To Self-Publish or Not to Self-Publish: The Answer’s as Clear as Either Way

I’ve lately been thinking that I should upload something on the Smashwords that all the kids are talking about. This is a site that facilitates e-publishing. You upload a file formatted in the necessary way and soon your book is for sale on Amazon, Apple’s iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, and so forth. It seems like another plank in the platform: website, check; blog, check; Facebook, check; self-published e-book, check. But wait, not so fast. As with all things in life, there are pros and cons to be debated here. Had a great talk with editor extraordinaire and general man about town Marco Palmieri about the subject after he pointed out this recent interesting post and discussion on The Practical Free Spirit, an enjoyable blog by aspiring writer Amy Sundberg. Marco said the topic had also been quite the rage at the recent LunaCon.

We all know the publishing world is going through an upheaval at the moment as e-books are leaping ahead much like internet sales of music did years ago (especially after iTunes demonstrated that people were willing to actually pay for music instead of downloading it illegally), and many things are different. One thing that remains from days gone by is the smelly curse of the vanity press. The old-school vanity press charged desperate writers to print whatever manuscripts they churned out and then deposited a big box full of books on their doorstep and moved on to the next mark author. You could probably make a survivalist bunker out of all the boxes of unsold books these writers accumulated. They had to schlep them around in their trunk and try to talk bookstores into selling them. Good luck with getting even your neighborhood store to carry your 2,500 page Tolkien knock-off or collection of earnest adolescent poetry. Best just to leave that box in the trunk for added traction in the winter.

The self-publishing industry has changed, however. Many more of these publishers offer editorial services and will get your book listed on Barnes and Noble’s website as well as Amazon. Their designers will make you a cover that doesn’t look like it was glued together from construction paper. Word processing and computer layout has made the production of a professional-looking book more accessible and at reasonable prices. And with the advent of e-publishing, even the middleman of the vanity press can be left behind. The greatest strength of the internet and e-publishing is that they are great equalizers; but the greatest weakness of the internet and e-publishing is that they are great equalizers. To paraphrase something that I can’t really remember at this time of night, when everyone is a writer, no one is a writer. Even a fabulous new talent might not get found when she is adrift in the vast sea of e-effluence that the internet distributes everywhere instantaneously every moment of every day.

Quick, what would you rather buy, a Ford or a Toyota or Fred Fredson’s Automobile? Are you more likely to buy the new urban fantasy from Simon & Schuster or Fred Fredson’s new book from Fred Fredson Publishing? There’s something to be said for brands, which bestow a sheen of legitimacy on the product. Granted, any brand has its lemons, but the consumer generally knows that there’s some quality control going on at a brand-name company. They know there’s a screening process. A car’s been tested, a book’s been edited. Who knows what the hell Fred Fredson’s been up to. I mean the guy dunks Twinkies in his coffee. Does he even know how to use spell check?

I’m certainly aware of the dangers of self-publishing, of the possibility of putting out self-indulgent floor sweepings you’re too close to to recognize for what they are. But I also know that there can be as much luck as craft involved in selling a manuscript, and just because something hasn’t sold does not inherently mean it’s unsaleable and not worth publishing. There are lots of variables involved in what gets published, and sometimes the quality of the manuscript, good or bad, isn’t the key issue. Sometimes it’s not even one of the issues at all. This is why I’ve enlisted a trusted writer friend as a beta reader, someone who will tell me what stinks and what doesn’t, what is fixable and what isn’t. And then I will have others read it too. The stories will be put through their paces. Quite likely not all of them will make it. Maybe I’ll get to the end and not have enough for a collection. We shall see.

Nevertheless, one of Marco’s points that will remain with me the most is a danger of any published book: what if it tanks? If you’re selling the thing, it’s likely someone can find out the sales numbers, and low sales of one book hangs around the neck of a writer like an albatross that’s swallowed a cinder block. And if you’ve self-published it . . . well, then you’re self-indulgent and a failure. Ouch. Uphill work for an agent, that’s for sure. But the publishing world is changing. Although many of us of a certain age still worry about that unique vanity-press smell of cheap paper, desperation, and flop sweat, I wonder how much the current reader is sensitive to the aroma? On a Kindle all books smell the same, as it were. People seem more willing to buy from Fred Fredson Publishing these days.

So where does this all leave me? Well, I’m still pursuing a number of traditional publishing projects. I’m not fooling myself into thinking that Amanda Hocking lightning is going to strike my e-book. This is just a little project on the side to put my name out there while I work on an original novel and various and sundry stories. I’m sure that between now and finished manuscript I will second guess myself several hundred times.

