What’s the Deal With Self-Publishing?

I’m very excited to begin a new week on the blog with a very important, very specific theme. It will be a week-long series of interviews and stories, and I hope you all learn a lot from them. But first – some back story.

Since 2008, the publishing industry has been… confused. Technology caught up with it just in time for the recession, and it was left not really knowing what to do with itself. Since then, there have been who-knows-how-many articles and blog posts predicting the death of books. These rumors have been greatly exaggerated. It took publishing a while to recover, but we’re doing just fine now, thank you. No matter how books will be read in the future, there will always be an industry responsible for making them.

It’s still uncertain, the way every business is uncertain in times of economic instability, and it’s competitive as ever to get your book published. While publishing was at its weakest, technology allowed a new viable option – self-publishing. And it sure looks attractive these days. Self-publishing has been around long before 2008. Lulu.com, for example, began almost ten years ago, even before self-publishing was as simple uploading a PDF and having your book immediately available for download.

In a way, self-publishing is a bit like internet dating. First, it was only for those who didn’t have what it took for “the real world.” The stigma was massive; it was something to be ashamed of. Then you hear about your friends doing it, and suddenly you become less skeptical. And now it is practically commonplace.

Commonplace, but not without stigma that is.

I’m not going to pretend I haven’t been guilty of looking down at self-published authors. After all, it’s my job  to make sure authors aren’t doing this alone. No one in publishing wants to see an author get taken advantage of, which is why we’re always telling writers how much value there is in traditional publishing. In fact, I like the tradition. Agents are important. Editors are important. Publicists and copyeditors and subrights managers are important.

There are writers out there who believe agents and publishers are “threatened” by self-publishing because it bypasses the steps we usually handle. They claim that’s why we in the industry “hate it.” I can only speak on behalf of myself, but that is not why self-publishing makes me nervous.

There are three things about self-publishing that scare me, actually.

1) There are still writers out there who aren’t aware that companies like PublishAmerica and AuthorHouse shouldn’t be charging them to publish their books, and that they should be the ones paying the writers for the privilege.

2) Too many forums and comments online have enforced an idea that agents and publishers are greedy or want to hinder writers’ creativity. This turns many writers against traditional publishing, making them take matters into their own hands. And that’s when writers can do themselves a disservice without even realizing it. Writing takes a lot of time and then even more time to get right. All writers need an editor. Then, even once the book is finished and you press that Publish button, the work doesn’t stop. You become your own accountant, publicist, agent, and assistant. Where’s the time to write your next book? It’s a lot of responsibility that most people are not experienced in having all at once.

3) Then there are the success stories. We’ve all heard them. Amanda Hocking and John Locke are self-made millionaires. Barry Eisler walks away from a $500,000 advance to self-publish instead. These success stories are wonderful for the authors involved, and they serve as proof that self-publishing is no longer a dirty little secret among writers. The stigma, however, remained in a way that was even more polarizing. The allure of self-publishing was even greater because now, in addition to avoiding rejection, there was a chance of becoming a millionaire. Doing anything for money is always a bad idea. Always. Chances are, you won’t become rich. Like the person on the news who won the state lottery, success stories can be great and inspiring. But they are too rare to rely on.

For every writer who uses self-publishing to become success story, there’s one who is just sick of being rejected. Those are the two extremes, and unfortunately they have clouded the judgment of many, myself included. I also believe that most people don’t fall under extremes. Most writers have nothing against tradition; they just want their stories to be heard and found a way to do it. Truthfully, sometimes self-publishing is the better option (as explained in more detail by literary agent Meredith Barnes), and if traditional publishing can have mid-list authors, why can’t self-publishing?

These smart, talented, tech savvy mid-list authors are who I’m devoting this week to here on the blog. Self-published writers Marilyn Peake, Tracy Marchini, Michelle Davidson Argyle, and Karen Hooper, who did not self-publish but decided to go indie without an agent, will all share their experiences on going it alone.

NOTE: Yes, I am still a literary agent. Yes, I will always tell writers to exhaust all traditional options before looking into self-publishing. This week isn’t about me. This blog is, and always has been, for writers and as a place for writers, it’s important to me that I present any helpful information I can offer. Glass Cases is mine alone, and does not represent the agency I work for in any way, shape, or form. I cannot stress that enough.

