was next to impossible. I didn’t even know where to begin. I was an adult student (mid-30’s,) I and just switched my major from Humanities to English. My reason for exploring self-pub. was based on my age (don’t wanna wait 4-eva,) my inexperience, and not believing my work manuscript (at that time) was good enough. That was in 2006 when I was close to 60 credits, and I was seriously considering calling it quits. I was so close! Unexpectedly, I ran into an old friend, and she implored me to keep writing. She inspired me to keep going! I did, and I never looked back. I just graduated magna cum laude–honors in English–and received a fabulous award at the commencement ceremony, which was a surprise. Of course, I made a point to thank that friend! Over 4 yrs., I continued with the self-pub. route because I just didn’t think my piece would sell to a trad. pub. But now, I think my piece could sell. I know it’s much better, and I’m not sure which way to go.

    Recently, I hired an author to edit my manuscript, and I think it is 1000 times better. Also, I can finally give it all of my attention. So what do I do? Continue with self-pub. or send it out to trad. pub./agents and wait and hope? Decisions…decisions! I never explored self-pub. because I thought of anyone as “the man” or because I thought of anyone as gatekeepers or anything else like that. I don’t think like that and I won’t. I love everyone and everything under the sun and above it. 🙂 Peace, Love , and Hope-I say-keep it near and keep it dear!

    If I choose to self-publish, no one will work harder than me to do it right, and no one will put more effort into getting it out there than me.

  19. I’m one of those new readers, having come over here courtesy of the lovely Nicola Morgan.

    I’m an avowed self-publisher till I die, and I love every aspect of it, but I agree with everything you say. I self-publish because I write short, niche fiction and poetry (and I started a collective and a small press/gallery because I love the work of others who do the same and wanted to have a place where they could write what they write and not worry about fitting it into a box), and I believe doing it myself is both best for it as art (I can choose my editors and cover-collaborators, for example, and I can choose the format, be it chapbook, zine, CD with covernotes, or round the neck waterproof lanyard) and for reaching my readers.

    Most of the time I just get on and do what I do (because mainstream publishers do their thing and that’s great, and it’s a totally different thing), but I love to read around the subject (to keep abreast of developments apart from anything else ), and from tme to time I join in the debate, largely because I get frustrated by people claiming to speak on behalf of people like me about self-publishing. I think you put all the ppoints perfectly – self-publishing is a different animal from the mainstream, for different (niche) books; and the exceptions are so well-known specifically because they are exceptions. Self-publishing is a business. Imagine you are going to your bank manager with a business plan and say “well, there was this person once, out of millions who tried, who succeeded despite the odds and I’m going to do what they did.” Would you as a bank manager give you the self-publisher money? Seriously?

  20. Okay, that is so not how you would build a business plan, but on that logic, let us say you are the first person to have invented the light bulb. “Ah, this is an electric lightbulb,” you say. “For houses with electricity.”

    “But houses don’t have electricity.”

    “But they will, some day.”

    It doesn’t matter what you pioneer, you’ll struggle to get finance.

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