Trends: Isn’t It Time For Self-Publishers To Get Over Self-Publishing?


Let’s Say You Walk Into A Bookstore

You’re taken with all the books on the front table. New releases. Beautiful covers. Fascinating titles.

You leaf through a few. You settle on one you really like. You’re ready to head for the cash register when suddenly somebody jumps up from behind the table and nearly gives you heart failure, yelling:

Aha! You’ve picked up a self-published book! You see? Self-published books are just as good as traditionally published books!

Don’t worry, as far as I know that tawdry little scenario exists only in my imagination and hasnt really occurred anywhere.

But it reflects a bind in which self-publishers may be finding themselves these days. And it has to do with several questions of logic:

  • If readers don’t care if a good book is self-published, then why call attention to that fact?
  • Are you self-publishing because you’re a writer who wants to get your work onto the market?
  • Or are you a self-publisher because you want to crusade for the efficacy of self-publishing?

First, we have to note that in this silly little sketch I’ve just outlined, a couple of fairly impossible elements are represented. For one thing, the self-publisher is not likely to have a book on the front-and-center table of a bookstore. Those positions, for the most part, are bought by well-heeled publishers. For another, let’s be quick to point out that few self-publishers are hiding behind those tables waiting to jump out at customers. I hope.

The issue, however, does have to do with a welcome, although still subtle shift in how self-publishers present what they’re doing, as independent publishing matures.

Maybe it’s time to stop stumping for selfpub, itself.

Maybe its time to just focus on the books.

‘We’ve Outgrown The “Counterculture” Phase’

Not every self-publisher may have had that memo, of course. But it’s none other than “Data Guy” — the technologist behind the AuthorEarnings reports — who writes this in a comment to me at The FutureBook.

I quoted him at more length in the #FutureChat recap from our earlier discussion there, which was pegged on the latest AuthorEarnings report’s consideration by Data Guy and Hugh Howey of the ISBN, the International Standard Book Number.

In his extended comment to me, Data Guy writes:

Indies need to start thinking of themselves as an industry sector. We’ve outgrown the “counterculture” phase now. We’re an established part of the business landscape, and if we want to help reshape the industry and level the playing field to our advantage, we need to “stand up and be counted.” But at the same time, it’s harder to make a case to indies that they should play by the industry’s established “rules,” when doing so imposes asymmetrical business costs on them while providing no measurable near-term business benefit. It’s a classic tragedy of the commons.

The specific “asymmetrical business costs” he’s referencing there are the fees that independent authors and smaller publishers must pay for ISBNs that tag and track books through the marketplace, helping the industry to count its output and gauge its size and scale. Because servicing the many individual accounts of independent authors costs more than handling the bulk buys of major corporate publishers, indie authors are asked to pay what they (understandably) feel is an unfairly large chunk of change — some $27 at the best 10-pack price —  for the same ISBN that Penguin Random House or Simon & Schuster can get for $1.

For some time, many self-publishing authors have been in a disorganized revolt against the ISBN, and this is one reason that the ISBN is now becoming less and less useful overall: it simply is able to “see” fewer of the books in the market today than it once could. For more on this issue, here’s Is The ISBN Still Worth Its Barcode?, an article on the subject I published here in October.

I’m especially pleased to note for you, by the way, that the Novelists, Inc. conference of September 30 to October 4 will have a specific session dedicated to issues around the ISBN and its use.

But moving past that controversy, however, you quickly bump into the next one, and that’s what Data Guy is getting at in his commentary.

Independent authors — self-publishers, for the most part — appear to be facing a kind of contradiction of terms. And, as might be expected, some are coping better than others with it.

‘The Readers Don’t Care How It Was Published’

That’s the declaration made by many in the independent sector whose message is that as long as a book is a good read and well-produced, the reader will not be deterred that it’s self-published. There’s a lot to suggest this is correct, too. I’ll show you in a three-question quiz:

  • Which publisher produced John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars both in the States and in the UK?
  • The imprint called Touchstone is part of which Big Five publishing house?
  • Can you with any confidence name the publisher of any book you’ve read in the last year?

The reading public, for better or worse, is dependably oblivious to the most of the names and logos and ad slogans and proud histories of publishing companies and their myriad imprints. (The answers to the above: Penguin, part of the largest publisher, Penguin Random House, published the John Green hit. And Touchstone is an imprint of Simon & Schuster, another of the Big Five houses.)

And so the assertion sounds right that readers, book buyers, may not be skittish around self-published books that appear to be made with quality and to offer good storytelling. Independent authors who make these assertions usually want to see their books carried in bookstores and in online settings, offered chances to win awards, given consideration for review by major mainstream critics, and so on — they want the things their traditionally published colleagues may have.

In that sense, what Data Guy is saying about “outgrowing the “‘counterculture’ phase” of independent authors publishing themselves is logical. Self-publishing author Jane Steen joins him, writing in a comment, “I do think that indies need to start thinking of themselves as an industry sector and acting accordingly.”

Penn On Needles

It may surprise you to read some recent comments from Joanna Penn — who just spoke at the PubSense conference in Charleston and who faithfully has been torching for self-publishing for years now, maybe for all four decades represented in her blog post: Creativity And Entrepreneurship: Lessons Learned By My 40th Birthday.

In a section called “Beware The Shadow Career” (the phrase is drawn from the work of Steven Pressfield), she writes this:

Everyone has their different version of a shadow career – and it is hard to face up to.

For me, the constant challenge is: Are you blogging and speaking about self-publishing and book marketing instead of writing the stories that will make an impact on the world?

The former is easier than the latter and it is easily justified.

