A lot of articles we cover tend to carry the slant that traditional publishers are on the ropes and self-publishing is the big new thing that will save the industry. For a little bit of balance, here’s an article by Roxane Gay, a writer, micropress editor, and assistant professor of English, pointing out some problems with self-publishing. You may not agree with all her points, but they are interesting ones to make. She explains:
I have no problem with self-publishing. It is not an option I would choose for myself, mostly because I don’t have the time to do the work required of someone who self publishes. However, I don’t begrudge writers who do avail themselves of the self-publishing route and it can be a really interesting way of challenging the publishing establishment and getting your work out there without having to deal with some of the more problematic aspects of mainstream publishing. At the same time, just because you can do something does not mean you should.
Gay contrasts Barry Eisler’s decision to turn down a $500,000 advance with Amanda Hocking’s move to traditional publishing. She finds the decisions both made interesting, but is troubled by a number of the comments implying things about “the direness of publishing.” She points out that there isn’t a whole lot of difference between self-publishing and publishing with a micropress except that authors don’t have to spend their own money with micropresses, and micropresses do the same sort of curation and polishing as traditional publishers.
Also, she echoes Rich Adin’s plaint about self-published e-book quality: she sampled a number of self-published books and found only one of them to be excellent—she cites issues with quality of writing, grammar, plotting, etc. that would have caused them to be rejected by traditional publishers.
And she is concerned by the trend toward $.99-$2.99 pricing for books, fearing that it devalues authors’ work:
I could see myself selling a short story for a buck or two but a book, a whole book? My work is worth more than that. Your work is worth more than that. If I cannot sell my books at a ore [sic] reasonable $8-$10 price point, perhaps the market is telling me something about my writing. Humbling? Perhaps.
She doesn’t make any mention of the fact that a $2.99 book will sell far more copies than a $8-$10 book, and the 70% royalty offered by self-publishing on Amazon means a writer could make more money from a $2.99 e-book than a traditionally-published hardcover.
Her main point about self-publishing seems to be that “[we] live in an age of entitlement” but, in order to learn and grow in their craft, writers should learn to take “no” for an answer. If you’ve been rejected enough times, she suggests, maybe you should think about what you’re doing wrong instead of rush to publish it yourself. She gets the sense that a lot of people considering self-publishing do so out of impatience and “a certain need for instant gratification.”
I also sense that these writers want to have a book, any book, even a mediocre book, rather than wait for the right agent, publishing opportunity or even the right book from their arsenal as if we each only have one book in us. While publishers have finite resources, writers, generally do not have a finite number of words they can write. If you write one book, you can probably write another. What’s more important—publishing a book or publishing a good book?
Gay writes that she is optimistic about publishing, and continues to believe that if someone is a really good writer, they will eventually get a book deal. As many good writers as can be found in any bookstore, it seems like good writers have a pretty good chance of making it into traditional press themselves. The publishing industry can’t always be to blame, and she’s puzzled by how publishers have now become “the enemy”—though she admits part of this might spring from being too lazy to want to do the kind of work required to self-publish herself.
And she notes, as I’ve said before, that a lot of writers involved in self-publishing have already built up reputations and audiences in traditional publishing that they bring with them to their self-published efforts.
When they evangelize about self publishing it’s like watching a Jennifer Hudson Weight Watchers commercial and believing that all it takes is following the program to look as amazing as she looks right now. For every writer like these bigger hitters there are, literally thousands of writers who will never do more than sell a handful of their self-published books. There’s nothing wrong with that. Success is a personal measure but it’s important to acknowledge that there are just as many small miracles required to succeed via self publishing.
In the end, she says, writers should have faith in their writing, but learn to take “no” for an answer and do something productive with it.
It’s an interesting essay, and generated a lot of interesting discussion in the comments as people like Nick Mamatas emerged to defend the low price point or other self-publishing-related matters. Whether you agree or not, she does make some points that are worth considering.