Right off the bat I know this article will stir up controversy and argument over the topic of self-publishing. In many online forums this topic s already has being argued and debated. However, keep in mind that much of this is my opinion based on my experience working in the publishing field.
There are many authors (myself included) who have, at one time or another, chosen the route of self-publishing. And while there may not be anything inherently bad about the practice or business of self-publication, it has many downfalls--especially for new, overconfident, or inexperienced writers.
Having self-published three of my own books, and working full-time in the field of editing/publishing, I have to say I have a better (and different) insight into the ever changing world of publishing and how it relates to the writer then ever before.
The Future of Publishing
There have been many artists, publishers, marketing strategists, and businessmen who have called self-publishing "the future of publishing books." In many ways, I agree with them. Heck, I self-published three novellas and own the most recent edition of The Writer's Digest Guide to Self Publishing.
There is much to be said for self-publishing. Many authors and many books which would never get the chance to see publication otherwise now have the ability to get out into reader's hands.
This system also allows for readers and consumers of books to have even more say in the market. Companies such as Amazon Publishing track which self-published books are selling the most titles. These companies then give awards, publicity, and contract agreements to those authors that have sold well.
This means the market will follow more closely what the general consumer masses are calling for. In many ways it seems like a brilliant idea and in many ways it truly is. Self-publishing is a miracle of the modern day.
However, much of the literary world is still controlled by the group of elite New York publishing houses. New York best sellers are the books that end up in major bookstores and on the front page of e-stores. Additionally, books from these companies are the ones that are more predominantly featured in The New York Times best seller list and other far reaching newspapers, websites, and literary journals.
Many consumers prefer to stick to the company, brands, and book lines they are familiar with and love. This means most self-published titles take back seat unless endorsed by a big name author.
New York publishers aside, there is also a plethora of small press publishers that hold strong footing in the literary world. Whether you talking about New York Publishers, publishing imprints, or the small press publishers--having a team of publishers and companies creates a writing and business community which feels far different than the singular author publishing on their own.
Self-Publishing Vs. Vanity Publishing
Just a few years ago the only way you could publish a book without a contract with a publishing house was through a vanity publisher.
If you don't already know, a vanity publisher charges an author a specific cost to format, print, and distribute their book. This is different then what we know today as self-publishing.
Self-publishers print an authors book on demand (meaning they only print one copy at a time as it is ordered). The company then takes a percentage of the sale for themselves and gives the rest of the profit to the author.
Now, self-publishing companies often do have other services they offer authors which are similar to vanity publishers. For instance, as an author I can choose to simply format the book, edit the text, and create the cover all by myself. OR I could pay a sum to the self-publishing company to give me professional formatting, cover design, and interior editing.
Whether these services are of use or are profitable to an author is debatable. The risk of spending money on these services or on any vanity type service is that it doesn't guarantee the book will sale. In fact 99% of self-publishing and vanity publishing companies offer no help or support in the marketing process.
Paying for these types of services can be a death sentence to new and inexperienced authors who are just looking, and hoping, for a breakout title.
Vanity Vs. The Author
The Vain Author
The downfall of self-publishing isn't in the companies that offer this service. No, companies like Kindle Direct Publishing, Lulu, Create Space and Nook Press will never be short of hopeful authors looking to put their book into the hands of readers. It is the authors, the ones who perhaps have a little too much pride or vanity, that suffer the most.
To generalize, there are two main patterns I've seen with unsuccessful self-published authors. The first is overconfidence. The second is lack thereof.
A vain and overconfident author can be an editor's nightmare. Someone who thinks their novel is "on level" with or "better than" J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, or even William Shakespeare. It may sound ridiculous but I have had independent and self-published authors who I have worked with or interviewed who have actually said these things. They legitimately think their book is the best thing since white bread.
These authors are also the ones who are unwilling to change anything about their book or accept criticism simply because "no one understands them" or their art. These attitudes and the unwillingness to change, adapt, or improve on their craft are some of the main reasons publishers will turn them away.