10 thoughts on “To Self-Publish or Not to Self-Publish: The Answer’s as Clear as Either Way

  1. I actually don’t believe I’ve ever looked at who published a book. Every time I buy one, I use the same method to choose it. These are my step by step methods:

    1. Look at the genre

    I like YA, fantasy and all of its sub-genres, and mystery. I will pick up sci-fi or romance if something catches my eye. You will never get me to read horror, and thrillers only if I’m bored and its cheap.

    2. Once in the section I like, I scan for anything at all that stands out. I still remember picking up, “Heroics for Beginners” and “Howl’s Moving Castle”. Heroics because the title was so good, and Howl’s Moving Castle because it sounded like the style of book I enjoy. I was right on both counts.

    3. If a title catches my eye, I look at the cover. You can actually tell a lot about a cover. I have found that I don’t like books that are photos of a girl, or have nothing but a black ribbon on it, or for e-books anything that looks like the cover was made in MS paint. I love most books that show an action scene on the front, or an obvious scene from the book.

    4. If the cover passes inspection, I read the blurb. The book is not a winner if the author has replaced the blurb with an enormous picture of him/herself. I see the author as conceited and rude. I want to know what the book is about, and I don’t want to sift through the first ten pages to find it.

    The blurb is what decides whether I buy the book or not. Everything else is just me looking for reasons to put the book down. (It’s my money. I’m not obligated to go straight to your writing just because you’re a writer and that’s all you should be expected to do. Cooks are expected to cook, but top chefs still plate their meals with an eye to detail. That’s why they’re top chefs and you pay $40 for that plate.)

    I will usually read the entire blurb, but I like it to hook me in the first sentence. Assuming I love the plot, I like to read the first couple of pages. If I like the first couple of pages, I buy the book.

    You want to be the next Amanda Hocking? Don’t fall into the same trap everyone else has. Pay attention to your title, your book cover, and your blurb. Make a sample of your work available on your website. Even if you’re not #1, you’ll get a lot farther that way.

    1. I agree that many, if not most, readers don’t pay attention to who published a book when they’re purchasing it, and I think that will become even more true as e-publishing continues to grow.

      Regarding your fourth step, it should be noted that most authors in traditional publishing have little or no say on cover design and do not write the synopsis on the back cover, so keep in mind that the plating you’re judging by probably wasn’t done by the chef! But you make a good point that is becoming more important in self-publishing, where the author has more often than not done that work herself. Your reference to MS Paint is painfully funny because it’s true. I’ve seen some horrible covers on e-books, and, contrary to the old saying, most people do judge a book by its cover.

      In your last paragraph I assume you’re using “you” in the general sense, not talking specifically to me, because my original comment was pointing out that I don’t expect a Hocking situation. Not that I would turn away from that kind of success and money, but I’ve always pursued traditional publishing, and that’s where all my success (such as it is!) has been so far.

      Thanks for your comments. This is a subject I hope to discuss much over the next couple months as I put together my e-book manuscript and ultimately decide what to do with it.

  2. It’s funny you should mention e-books. I was talking to Herr Scheid if I should start marketing my graphic design services to the e-book industry, but then was wondering if that if that was inviting nightmare clients who don’t understand well designed covers don’t happen overnight and cheap and on a whim. Still debating it in my head.

    1. I think you would encounter newbies who don’t understand what goes into professionally designed covers, but I also think you could find established authors or serious self-publishers who know exactly what the benefits of a professional cover are, and would be willing to pay for it. A professional cover should be thought of as an investment in the work.

      1. Yeah, that’s my fear is that I will get a lot of those Get-Rich-Quick people who think throwing a manuscript together and a lousy cover will bring in the big bucks. They’re the worst clients because they don’t want to invest the time or money to make a quality product. You wonder how many people have suddenly jumped into the eBook market after seeing the press Amanda Hocking received thinking it’s an easy way to get a buck.

  3. Thank you for the kind words about my blog!

    It’s a tricky time to be in publishing. I’d agree that I don’t think it’s common to look at the publishing company when buying a book (I only started since I became serious about writing). It will be interesting to see how things develop!

    1. You’re welcome.

      As an editor I find myself obsessing over many details in the books I’m working on, but at some point you have to acknowledge that only other editors and writers and publishers are going to notice some fiddly little thing, while most readers, the actual people you’re making this book for, won’t. Then you just let it go.

  4. Getting noticed is the biggest problem for new authors, and self-published books do not get reviewed by the media. You need to get noticed to get the sales numbers up – and while self-publishing gives you complete control of your product, if you can’t get noticed in the first place, no one is going to look at your cover, your blurbs, your book description, no matter where it shows up.

    Self-published authors also carry the full weight of marketing their books, though now it’s also quite a bit of the workload when you have a publisher. No matter which route you use, you have to be willing to do anything and everything to promote your book.

      1. And ignore Amanda Hocking, unless you plan to slap a bunch of paranormal romances together. She’s like the superjackpot winner – you can’t live your life hoping you’ll wind up lucky.

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