Hope you enjoy this break in our regularly scheduled programming, and check back in tomorrow to hear about sci-fi writer Marilyn Peake’s road to self-publishing.

23 thoughts on “What’s the Deal With Self-Publishing?

  1. Self publishers don't necessarily go it alone without editors, proofreaders, etc. Some of us are well aware of the work involved even before we jump in. Sadly, we do seem to be the minority.

    But on the vanity presses, the fact is, they have advertising budgets that make people notice them. In the past decade, the only 2 people I know have said “Oh, I know someone who got published!” Both of those examples were vanity published and lost a ton of money.

    At least if someone fails while using the modern e-publish method, with or without CreateSpace/Lightning Source, they'll probably lose less money.

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  2. “For every writer who uses self-publishing to become success story, there's one who is just sick of being rejected.”

    I feel obliged to point out that these two things are not mutually exclusive.

    Oh, hey, thanks for this! Ought to be an informative week. ^_^

    -LupLun
    Shooting for the Moon

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  3. Self publishing is a hot topic today – I wrote a post about my own thoughts on the topic and have bumped into several other similar posts today. I must admit I'm still on the fence. I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the subject!

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  4. What a cool topic! I'm self-published, partially because I'd had enough of rejection (it was taking the fun out of writing for me), partially because I wanted creative control, cover, blurb and copyright page included, and partially because I want to go into the publishing business and I see it as good experience. I just wanted to have my works in print, not make my living from writing, and now I can.

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  5. @Jen – Luckily I haven't had to deal with this question with any of my clients, but that's not to say I won't have to in the future. I do my best to accommodate any medium my clients want to explore, and if that involves self-publishing, I would have to look at various factors the way any writer would. Namely, have traditional methods been exhausted, and is this the best way to sell this particular title at this particular time?

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  6. I'm looking forward to this series of posts. I'm curious though, so I'd like your opinion on something. In this day and age where midlist author are getting squeezed out because publishers are taking on few authors and even less debut authors, what are your feelings on your clients self-publishing (with your blessing, of course) manuscripts that were never picked up when on submission? Or do you feel that those manuscripts should be trunked simply because they couldn't find a home with traditional publishers? Thank you…

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  7. This will be an interesting series of posts. A bit like lifting the publishing carpet and peering at the other side. I wonder if it will be all bright and less worn side or just the rough surface where the dust clusters 😉

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  8. Julie – Yeah, it's not free, but I'm not going into the hole I mean. I don't really expect to make any money if I self-publish. There are just too many books in the world, even the good stuff is lost. So that's where I'm coming from when I say that. 🙂

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  9. Fantastic and measured post on a complicated topic. Looking forward to seeing the rest.

    Jaimie – you do not get that help for “free”in traditional publishing. Agents, publishers, bookstores all take a cut. Just FYI.

    On the other hand, traditional publishers have a far greater reach. In the end, I think it all comes down to what your goals are. Traditional publishing will fit some goals and self-publishing will fit some.

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  10. Even if/when I do self-publish, I plan on paying $1000+ to get my novel into good shape. Just because I can't put out a shitty product, personally. I doubt it'll increase my sales very much. Put simply: I just can't write this story and see it die. It's just too good. So some way or another, it's going out there. I will definitely try traditional publishing first, of course, because then I can get the help I need for free.

    Publishers kind of are greedy, but they're a business so… I don't hate them or anything. I just don't buy $13 e-books. Ever. I've read Nathan Bransford's posts on the subject, so I understand the math, but it just feels so wrong. And I think I'd say that even if I wasn't “conditioned” by Amazon.

    I read Michelle Davidson Argyle's novella (CINDERS) and really enjoyed it. So yay!

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  11. I am so honored to be included among the authors mentioned on your blog today! Thank you so much for that, Sarah, and for your upcoming week of interviews and stories about self-publishing, as well as all the information you provide about the publishing industry as a whole. I’m looking forward to reading all the posts about indie and self-publishing on your wonderful Glass Cases blog this week!

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  12. I thought indie publishing wasn't the same as self-publishing? This feels like an important distinction. These writers you are featuring had to be “accepted” by someone, yes? None of them just pressed a button. They just went through smaller less restrictive (in terms of requiring agents for submission) presses. But they still could have been rejected.
    Self-publishing is a guarantee of publication (although not a guarantee of success). Indie publishing has the possibility of rejection.

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