It’s easy clickbait to slag off self-publishing – usually on the basis of assumptions that are either only half-true or not true at all.
As someone who’s spent the last few months discovering the world of self-publishing – in preparation for self-pub’ing my own book – it’s frustrating to be constantly hit by a wall of negativity and misconceptions whenever I mention self-publishing.
With that in mind, I firmly believe that every writer (and every reader invested in finding good books to read) should understand the truth about self-publishing, instead of relying on a kneejerk reaction of, “lol, it’s all typos and bad covers and if I self-publish I’ll never win the Booker!*”
(*If winning the Man Booker Prize is really your #1 goal in writing fiction, then I salute your gigantic ego and insane lack of realism. But anyway…)
1. Self-publishing is not the Other; it’s here already
I’ve developed a bit of a yen for reading travel memoirs over the past year (is the fact that I have no money to go on holiday related to this at all? Er, probably…) and one of the e-book memoirs I picked up along the way was self-published.
Yes, it contained a few typos (emphasis on the word few – maybe 5 among 80,000 words) and the cover design won’t win any awards (though it does effectively communicate the tone/content of the book, which is all a cover really needs to do). Despite this, the book was easily as enjoyable as most of the other traditionally-published memoirs I’ve read (and quite a lot cheaper – win!).
Whether or not you’ve bought a self-published book yet probably depends on what kind of books you read and how many. If you read a lot, and pick up fiction from a particular genre (romance, SF/F, etc.), or enjoy non-fiction in a particular niche (like the aforementioned travel memoirs), I’ll bet you’ve bought a self-pub’ed book – even if you don’t realise it.
Because that’s the thing: a good self-published book is nearly indistinguishable from a traditionally-published book.
This is so much the case that, these days, I often mistake trad-pub’ed books for self-pub’ed books! (Let’s just say that mediocre cover design is not the sole confine of self-publishers… Ahem.)
The only true way to identify a self-published book is, when you’re looking at the Amazon listing, to examine the Product Details blurb (i.e. the part you merrily scroll past, because who really cares about that stuff?).
If it’s self-pub’ed, the publisher on the paperback is likely to be listed as CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. That means the paperback is print on demand. There aren’t piles of books gathering dust in a warehouse somewhere. A copy only gets printed (by a company called CreateSpace) when you order the book.
2. Self-publishing is not the same as it was 10 years ago, 5 years ago, or even 2 years ago
It used to be that the print-on-demand market was hobbled by the fact that no one wanted to buy a book from a random website (what the hell is a Lulu.com?) and pay through the nose for shipping costs. All that changed when Amazon bought CreateSpace.
Setting aside the slightly scary fact that Amazon now owns everything (I think it might covertly own this cup of lapsang souchong that I’m sipping…), it does mean that regular readers can now buy print-on-demand paperbacks from Amazon and get free shipping on them. This puts self-published books on a level playing field with traditionally-published books – at least when it comes to online sales.
And, for many readers (me included), online is all there is. The self-publishing world has also been buoyed by the rise of e-books. These days, if I buy a book, I’ll overwhelmingly choose the e-book (it’s cheap, it’s instant, and it gives my sagging bookshelves a break).
E-books are, of course, an area where self-publishers can flourish. Their costs are lower, so they can cut prices (often to zero – a ploy to get readers hooked on a series and pay for later books), and the result is that readers are willing to take a punt on their books.
Here is where people get sniffy. Self-publishers’ costs are low because their books haven’t been edited, they have crappy covers, and the formatting’s all over the place… sniff, sniff. This is true in some cases, but the fact of the matter is…
3. Your self-published book can be as crappy or as amazing as you wish
Self-publishing is quick and easy to do badly – and very time-consuming (though still fairly easy!) to do well.
In order to make your self-pub’ed book shine, you’ll need professional editing and a decent cover (and yeah you’ll probably need to pay for both, unless you can call in some favours).
You’ll also need to get to grips with book design and formatting (it’s not that hard, when you consider the 7,933 blog posts that there are about it online). Plus, you should have a website (but WordPress can provide you with one for free).
So yeah, there are costs involved in self-publishing, but a lot of it can be done yourself. And self-publishing is definitely an arena where “you get out what you put in”.
Sure, there are tons of self-pub’ed books that look like shit, but there are plenty that look gorgeous, too. Why the difference? The authors of the good ones took time and effort over them and probably spent a little money (>£500/$700) along the way.
The limitations of self-publishing do not lie with the platform – they only lie with the self-publisher.
4. The future for authors probably lies in a mix of traditional-publishing and self-publishing
It’s not either/or.
Traditional publishers are picking up best-selling self-published books (and no I’m not just talking about Fifty Shades), or signing self-pub’ed authors for different titles. Why? Because they’ve proven to be commercially viable.
Similarly, when I was looking for an agent, I was surprised to find some were eager to know about any self-publishing history I had. Not in order to put a big black mark next to my name, but because to be a self-publisher shows you have a commercial sense of the book industry. You understand that books are only viable if they make money.
Plenty of authors already have a combination of self-published titles and traditionally-published titles. Why? Because writers by their nature are creative and prolific. Self-publishing offers the chance to write outside of your established niche. If a crime novelist decides she wants to write a sci-fi novel and can’t find a home for it, it’s no longer a problem – she can self-publish!
For all of its problems, I love the idea of self-publishing, because the bottom line is:
5. It’s better to be read than not to be read
Personally, I’m still planning to go down the traditional publishing route with my fiction. But I’ve chosen to self-publish my non-fiction book (the one agents simply weren’t interested in), because I want it to be out there in the world. I know it’s a good book and I’m hopeful it will find readers.
Critics complain that self-publishers put out novels that should stay in the bottom drawer. But, to me, there’s something deeply depressing to me about the loved-and-laboured-over novel that never gets read.
No, it won’t win the Man Booker Prize. But at least if you self-publish your novel, someone will read it. Maybe a hundred someones; maybe a thousand someones… maybe only a dozen.
But maybe one of those dozen people will love your book. Like, really, really love it. Maybe I’m that reader. If your book stayed in your bottom drawer, I’d never get a chance to read it and love it.
And that’s just sad.
Forget all the meaningless bluster about self-publishing. At its heart, it’s just another way for writers to find readers.