Is selfpublishing “legitimate?”

Do it yourself?

Interesting article in Sunday’s NY Times magazine.

Its essential question is to wonder if the traditional stigma attached to self-published books is diminishing or will diminish in the near future?

That such a stigma exists is, at least at this point in book history, cannot be doubted. That it has not always existed in the past is also true. There was a time when small edition, privately-printed books were treasured, considered more special than mass market commercial books. Now, though, this is true only if the small, private edition is actually published as an accompaniment to the more general mass market version printed by a commercial publishing company.

This article eludes to what remains the core dilemma: the contrast between chosen by others and choosing oneself. Secondarily,the difficulty of sorting through tons of bound paper in search of the actually good. Although I agree with the conclusion in one of the following comments, that since there is so much really bad writing commercially published, the task is hardly any less cumbersome when plowing through the morass of books commercially printed and distributed; I agree that the ratio given of 95% bad to 5% good is accurate. I also believe that the reason for this is that (see next paragraph) editors no longer make literary decisions, they are just “scouts for the marketing department.”

The first commenter following the article has this to say about commercial publishing companies, such as the massive Random House conglomerate: There’s long been this confusion that an editor is a critic, they are not. An editor is a scout for the marketing department. The marketing department is the heart and soul of a publisher–if such can be said of any marketing department anywhere. In other words, editorial decisions by commercial publishers are in fact essentially marketing decisions, that’s why they are called “commercial” publishers. Just as it is the marketing department that decides what soap gets sold and how it gets sold, likewise the book publishing company’s sales and marketing staff are driving editorial decisions.

I believe there is a particular way that companies catering to writers who want or need self-publishing to both distinguish themselves positively from the standard variety of commercial publishers and perform a critically valuable service to the cause of good literature.  That is to do what commercial publishers do not do: serve as front line editorial critics. If the Random House sort of conglomerate commercial enterprises are being steered by sales and marketing staff, then self-publishing companies (both already established ones like Vantage, Xlibris, and iUniverse, and smart, wise, new publishers yet to appear) can create and sustain a reputation for critical acumen by actually being literary editors. There are already companies that will publish anything, and I mean “anything.” If someone wants to fill 200 sheets of paper with his name repeated, or his favorite sentence over and over, or anything at all, there are companies that will take the money and print a book. If a company, say Xlibris, for example, decided they would not print anything and everything that comes through the door, but instead would offer an editorial critical staff to evaluate manuscripts (I see this as a first line evaluation editorial process rather than an editorial Mr. Fix-it), and reject the bad while printing the good, and especially the best, would it take long before serious readers came to realize that an Xlibris imprint on the spine was a sign that this author was chosen by a company that has established a reputation for rejecting the bad and printing only the best?

Another important aspect of this is also mentioned in the article. Trusted critical review sources like NYRB, NY Times, New Yorker, need to evaluate books from private publishers. Of course, they are not going to do that — no one has that much time or that many resources — so long as the great bulk of what gets spewed out of private presses is horrific crap. One of these private presses needs to break that chain of impressions by making literary publishing decisions up front, rather than purely marketing and accounting decisions; then not only will the majors review books from such a press, but could easily come to give preference to them.

That is a leap of faith decision that will have to be made by a company with literary balls in the private, self-publshing group of companies. Until then, self-publishing is not going to be thought of as “legitimate” in anything like the same way we still believe that the FSG imprint for example, on a spine means a valiant effort has been made to separate the good from the bad.

Finally, from the writer’s point of view, this is my complaint about self-publishing. It turns the author into the auteur. I mean by that, writers are also editors, designers, marketers, salesmen. This is not good for writing, although it might be all right for producing a little income. I believe firmly in the division of labor in which each party fulfills separate functions and stays out of each other’s area of expertise.

Writers write. It is all they should be doing. Agents sift wheat from chaff and then have the core task of matching a writer with the publisher that best fits. Publishers make books out of manuscripts, and then sell them. Writers have no business wasting their writing time being agents, producers, or salesmen. Agents need to be matchmakers. Publishers need to let writers write and do their job selling what their writers write. When everybody does their job and stays out of the other’s playpen, everybody plays happy, and readers get the reward.

That is why under conditions as they exist today I am not interested in self-publishing. I write. That’s all. Time spent designing, marketing, distributing, and selling is time I am not writing. More than time, it is a mental distraction from the necessity of thinking as a writer must think, if he is to be any good at all.

There is nothing in the least fair to the author in the antiquated commercial publishing world; in fact, publishers screw most of their authors. Yet, for the time being, it remains the only way for an author be be a writer and not a salesman.

