The Future Of Self Publishing

Big news in publishing this week is that US mainstream publisher Harlequin has launched a self-publishing imprint called Harlequin Horizons. If you’re not familiar with the exciting new paradigm of self-publishing, the way it works is that authors pay a publisher to produce their books, regardless of quality. In this case, aspiring writers will be paying a large corporation to produce their books.

Some of you might be wondering how this is different from vanity publishing. The answer is: ‘It just is’.

Jane Smith has written a couple of fine posts about Harlequin’s idea; she has also looked at the first tentative alliances between corporate and vanity publishing (vanity publishing is useful to suits out to make a profit, for all kinds of reasons).

She has also recommended the best comment I’ve seen on the whole self-publishing idea. It’s from a writer called Stacia Kane and derives from a earlier post of Kane’s. Read it all. It really could be the last word on the whole mess. 

When self-publishing becomes the only option, only the rich will be able to publish. When publishers can make more money taking cash from aspiring writers than by selling books to the public, writers and readers both suffer. Writers who can’t afford to publish will be lost, or we’ll have to go back to the 18th century model and whore ourselves out to rich ‘patrons’ who might agree to pay for our publishing—not pay us, but pay to produce the books themselves.

Imagine a world where the only books on the shelves are those written by people with enough money to pay to have them published. Very little quality control, no attention paid to whether or not the book is actually worthwhile. How much fun will reading be then?

We’d have books written exclusively by those who could afford it. Much like in the 18th century, when so many books were diaries of some peeress’s trip through Europe with titles like, ‘My Gleanings.’…  I know I can’t wait for a world where books written by those from other cultures have no chance to be translated into English and released here, when we become even more ignorant of the lives of those in the world outside because there’s no way to get their books in front of English-speaking audiences. Oh, and of course, given that self-published books tend to be much more expensive, thanks to POD technology, I can’t wait for a world when reading and books are even less available to the poor. When they don’t have the same opportunities thanks to their inability to get hold of books.

Oh, what’s that you say? Oh, right. The internet will provide all of that. Of course. Because I know when I want something to read I’d much rather spend hours and hours slogging around online looking for something decent than just go to a bookstore. I know people who can’t afford books totally have the money for laptops and ereaders and the internet. So in seeking to democratize literature, what you are actually doing is STEALING IT from those less fortunate than you.

We’d also have a lot more unreadable books. I’m sorry, but it’s true. For every excellent work of self-published fiction–and they are out there, make no mistake–and for every one that’s not bad, just not terribly polished or professional or interesting, there are dozens of horrible ones. Really.

Let’s not forget that the way most people learn proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling isn’t through school. I mean, we do learn those things at school, but we develop those skills by reading. So you tell me, how literate will we be as a society when there are no professionally written books? When there are no people to judge if a work is even readable or not before it gets published? When anything goes? Would you like to go back to the middle ages, when words were just spelled however they sounded? Because I wouldn’t.

The idea of self-publishing as a new, democratic, egalitarian model is one of the greatest underground publishing myths of our time.

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9 Responses to “The Future Of Self Publishing”

  1. Rachel Fox Says:

    I should start by saying that I published my own book, I suppose. And that I used all recycled paper and card (and inks made of beetroot or whatever it is they use…). I figured that if no-one bought it or wanted it then at least no tree would have suffered for my art. Sorry about the beetroot.

    Anyway, Kane’s argument, as quoted here, is exciting and persuasive and I don’t disagree with all of it. However like many exciting arguments it does ride a bit roughshod over the truth perhaps.

    Like…
    Is it really only self-publishing that produces a lot of crap books? Taken a look at what some of the ‘proper’ publishers are putting out these (or any) days? Quite a lot of crap. And quite a lot of the same thing over and over…and over.
    And…
    Didn’t lots of great writers start off with some self-publishing before being picked up by the propers? I’m no historian but I imagine that as long as there has been publishing there has always been some self-publishing too. No?
    And…
    OK, the computer age has seen an explosion of self-publishing…but it will settle down once the novelty wears off. Probably.
    And…
    The world of book publishing and selling is going through a period of extreme change. Who knows how it’s going to turn out? It’s quite exciting I think.
    And…
    Lots of people in effect get published via who they know (to an extent). If you don’t know anyone you have to self-publish!
    And finally…
    All the stuff about how the non-rich read…remember those old-fashioned places…libraries! They are what we need to concentrate on protecting and taking into the 21st century. Public libraries, I’m talking about. Use them, or lose them and worry less about publishing.

    What do you think?

    That might do for now.
    x

  2. Stacia Kane Says:

    First, Max, thanks for the quote & link! I’m glad you liked the post. 🙂

    Rachel,

    I wouldn’t necessarily say the post “ride[s] roughshod over the truth.” Yes, it is a bit hyperbolic, intentionally so. But if you read the original post I was referring to a world where the big houses have essentially been put out of business completely, and self-publishing is the only game in town.

