In 2007 on this blog, I answered the question, "Why don't you self-publish?" When I wrote that, e-publishing was barely a twinkle in its daddy's eyes. Now self-publishing is much easier and less expensive, and has become far more widespread. Recently on twitter, I retweeted an indie bookseller, Josh Christie, who wrote: "A self-published book is 'independently published' in the same way a home movie is an 'independent film.'" Someone responded to me saying, "Easy to say from the perch of 1 who has an agent and publisher." I said I would try to explain my view on self-publishing in a blog post, so here I go. These are my opinions. Please share yours in the comments in a respectful manner.
First I want to clarify how I view this topic.
Self-publishing = amateur [EDIT: Retracted! See next post!]
Traditional publishing = professional
Amateur does NOT mean "inherently bad." It means "not professional." You can enjoy a neighborhood basketball tournament and witness some great players, but it's different from an NBA game. You can enjoy videos posted to Youtube--there are some real gems among the hundreds of millions of homemade videos posted--but it's different than watching Netflix or Hulu. You can jam to a great band at the local bar, but you wouldn't pay the same for admission that you would to see a Grammy winner in concert.
The difference between amateur and professional is obvious in these areas, but with books, I've noticed a general unawareness (for example, the local elementary school flying in a self-published author to do an assembly). If the products of self and traditional publishing are viewed interchangeably, then editors and publishers, who are the backbone of professional publishing, are not getting their due respect. When we don't value something, it could go away, and I don't want that to happen. Editors and publishers raise the standards and help make literature better.
"How?" you ask. "Tell us, beautiful Shannon, how do editors and publishers make literature better?" Thanks for noticing. I work out. And here's how:
1. When you buy a professionally published book at a bookstore, you know it's been vetted by industry professionals. A publisher has said, "I think this is so good, I'm willing to bet a significant amount of our company's money and of my personal and valuable time that readers will love it too." With a self-published book, it's the author vetting him/herself, putting her/his own money on the line. There's understandably going to be more consumer confidence in the professionally vetted book.
2. Publishers hire the best people in the world at their jobs. A team of professionals puts in significant hours and hard work on every single book they publish. I read that an average of twenty people are vigorously engaged working on any book from a professional publisher. Many drafts, copy edits, care for the best cover, how best to promote, etc. Some self-published books represent years of hard work by the author. However, many (I would guess most) are first drafts. I worked a slush pile once. I read a lot of hideously bad stories that the writers believed were good enough to be published. Bless their hearts, they were wrong. Sometimes we're not our best judge, especially when first starting out.
3. Editors go through the slush pile so we don't have to. The slush pile is the stack of unrequested manuscripts that hopeful authors send to a publisher. Most (over 90%) are rejected. A small percentage catch an editor's eye, and after further work on the author's part, with advice and support from the editor, the book turns out great and ends up published. Self-published books are in many cases simply the slush pile for sale. No one has gone through them, selected the best, helped the author make them better, and marketed them to their best audience. If e-publishing had existed when I was starting out, I would have been tempted to self-publish. The rejections were hard, and I just wanted to share my work. But now I would be mortified by what I thought at the time was good enough. [EDIT: I should have also included AGENTS in this process! Agents wade through more slush nowadays than editors. They're a vital part of the chain.]
Some of you will be offended by this post. Some of you will be surprised because I think in general my opinions steer away from an elitist view of what is quality in literature, and this post might seem elitist. I'm sorry for that, and I really hope you will read what I'm actually saying, not what I seem to be saying. There is a difference between self-published books and professionally published books. If the market doesn't value the professional hard work that publishers do, they'll go away.
I absolutely DO NOT believe that all professionally published books are better than all self-published books. How could I know that? How could anyone? I haven't read them all. But I DO believe that the work editors and publishers do is way underrated and paramount to creating a canon of quality literature. I didn't realize how much good stuff an editor does (without changing a word of my text) till I had a professional editor on my side. A critique group is not the same. Helpful, but not the same. Because it's hard to know how important publishers are to an author unless you've seen it from the inside, I feel like I'd be neglectful as an author not to speak up about it.
For those who are self-publishing because they've been rejected by professionals, I would ask, Why in such a hurry to be published? Someday you may wish you waited to put your very best work out there. And if this book is your very best work and it's smokin' awesome, then patience, it will find a home.
For those who prefer the control of self-publishing, I say, more power to you. It's not the route for me, but I can see it would appeal to some.
For those who are self-publishing to get a following and attract the notice of a traditional publisher, why not? It's worked for others. But know it's extremely rare. I think you're better off using money to attend writing conferences where you can meet legit agents than paying a company to format and distribute your self-published ebook.
For those who are self-publishing children, I would add a word of caution. I know of an incident where helpful parents self-published their young daughter's novel. It was great for such a young girl! But it was not a quality book by general standards. People paid money for the book. People didn't read it as a pet project of a sweet young girl--they read it as a novel, and the feedback was scathing. Stuff that goes online is open to widespread criticsm. Is your child really ready for that?
I suffered the years of rejections. I was told again and again that I was not good enough, my stories were not good enough, my book was not good enough. Most published writers I know suffered through a similar process. For good or ill, it's survival of the fittest, and many writers give up too soon. The yearning to share creative works is natural and fierce. Here's my unrequested advice: Writers, you just keep going. You keep trying. You keep improving. You fight for that right to be vetted, edited, and published professionally. You fight for it. Sometimes it takes years to find the right house, the right editor, the right manuscript, but you do it and your book will be better for it.
EDIT: Please read Rick Walton's comment below! He sums it up perfectly, and with decades of publishing experience of many sorts he knows of what he speaks, besides just being a darn fine human being. Rick always says things better than I can.