Self Publishing: The Great Debate
(Warning: this is an opinion piece and therefore reflects the views of only the author. I do not claim that there is any sort of industry standard, or that everyone thinks the way I do. My intent is not to offend anyone, but rather to shine a critical eye on an industry that is getting bigger every day.)
I’ve wanted to be a published author since my senior year in high school. As soon as I started writing short (and very poorly written) novels I thought that surely I could one day publish these gems. As I grew as a writer it became painfully clear that what I had written was far too rough to ever get published. I wanted to reach the status of authors like J. K. Rowling, Stephen King and Dan Brown, where my book was so insanely popular that I defied the odds and struck it rich. One of the biggest pieces of advice for writers was “Don’t quit your day job” and I was determined to become a success so that I could do exactly that (my day job sucks).
In my quest to become a best selling author, there has been a seemingly endless battle over the editing process. I took one story from a 16 page short to an 800 page novel over the course of ten years. I lost count of how many times I rewrote it, retooled it and re-imagined that same book. It was a labor of love, yes, but it was also tailored to a specific industry. I always thought that, if I checked off everything they wanted, I would be a sure thing for agents and publishers. Turns out, you can do everything they ask and still get rejected for no obvious reason. And, when the submission options run out, where do authors turn?
If you’re a writer, there is a good chance you know the difference between self publishing and traditional publishing. Essentially, traditional publishing has been the norm for decades; the one route that an author can take to find any kind of success. There are agents, publishers, editors and a whole bunch of other people who work with you to make your book a success (because they benefit from its success as well). Self publication is the ‘go it alone’ method where you do all the leg work from writing the book, all the way to the end where you advertise it. Self publication was more costly, with far less reward. But, I say ‘was’ because with the introduction of e-books, the personal expenses of self publishing have declined significantly. I recently wrote two hubs about the pros and cons of e-readers, but I deliberately didn’t include self published books in either category and the reason is because I have very mixed feelings on the subject, ones that must be addressed in their own hub (this one). And all of this starts with one very glaring generalization:
All self published books suck.
It is not fair for me to say this statement because I haven’t read every self published book ever written. But of the self published books I have read, none of them have given me a good opinion of the practice. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking ‘I know of several self published books that went on to success’. While it is true that a self published book can become successful, usually it happens because the book catches the eye of a major publishing company who then grabs it up, edits it, and distributes it properly. There is also a chance that the person who self published it, made few (or no) attempts to publish it properly the first time around. Who knows how quickly such a book would have been picked up if they had gone through the proper channels first? But the point is, the self published book didn’t become successful until it was published ‘for real’. I haven’t heard of any instances where an author achieved best-seller status with a book that was still fully their own. So what, then, is the point of self publishing if the likelihood of getting noticed by a major publisher is the same (or less) than going through the normal channels?
You’re either terrified of rejection or you’re lazy (or both).
There are essentially two reasons (from what I’ve seen) why someone would self publish before even trying to get published the traditional way. The first is that they’re terrified of rejection. In his book about writing, Stephen King expressed that rejection is part of the writing process. He had a wall filled with rejection slips before he finally got his first novel published. Even authors who get picked up quickly, like Terry Goodkind, acknowledge that such rapid success is extremely rare and unlikely. Having been through numerous writing workshops, I know that every writer takes rejection differently. I’ll admit that the initial critique, whether you’re hearing it or just reading comments, can be quite painful. There is an immediate feeling of resentment and betrayal that leaves you thinking your book is crap, or your editor is a jerk. However I’ve noticed that these wounds heal rather quickly and when I come back to them a little while later, I see that they were only trying to help and most, if not all, of their comments are worth consideration. Therefore, ultimately, the critiques and edits helped the book to become a much more polished and streamlined piece of fiction. But if you are the kind of writer who hates rejection and critiques, long after they were given, then writing may not be the career for you. I’ve known a lot of people who write for fun, as a hobby, and prefer not to have other writers markup their work. I can completely understand this but it becomes a problem when they believe their unedited manuscript is good enough to be in print.
And that leads me into the second part; laziness. Editing is hard and unfortunately the writing process is roughly 75% editing (though admittedly, I'm nit-picky). When you’re ready to get published, you want to make sure that every possible error is gone so that no one can reject it anymore. But by going the route of self publication, any standard for editing is gone. You could publish the worst story ever written and yet it is still on the shelf next to every other self published novel in existence. Say what you will about poorly written novels that are published by the big companies, even those stories have a certain standard for spelling and punctuation. Nothing takes a reader out of a book faster than a misspelled word. And, though I dislike many bad writers who have found success, at least they had the courage to face rejection over and over again to get that book published. So, for this reason, I often see people who self publish, without even considering the traditional methods, as being lazy because they don’t want to seriously edit their story.
Is there anything positive to come out of self publishing?
So let’s get this straight; self published books are poorly written, grammatical catastrophes written by people without the spine or motivation to attempt something greater. It sounds harsh, I know, but there is a different group of self published authors that prevent me from saying this every time I meet someone who is considering it. They are the downtrodden writers who have been trying to get published the traditional way but, for whatever reason, have failed. Big business is unforgiving and a truly great book can be overlooked for stupid reasons. Not only that, but even if your book isn’t the next best seller, it still occupies a place in your heart and to see it die such an undignified death can be more painful than any rejection or critique.
I mentioned above that I worked on my novel for ten years but, despite all my editing, I never really thought of it as 'done'. I told people that it was finished, not because it met all my expectations, but because I just couldn't stand to work on it any longer. I had to let it go eventually, so I decided to find a checkpoint from which I could say it was ‘good enough’. After that I went through the lengthy process of the traditional market. And, while it is normal to expect rejections, nothing can really prepare you for when it actually happens. Secretly you’re hoping that you’ll be one of the rare cases that succeed right away. When the rejections do start coming, it starts to chip away at your resolve, making you wonder what you did so wrong to turn off so many people. Was it the query letter? Was it the synopsis? Were the first five pages not interesting enough? Since most responders don’t give you personalized rejections, it’s difficult to tell what you’re doing wrong. And, after 52 rejections and a dried well of new submissions, self publication became the only option.
You might be asking yourself how I can be so harsh on self published authors, considering I am one, but there are many of us who remember the days before ebooks. There is a stigma that accompanies this side of the industry. You can see some examples of what I'm talking about in my article about Style versus Errors in writing. But my hope is that new authors will elevate self publishing out of that stigma. So that we can be proud of the books we've written, rather than treating ebooks and print-on-demand services as dumpsters for failed manuscripts.