Wednesday, 14 July 2010

IN WHICH SOMEONE ELSE SAYS WHAT I THINK ABOUT SELF-PUBLISHING

This blog is not about self-publishing but it's right that you know what my position is on that. Happily for me, my views match those expressed here by Mary at Kidlit.

What she says is clear and coherent. Many of you may disagree with her and me. In fact, some people did disagree with her, using the usual arguments, but Mary deals efficiently and truthfully with them in this subsequent post here. In both posts there is good discussion in the comments, too.

Here's what else I think: good self-publishing will only gain the status that good writing deserves, when we (readers) find better ways to discover which are the writers worth reading. That's what the publishing industry does at present, not 100% effectively but a hell of a lot more effectively than authors simply saying, "I'm good - read me." Would you believe any author saying that? Would you believe me saying that?

Very often, the "traditional", selective publishing industry sucks. Very often publishers make decisions which look inexplicable. It's certainly riddled with unfairness and frustration, much of it unseen by the average reader. But for me as a reader, books chosen by publishers are preferable to those not chosen by publishers because the chances that I'll enjoy them are vastly higher. This is simply becuase there's been a selection process in which someone other than the author has decided it's worth investing money. I know that's terribly frustrating for good self-published writers but somehow they are going to have to find a way to get their books under my radar and the radars of lots of other readers who simply don't have time to read everything.

Anyways, let's not have an argument about the merits or otherwise - I have a much more constructive challenge for you. Do you have any suggestions as to how good self-published authors can get their work seen and read by mainstream readers? Thing is, when I read a published book, I know someone selected it, edited it and believed in it enough to invest money in it. That's a powerful endorsement.

How can self-published books compete against that endorsement? I'm genuinely keen to know. And if you are contemplating self-publishing, you absolutely must know the answer to that question.

19 comments:

Captain Black said...

The only thing I can think of from the top of my head is some kind of review and rating system. The trouble with that is that it would be open to bias (or even abuse). Just look at the Amazon rating/review system, for example. I wouldn't trust that as far as I could throw it.

Averill Buchanan said...

A self-published author, who prefers to be considered an indie writer, makes an interesting comparison with the film and music industries here: http://indiereader.com/blog/2010/07/12/reading-indie/

Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick said...

Roddy Doyle spoke about this in an interview recently. He famously self-published his first book (The Commitments) in Ireland, before it was then taken on by a publisher. He said he wouldn't recommend it to writers today-partly because the Irish market was much smaller when he did it and he thought people would find it difficult to drum up the interest and review opportunities he got then, and because he thinks people dismiss self-publishing now as vanity publishing.
(Apologies to him for any misquoting/paraphrasing)-the interview can be found on
http://www.rte.ie/player/#v=1076285 or, if I've added that incorrectly, look up www.rte.ie/player and then The View Presents: Roddy Doyle

Marion Gropen said...

There are a lot of things that a self-publisher can do to make his or her chances of success (however defined) better. Obviously, I can't go into all of them in the comments section, but they all have one thing in common:

Be at least as good a publisher as anyone at Random House or Simon & Schuster.

Your cover and text design must be at least as good as theirs, your editing must be better (structural, line, AND copy-editing!), and so on.

Your marketing must be better than theirs, and your financial and operations management techniques need to be just as strong as everything else -- if perhaps a little different in the details.

You need to sign on with one of the big distribution companies (in the US, you're looking at someone like NBN, IPG, Consortium/Perseus, Ingram's Distribution Services, or Midpoint Trade).

It's best if your book looks so much like all the rest in the store beside it that no one ever thinks to ask if you're self-published. And if you don't advertise the fact with the name of your company, or heaven help us, by using one of the so-called self-publishing services.

You need to get your own ISBN block and use a printer (even if you start with POD printing, you need to go straight to the printers, like LSI, McNaughton Gunn, 360 Digital or Fidlar Doubleday).

The skills of a successful author include marketing, and writing proposals and queries. The skills of a successful publisher include all of those, and more. It really is easier to be successful as a traditionally published author than as a self-published one.

