The Question of the Instant Author: The Good and Bad of Self Publishing

As we recounted here, Amanda Hocking doesn’t want to be a Self Publishing Queen. She spoke to The Huffington Post about her journey from successful self publisher to the exception-not-the-rule traditional publishing darling and how that being a “paradigm of how one becomes successful by self-publishing, is not something she’s interested in.”

Certainly, Hocking’s story is, in the increasingly crowded self publishing field, something that most writers dream about. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that her St. Martin’s deal was a bit like hitting the lotto, but signing a traditional publishing contract did have Hocking defending her motivations. She did very, very well as a self publisher, likely, she was one of the most successful independent self publishers to ever cross the Traditional Publishing bridge. Her reason for doing so? She simply “wanted more time to write.”

Which brings me to my point. What’s the good and bad of self publishing? What are the benefits? What are the pitfalls?

As someone who welcomes self publishers in my freelance editing work, I’ve been very fortunate that most of the manuscripts I edit are written by educated, intelligent individuals who understand that they are partaking in a venture that will require more from them than just crafting a well-written story. They understand, too, that without the assistance of a traditional house, agent or publicist, they will have to play marketer and PR exec in order to ensure that their book is read, reviewed and available to readers.

The problem, or the “bad” if you will, occurs with those manuscripts come in that aren’t well crafted, from writers who don’t ask for substantive editing or commentary on pacing, plot or character development. The “bad” of this is that these writers don’t want a writing career. They don’t care about the craft or the story. They want to see their names on a book. They want to pass around this book to their folks or their friends or pimp it at a conference and list it in their bios. This, of course, should not be considered an absolute opinion of all self publishers.

For some, self publishing is about marketing a product, earning a little extra cash and that’s fine. There have been writers that self publish because they have a huge backlist or a few novellas or short collections their publishers aren’t interested in printing. Again, fine and dandy and nothing in the world, in my opinion, wrong with that. Those situations aren’t even would I’d deem as “bad.”

I am, however, of the opinion that if you decide to self publish, if you are a writer frustrated by form rejections or agents and editors not being “in love” with your manuscript and you’ve exhausted every conceivable traditional avenue, then yes, by God, self publish. Self publish your book, the thing you have bled and sweated part of your soul into. But first, remember, that your book is much more than a product. Remember your readers. Remember that you are entering an arena dense with competition whose stipulations require a strict “A Game.”

Self publishing is not for the faint of heart. It’s also not going anywhere anytime soon, I don’t think. By last summer, e-books, (which make up the largest portion of self published titles), ranked as the top format “among all categories of trade publishing.” The good of that is that readers have a faster, more accessible, and in the case of e-books sold on most sites, an instant tool by which their reading choices can be in their hands. No waiting in lines, not waiting on FedEx, no bringing back the book in three weeks to library. This and the near ease and accessibility of the Internet encourages self publishers and makes their path to publication that much simpler.

There are, of course, detractors.

Kealan Patrick Burke, a friend of LitStack, sees self publishing as both good and bad, as he explained to us in our chat last month:

Personally, I think it’s great. Dozens of my books, previously published as limited edition hardcovers by specialty presses, and long out of print, are now available digitally. I’m finding a whole new audience (a rather limitless one) and it has opened up all kinds of unexpected doors for me, so I can’t complain.

The downside is now all it takes to call yourself a published writer is a computer and an Internet connection. Years ago, being published was a badge you wore with pride. It said you had been through the wars and come out better on the other side. You had run the gauntlet but your work was good enough to make it through. Now people have no gauntlets left to run and they vociferously denounce everything about traditional publishing as if was the only thing keeping them down. The truth of it is, quite often sub-par work was keeping them down, but that doesn’t matter anymore. Computer + Internet = Success.

On the flip side, however, quite a lot of very good work is rising to the top that absolutely deserves to be there and I couldn’t be happier about that. Savvy readers will find it, and savvy writers can now make sure it’s there to be found.

Burke’s opinion is shared by our January Featured Author, Michael Flynn:

People now have the ability to self-publish and distribute through Amazon (which is becoming something of a vanity press in this respect). On the positive side, this means more of the income for a book will flow directly to the author. But on the negative side, it means a lot of self-indulgent, God-awful dreck is going to be out there. The publishing industry, for all its faults, is a dreck filter.

It’s the “dreck,” in my opinion, that opens the door to not only a poor quality self published book, but also adds to a stereotype that assumes that all those who use anything other than a traditional publishing model are doing little more than stroking their own egos. This certainly isn’t always the case. As I said previously, I’m lucky that most of my clients have been writers frustrated by the industry or those that have had their hands forced into self publishing for various reasons.  So it can be a good thing and is certainly not like it was two or three years ago. Reader’s expectations are higher and, therefore, so should be the quality of the book, self published or traditionally published.

The are other considerations as well. If you use Amazon’s self publishing services, for example, you’re going to run right into an issue hotly debated at present:

Barnes & Noble, the US’s biggest book seller by sales, is refusing to stock books published by Amazon in its stores in retaliation for the online retailer’s aggressive moves to gain a foothold in publishing. Indigo Books & Music, a large Canadian chain, has followed suit.

The book chains object specifically to Amazon’s push to sign exclusive deals with authors that prevent other retailers from selling digital versions of their books, a move that they say unfairly restricts access for customers.

If Amazon becomes a force in publishing, such exclusive deals could harm those retailers’ own ebook sales, which are increasingly important. Amazon Publishing is a more direct threat to publishers and agents, but their position is complicated by their reliance on its website to sell books. (source)

The point is, if you decide to self publish, there are a few things you should remember. I’d even go so far as to say there are a few responsibilities that you are given whether you like it or not. Foremost among these, remember that you owe the reader. This is true of every writer hoping to publish, regardless of format, but, I think more so for a self publisher. This stems from an inflated market, one where you, the self published writer, are asking the reader to trust you. You are already going to come across road blocks because you’ve chosen to jump into a bright fire right alongside others who have rejected traditional publishers. Stereotypes, whether deserved or not, are still there. You are, in a sense, asking the reader to trust that because the filter of an agent or editor wasn’t in place, that you still managed to write a tightly crafted story. You are asking them to trust that you are a professional, that you have done your level best to ensure the product you’re presenting has been edited and formatted and plotted carefully.

You will also have to consider that much-mentioned dense competition. Thousands of books are published each year. Thousands. That number doubles when, as Burke said, anyone with an Internet connection can be published. As it is with querying and having agents read your manuscripts, yours must be unique. It must be grammatically perfect. It must contain a plot that is well developed and characters that aren’t one-dimensional. Yours is the story that readers have chosen above all others so it is only fair that you make certain they don’t regret their choice.

Above all, the story is essential. You must remember the voice that spoke to you, asking to be heard. Remember the fantastic world waiting for the breath and life and soul that only you can construct. The story, in my modest opinion, trumps all: it should be more important than your cover, than your genre, than who reviews your book. The story, the craft of writing, isn’t about business. True, those things are very important to educate yourself on, but they are not what is at the heart of a book. You are and for your book to be remembered, to be loved, you first have to love it yourself. You first have to be willing to embrace the story, to give life to a world of your own making, to the craft that you first fell in love with. If anything comes before that, then you’re not a writer…you’re a salesman.

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