Why You Need To Think Twice Before You Self-Publish

Lately, I've been overwhelmed by the foul tempers prevailing in writing forums on any thread that has to do with self-publishing.  I'll admit it--this is partically my fault.  I'm so sick of hearing sad stories from authors who "just wanted to hold my book in my hands" and then are faced with the consequences of their decision to self-publish that are dismissed and scoffed at by people who are absolutely certain that self-publishing is the end of the traditional publishing industry.

But before we begin, a caveat: I BELIEVE (capitalized for emphasis) that in SOME cases, self-publishing is an appropriate choice-- such as books for niche markets, poetry chapbooks, non-fiction with a limited target market. I ALSO BELIEVE (again, capitalized for emphasis) that in the case of fiction, self-publishing should be the LAST choice, not the first.

Now before the self-appointed SP cheerleaders start to divebomb me with their pom-poms, here's why I believe this way...in a bulleted list for your reading ease and comfort.

(Yes, I'm feeling a little snippy)

1. Self-publishing burns your first rights.
2. Self-publishing at this point is consigning your book to the bottom of the publishing pond.
3. Self-publishing doesn't equate with 'published.'
4. Self-publishing companies don't care how many books you sell. Their purpose is to get as many books as possible.
5. Most self-published authors suffer from the stigma of not being legitimately published.
6. 90 % of self-published books are crap, and that figure is low.

Now that I've pissed all of them off, let's elaborate.

First publishing rights are a huge deal.  You aren't going to land an agent or a trade publisher (read: NY publishing house) with a self-published book UNLESS you have immense sales and maybe not even then. Yes, yes...Amanda Hocking. I know.  She had over a million sales, right?  Okay...that's ONE author out of how many?  According to Bowker, there were over 760,000 self-published books in 2009.  Now think--how many other authors have you heard of with sales like this?

Right. And why is that?

Because a self-published book sinks right to the bottom of the publishing pond.  The books that sell the most are the ones that get publicity--trade published books, independent press books and e-published books.  The self-published books that break through those to rise to the top either have an author with a well-known name (like Stephen King) or a well-known platform (either because of a built-in readership or through the marketing efforts the author puts into the released book).  Most self-published books don't get that.  They get bought by family and friends, who leave glowing reviews on Amazon that nobody reads.  Self-published authors also find it difficult to get reviewed, one of the traditional methods of getting people interested in their books.  Do you know why?

Right. Because most people don't equate self-publishing with actually being published.  Agent Rachel Gardner said it best on her blog in a November, 2009 post:

The lure and the prestige of getting a book published has always been based on... what? Exclusivity. It's exciting to get a book deal because many want one, and few can get one.

Published books have always been respected because of the many gatekeepers they had to go through to get on that bookstore shelf. Numerous people had to agree that the book was worthy of publication. Large companies had to invest money and time. All of that added to the value of each book.

Writers had to endure rejection, and be persistent. They had to keep trying harder, improving their writing, to get to the point of being published. And they had to impress a lot of people.

With no more gatekeepers, no more exclusivity, no more requirement to actually write a good book, won't published books lose value? If anybody can get a book published, doesn't that diminish the perceived status of all authors?

That kind of sums it up. The majority of self-published books are pretty awful, to be frank.  Obviously, I haven't read every self-published book in the world but come on, already.  How many of those self-published books are in reality unedited first drafts, thrown out there by people who stupidly buy into the myth that "You, too, can be a publisher author on the road to fame and riches!!!!" by self-publishing companies who don't give a crap what they're publishing.

What?  Oh, of course I have cites for that.


“It used to be an elite few,” said Eileen Gittins, chief executive of Blurb, a print-on-demand company whose revenue has grown to $30 million, from $1 million, in just two years and which published more than 300,000 titles last year. Many of those were personal books bought only by the author. “Now anyone can make a book, and it looks just like a book that you buy at the bookstore.”