That said, a lot of the small publishers that are my clients have started as self-publishing authors, and have gotten addicted to the publishing side of the business. It's not a good way to get rich, but it sure is fun!

Ebony McKenna. said...

I'm biased, but I still say publishing works. But that's because I finally got a publishing deal after 13 years of writing. If I was still trying to break in, I'd probably say it's broken and start looking at alternatives.

No matter how good a writer I thought I was, my editors added so much more. They made me work so hard, think of things in another way, look at things from another angle. They thought of things I honestly couldn't because I was too close to it.

And yes, they took an objective view and decided it was worth risking their money on it.

Anonymous said...

I'm not self-published and hope I'll never have to go that route, but I do think self published authors get a bad rap much too often.

The way I see it is this: agents play to the market. So even if you have a book that is wonderfully written, but alas is not marketable under current conditions and demands, agents will pass on the MS.

It's a shame too. I'm getting awfully tired of the same old same old. I hope someone breaks the mold soon!

Nicola Morgan said...

Intersting and true points - thanks.

Captain Black - I quite agree about Amazon. The system is very much open to abuse and I know stories of false good and bad reviews.

I think that gradually what will (and must) happen is that some sites become known for accurate and honest reviews/recommendations, none of which should ever be anonymous. It's anonymous or fake-name reviews on Amazon which have made it so problematic.

Marie-Louise - yes, behind every story of s-published success, there's always another side or context. Interesting story - thanks.

Marion - an excellent list of advice!

Anon - you are right. Thing is, how could they not "play to the market"? They earn nothing if they don't sell the book and they know what publishers want. And publishers guess what readers want - and often get it wrong. But, I truly believe, as Ebony says, that publishers add to a book, rather than the opposite. I agree: I'd like to see something good, new and positive going on but I don't see it yet.

BookBod said...

There is no reason why a self-published author can't become known & successful. Currently, as has existed for quite some time, it has been the publisher's reputation for selecting titles for print that has made them the bell-wether for book buyers. I actually think this is about to change. In practice, 'self-published' isn't much different than 'published' these days with POD, e-books etc. If you want to submit items for review in my e-review newsletter, please do. I'll never say I like something if it's crap so beware!

Cat Winchester said...

As a self published author I see your argument a lot and it does have very valid points, but not all of us think we have the bestest book ever written and the publishing industry are big old meanies for not seeing our greatness.

I understand why many people think that self published authors feel that way, because the minority who do think far too highly of themselves are very vocal about it.

Most though, are like me. Writing is a passion, it's something I've done since I was a teenager and it's something I will always do. I love it.

My chosen genre is what my English teacher would have called pap. It's the literary equivalent of soap opera or a horror movie. It wont change lives, make people see things differently or improve the world in any way.

It's only purpose is to entertain. And that's okay. Not every book has to be a fantastic new take on things. Some can just take you out of your life for a hew hours a day, or make that daily commute a little less boring.

That's what my books do (hopefully).

I would love to have been published the traditional route, I would have loved (and still would love) to work with an editor to improve the book, though realistically I know that no amount of editing is going to turn it into a Booker Prize contender.

I also read books in my genre and objectively I know that my book is of equal quality to some of those on the market. I am also, dare I say it, better than some of the books out there, though at the same time I am also worse than many others.

Still, it's clear that there is a market for my work.

So, knowing that, why let my books gain dust on the cyber shelf? Why not do the best edit I can, with the help of family and friends, and see what happens?

I only sell a couple of copies a month because I find it very hard to publicise myself. Unlike my more vocal counterparts, I cannot walk into a local book store and tell them I am the next best thing since sliced bread and that they need to stock my book (that may be part of the reason that publishers were not very interested, selling oneself is not easy for everyone).

Maybe one day I will gain a big enough following to make this my full time job, or even get taken on by a publishing house but in the mean time I have no choice but to write, the plots keep assailing me and to not write them would be unthinkable. So since the books are written, I might as well do the best job I can editing and polishing them myself and publish what I have.

If my dreams come true, fantastic. If not, hopefully I have entertained some people and at the end of the day, that's always been my goal.

Dan Holloway said...

I shall go and read those posts forthwith, but to answer your central question - for me you put your finger on the whatnot when you use the phrase "mainstream readers".

