‘The Overselling Of Self-Publishing’: New Perspective


‘A Serious Epidemic Of Impatience’

Here in New York City where BookExpo America (BEA) is holding the focus of many in the traditional publishing establishment, a friend and I were finishing lunch at Café Luxembourg when the waiter approached.

“I overheard you guys talking about publishing,” he said. “I wondered if you could give me any advice about self-publishing versus the regular way. What I really want to know is can I just go ahead and self-publish first?”

This question is so prevalent among writers, that another great friend and colleague, Jane Friedman, this week has addressed it.

Her write-up is How To Secure A Traditional Book Deal By Self-Publishing at Writer Unboxed. She’s a regular contributor at the site, as am I. She’ll also be speaking at BEA’s International Digital Publishing Forum’s Digital Book 2015 Conference Thursday, having kindly agreed to moderate, at my request, a panel on the rise of online social communities.

In her article at Writer Unboxed, Friedman reveals the chief inquiry she gets from writers who want to avail themselves of her services as a specialist in publishing today and as the former publisher of F+W Media’s Writer’s Digest:

By far, the No. 1 consulting request I receive is the author who has self-published and wants to switch to traditional publishing. Usually it’s because they’re disappointed with their sales or exposure; other times, that was their plan all along.

In terms of author politics, this is interesting.

We’ve been accustomed to hearing many earnest and respected proponents of self-publishing position it as something they want to do. Some, in fact, as we’ve discussed here, seem at times to be more interested in promoting self-publishing itself than in a given author’s specific needs or interests as creative people and careerists.

While Friedman doesn’t take on the political climate around the self-publishing debate, she does take on its effects, writing:

Today, with the overselling of self-publishing, too many authors either:

  1. Decide they won’t even try to traditionally publish, even if they have a viable commercial project, or

  2. Assume it’s best to self-publish first, and get an agent or publisher later.

Friedman, in fact, suggests that the stigma that self-publishers today like to say is disappearing from self-publishing might have been helpful:

Back in ye olden days of self-publishing (before ebooks), the message to authors was so much simpler: Don’t self-publish a book unless you intend to definitively say “no” to traditional publishing for that project. Yes, there was a stigma, and in some ways, it helped authors avoid a mistake or bad investment.

As Friedman is pointing out, such a  guard rail seems to be evaporating. The self-publishing route is considered by many to be the first option.

In comments, she gets quick agreement from author and editor David Corbett, too, another of our contributor-colleagues at Writer Unboxed:

I intend to save this and provide it to my editing clients, since so many of them feel too impatient to go the traditional publishing route, often without wanting to admit that agents and publishers have managed to resist their work so far for a perfectly understandable reason.

The idea that self-publishing first and getting an agent or publisher later, Friedman writes, “is one of the worst assumptions in the community right now.”

And to those who “decide they won’t even try to traditionally publish, even if they have a viable commercial project,” she writes: “We have a serious epidemic of  impatience.”

You see that everywhere in commentary between writers, continual chatter about how woefully slow the traditional publishing machine is to get something to market, how much faster it is to self-publish.

She’s right. Impatience. And it can cause you to circumvent a route that might have been a good one for you.

‘You Need To Find Out’

The cheerleaders of self-publishing are not always nuanced respondents. There will very likely be at least one ill-tempered comment left on this article, for example, claiming that I am “anti-self-publishing” because I have posted Friedman’s consideration of this issue. I’m not, in fact, anti-self-publishing. But some of its boosters seem to like enemies; creating a sense of noble resistance is easier when you can point to an opposition.

I’m sure, too, that some will interpret Friedman’s piece as being biased against self-publishing, and I don’t believe her to be so. She has, in fact, self-published, herself.

Nevertheless, the rush to self-produce one’s work in these early-years  flush of the digital dynamic has  caused many to skip the step of testing the traditional commercial market’s interest. I recall London agent Andrew Lownie onstage with me in a panel at Authoright’s London Author Fair last year, saying to authors in the audience, “Why not give us a chance to see your work first?”

Friedman now writes:

If you don’t know how commercial your work is, or if a traditional publisher would be interested in it, you need to find out. You should understand if your category/genre sells well in ebook form…Can’t be bothered to do the market research? Then you’re less likely to be a successful self-published author.

Have you “exhausted your options with the traditional path,” she asks?

I know how difficult it is to secure an agent or publisher, but as I emphasized earlier, it doesn’t magically become easier after you’ve self-published, unless you’re sitting on top of the Amazon bestseller list week after week. If you feel self-publishing is your next best step (rather than, say, writing a new work), then commit to it for several years, and over several titles—preferably a series.

Are you able to produce three to five titles before re-assessing your strategy, she wants to know? (Yes, strategy — you need one. This is a business.)

Look at the most successful indie authors, and you’ll find many are writing a series, and have lots of books on the market. Having more books means you have a lot more room to develop marketing strategies and find your audience.

Have you “read all the major guides from successful indie authors on what it takes to market, promote, and sell your work,” she asks??

The secrets to long-term career success aren’t a secret at all. People who are making a living at self-publishing have written extensively on how they’ve done it. But few authors have taken time to read these guides and apply the strategies consistently.

Are you “patient enough to wait for agents and editors to approach you,” she wants to know?

And if you’ve done your job right, that’s exactly what will happen. Only by that time, you may enjoy your success and your profits so much you don’t want to share them with an agent and publisher. See the Catch-22 you’re in?

This last bit goes back to Friedman’s starting point in answering the question of her headline: How to secure a traditional book deal by self-publishing? Here’s the answer:

Sell a lot of copies, strong five figures, if not six figures. Sell so many copies that traditional publishing is potentially less profitable for you than self-publishing.

And that is extremely hard to do.

It Goes In Cycles

While the self-publish-first voices have been loudly heard for some time, these trends and approaches do change over time and as market conditions adjust.

Even as the Authors Guild has opened its membership to independent authors, the organization’s president, author Roxana Robinson, is quoted this week by the Associated Press (here carried by the Wall Street Journal), maintaining that authors still have ample reason to look at the traditional route as a viable option:

“I think traditional publishing offers elements that are still essential to writers and readers,” said Roxana Robinson, president of the Authors Guild, a trade association for thousands of writers. “No one in the writing community likes the low e-book royalty rates, and I think you’ll see a concerted effort to change them. But for many writers, the advantages offered by traditional houses still outweigh the disadvantages.”

As we’ve reported at The Bookseller’s The FutureBook this week, Robinson’s Guild has conducted a survey of its membership (and some 1,300 non-members, we understand). We await full results but are learning at this point that respondents to the survey show an $8,000 median annual income from writing-related work in the States. Not a lot of getting rich going on there.

Friedman’s summation is important reading for writers feeling community pressure to self-publish first and ask questions of the industry later. She writes:

I support entrepreneurial authorship, and authors taking responsibility for their own career success. But I would like to see more authors intelligently and strategically use self-publishing as part of well thought out career goals, rather than as a steppingstone to traditional publishing. It’s not any easier to interest an agent or publisher when you’re self-published, and since new authors are more likely to put out a low-quality effort (they rush, they don’t sufficiently invest, they don’t know their audience), chances are even lower their book will get picked up.

What do you think?