I hope the future is better for both writers and readers.


Categories: Books, publishing, Writers

9 replies »

  1. Hi! Thanks so much for pointing out this article. I will now find a copy for myself.

    On your point about writing versus marketing, there’s a sad truth in the current publishing world. Publishers no longer have marketing and promotional budgets for anyone other than mega-celebrity authors. So whether we end up publishing traditionally or through the new alternatives available to us, we as authors are the ones who will have to market and promote our books if we want anyone to know they’re available (aka if we want anyone to buy them).

    I’ve written a lot about this in my blog posts (you can scan through the posts to find the relevant sections). So I invite you to visit.

    Also, I encourage you to check out Jane Friedman’s blog (she’s the publisher of Writer’s Digest). This is a subject she talks about a lot, and here is a paraphrase of one of my favorite quotes of hers: [in today’s publishing environment/climate] mediocre writers who know how to market (and who willingly do so) will experience far more success than good writers who don’t know how to market (and who refuse to learn).

    Unfortunately, this is not our parents’ publishing world. And if we as authors aren’t going to market and promote our books, no one else is going to do that job for us anymore unless we’re already super famous.

    Thanks so much again for referring us to the NY Times Magazine article. I really appreciate the update!

    All the best,

  2. I certainly do appreciate you finding your way over here and leaving a comment; you can look for me to visit your space and see what you’re doing there.

    As you can see from “The Books” section in other pages here, all my novels have been published by NY commercial publishers; some have made significant money, others never earned out the advance. I know and understand commercial publishing. And I don’t much like it, never have, really.

    Frankly, I am lately attracted to the idea of private or self-publishing; I like everything about it … except, the oddity (to me) of being forced into a situation of “blowing my own horn,” as a salesman for my work. I am old and I have been a writer for more than 40 years — set in my ways, is probably the best cliche. Writing exhausts my small store of mental energy, and marketing myself is a nasty distraction.

    This may be, clearly is, not so much an issue for others. I think some writers might even enjoy it.

    You might have noticed in the post preceding this one that I dropped out of Facebook after a one-month experiment mainly because it all seemed so purely self-serving, self-promoting, to me. That, and I am old enough to still have some sense of privacy remaining.

    I look forward to continuing this discussion with you, since you have so much experience here that I do not have.


    • Hi, Don! I envy you so much, for being a part of the publishing world I’d always envisioned. In the old days (and that means up until about five years ago), authors could still query agents and editors and, if their work was good, they would have a reasonable shot of receiving a request to see more of the book.

      But now when an agent or editor receives a query, the first thing they do is a Google search on the author. If that author doesn’t already have a substantial following that shows up in the online search, the query will most likely be rejected without ever seeing any of the book, unless there’s a mutual friend or connection involved.

      Because publishers no longer have marketing and promotion budgets for the majority of their authors, they won’t sign an unknown writer unless there’s already an established, clearly identifiable body of readers for that author’s book. And even then, all of the marketing will still fall on the author.

      So I truly envy you your experience. But I believe in facing the facts, and the mission behind my blog is to prove that the author of a high quality, meticulously (and professionally) edited novel published via an alternate route can get the attention of mainstream publishers if the author sells the heck out of the novel.

      If you go back to my blog launch posting on November 4, you’ll be able to read in detail about the pivotal conference I attended last fall that changed my entire approach to this dream.

      I hope we can continue our dialogue, Don. There’s no doubt in my mind that I could learn a whole lot from you, and I’d sure love to have the chance.

      All the best,
      P.S I have the NY Times article and will read it before I go to bed tonight. Thanks again for the reference.

      • I’m just a few minutes from going out to the Buenos Aires International Book Fair, the largest book event in all the Spanish speaking world, so am not able to offer a more substantive response to your comment, but I will return to it, probably tomorrow.

        I will say that the experience you describe in the first half of your comment seems accurate to me, sadly. My first novel was published in 1981, and sometimes those days feel like I must have been on another planet.

        Writers keep writing because they can’t not do it, but it would be rather pleasant again if there were still readers. Oh, there are readers, but … well, I have to go.

        • I’ll look forward to continuing when you have time. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy Buenos Aires and the book fair. Sounds amazing.

          Safe travels.


  3. If a “self-publishing” company hired a team of editors and started vetting manuscripts through that process, they are no longer a self-publishing company, or a printer; they’ve become a publisher in the traditional sense. That said, they can still make a impact by publishing what the editors want as opposed to the marketing department. Any maybe they go out of business–or not.

