My Big Rant on Self-Publishing

I can’t tell you how tired I am of hearing people bash self-publishing. The things I hear usually fall into two categories:

  • Most self-published books aren’t quality
  • Some self-publishing services are unethical

If you agree with one of the above statements, let me lay it out real clear for you: The landscape is changing, and if you haven’t noticed, you’re behind the times. This particular blog post addresses the quality issue, because the ethics issue is becoming less of a problem. The moment any self-pub service tries to pull a fast one or do something questionable, it’s trumpeted far and wide online. And often it’s the people who aren’t doing their research and due diligence that get taken advantage of. I’m not saying it’s right for this to happen, nor do I condone it, but all industries have bad eggs.

But moving on, consider:

  • Traditional publishers now rely on authors to do all the marketing and promotion. It used to be that writers could concentrate on writing and forget about that icky sales and marketing stuff. Well, welcome to the new world. Marketing is now expected from authors. And authors who survive will be the ones who find ways to authentically grow their platform and meaningfully reach their readership.
  • Communities will decide what books are worthwhile, and communities won’t have ego-filled judgments. Publishers will always be giving their authors one thing that is hard to come by: a measure of instant credibility. (That is: Someone thought this was good enough to take a financial risk on.) In good scenarios, there is also collaboration: to make a good book a great book. But soon, communities will have as much power as publishers to decide what books deserve attention. Plus you and I will be more likely to trust judgments coming from people we know and have something in common with, not necessarily The New York Times. It goes back to the whole end of cultural authority.

You’re probably thinking, “Oh my god, she’s totally in the pocket of the self-publishers and enslaved to them because of their advertising dollars that support the magazine.” You can take the cynic’s view if you wish and choose to believe that what I write is not authentically my view. But my background is 10 years of traditional book publishing—acting as the gatekeeper. I have a lot of investment in that traditional model. But I know if we [insiders] don’t change what we do, we’ll become irrelevant, and that’s a worse fate.

When I started working for Writer’s Digest magazine, one of my first assignments was producing the special newsstand-only issue on self-publishing (called Publishing Success). And I noticed that self-publishing is a hell of a lot of work. You don’t get any hand-holding from agents or editors, and you’re on your own if you want to be successful. Most people execute it poorly because they are not business people, and they don’t have a good grasp on their audience. They’re simply writing for themselves (catharsis). But I’m not going to fault the entire self-publishing approach because many people use it as a tool for personal validation (e.g., by publishing a life story, 200,000-word novel, or manifesto).

While at Writer’s Digest, I’ve seen thousands of self-published books come through our Self-Published Book Awards. Ninety-nine percent don’t meet my standard of quality for publication. But I can also tell clearly they were a work of passion, and it meant something dearly to people to get it in print. I can be heartless and say, “Well if these people have a book inside them, that’s exactly where it should stay,” or I can say: “Go ahead, take a chance, get hurt even.” Most people, even published authors, have a lot to learn when it comes to what deserves print publication.

You want to have a traditional publisher and a literary agent that you can tout—so you can strut around and call yourself a published author? Go right ahead. But here’s the judgment I bring to the table: Does your book sell? Do you have visibility? Or are you living in obscurity? Because I can’t tell you often enough: I don’t care who published you or how much you were paid for an advance: If you ain’t got readers, you ain’t got love, you ain’t got money, you ain’t got a future in publishing.

It is exciting to be able to publish a book virtually within 5 minutes with the new services available (through Amazon & Kindle, through Smashwords-Stanza-iPhone, through Lulu, and others). Yes, it will lead to an unbelievable amount of media detritus. But we have the tools today to find what we want and ignore the rest.

Photo credit: jerine

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0 thoughts on “My Big Rant on Self-Publishing

  1. Zoe Winters

    Thanks for posting this! Rock on!

    It seems to me the only real reason trad published authors would bash self publishing is because it in some way detracts from the attention and praise they got from doing things the traditional way, or else a fear that things really are changing.

    If self publishing can have no effect on anything, and self published authors can’t be happy and can’t get anything they want, then one would wonder what trad published authors gain from bashing and whining about it so much.

    Don’t they have better things to do with their time?

  2. Dan Holloway

    It’s great to see more and more people realising that times are changing. I believe the recession is actually a time of great opportunity for writers who have flexibility (thanks to self-publishing advances) and focus that the publishing houses just can’t match. I finished my second novel, Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, at the end of last year. It won accolades last year on the websites Youwriteon and Authonomy, and I have been – and continue to – looking for agents. But I am also planning to publish the book myself this summer, working on the assumption I won’t get an agent (although I’d be delighted if I did).

