The Self-Publishing Storm

First off, I would like to make it VERY clear that I am a rank amateur. I have had books published by no mainstream, small or independent press or any combination thereof. My only published work is on this blog, and whether that counts as published or not seems to be entirely subjective. So while I am offering my tuppence-worth on the self-publishing debate, they are completely my own limited observations and I’m happy to not only hear other points of view in the comments but to have more knowledgeable people than me put me straight.

To be honest, this post comes from some comments and follow up posts on Jane Smith’s blog, How Publishing Really Works, and more specifically, this post which was part of a series rebutting what seems to me to have been a grossly misguided hymn to self-publishing. I do pity the man who wrote the original article, as Jane refutes his points ruthlessly over the series, but it disappoints me that so much of her very fair and informed response has been misunderstood and blown up into a storm rather than a debate on a very topical subject.

There are many points raised in the comments, and I’m not going to go through them as Jane does a much better job of responding than I could. One of the ones that really stood out for me, though, was an assertion that Jane seemed determined to review self-published books with the sole aim of proving that they are all rubbish. It’s very disappointing that someone can go to the trouble of reading, reviewing and blogging about books that the average reader will not come across in an effort to find beautiful writing, just to have someone with their own axe to grind write off those efforts as, effectively, worse than worthless. As far as I can see, self-published writers fall into two camps – the minority, who are genuinely excellent writers but for one reason or another do not have a commercially-attractive work and turn to self-publishing this particular piece, whilst in the meantime continuing to write until they do have a piece for which publishers can see a market; and the majority who have taken little feedback or criticism and having fallen at the first few hurdles decide to do it themselves. The reason I’m making this differentiation is the very small sample I’ve seen – the first camp take care to produce their book as professionally as possible and do not have a view of publishers or agents as a Mafia-like force, determined to keep real talent beaten down in the name of profit. The second, well, often do have this view, and in general their books are, as Jane says, not good enough (by any criteria).

I think a problem arises when people put publishers on some sort of pedestal. A few of the comments talk about the need (or not) for publishers to educate the public and provide worthy books instead of chasing sales. But surely a publisher is a business, and therefore has to chase sales to exist? If the public demand is for ‘worthy’ books, they will publish them; if not, they won’t. Maybe it might help people to remember that a publisher is a person doing a job – to sift through hundreds of manuscripts (of varying standard) and try to do the best job they can to make money for the company whilst producing quality products. Sometimes this will be a lucky new author, sometimes a crowd-pleaser and sometimes a celebrity piece, because, let’s face it, people buy celebrity books.

I have been into my local bookshops a few times lately. Sadly these are not as extensive as I might like. A WH Smith with a relatively small book section is my closest bookshop; followed by a moderate Waterstones in the larger town roughly 10 miles east and the same west. A decent size Waterstones is about an hour’s car ride; for a good-sized one and smaller, more independent shops, I need to go to Newcastle which is about 45 miles away. A 90 mile round trip, then, for a good bookshop. Anyway, my point is that my physical access to books is limited, as it is for my neighbours, but what I do have to say is that in those bookshops, even the closest and most limited, there is a good range of books. Not always what I want, but a good range of literary, genre fiction, celebrity bios, and some self-published (usually with a local connection). I have seen works by established authors, debut authors, celebrities and the odd long-shot, the unexpected success, as well as the runaway phenomenons that I personally aren’t that keen on but that the buying public obviously adore, judging by the coverage. I would venture an opinion, then, that between them the publishers are getting it pretty much dead right.

Yes, there are almost certainly fantastic books that slip through the cracks and don’t get picked up (if any publishers reading this have a manuscript floating round with the name Rebecca E Brown on, that’s one of them. Just saying.) and selecting books is ultimately impossible to do completely objectively – there must always be some personal preference creeping in because no-one can turn their emotions on and off at will. But I have faith in publishers, who are (like it or not) the experts in their trade, that they are doing the best job they can, and that somewhere along the way those unfortunate deserving authors will get picked up if we keep trying and keep writing and keep improving. And if any of us do turn to self-publishing, that we do it with our eyes open and for the best possible reasons, not because we’ve taken our toys home in a huff, creating a storm out of nothing.

If, by some strange quirk, you haven’t visited Jane’s blog (which I linked to above), I recommend it as one of my must-read resources for writers, alongside Nicola Morgan’s Help! I Need A Publisher! And for a guide to self-publishing which manages to be thorough, realistic and still very entertaining, pop along to see Catherine, Caffeinated and read her story.

7 thoughts on “The Self-Publishing Storm”

  1. Excellent post, Becca! Clear and concise on a frequently heated and emotive topic – as Jane’s blog shows!

    Honestly, how Jane Smith manages to keep going and keep dispensing such good advice is quite beyond me. I think I’d be humming and rocking in a corner by now. πŸ˜‰

  2. I agree with everything that you (and Jane) say.
    I may have to self-publish as my first work (non-fiction) is a niche market and I have access to the majority of people who may buy it through my networks on the specific subject.
    It is not an avenue I would consider for a work of fiction. I had a bad experience which was damaging to me personally and as a (wannabe) writer. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.
    Find a publisher, preferably also an agent. In the meantime, keep writing. That’s my plan.