I'm a self-publisher till I die (well, I am setting up a small press thingy because there are 2 or 3 books I want to promote,and because that's the way to make them eligible for entry into prizes [er, I guess that's the one answer I can come up with - if your stuff's good, set up a small press that doesn't just publish your own stuff, and submit it to prizes] as you know, but I think anyone who has a mainstream book they want to find mainstream readers for they ought to go to a mainstream publisher. It's just too difficult for them.

On the other hand (as I argued for a piece at http://pattyjansen.wordpress.com/2009/09/23/should-i-self-publish/ ) if you're the editor of the Queensland Orchid Grower's Association newsletter, and you've written a book called "The History of Orchid Growing in Queensland", probably you don't need a publisher. Most of us are in between, of course, but the nearer we are to that latter model the easier it is to find our readers.

For niche writers who want to find their niche readers:
1. hang out in forums (you probably do anyway)
2. go to events with flyers and a T-shirt
3. Do live readings to clubs, societies, conferences (conferences are often overlooked - I got a lot of publicity for Songs from... by presenting a paper commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall, and academic conferences are desperate for "practitioners" to take part, it ticks their funders' "impact" boxes) on the subject
4. you can never ever underestimate the power of local newspapers and radio, but you have to give them a human interest "angle" rather than just saying "local author self-publishes"

Dan Holloway said...

OK, I've read the article. Very impressive - and made all the caveats about niches and whatnot.

I couldn't agree more. Why anyone with a mainstream book would want to self-publish is beyond me, unless they think they've invented a time-stretching machine for all the work they're putting themselves in for - in which case I humbly suggest they have a more ready source of income than their novel.

The problem is that there are "success stories" and people all believe the next one will be them. What they don't realise is the success stories are so well-known because they are rare exceptions. And rare exceptions are a VERY bad thing on which to base a business plan.

What also riles me is that most of these mainstream self-publishers do it to get a mainstream contract - as a way of circumventing the slush or as a last resort because they have failed at the slush. But if you do it that way, you have already conceded that self-publishing is not for you, so how are you going to do your best at it? Makes me mad - madder than the people who just write me off because I self-pubilsh, because these people purport to be speaking FOR me.

Nicola Hulks said...

I work for a publisher and I'm self publishing, a bit random perhaps but there it is. I'm writing two books at the moment. A novel (which I will approach a mainstream publisher for because I believe there is a mainstream market for it) and a collection of short stories (which I will self publish for my readership gained by my blog, publication in magazines etc). As there is a limited market for short stories even publication by a traditional publsiher doesn't guarantee sales. I'm my best marketing tool in this case. I think it's just about educated choices (and keeping your emotions out it if at all possible because publishing is business and that the end of it!)

Stroppy Author said...

Nicola, you know I agree with you regarding self-publishing. When I receive books for review, I can usually tell pretty much immediately if something is self-published. OK, it's obvious if something is from Egmont or Walker - but there are a lot of small presses whose work I don't instantly recognise, yet it is very easy to tell which books are self-published and which are from th a 'proper' small publisher. To be taken seriously as an author, you have to get over that difference - your self-published book must be indistinguishable from a professionally published book. Principal errors are:

- spelling and grammatical errors (yes, really!)

- poor design

- poor illustrations (done either by the author or some friend or relative thereof)

- syntax and vocabulary not matched to narrative or character development in terms of age of target readers (so you end up not knowing who the target readers are)

- other textual inconsistencies and infelicities that an editor would have ironed out

- poor production (ie poor colour repro, cheap paper, poor gluing/stitching)

That's just some; there are more. But the main thing is, your book must look professional, look as if it is not self-published.

I do stil review these self-published books, and I don't give them an easy ride. There is no point in doing so - it is unfair to the author and the potential readers. Look at http://theselfpublishingreview.blogspot.com/ to see a whole host of things people get wrong, and how very, very rarely anyone actually gets it even nearly right.

Alex Burdell said...

