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Self Publishing: The Great Debate

Updated on March 24, 2015
M. T. Dremer profile image

M. T. Dremer has submitted more than 91 queries to literary agents and self-published two novels.

(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.


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    • M. T. Dremer profile image

      M. T. Dremer 4 years ago from United States

      Jodah - I definitely recommend attempting the traditional route first. You never know if an agent is waiting for a book just like yours. For me, self-publishing has become more of a starting point than an end game. As I mentioned in the article, it used to be where books went to die. But today people use it to build catalogs and establish an online presence. I'm always surprised to hear when a self published author makes the transition to the traditional market. It just proves that the industry is changing rapidly and it pays to utilize all of your options. Thanks for the comment and good luck with your book as well!

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 4 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Hi M.T. , what a well written and informative hub. I too aspire to write a book, but mine will be poetry if I ever get there. I have about 100 poems, but there is the difficult decision of how to publish. Both traditional and self-publishing look daunting to me. Then there are the online publishing houses that offer to format, print and publish your book but for exorbitant fees. I would prefer to go the traditional route as you mention, because I have read some self-published e-books that are totally crap. The thing is, you get to thinking, "If they can do it, surely I can" and at least they took the step. But most aren't making any real money. Anyway, good hub. Good luck with your book.

    • M. T. Dremer profile image

      M. T. Dremer 5 years ago from United States

      i4u - Thank you for the compliment and the comment. I hope your writing career brings you where you want to be.

    • profile image

      i4u 5 years ago

      Very nice.

      Definitely all the things inspire me to do so.

      The time's a pretty even barrier I must say in my schedule but I will try to break it.

      Looking forward to more.

      Thank you for such a lovely hub, M.T. Dremer!

    • M. T. Dremer profile image

      M. T. Dremer 6 years ago from United States

      whowas - You're right that the situation is continuing to evolve. I would argue that my viewpoints are based more on the self publishing market from ten or twenty years ago, more so than it is the newer e-market. I think, more than anything, it worries me. As you pointed out, many of the best sellers are poorly written, with better literature taking a back seat. However, if self publishing takes control away, then wouldn't it be even harder to find good writing? The pool of authors would be drastically larger and the good writers increasingly hard to find. It would be like internet memes; you have to provide something really funny in hopes that it will go viral. Otherwise you're in for a life of monetary flops. HubPages is a good example. Many great writers here aren't seeing returns as high as those who go the route of search engine optimization (which I equate to those thrillers you mentioned). Maybe self publishing will start to gain higher prestige moving forward. The editing services you mentioned will probably help, though without them being required, the market is still going to be overloaded. And I still believe that it is the easy way out of doing the work to become an author. Honestly, I do hope that it gets better, but as of right now it's still a sore spot for me. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

    • profile image

      whowas 6 years ago

      I like your hub and thanks, too, for getting me thinking.

      I do wonder about the accuracy of your viewpoint, however. I would like to base my opinion on some pretty extensive research rather than anecdote and secondhand notions. Nevertheless, many of your points seem valid to me.

      However, I think that it may be the case that with time, the situation changes. For example you seem to equate self-publishing with the ebook, whereas many self-publishers run print editions through the vanity press, or POD publishers - and many mainstream publishing houses now publish properly edited ebooks for use with new reading technologies.

      There are also a growing number of reputable and reliable freelance editing and critique services that enable a self-publishing author to go that route with experienced and knowledeable editing and proof-reading.

      I think there is a cultural shift taking place whereby many writers are turning to self-publishing because the new technologies are enabling them to take control of their presentation and distribution in ways that were formally not possible.

      You know, as the publishing houses come under increasing pressure to 'dumb down' their output, self-publishing may in fact become the best option for authors of high quality literature who the publishers don't regard as sufficiently commercial.

      It would be churlish of me to mention names but I recently made myself read a series of 'thrillers' by best-selling authors published by mainstream houses. They were, almost without exception, gripping tales appallingly written. Unputdownable trash. They were multi-book deals with mainstream houses whose editors were surely as illiterate as the authors.

      I suspect the issue is more complex and subtle than you suggest in this hub. To dismiss self-publishing out of hand may be to refuse to jump in the lifeboat because you want to stay on board the sinking ship...

      Thanks again for such a thought-provoking hub on one of the most popular self-publishing sites I know! ;)

    • M. T. Dremer profile image

      M. T. Dremer 6 years ago from United States

      Ironman1992 - That's where I'm at right now; self publishing being considered a last resort. So it kind of baffles me that a great deal of writers are considering it as their first option. My assumption is that fear is the biggest motivator; fear of rejection and criticism. So, if you're willing to attempt the big leagues of publishing; you've got my respect. Thanks for the comment!