See what I mean? It looks just like a book that you buy at the bookstore.  From the same article, there's this too:


Indeed, said Robert Young, chief executive of Lulu Enterprises, based in Raleigh, N.C., a majority of the company’s titles are of little interest to anybody other than the authors and their families. “We have easily published the largest collection of bad poetry in the history of mankind,” Mr. Young said.


Pretty scary. Especially when paired from this quote I found on How Publishing Really Works:

Lulu.com, one of the most popular and cost-effective of the POD services and still independent despite the apparent trend toward consolidation among POD services, is explicit about its long tail business model. In a 2006 article in the Times UK, its founder identified the company's goal: "...to have a million authors selling 100 copies each, rather than 100 authors selling a million copies each." A Lulu bestseller is a book that sells 500 copies. There haven't been many of them.

Doesn't that just make you throw up a little in your mouth?  It does me. Why would you want to consign your novel to a company that wants ten thousand more of you only selling ten books to your family and friends...or yourself?

And if you only sell to your mom and dad and the other eight copies are bouncing around in the trunk of your car, then are you legitimately published?  Are you put on the same level as...well, shall we say, an e-published author?

No.  Because of one line you can find on many major review sites:

We do not accept self-published material for review.

Not too long ago, that line read: We do not accept e-published or self-published material for review.

Again--you sell a million copies, and you get to shed the self-published stigma.  But let's face it: any schmoo who ekes together some kind of guide for pedophiles and self-publishes it on Amazon, then causing a controversy as outrage ripples throughout the www is going to manage to sell 50 books.  Most self-published books don't sell half that number--and the self-publishing companies like it that way. Again--read what those execs had to say. They don't care that because you've self-published your book, people are going to automatically assume it's crap. They LIKE crap, particularly the kind of crap that a deluded author is going to pay premium prices for their ultimate services. But the inescapable sad, tragic fact is that most self-published books ARE crap.

Look, I don't have a motive here unless it's to ease my own conscience.  Over the past year, the number of queries I've received from self-published authors who genuinely believed they could bypass the whole submission process and have a bestseller is staggering.  I looked through my records today, and approximately 40% of the submissions I've received since June of 2010 fit into this category.  These authors are upset and looking to rectify their book's invisibility through any means possible.

"I thought self-publishing was the way to go, but I've only sold five copies in eight months..."

"I really believed that once people started to review my book, I'd get the exposure I needed..."

"I invested almost two thousand dollars into this book and I have to find a way to recoup my losses..."

And so they send those manuscripts to me, hoping that somehow I'll be willing to overlook the fact that their first electronic rights have been burned irrevocably.  And because I'm a sucker, I'll request the whole book. And without exception, those books aren't in any condition to be turned over to my staff for editing much less out there on display for the whole world.  Out of those submissions, I have not accepted one.

Not. One.

So, yes--I'm damn good and mad about this!  I'm inundated with those self-publishing popups everytime I hop online. I could open any website right now and there will be that damn ad I've seen every stinking day for three stinking months.  I really wish I could spam them all with an email that reads, "I'M NOT STUPID. THANKS."

But I can't. My situation is different too. I'm an established author with a very decided career plan, one that I work on every single day for eight hours a day. Self-publishing is not an option for me at this stage of my career. Perhaps later, if I reach a certain undefined level of success, I may self-publish my earlier works when the rights revert to me.  Who can say?

But YOU--the writer who's just finished your first novel and are trying to make a decision as to what's best to do. (and this doesn't apply to people who just want to publish for their own pleasure)  Aside from following my mantra of "write, edit, rewrite, rewrite again, rewrite some more, edit, proof, repeat" (meaning don't ever send out a first draft as a finished product), what else should you do?

If you want a career as a writer, why consign your book to the bottom of the publishing pond?  Start at the top and work your way down.  Try for an agent first, then smaller presses, and then e-presses before you decide to self-publish. Why be one of thousands of writers selling only ten copies?  Strive to be one of ten authors selling thousands...MILLIONS of copies.

Always, always reach for the top of the game, not the bottom, and I'll do the same.  Perhaps we'll meet there someday. I certainly hope so.

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