On IndieReader, Terry Giuliano Long has an interesting, long post about how self-publishing’s stigma has decreased over the last few years—leaving some traditional authors feeling threatened. Long notes that a number of brick and mortar booksellers are starting to make room for self-published authors in their stores, leading to traditionally-published authors complaining about the effects this is having on their income. One author even referred to it as “literary karaoke.”

This comes at a time when the rise of the e-book is threatening paper sales. Industry leaders are concerned that publishers may ditch paperback sales altogether in favor of the more profitable hardcovers, except for their very highest-grossing titles. Indies are being singled out rather than e-books in general, Long writes, because:

Fact is, most people buy a book for one reason: they want a good read. Assuming the book delivers, they don’t care who published it; many don’t even notice.  With publishing cachet exerting less influence on purchasing decisions, price has become more of a factor. In a depressed economy, it’s only natural to look for a deal—and indie authors offer one. With greater flexibility and lower overhead, self-publishers can afford to sell their e-books for a fraction of the price charged by large publishers.

Self-published books have come a long, long way from the last-resort-of-the-untalented “vanity presses” of days of yore. (I remember during my high school years, back in the late eighties/early nineties, someone came to make a presentation to my class about what a big rip-off vanity presses were and how nobody should ever publish through them. I need to see if I can contact my school and find out who that might have been; it would be interesting to ask him what he thought of the state of things today.) Long cites some examples of self-published books that have been on best-seller lists, or that got rave reviews from industry publications when they were picked up and republished by traditional publishers.

There are, of course, plenty of awful self-published books to go around. Those who refer to self-publishing as one huge slushpile are often more right than they are wrong.

But not all traditionally pubbed books are Pulitzer-worthy either. The difference is, when a traditional title garners negative reviews, only that book gets panned. No one cites examples of poorly written traditionally published books to support any conclusion about all traditional titles. Besides, lousy books are a non-factor anyway. Readers don’t talk about books they don’t like and retailers don’t put poor selling books in recommendation queues, so the books languish on the shelves.

And there are plenty of ways to find or get recommended good ones.

Now going self-pub is not just what you do if the traditional publishers don’t want you. A number of established authors, such as Jackie Collins, are combining their pre-existing fanbase with the bigger payout from self-publishing. Even self-published authors are taking advantage of the array of professional services offered by freelancers, such as editors and graphic designers, that were once the sole province of traditional publishers.

Nonetheless, I still know people who refuse to consider self-published books, even ones their friends recommend them, because they still fall prey to that stigma. Traditionally-published books, they figure, had to pass by a number of people who thought they were good enough to risk money publishing—while self-published books can be thrown up by any Tom, Dick, or Harry who can use a computer. And since they already have more traditionally-published books in their to-read list than they’ll ever get to, they don’t see any point in taking the risk on self-published ones.

It’s kind of sad, but I suppose I can see where they’re coming from. Still, I wonder: in ten or twenty years, will the “stigma” of self-publishing even exist anymore? Or will it simply be recognized as a choice people make to trade personal risk for a higher potential income?

(Found via reprinting on The Huffington Post.)


  1. You’ve got it down. You can see the trajectory of the book business and it is headed in the direction where it won’t matter who published it. Most people don’t know or care who the publisher is. Now that the digital age has taken over and everything is more accessible and sharing the same space, people are going to buy a book on a topic that interests them. If the book is reasonably priced, then that’s even better. The economy has been on a downhill decline since 9/11 and people will rarely spend $25 on a book regardless of who published it. This is good news for those who were born writers or storytellers as they have a canvas they can now paint on. They have an outlet to market and sell their books. If they’re truly serious about it, which I imagine most of them are, then they will spend that energy in making their book the best it can be. If they do it right, it’ll generate word of mouth and begin to grow. If they ignore it, then so will most people. This is regardless of who published it.

  2. I have to give Amazon and Smashwords kudos for legitimizing self-published books. By offering them for sale, Amazon says that self-published is OK. It would be better if Amazon also did some weeding out but the fact that Amazon gives self-published books respect makes them legitimate. Smashwords solved a problem that vexed self-publishers for decades: distribution. Prior to Smashwords, self-publishers really had no good method for distributing their books, which meant they couldn’t earn respectability.

    Another factor that has changed the consumer view of self-published books is the number of them that actually are of high quality. Too many are still of very poor quality, but there are enough of high quality to force consumers to alter their views.

    Finally, the advent of ebooks as a mass market commodity combined with the willingness of self-publishers to sell their ebooks for 99 cents and less encourages readers to try what otherwise they would avoid.

  3. Lost in the discussion: the game is *not* just Traditional Publisher versus self-publisher. There is a vast flourishing middle ground of (small) New Publishers taking advantage of ebook and POD workflows. The New Publishers tend to treat authors as partners, not serfs, and their business is built off ebook-first workflows. Where they tread, the (smarter) Traditional Publishers will follow.

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