  3. Spot on, Rebecca.

    You’ve identified and separated the two types of self-published author with great clarity. Light in place of heat.

    Publishing is changing so fast that for newbies like me the storms of arguments swirl over my head. Jane Smith and Nicola Morgan are two blogs I follow daily to try to keep afloat.

  4. I became an indie publisher purely by accident as I found myself writing for a hobby and never really intended to get my work published. I was selling a few copies of my work that I had hand sewn together to friends and family but didn’t realise how powerful word of mouth can be.

    I set up Lyvit after producing Dave Coad’s books in the same way and getting tired of stitching books together, so looked into how cheaply I could get our work professionally produced and was amazed at how cheaply it can be done with digital printing. This, coupled with incredible support from those close to us, has seen us branch out and put out twelve publications after taking on another three writers.

    The hardest part for us after this was promoting the website to customers who didn’t know us and had no real reason to buy our books. This is a massive hurdle for anyone who self publishes, whether fiction or otherwise. Books need a real hook to sell well.

    Great post, well constructed and I completely agree with what you have said.

  5. I have a foot in both camps – I am mainstream and self publish (although my self published books are classed as Indie Mainstream – but published by a S.P.company)

    I SO agree with you! I have been involved with S.P. for a while now. A minority of “wannabe” writers take on board advice – if you want to produce a book do it properly, that includes having it professionally fully edited, not just a copy edit. Novice writers do not understand that it is not just the grammar & punctuation that needs tidying up; they do not realise the structure needed to create a readable book.
    Experienced writers, editors and agents do – that is why they can glance at a single page and know instantly if it is worth reading or not. (compare this with buying a house. The wallpaper, paintwork and carpets may be perfect, but any one with a pinch of sense can see that it will not be a good purchase if the roof sags, the doors don’t fit and the windows are crooked.)

    I enjoy helping the minority of writers who want to write seriously. I point out the “errors” and they go away & rewrite, find themselves a goof freelance editor and, usually, end up with a cracking good read. Sadly most are not picked up by mainstream – as this article says, while the books are a cracking good read, they are not going to make huge sales. Most writers would love to become bestsellers, but many of us are content with moderate, steady sales. That view does not suit publishing houses, however.

    Unfortunately far too many S.P. writers blame their lack of being accepted on blind or stupid agents and publishers. Very rarely do you come across a new writer who has been time and again rejected taking an objective look at their work. Too often it’s the “they wouldn’t know a good book if it bit them on the bum” rather than “OK, this is my nth rejection. What is wrong with my book? How can I find out where and why it needs polishing?”

    One writer I gave advice to shocked me to the core. I pointed out that the continuity was a bit out of phase. The author answered “what does it matter? No one will notice.” Gulp.
    I was asked to give an honest opinion about a book. I gave an honest opinion. “Too many characters and the pudding is over-egged.” the response? I didn’t know what I was talking about.
    OK, maybe I didn’t, but both authors wondered why rejection slip after rejection slip dropped through the letterbox.

    There is a 3rd reason why some authors self publish though – my reason. I was mainstream published here in the UK. Poor to non existent marketing and a disinterested agent led to poor sales (having only books 2 & 3 of a trilogy in print did not exactly help either) A disagreement with said agent then led to my backlist being dropped by the publisher and my agent ditching me on the same day. At the time I was gutted. No other agent or publisher was going to be interested in a “has been”. So I decided to get my copyright, get the files and self publish my entire backlist. Best thing I could have done! I am in control of my books, they are now mainstream in the US and sales are doing OK here in the UK as well.

    To sum up, don’t knock self publishing – knock the self published writers who do not bother to produce their work professionally. This means editing by a professional editor – not Aunt Flo. I think the message is starting to get across. If you want your book to be taken seriously, then write and produce it seriously.

  6. Thanks so much for the mention, Rebecca!

    I completely agree with you – as you know! – on the subject of self-publishing, and what it is and isn’t. But trying to spread sanity among the self-publishing evangelists is like p–ing in the wind. I remember on one occasion reading Jane’s Self Publishing Review blog in which as you mentioned she reviews self-published books, and she had basically said this particular book was atrocious. (And I believe her.) And what did the one comment on the post say? It admonished Jane for one tiny little grammatical error in the review. It didn’t thank her for taking the time to review the book, or for the free advice she was offering the author which they could have used to improve a later edition of the book. That’s what you’re dealing with essentially.

    I always liken it to those “singers” on X-Factor and American Idol who simply cannot BELIEVE that Simon Cowell thinks they sound like cats being strangled, and refuse to listen, saying “What does he know? He can’t even sing.” And no matter what anyone tells them, whoever they might be, they just won’t listen.

    So I let them to it. πŸ™‚

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