    There are several small press publishers operating quite well (I assume) in this model. The difference is one of scale, distribution, and marketing prowess. These small press publishers rely on authors primarily for marketing. After all, if they could afford a marketing department, they’d have to publish books that people bought, which means printing something about vampires or a romance with vampires or a tense, law thriller about a soft-hearted vampire with thoughts of managing a Dairy Queen if only he could keep his teeth out of the customers.

    E-books will likely be where a truly new publishing model comes about.

    • Yes, by definition that is what happens: if self-publishing print companies start acting like traditional commercial publishers, then they become the latter. And that is why self-publishing in this sense will always be tainted with the stain of “last choice, no legitimate press would take it.” This may be true most of the time, but not all the time, and in that difference lies the loss to readers.

      The ipad looks like an electronic machine that duplicates enough of the actual book reading experience to be successful with many or most readers, but, for now anyway, the only thing you can read on it is an electronic version of something already commercial published. I can’t read a book that isn’t a physical book I hold in my hands, but I know I’m a dying breed.

      This is what I believe. The traditional 20th century NY model of book publishing will survive on the movie blockbuster model and won’t do much of anything else with books. The conglomerates that survive will be the literary, make that the publishing, equivalent of a movie studio. Small presses will get by publishing literature that does not interest those who only understand the blockbuster model, sort of like music aficionados who shop in outlets selling LPs and diamond needle hi fi players. The rest of it will be in digital format, and a time will come when virtually all reading is pixel-based, not print on paper.

      I don’t understand the pixel-reading world and it has no appeal for me. So in my case, I will either be in the blockbuster group (of course not) or hope to find a home with a compatible small press that still believes in literature in and of itself and is willing to make a home for writers of such. I can get through my remaining days on the money I already have, so have the luxury (a young starting writer may not have) of settling down in a small press home and smiling a lot.

  4. A common characteristic to personalities that incline toward a private creative life, like writing, which is entirely interior in the doing, are also naturally disinclined to participate in the selling part of it.

    One of the two principal functions of an agent is to be the writer’s spokesperson (the other is to know the writer and his or her work well enough to place the work with a compatible publisher.

    It is the publisher’s job to do the selling (among other obvious things).

    The problem I am presenting here is what happens with the writer is forced to do all these things — write a mss, place a mss, design and print the book, market and sell the book, and distribute the book.

    Some of us, as Rose shows well, do not have the personality to go further into this chain than writing the mss. Others are inclined by personality to become immersed in the entire process from start to finish. Most are somewhere in-between.

    The stigma against self-publishing exists, and I don’t know how one would ever mitigate it. This is the same stigma I feel against much of what one finds on the Internet, existing because the Internet is entirely self-policed. There is no editorial authority anywhere. The Internet will put up anything from anyone about anything at any time. The viewer or reader is left to do the sorting out and the quality control that is, in publishing, built into the system (and it works sometimes, too).

    Let me be specific with an example: Most of us can agree that, and I will be very generous, much, if not most, of the non-commercial content on the Internet is horrid, is so bad it causes a reader to question the direction of evolution in the human mind. Then, some of it is brilliant, beautiful, fantastically creative, even blissful. Some very small percentage of it. With no control that pre-sorts the jewels out of a river of shit, one (someone like me) is left tired and disgusted enough by it that I just stop wading around in the shit in hopes of picking out a passing jewel.

    This is also the state of things in the world of self-published books. And until there comes some solution, some objective sifter, it will as a whole be stigmatized by its weightier parts.

    I see that I have not spoken directly to Rose’s comment, which I intended to do before getting sidetracked by this generalization about the post itself.

    I am hungry. It is first thing in the morning down here. So Rose I will return to you later.

  5. I don’t mind using the sheep analogy, Rose. If the shoe fits … . But the problem actually is that people like it when someone(s) with some measure of authority do the hard sorting work. The sheer number of choices is simply and totally overwhelming.

    Most of the books I buy to read are the result of using trusted sources: a friend whose literary judgment I trust recommends a book, or I read a comprehensive review from a trusted source — NYRB, New Yorker, as two examples, and most rarely, I pick up a book while browsing in a bookshop because I was intrigued by the title-cover-blurbs-subject.

    Self-printed books are seldom reviewed anywhere, and they all suffer from being painted with the same brush and color, like the Internet. One will be naturally dubious from the start based on the knowledge that anything can be printed if someone is willing to pay the bill for it. There is no sorting out.

    I’ve having a distractedly, busy day, but I have more to comment about with you Rose. I have to come back to this in a while.