    With that in mind, I do want to comment on a few things you pointed out as untruths:


    Is it really only self-publishing that produces a lot of crap books? Taken a look at what some of the ‘proper’ publishers are putting out these (or any) days? Quite a lot of crap. And quite a lot of the same thing over and over…and over.

    And I never claimed that it was only self-publishing that produces crap books. But I will say that no matter how samey-samey crappy you find the offerings from commercial houses these days, they are at least grammatically correct and properly spelled (sure, the occasional typo slips in, but on the whole.) Whereas the slush pile of that same publisher is full of books which are not either of those things, and in addition do not tell coherent stories, in coherent worlds, populated by characters who are more than simply nametags. Courtesy prevents me from actually quoting some of the material of this nature I’ve seen, but I’ll try to make up a representative example:

    Amy walked down the street on her furst day of work, she was so excited! It was time to open the cafe for the first time. The day was finaly here! She only hoped her boyfriend Bob would come in to have a visit, because it was always so exciting to see him! And today she could tell him she was pregnate! He would be so excited, because, he said he wanted to have a baby and so did she, now they culd get married, and they would be so happy.
    She was worried, because her father might find her….. He’d said he wouldnt ever stop trying to find her and he hit her and thats why she run away. But now she was working, at the cafe, and that was good, because she and bob needed the money, especially for when the baby came, if they were going to be a real family.

    Again, I’m not saying all slush is like this. Editors and agents say it is, but I haven’t seen it. But I assure you, I’ve seen lots of writing like the above. And lots that’s a lot better but is still dull or cliched. Not all NY books are bad, just like not all self-published books are bad, but I’m betting the statistics are in commercial publishing’s favor.


    Didn’t lots of great writers start off with some self-publishing before being picked up by the propers? I’m no historian but I imagine that as long as there has been publishing there has always been some self-publishing too. No?

    Yes, lots of great writers started out with some self-publishing…hundreds of years ago, when they had no choice. Now I believe most great writers start out in commercial publishing. Yes, there has always been self-publishing. Yes, it’s good for some writers and has been beneficial to them (although again, I think the numbers greatly favor commercial publishing). I didn’t deny that in my post at all.


    OK, the computer age has seen an explosion of self-publishing…but it will settle down once the novelty wears off. Probably.

    And that’s possible. But my post dealt with a world where it did not.


    The world of book publishing and selling is going through a period of extreme change. Who knows how it’s going to turn out? It’s quite exciting I think.

    I agree.


    Lots of people in effect get published via who they know (to an extent). If you don’t know anyone you have to self-publish!

    And here, I apologize, but I must say that this is absolutely incorrect. Totally, completely incorrect. Every single published writer I know, including myself, didn’t “know anyone” when they/I started out. So we queried agents. We were offered representation by agents who liked our queries enough to read our books, and liked our books enough to think they could sell them, and then did sell them. I don’t know a single writer who got published because they were pals with an editor, or their aunt was an agent, or whatever. Not one.

    If you don’t know anyone, you query, just like everyone else. Who you know doesn’t matter. Your work is what matters. Period.


    All the stuff about how the non-rich read…remember those old-fashioned places…libraries! They are what we need to concentrate on protecting and taking into the 21st century. Public libraries, I’m talking about. Use them, or lose them and worry less about publishing.

    My comment about the lack of accessibility for the poor was a reply to the “Oh, they’ll find books on the internet” argument, first of all. Second, where are libraries going to get books, if there are no publishers? Self-published POD books tend to be at least twice the price of mass-market books; POD hardcovers seem to average about 50% more expensive than commercially published hardcovers. Libraries (already in financial trouble, and yes, we should do what we can to support them) will have a hard time affording as many books. And why go to the library to get books which don’t interest you anyway, because they haven’t been vetted or edited? Where will libraries get these books; are librarians to be expected to spend all day, every day, hunting through various websites to find books which might be good, and then buying them directly from the authors? The expense in time and money would be staggering and prohibitive.

    This article from “Library Juice” may interest you:

    http://libraryjuicepress.com/blog/?p=861

    You may also find it interesting to visit the American Library Association website and see how many publishers are “Library Champions,” which means they donate above a certain amount to the ALA. Also check out how many publishers pay to exhibit at library conferences, and how much they donate to set up literacy programs at libraries nationwide, and the ALA/APA Partnership. Publishers pay a large and active role in supporting public libraries.

    Where will that money come from, without publishers?


    What do you think?

    I think I’ve really enjoyed hearing your thoughts, and say thanks for the opportunity to discuss this with you. 🙂

  3. Stacia Kane Says:

    Oh, and by the way, I’m afraid it’s very difficult for me to stop worrying about publishing, as I make my living from it. 🙂

  4. Rachel Fox Says:

    Hello Stacia
    On crap books – I could find just as many atrocious sections from proper publishers’ books (right across the board)! Maybe they might have had their spelling checked but there is more to good writing than spelling, n’est ce pas? Sometimes I think it’s worse to dress up dreadful prose with the illusion of correctness (spelling and grammar) when really it is just crap (through and through). But I guess we might agree to disagree on that. And everyone’s idea of crap is different of course. I write poetry at the moment (and for the past 12 years or so)…it gets even more complicated with poetry!

