Thoughts on self-publishing

Everyone is talking about self-publishing at the moment. Authors and agents are blogging about it regularly, and I’ve stumbled upon several blogs and websites that provide resources and advice about how to format correctly, produce for different devices, design covers, distribute etc. What was considered once-upon-a-time (not so long ago) to be a daft and unprofessional move is now arguably a viable and accepted route to publication.

The main catalyst, obviously, is the rise of ebooks and the dramatic escalation in esales over the past couple of years. Presented with the vast number of titles on offer on sites such as Amazon — along with the star-rating system, ‘people also bought’ suggestions and wide variety of prices — readers browse and select ebooks (and indeed treebooks) far differently than they did when confined to the wares of a single book shop. This has removed one of the major obstacles that used to exist for self-publishing: distribution.

The conversation is particularly vibrant at the moment in the wake of the ‘eisler-hocking deals’, wherein mightily successful self-published paranormal author Amanda Hocking recently got herself an impressive US$2mil advance with traditional publisher St Martin’s Press for four new books; while at around the same time, thriller writer Barry Eisler turned down a US$500k deal from the same publisher (coincidentally, I understand) for two new books to follow a self-publishing route. There are discussions about their various reasons all over the Internet. See here for a discussion involving both authors, moderated by literary agent Ted Weinstein, and here and here for discussions between Barry Eisler and author Joe Konrath.

Put briefly, Hocking is seeking the stability and broad reach of a traditional publisher and the prospect of even greater exposure through treebooks. Eisler, on the other hand, has done the maths and determined that he can earn more money courtesy of better margins, given his already strong reader platform to ensure volume of sales.

As far as I can tell, the industry is sitting on the fence and saying they are both ‘right’. From a monetary point of view, ‘indie authors’ can make bigger margins on each ebook, while still undercutting authors from traditional publishing houses. Yet it has led to much discussion about the importance of marketing and platform for indie authors. For someone like Eisler, who already has a platform, it seems viable. But what about all the unknown authors out there? How do they build up a following and generate sales?

It is obviously possible, as exemplified by Amanda Hocking’s sales and the number of ‘Kindle writers’ (to coin another new term) that are emerging. By actively pursuing reader reviews and selecting an appropriate price-point, savvy indie authors can leverage the online distribution platforms (not to mention social media) to successfully market their books. I suspect, however, that this road is tougher and less reliable than via traditional routes.

The other aspect to consider of course is that of quality — of story, of writing, of editing, of design. There can be no doubt that traditional publishing houses add enormous value in these areas, and many argue that if a book’s not good enough to be selected by such a publisher, then it ought never be published at all. Well, maybe yes and maybe no…

I personally do subscribe to the belief that a book published by a traditional house has greater credibility. It has been worked over by professionals and selected for its great story. It’s the ‘real deal’ so to speak. But publishing is a business and the opportunities are limited. We don’t live in an ideal world where every worthwhile book is picked up. Where’s the harm in competent yet unpublished authors self-publishing their books? Consumers are not forced to buy them, so why not make them available for those who choose to read them — and good luck to the authors.

There is a hitch though, and this is that anyone can self-publish these days — anyone from the author whose book only just missed out on a contract, right down to the wannabe who can’t write a coherent sentence. And, short of downloading free samples, it can be hard to tell them apart. I fear this will continue to plague the credibility of self-published books for some time to come. Indie authors who engage professional editing and design services will be doing themselves a favour, particularly if they are hoping to forge a route into traditional publishing.

It is nevertheless hard to deny that the industry perception is starting to shift. You won’t find many industry observers that dismiss self-publishing outright, simply because of all the success stories. Readers and ebook buyers are having the final say. There certainly seems to be a sound business model for self-publishing, so long as the platform is there to generate sales.

A recent survey by agent Rachelle Gardner on her blog suggests, however, that most serious writers would still prefer the more traditional route to publication. She summarises the results of her poll here, and I have to say I agree with each of her ‘five reasons to pursue traditional publishing’.

2 comments

  1. As someone who has gone the self-publishing route, I’d say it makes sense to keep all your options open. I felt that my book was of a high enough standard to be released to the world, and had indeed made it to the reader-table of two prominent publishers, but was turned down. But as my first book that I had been shopping around for 10 years, I was ready to move on. I wanted to experiment with ePublishing so saw it as a great opportunity.

    Having done that now I can see the benefits for both paths to publication. I will always try to sell my novels to traditional publishers first, but I’m now starting to see epublishing as a much better option for short stories.

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