Self-publishers don’t just rob you of money, they rob you of opportunity

After a long respite from blogging this summer, I return with a topic that I frequently come across when I give talks on the writing process. Many would-be writers either ask me my opinion about self-publishing or wave their newly self-published novel in my face, often with the same desperate need for recognition flickering in their eyes which drove them to do such a foolish thing in the first place. It’s as if they secretly fear that they’ve done some dirty thing – that they’re only pretending to be writers because they’ve self-published.

In my view, anyone that manages to finish a novel deserves to be called a writer, but that doesn’t mean their book is a finished product. And self-publishing is all about half-finished products.

Two examples
To illustrate: I know of at least two authors who got severely burnt. The first author, who has talent even if it is as yet undeveloped, handed me his self-published novel for review. He spent a substantial amount of money getting it printed and yet my copy fell apart before I was even halfway through. The editing was shoddy at best, cringe-inducing at worst.

The second author I met was absolutely convinced he’d hit the big-time with his story idea. His self-belief was such that he quit his job, sold his car and most of his assets, and spent the money on finishing the novel and paying for self-publication. He was a talented self-marketer, very good looking, and it wasn’t difficult to get a slot on a TV breakfast show to talk about his novel. So far so good, except when I caught up with him some months later, he was in financial dire straits and artistic despair. Why? The books were of such bad quality that the ink on the front pages rubbed off in the hands of his admiring readers who, it turned out, didn’t finish the book because of … you guessed it, the shoddy editing. Suddenly a thousand copies were returned to him by the stores who’d once supported him. He had to fork out the little money he made from sales to the shops, even though he’d already spent it all, putting him in twice the trouble he was in. When I last spoke with him, he was locked in a furious legal battle with money his parents had loaned to him. But the self-publishers had more greenback than him, better lawyers and a rock-solid contract.

It’s called vanity publishing for a reason, and it panders to that thing that is every writer’s nemesis: insecurity. Both authors had only approached one or two publishers, been rejected and turned to self-publishing out of despair. In the end, they lost doubly – they lost money in the enterprise and they lost a precious first idea.

Separating the wheat from the chaff
80% of writing is about sitting down and actually doing it. If that’s not hard enough, the next 15% is about the trial by fire, the publishing system’s cleansing ritual that rids itself of most of the chaff that’s out there. It’s not necessarily about you as an author, it’s about refining stories.

Traditional publishers know what the market wants, because they largely drive it, not consumers. They are also extremely good at spotting stories that have talent, and then developing these to such a level that they’re happy to put their brand and reputation on it. Within that process there’s an agent and editor who have your interests at heart. Why? Because if they don’t look after you and what you write they loose money and credibility when it goes to market. It means as long as you’ve not convinced them with the quality of your story, there is some lesson, some door, which you haven’t yet unlocked within yourself as an author. Self-publishers, they don’t walk that road with you. They take their money upfront and head the other way.

Self-publishing teaches you nothing
For me self-publishing’s greatest flaw is that it doesn’t teach you anything. With a traditional publisher, you’re learning something every time you get rejected, but only if you’re willing to objectively reflect on what you’ve written. And once the publishing world takes you on-board, there’s yet another steep learning curve ahead as editors slice up your manuscript to such an extent that you think you know nothing about the English language. Your agent has advice, as does the salesperson, the publicist, the copyeditor, the proof reader. If you can’t listen with an open mind to any of what they say, you’ll never learn. But that’ll be your fault. With a self-publisher, there’s none of that. No advice. No guidance. No realistic expectations. Just show me the money, babe.

Self-published novels don’t get sold in the major bookstores
Bookshops and publishers have a heavily syndicated relationship. All the big retailers decide in a distant head office somewhere what gets sold at the local bookstore, and self-published work never features on that list. This means that you pay money to a self-publisher, thinking maybe that you can convince at least ten bookstores to stock your books, except they won’t. And in the rare instances that they do, staff are pressed to position the top sellers in the best rows, the self-published novels hardly ever face cover outward, and worst of all, the poor design and paper quality sticks out like a monstrous aberration amongst the other professionally published books.

If they don’t take your book, suddenly you have little more than printed newspaper clogging up your garage.

And in the internet is not much different
To some extent, the same is true for the internet. Self-published work just doesn’t get the same exposure.

Quick test: I’m not a best-selling author on the international platform by any means, but my first novel with PanMacmillan UK comes up 23,000 times on a Google search. A first novel by someone else, with a New York-based self-publisher, comes up 634 times.

You wouldn’t give the patent to Windows to a second-hand car dealer, would you?
Don’t give away your intellectual property to someone that’s going to do a half-assed job bringing it to market. A novel idea has only one shot at becoming something; if a self-publisher fouls that up for you, your chance is gone forever. It’s hard, but it’s much better to go through the trial by fire that is rejection after rejection. It teaches you to reflect on your work, to rely on yourself for courage and determination, and forces you to hone your skills as a writer, until you’re good enough to bring out all the best elements in your story.

Am I absolutely against self-publishing?
Having said all that, I think Kindle and e-books are set to shake things up completely. We now have a medium through which an author can publish and conceivably run no financial risk as no novel needs to be printed. There’s Lulu.com, which exclusively markets self-published work and it seems to be working. Still, unless you’re absolutely confident in your skills as a writer, a professional fiction editor is invaluable, not only in shaping your current novel, but also helping you along the path of becoming a better writer.

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5 Responses to “Self-publishers don’t just rob you of money, they rob you of opportunity”

  1. Very interesting post. I think that if you’re publishing your work for a very small, private audience (family, friends–the Renaissance method, basically), then self-publishing isn’t such a bad idea. But anyone who wants to be a professional writer should do it the traditional way.

    But what really caught my eye in your post was your comment about the shoddy editing, which while it happens at some reputable publishing houses (I don’t think I’ve read a book without at least one printing error), the fact that so many writers are depending on an editor to clean up their work isn’t helping any. The draft a writer turns in, regardless of what publisher they send it to, should be as error free as they can possibly get it. And considering writers are supposed to be good with words, the overwhelming amount of errors in published works is saddening. Except quickly typed blog comments, of course.

  2. richardkunzmann Says:

    I think you’re absolutely right: writers should pay more attention to the work they are producing. We’ve become a lazy lot, because these days editors, copyeditors and proofreaders are all part of the chain – it’s amazing that mistakes still creep in.

    But having said that, it is fantastic to have someone else look over your work after you’ve done it for the upteenth time. A fresh eye, a different perspective is invaluable. And at the end of the day writing is a creative job, editing a technical one, much like a racing-driver is not necessarily a good engineer or car mechanic.

    R

  3. Great article! My favorite part was the comment that if you self-publish you don’t learn anything. All you have is what you start out with — your opinion of your work. Or your family and friends’ opinion of your work. I thought my first novel was good, but now I cringe when I think of it. Luckily, I have it packed away in my closet, not for sale on Amazon!

  4. Smith River Says:

    “Self-publishers, they don’t walk that rode with you.”

    This would sail right through with vanity publishers. Good observations. I get flack every time I say the same things on writer forums all over the net. New writers who do this don’t want to know that there are hurdles to leap and other unfriendly forces to get in their way. These writers think they’ve made it. I just experienced this on the Facebook suspense/thriller group. You can read it for yourself. Almost all the members are self-published POD only rejected writers. read first pages and you’ll see why. The sad thing is some won’t learn from anything is sure true. Worse they’ll foist it on others.

  5. richardkunzmann Says:

    Yikes! Spelling mistake noted and corrected. And your point hits the nail on the head!

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