    The big news here is bookshops disappearing (our Borders has just gone under) and really I’m not surprised in many ways. It’s hard to compete with we-got-everythin’ Amazon and certainly piling up books like cheap cookies is not going to do it. People can only read so much per week and we shouldn’t be shovelling them away like junk food anyway…we’ll end up with unhealthy minds and bodies. Choosing, buying, borrowing, reading books…it’s a slow process often and that’s when it’s at its best (I think). Any industry can only survive if people purchase regularly and the bigger the industry the more they need us to buy…this is part of the problem for the book industry…it doesn’t allow time for the consumers to actually read any damn books (we are meant to be out buying more all the time!).

    On greats self-publishing…there are examples from more recent times (I’m no expert on this but people are always coming up with them online). One site I looked at just now mentioned John Grisham! Whether he is a great or not is something I’m not going to debate right now.

    On libraries…so much has been published in the past few decades that most libraries could be kept busy working their way through some of the backlog (without need for a new book for years). Now, that’s not ideal but it does show part of the problem. We are awash with books from all directions and whilst in some ways that is a great thing…in others it is overwhelming. We can hardly keep track of all the books we could be reading. Reading blogs can take our mind off it all, of course…

    And then finally…on writers…one of the things that always bothers me in debates like this is the ‘them and us’ mentality that often appears. It seems that once a writer is published by someone else (no matter how small the publisher, whether it is run by their wife etc.) they can suddenly take on a slightly superior air (‘I am a properly published writer…others should bow before me’ etc.). There are realms of this stuff online and off and I sometimes wonder if I would get that disease should I ever be ‘lucky’ enough to get picked up by any kind of proper publisher. I hope not. It is such a waste of energy and though I know it’s partly to do with protecting livelihood it does not help the argument about quality at all.

    Eventually readers and listeners will always track down good stories, good sounds, good use of words – wherever and whoever they come from. How they do it is very much on the move just now and I kind of like it, personally.

    Surprisingly pleasant chattin’ with you. Usually disagreements bring me out in a rash.

    x

  5. Jane Smith Says:

    Having served my time as a slush-pile reader I can assure everyone that it is, on the whole, far worse than the extract which Stacia wrote for us: it’s awful, boring, dull and incomprehensible. On the whole. And not in a funny or amusing way: it’s just awful, and depressing (so many hopeful writers without a hope of writing professionally is just plain sad). Until you’ve read slush for hours at a time as a regular part of your week you have no idea just how bad it can be… until you read self-published books. Because there is the slush-pile in all its glory: if you’re not selective, and look at all you can find, you’ll read many bad books which no amount of editing will help.

    There are some self-published successes, but they are far fewer than you’re led to believe (and no, John Grisham never did self-publish: that’s one of the many myths spread by Dan Poynter, who self-publishes books about self-publishing and has a vested interest in making it seem an exciting route to take). I read an agent’s blog a few months ago in which he checked out how many of the deals listed on Publishers’ Weekly were for books which had previously been self-published: I think he counted twenty-eight out of thirty thousand. Which equates to one in a thousand. So it’s not a route to mainstream success, and with some publishers’ views about only publishing first editions of books, it might well stop you from getting published by a mainstream press rather than make it more likely.

  6. Rachel Fox Says:

    Yes, I was a bit suspicious about the Grisham and did only see it online (as mentioned) in the great unverified information universe…

    • maxdunbar Says:

      Loads of self- and vanity publishers use big lists of famous names who apparently self published – most of whom either a) did not self publish or b) self published at a time when mainstream publishing as we would recognise it did not exist.

      From Martin Amis, The Information: ‘Richard expected to learn that Shakespeare got his big break with a vanity publisher; that Homer responded to some ad whining for fresh trex.’

  7. Rachel Fox Says:

    OK, OK…I think we’ve established that anyone who believes the lists of supposedly self-published greats is an eejit but that is off the point really. If you self-publish for that reason you probably get all you deserve anyway.
    There is, as you point out in your other article, a fairly big divide between the ‘pay someone to publish you’, timeshare of the noughties ‘self-publishing’ and the other kind of self-publishing (doing all the work, pouring time, effort, savings and ideas into something that you really believe in…). Though saying that interesting books do come out of the first type of s-p too now and then…not prize-winning, groundbreaking novels maybe but some interesting stories that wouldn’t get read otherwise.
    x

  8. The Great Underground Myth: Why Self Publishing Doesn’t Work « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] My editor at 3:AM, Andrew Gallix, asked me to write a longer piece about self publishing based on this post. Here’s the […]

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