    The novel centres on a teenage girl growing up in post-communist Hungary. Her English mother left the day the Berlin Wall came down, and ever since she has dreamed of following her to the West. It’s contemporary fiction with lots of music and art references, very much in the mould of Murakami, David Mitchell, or Douglas Coupland, and I’m planning my marketing based on that awareness of who my readers are – students, and 18-35 urban indies. I’ve got a website, of course (, but a website’s only useful if people find their way there. I’m raising awareness in two ways. First, I’m publicising the book by giving away the opening chapters both online (to fans of the above authors), and at independent music venues and galleries.

    The main focus of my attention is that I’m giving away my next book for free (in the hope of creating a fanbase), and trying to do so in a way that will itself create publicity. So I’m writing the book, The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes, on a Facebook group of the same name from march 2 to October 9 (to coincide with the opening of the Cheltenham Literature Festival). I’m posting two chapters a week and letting readers see me edit and rewrite – as well as suggesting what could happen next. I’ve created a world for the novel – which dissects the real and imaginary stories behind an iconic image – through fake news reports, and character sheets (before the book starts people can say who they’d like to see more of!). There are also events – the first is a design competition with entry by flashmob (people can e-mail their design, or they can deliver it to me at Waterstone’s, Piccadilly, at 11 a.m. on Tuesday 21 April- if it’s a success, I can take the story straight to the London Book Fair). Of course, I need to get people to the group. Facebook’s great for that, of course – I can publicise it in suitable groups, and get friends to invite friends and so on. As well as that, I’ve set a media timetable, starting with local papers and radio. I’ll also be attending cultural fairs – the book’s main character is Polish, so I’ll be speaking at events within the Polish ex-pat community.

    That’s what I mean by flexibility – as writers, we know who are readers are better than anyone – or we should. I often think of the “write a book then find a market” approach as rather like someone who sets up a shops selling fine wine, for example, and then hopes he’s done it in a neighbourhood where someone might be interested. Before I set pen to paper, I made sure I knew for whom I was writing. As a result, I hope I’m in a really good position to target those people directly.

  3. Travel With Hole In The Donut

    I couldn’t agree more. While I would love to get a contract from a traditional publisher, I believe that publishing model is fast disappearing. All it will take for the real death knell to sound is for one famous, successful author to defect to the self-publishing model. Once painted with this type of respectability, watch the mass exodus begin.

  4. Rebecca Thrower

    The publishing industry seems to be rife with agents and editors who operate in the same fashion as The Wixard of Oz: Behind a dingy curtain called a "rejection letter". Work that is acquired under the auspices of showcasing New Talent is disheartening.

    Self publishing is the last best hope for brave, new writers.

  5. Virginia

    Excellent post – thank you. I am currently in the land of hoping for an agent but realizing I may eventually need to consider self-publishing. I don’t want to self-publish, for many reasons, but I will in the end if need be. This post is reassuring, so thanks for addressing the topic.

  6. Anthony S. Policastro

    Right on Jane!!! You are absolutely correct! I see traditional published authors at a marketing disadvantage because they are not free to post their books on sites like Smashwords and other eBook sites. They have to ask their publishers and if the publishers don’t have the resources or inclination to do it, the author loses that marketing channel. With 300,000 books published each year, only the bestsellers and the authors with some marketing savvy get noticed.

    My books are on and Smashwords and sales are beginning to take off.

  7. Tammi

    I am so glad I found this through a friend, looking forward to reading more of your postings.
    Agreed that now authors are expected to do everything — in fact isn’t it true the major book deals are done factoring in how much a "name" is going to draw vs. an unknown, on the same topic/subject?
    I had a horrible experience with a major publisher and with self-publishing a few years ago, but that won’t stop me from doing attempting either again. It was a phenomenal learning experience.
    Would like to say for anyone thinking of self publishing, one of the best gifts you can give yourself is to hire a pro editor, someone who will look at your work with a fresh eye and fix your mistakes. No one is perfect, and you should go out with your best work – especially if you’re paying for it.

  8. Lawrence Thomas

    Very well said, Jane. Since your webinar, I have spent the last day exploring and tinkering with both Lulu and Smashword and the tools available to those who wish to self-publish are endless. I know a lot of musicians going the self-published route. Editors and record labels often don’t allow you the creative freedom that comes with self-publishing. If it sells it sells, but as Frank Sinatra so proudly sang, at least you ‘did it your way’.

  9. Joanna Penn

    I’m absolutely with you on this one! the stigma of self-publishing comes crashing down in 2009 with the rise of ebook readers, Smashwords and the ability to get your book digital quickly and easily – and with a better revenue margin! I also have my self-published book for sale as print-on-demand in India through Pothi as well as the US with Lulu – so individuals can have a global reach in print as well as digital. It’s an axciting world for authors!
    Thanks for your passion!