    • Ironman1992 profile image

      Ironman1992 6 years ago

      I hope to someday get a novel published. I have never read a self published book, and would not likely consider self publishing unless it was a last resort.

    • M. T. Dremer profile image

      M. T. Dremer 6 years ago from United States

      ar.colton - I do think there are good self published books out there, but finding them is not easy (I'm always open to suggestions and Pcunix was kind enough to reference one such book in the comments above). But as I said there as well; it seems that success as a self published author has more to do with business/marketing competency, than a strong writing background. Admittedly, my view of self publishing may have a lot to do with the genre I write; fantasy. It's entirely possible that other genres, like non fiction, excel in the self published, e-book format. But I think my biggest reservation about these books is that they don't have standards for editing and grammar the way that mainstream publishers do. One could have the greatest story in the world, but if it's riddled with spelling errors in the first few pages, even the most forgiving of readers is going to put the book down. Maybe that's just me being hyper-critical, because as writers we tend to notice more errors than casual readers. Not that writers are immune to making mistakes; we all need editors, I just feel that self publishing is a lot like the internet. Everyone has a voice; everyone can post their opinions and everyone can photoshop a picture to illustrate their point. And, while there are a lot of great resources on the internet, I would argue that the vast majority of it is crap. Ruthless forums, grammatically atrocious memes and 'search engine optimized' articles are all slowly degrading the written word. I'm kind of wandering off topic now, but the idea is that when everyone can publish a book without any sort of standards, the market will overflow, making it near impossible for anyone to be a success unless they are lucky enough to be attached to a viral campaign.

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment! Despite my long response, I am happy to see both sides of the argument represented.

    • ar.colton profile image

      Mikal Smith 6 years ago from Vancouver, B.C.

      I appreciate you sharing your opinion Dremer but I've got to say this article seems like it was written a decade ago. Today there are many successful and well-written self published books. And a number of authors who take their self-pubbed careers very seriously, and are very far from being lazy. I'm not self-pubbed myself but I know there are pros and cons to both trad and self pubbing and that they both have their places in today's market. Yes, this is an opinion piece but I think a little earnest research and chatting with a few serious self-pubbers would significantly change your viewpoint.

    • M. T. Dremer profile image

      M. T. Dremer 6 years ago from United States

      Larael - You're welcome. I find that rejection is easier to take the second time you hear it. For example, after reading through edits the first time, just set the project aside for a few days and then come back to it. After the initial reaction is gone, it becomes that much easier to pick through which comments are helpful and which aren't. Thanks for commenting!

    • Larael profile image

      Larael 6 years ago

      Wow! I loved this. Thank you so much for sharing. :) And I'll be checking back for other gems like this one.

      p.s. I shall try very hard not to be so lazy/scared of rejection! Your words have inspired and entertained me. haha. Thanks! :D

    • M. T. Dremer profile image

      M. T. Dremer 6 years ago from United States

      Pcunix - Maybe in the future, writing degrees will require a web advertising class as part of their curriculum. It's kind of sad, but I do think it would help up-and-coming writers. When I first started writing online, I was ill-prepared for what was to come. Thanks for the comment, and I'm glad I'm not the only one who struggles with this stuff.

      tyra marieza - A lot of my experience with self published books is what you just mentioned; someone hands me a book by a local author. Though, working at a library, I've come across a few of them there as well (not in circulation, but because we have to get rid of them somehow). It's sad when you read another bad one, because you know that it means a lot to this author. So you can only hope you never run into them and they ask what you thought. Thanks for the comment!

    • tyra marieza profile image

      tyra marieza 6 years ago from Atlanta Georgia

      It's almost shameful to say, but I've been giving self-published books by local authors. I always smile. Read them and never finish their books because I think, "Ouch. This is horrible." And not because of the concept, the story-line or even the characters. But usually because the lack of flow and structure, which is generally corrected by an editor. So, sadly, I agree. Self-publishing is almost like labeling yourself as "not good enough to be really published."

    • Pcunix profile image

      Tony Lawrence 6 years ago from SE MA

      I'm with you on the self promotion stuff - its not something I am comfortable with myself.