I am currently working on my first novel and hope to publish once done. I am thinking of self publishing not because I don't think I will be able to get published but so I can retain full control. I agree that that a self published book needs to look as though it's been published by one of major publishing houses. Word of mouth and good marketing are key and you need to do that which ever path you take.
alex-burdellswayofwriting.blogspot.com

Brad Jaeger said...

@ Alex,

"I am thinking of self publishing not because I don't think I will be able to get published but so I can retain full control."

Why do you believe this "full control" is a good thing? I would have thought that having objective eyes reading and proofing your work, as well as offering professional and constructive criticism would be an asset to your work, not a hindrance.

Additionally, do you really believe that agents, editors, and publishers are out to demolish your story, and change everything about it? Something tells me that if you're lucky enough to appeal to them, that they most likely have a vested interest in the story that you wrote.

Dan Holloway said...

@Brad I think your response to Alex illustrates a common misconception about self-publishing. Retaining control as a self-publisher means precisely what you think it doesn't mean - it means that the writer chooses their editors and designers from the complete pool available to them, rather than having to rely upon what the publisher gives them. no serious self-publisher would put an unedited book out there (I know many many people do, but their practices aren't material to the considerations of the advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing).

No one would suggest that publishers, agents, and editors are out to "get" their manuscript. On the other hand, it IS their job to make a manuscript as saleable as they can, within the distribution channels available to a publisher. And that may not be consistent with the vision a writer has for their ms.

Nicola Morgan said...

Dan, I know what you're saying but I actually don't think Brad has a misconception - I think he has hit on the head one of the nails which explain why self-publishing is so often not the answer when people think it is. Because I know *you* and how diligently and intelligently you approach your writing and what you want for it, I know that *you* are among the writers who will pay for and respect the various editing or whatever out-sourced skills necessary, but the fact is that far, far too many people don't. Far too many think they are the best editors of their own work. Yes, we all need to be the first editors of our own work, and we also should also be the last ones (in the sense of not signing the book off for printing until we believe it perfect) but there's so much to be done in between. And I don't know why people seem to think that an editor has the last word - my editor, tough as she is, would always give me the last word if we argued about an editing judgement.

I think brad's question was a fair one and the idea of "control" is perhaps being interpreted differently by you both. I'm published by various selective publishers, and so have chosen to give up at least aspects of what you might like to control, but I still feel as in control of my career and my writing as I think it is possible to be, bearing in mind that the people with real control are neither the writers or the publishers, but the readers...

I think all of us, however good we are, need to recognise that we are not always the best judges of our own work. I trust my editors to do what's best for me. In fact, my main editor once said that: that her sole aim was to help me produce the best possible book I can.

Don't get me wrong, I would self-publish if I wanted to. I just don't want to. (At the moment.)

Alex - I respect your desire to nurture your book yourself but I also urge you to get the best possible editor you can afford. Their skill and importance cannot be ignored. Good luck! I hope you keep reading this blog, because it's about writing the best book you can, however it's going to be published.

Tirial said...

My experience was slightly different, but then I got my start in a genre where every company is effectively self-published so there is less of a stigma.

There are some interesting parallels between that market and mainstream fiction as self publishing increases. Initially there was a flood of content of very variable quality, but over the years reviewers and distributors became established. Once those networks were in place, poor quality works simply didn't get the exposure or distribution to thrive. Effectively the gatekeeping role moved to the distribution network and reviewers.

I'm not sure this will work in the mainstream, since there are simply too many books, but it will be interesting to see if self-published works continue to stand alone or are integrated into the wider market.

Alex Burdell said...

Hello
Wow my comments did bring up some really good points.
Brad when I said "full control" I mearnt cover design, marketing etc like Dan was saying. To feel that sense of 'I did it all' that's all I mearnt.

Thanks Nicola - good point on the editing. No way once my novel is ready am I just going to put it out there. I am going to get some feedback and hire a Editor and the decision to self publish should not be taken lightly. Research is a must and after I've done some I may decide to go via an agent.
I think Nicola you hit the nail on the head and it's all about the readers. They (we) are the reason why some books are bestsellers and Yes Nicola I will continue reading this blog.
Tiral I too would be interested in self publishing, if will stay standing alone.

Thanks for the helpful comments