I love to help other people, and I still make an income from this site, my non-fiction and professional speaking – and I love all of it to a point – but I need to constantly re-evaluate my time in order to create the things that really challenge me.

Does this challenge you? Do you have a shadow career?

That’s a gracious admission from Penn. Any of us can get caught up in the camaraderie and fellow-feeling of a cause, after all. This is why people are joiners.

  • It’s fully acceptable that crusading for self-publishing is your intention and your joy. If that’s where things are for you, then keep marching.
  • It’s also quite possible that the novelty, visibility, and community — like a latter-day liberté, egalité, et fraternité —  could have wooed you farther into the fray than you meant to go.

Do you spend less time writing than you spend on your mode of publishing? — defending it, promoting it, one-for-all-and-all-for-one-ing it? As Penn asks herself that, would it help if you gave it some thought? You don’t need to tell anyone what you come up with, by the way. Confession isn’t really that good for the soul, it’s an overrated self-abasement. Just get into a quiet space without anyone else’s agenda banging away at you and think about it for a bit.

I’m full of bullets today, aren’t I? A couple more:

  • Did you go into writing in order to fight in the Self-Publishing Wars? Or to write books?
  • Might things be far enough along now that you can ease up on the ammunition and put more energy into the work?

Remember, no one in this article is saying not to self-publish. The only suggestion here is that for some authors self-publishing may have become the end rather than the means. And maybe it’s time to rethink that.

I’ll give you a few more scattered clues that the hive’s mood may be shifting.

Mad Dogs And Used-Car Salesmen

Have you heard the phrase author publisher?  It’s being used recently by some folks in place of self-publisher. The intention, of course, is to avoid stigma by coming up with something a bit like “actor-manager” from Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s day. The term self-publisher connotes in some minds poor quality books produced by hostile writing enthusiasts who feel that the publishing establishment has failed them.

Of course, when you hear the phrase pre-owned car, it generally makes you think that a dealership is trying to avoid saying used car, right? Euphemism rarely carries the day. And every publisher is an author publisher. Or a giraffe publisher, maybe.

A proliferation of terms is not helpful. Self-publisher is just fine. Yes, even with your team of associates you hire in the process.

The Trouble With Indie Math. Here, Dana Beth Weinberg, author of the Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey — and herself a self-publishing author — takes good issue with an infographic (perhaps more like an opiniongraphic) from Lulu, the self-publishing platform. The Lulu piece credits her, the DBW-WD survey, and Howey’s AuthorEarnings reports as its sources and proposes that a 100,000-word book traditionally published could produce $6,000 for an author while the same book, self-published, could produce $24,000 for the author.

Weinberg quietly takes apart the argument, starting with its premise of the author selling 3,000 copies of the book. Weinberg is joined in comments by several others who seem to understand this as a simplistic explication — the kind of EZ-success promotional pabulum that some author services regularly produce.

Writer Beware’s Victoria Strauss (who will be speaking at Writer’s Digest’s Annual Conference in August) points out, among several flaws, that “it looks only at print, which is not where most self-publishers are succeeding.” And Sandra Hutchison adds in a comment, Lulu isn’t in the business of persuading authors to keep slogging away for a traditional contract.” Exactly.

“I didn’t choose self-publishing.” When the hugely successful Indian author Amish Tripathi spoke to me in a 45-minute live Twitter interview for London Book Fair — part of a very interesting “Virtual Stream” that was arranged as a precursor to the Publishing for Digital Minds conference on 13th April in London — he explained that the self-publishing of 5,000 copies of the first book in his Shiva Trilogy wasn’t something he set out to do; it was simply the best way he had to draw attention to the work, in cooperation with his agent.

In Tripathi’s case, it was the right move. As I wrote in a piece for Writer Unboxed, he now has sold more than 2.2 million copies of the trilogy.

But note that he’s not advocating self-publishing. He’s not condemning it either.

It’s simply something that worked for him as he was starting a career as a novelist. It was the means to an end, not the end. A perfect example to keep in mind. Because if a publisher had picked up The Immortals of Meluha without Tripathi going the self-publishing route first, he’d have taken that direction, instead.

Pragmatism over boosterism. Wins every time.

‘Couldn’t You At Least Talk To Each Other?’ Editor Carla Douglas in Self-Pubs And Trad-Pubs makes a valiant effort to close the gap a bit.  She writes well of the kind of insulation that can blindside authors, trapping them in limited viewpoints and prejudiced negativity:

I’ve assumed all writers are exploring digital tools for writing, editing, collaboration and production. I’ve been wrong about this, but to what extent, I’m not sure. Because it looks like others are living in bubbles, too. Trad pubs and self-pubs need to talk to each other. If they did, they’d realize they could benefit from knowledge the other side is hanging onto.

And wouldn’t that be worth it?

 One More Time, To Be Clear

Nothing in this article is meant to say or to imply that self-publishing is anything but the right and honorable course when chosen by an author.

The point here is that self-publishing’s often contentious position in the business seems to leave some folks “blogging and speaking about self-publishing and book marketing instead of writing the stories that will make an impact on the world,” as Penn put it so well.

Whether your goal is to create or to campaign is a decision you need to make for yourself.

Community isn’t necessarily a big help on this because, by definition, a community loves group-think more than individuality. Crusaders are chummy guys.

But maybe the time is here at last when authors can more easily stop and think — independently, if you’ll pardon that pun — about the place and purpose of their work, and about the relative importance of how they produce it.  Because those things may not be the same.

Self-publishing can fend for itself. Like traditional publishing, it’s your means, not your end.

When you go over Niagara, the barrel isn’t the point.