    • M. T. Dremer profile image

      M. T. Dremer 6 years ago from United States

      Pcunix - It's true that new authors aren't going to get the same level of advertising as Stephen King (I actually saw a tv commercial for one of his books) but the sheer fact that you will be in books stores and libraries (something that self published books can't do) would afford an advantage. I think that success for self publication depends more upon ones ability to self brand, self advertise, and self network in the digital age. While these are all great qualities to have, and will inevitably lead to success, they are more so qualities for a business man than a writer. From what I've read about John Locke so far, his success was based on these factors, not necessarily because he was a great writer. I love writing for hubpages, but I will admit, the whole self promotion aspect (back linking, SEO and traffic tracking) is all very off-putting to me. I write because I have something to say, or a story to tell, or a guide that I think will help someone. I don't write to optimize traffic. The downside of this is that I don't make much money here either and that may be a big source of my aversion to self publishing. It is a career where writing is only a small aspect, with the business side taking stage front and center. At the end of the day, I just want to be a writer. Thanks for the comment!

    • Pcunix profile image

      Tony Lawrence 6 years ago from SE MA

      Actually, according to that John Locke guy, the fledgling author is usually offered very little advertising and exposure. His book is all about how he tried the traditional route and failed miserably and is now a best selling, self published, self promoted author.

    • M. T. Dremer profile image

      M. T. Dremer 6 years ago from United States

      Borsia - You bring up a very good point; the publishing industry also has its fair share of flaws. I don't know the exact percentages of money an author makes from their books, but I do know that if one is paid a forward for the book, they must earn through that forward in book sales before they can ever see a per-book sale profit. Considering that the author did most of the leg work creating this story, it is disheartening when they get so little of the money made off of it. It probably isn't until an author has several books under their belt that it really becomes something to live off of. The trouble with self publishing, by contrast, is that you aren't afforded the same level of advertising and exposure, so you sell less (despite a higher profit margin per book). If self published books could develop a standard for editing, I think they would really take off. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

    • profile image

      Borsia 6 years ago

      I both agree and disagree with your take on publishing.

      I've seen all of the terrible things you mention but I have also read some really good work.

      Ebooks now make up over 21% of book sales, a huge amount when one considers what a short time it has taken to garner that share of the market. They will continue to take more and more of the market and I see a day in the not too distant future when printed books will fall into the category of relics. I’m not saying this is a good thing only that it’s happening.

      For me, as someone who lives on the road and almost entirely in non-English countries, ebooks are far more practical. Personally I prefer to read a real book but when I consider the weight and space required to take real books with me I have to rely on ebooks.

      When you are writing and publishing ebooks there isn't really much need for publishers in the traditional sense.

      But there is a huge need for editing and many ebooks suffer from all of the errors you mention.

      One thing I notice is that while you can do it yourself we often don't see our own mistakes. People either read over them and don't notice them or their spelling and grammar aren't that good to start with. Given today’s word processors there isn’t much excuse for bad spelling.

      Then there is the fact that authors are paid so little for their work. If you are a big well known and fast selling author you may get a decent percentage but everyone else gets very little for all their hard work.

      Add that to the whimsical system of traditional publishing and even if you have written a great book your chances of getting it on the shelves isn't very good. I think I read somewhere that the first “Harry Potter” book was rejected 8 times before someone saw its potential.

    • M. T. Dremer profile image

      M. T. Dremer 6 years ago from United States

      Ruby H Rose - The official method of publication is definitely a tough industry. One could spend hours on a great query letter that is only given a passing glance by a busy agent. Persistence is key, and I need remind myself of that every day. Good luck to you in your efforts and thanks for the comment!

      Pcunix - I do acknowledge that good self published books probably exist. As I said, I haven't read them all (I don't think that's even possible). But, with so many bad ones out there, finding a good one is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Without any universal standards or filters, a book written by someone with no writing skill at all is on the same level as one written by a scholar. How can we, as consumers/readers, know the difference (outside of whatever bold claims the author has made on the book jacket)? And how would we find these books to begin with? Book stores don't carry them, Libraries won't accept them into their catalogue, and despite their availability online, chances are they won't pop up in search results of any given subject. Anyway, my point is that, even without a reputation for being poorly written, self published books still have too much working against them. If this industry is going to grow with the e-book, it needs to make itself more credible. I have no idea how it would do that, but I wouldn't be opposed to it happening. I'll definitely check out the book you mentioned, as I'm very curious how the other side sees it. Thanks for the comment!

    • Pcunix profile image

      Tony Lawrence 6 years ago from SE MA

      Wow. I have read good self-published books.

      I recommend you look up John Locke's "How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months!" for a view entirely opposite to yours.

    • Ruby H Rose profile image

      Maree Michael Martin 6 years ago from Northwest Washington on an Island

      Wow! Well done. You hit the nail on the head and then some. Bravo for telling it like it is. So very many of us struggle with those exact same issues. I've been on the teeter totter of it all for more years than I can stand to admit. I am conquering many of my writing fears here on hubpages. This is very supportive. Thank you, thank you!


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