Instead, these authors will cast off traditional publishers as naysayers and turn to self-publishing. They truly believe their book deserves a chance. (And, most likely, it does--but only after serious work and editing) However, if that author is unwilling to adapt to the needs of a publisher or editor they will likely not adapt to their reader's needs either.
These authors may even have the networking and social media skills to properly market their book online. However, prideful and pompous posts on social media drive followers away, angry responses to negative reviews turn away new readers, and poor proof editing and lack of the proper editorial eye diminish the book's overall quality.
The Self-Deprecating Author
On the other hand you have authors who have little to no confidence and can literally not take an ounce of criticism without being crushed. Don't get me wrong, we all struggle at times with criticism. But these authors will shut down upon receiving a rejection letter or a one star review.
Often times these authors don't want to face the possibility of rejection from a publisher--an inevitability in the world of a writer. So instead they choose to self-publish. They don't have to interact with a publisher. They don't have to work under the scrutiny of an editor. It just seems safer.
Unfortunately, selling books is far more than just the publication itself. Many authors who lack confidence also lack the skills or desire to network online, write blogs, or participate in social media campaigns. The chance that someone will make a negative comment online becomes too daunting to the author.
This ultimately means that their book disappears into obscurity before it ever even made it out of obscurity. It doesn't help that their book is often littered with grammatical errors, typos, and literary missteps the the appropriate editorial eye would catch.
Becoming the BEST Author
In all honesty, every author has a little bit of both of these elements in them, vanity and self-doubt. Some of us even fluctuate non-stop between the two extremes like some bipolar cycle of creativity.
However, what really matters is whether we can take these human elements within ourselves and use them to help better our writing and better out craft. It takes an author who is willing to accept the feelings of pride and then choose to humble themselves, to accept the self-doubt and still choose to take risks.
A traditional publisher won't take on an author who isn't willing to adapt and grow--unless their book is truly the holy grail of literature. And without humility and malleability an author is basically damned as a self-published writer.
Going with Traditional Publishing
So, after all that, and after examining where you stand as a writer, how do you choose whether to go with traditional publishing or self publishing?
While I personally have self-published in the past and enjoyed the process, I think as I've reexamined my writing (and in working for a publishing company) I find I prefer the style of traditional publishing. If a company is willing to accept my work I know then that I've already done something right. I'm not going in blind by self-publishing my book and hoping it is good enough for the market.
Traditional publishing requires a lot of mental tenacity and emotional endurance. Expect to receive many, many rejection letters. Be willing to adapt based on criticism, publisher needs, submission requirements, and market changes.
Keep in mind that J.K. Rowling was rejected 12 times before she sold Harry Potter, Stephanie Meyer was rejected 14 times before selling Twilight, and Louis L'Amour was rejected 200 times before becoming one of the bestselling western authors of all time.
After a book is accepted, be ready and willing to work with the publishing house. Respect their policies and their marketing strategies. It can be easy to let the little prideful side of yourself take over and start demanding things from an editor, publicist, etc. Keep in mind that it is these people's jobs to understand the publishing world. When they ask you to do something, be ready to adapt and improve yourself!
Persisting in Self-Publishing
Choosing to still go with self-publishing can be a good option for many writers. Just be prepared to do all the publishing work yourself. Make sure you've had multiple people you trust edit your book, or hire a professional editor to help you out. Show your book cover to people. Share your market strategy ideas with them. Listen and accept feedback.
Read as much as you can online, in magazines, and in books about the publishing business and trends. Subscribe to and read Writer's Digest and Publisher's Weekly. Pick up the best books that talk about the publishing market. Constantly read the newest best selling books in your genre and in other genres.
As a publicist I've seen great books fail. The authors that sell the most are ones who are constantly interacting with the self-publishing community and who are active online through social media and blogging. The more you understand about the publishing world, and the more a part of the world you become, the better your book will sale.
N.C. Patterson is a writer of mystery and horror fiction. He has been an active publicist, journalist, and blogger in the indie horror community for over five years.
Author of Horror Fiction