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Tuesday 5 May 2009


I'm pleasantly surprised no one has yet asked what I think of self-publishing.
And I'm very glad no one has said, "But isn't self-publishing the future? Isn't "traditional" publishing dead?" If they had I might well have produced a major hissy fit and then you really would have seen the ultimate definition of crabbit.

One of the reasons I haven't talked about self-publishing is that I have so much to say that I'd hardly know where to start. Another reason is that Jane Smith, over at How Publishing really Works, speaks about it so clearly, regularly and eloquently that I hardly need to. If you scroll down her list of labels, you'll find 39 for self-publishing and 38 for vanity publishing. Go, Jane!

However, faced with a day in which I am supposed to be writing 5000 words of my own Nanowrimo-driven WIP, how can I resist the temptation of a major Work Avoidance Strategy by wading in with my own views?

Especially since I have just seen a blog post over on Writer Beware which you absolutely must read, because it hammers so many nails on the head. (And it most beautifully nails the reason why I put "traditional" in quote marks.) Do read it first, before going on to read my own scream.

Now, I'll take several deep breaths and then tell you where I stand on the subject of S-P and vanity publishing.

Vanity first, and briefly. Briefly because frankly I couldn't give a toss about vanity publishing except when it pretends it's not, and then I get really angry at the way it manipulates unwary authors and cares nothing about books. Essentially, with vanity, you lose money and control but you get a pretty (if you're very lucky) book at the end of it. It's pure vanity. No doubt I should force myself to say more, because of the obfuscation sometimes created by companies pretending not to be vanity presses, but to be honest, Jane covers it so well. Buck neatly passed.

Random musing: aren't we all pretty vain to want to be published? No, actually, though of course some authors are vain, like anyone else. "Vanity" is emptiness (think about the derivation), a pointless gazing at oneself, a vacuous and selfish preening. Wanting to write and be published is wanting to connect, to create, to share and to change people's worlds.

OK, what do I think about self-publishing? Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Another coffee and some Green & Blacks. And then ...

(Ooh, first - delaying tactic - I've thought of a phrase to replace "traditional" publisher, since the latter is, as Victoria explains on Writer Beware, misleading. I'll call them "book-led publishers". I know it's not elegant, but it reflects the fact that a real publisher leads on producing the books it believes add to the existing body of books out there. Whether a book-led publisher publishes art books, academic books, lit fic or chick-lit or whatever, it selects them because of something about the books and nothing else. So, book-led is what I'm going to call them.)

No more delaying ...
  1. Some books are appropriate and even ideal for self-publishing and I have nothing but respect for the right authors going about this for the right reasons: niche non-fiction, memoir, and poetry are examples - books where either there really isn't enough market for a publisher to do justice to the book; or where the author has existing marketing/production/editing/design skills or is prepared to outsource these tasks to genuine professionals; or where an author has an existing fanbase, perhaps through a blog or other medium, and the skills and time to publish. Even a children's picture book could work, given exceptionally enormous talent and effort on the part of the author/illustrator and the facility to dedicate every waking moment to selling it.
  2. Self-publishing, print-on-demand (POD) and vanity presses are often guilty of being very unclear about what they do. It is easy to tell whether you are dealing with a book-led publisher: ask yourself how the company makes its money. If it makes its money from readers, by selling books to them, it's a book-led publisher; if it makes its money from the author (even a tiny bit, even a penny/cent) then it's not and if you use it you are not being published: you are paying for publication. Which, as I said, could be perfectly sensible but you should be under no illusion.
  3. Most self-published material, especially fiction, is dire. DIRE. There is no point in searching my vocabulary for a better word. (Yes, I KNOW a lot of published stuff is dire too, but self-published direness takes direness to a whole new level - trust me. I've talked about WHY CRAP IS PUBLISHED and I will again. You know the dire published book you're thinking of? Well, imagine if that had only been edited by the writer's six-year-old child while in bed with flu and with the family cat sitting on the MS? That's halfway to the direness of some self-published stuff. I get given it on my unlucky days, so I know.)
  4. Nearly all self-published books sell in minuscule numbers. How many friends do you have? How many could you persuade to part with cash? Well, that's how many books you will probably sell. Unless you are a seriously brilliant and dedicated salesperson and are prepared not to write any more ever again because you will be selling, selling, selling. You will lose hair, weight (hmm, good idea), self-esteem and years off your life; you will gain wrinkles, bags, and new respect for book-led publishers. You will probably not make any money but if you do, you will be rightly proud of it. But too tired to do it again.
  5. Whenever someone tells you that publishing is "broken", ask yourself who is saying this and why. Is it a published author? Is it an author who has won awards, received good reviews, has a genuine fanbase? Or is it someone who has either failed to get published or who has decided to make money out of other people's failure to do so?
  6. When you hear about a self-published book becoming "successful", (and this does occasionally happen, but much less often than you are led to believe) realise that this success nearly always happens when a book-led publisher takes on the formerly self-published book. So, is that a self-publishing success or proof that publishing is neither dead nor the future?
Nifty tip: I forget who suggested this (I think it was someone commenting on a blog but I don't think it was this one - reveal yourself if it was you!) but I came across a really good reason for using Lulu (or any other similar POD service). When you've finished your MS, get a copy printed on Lulu as your own proof copy: then you get to see your book as a real book, at which point it suddenly becomes so much easier to spot all its horrible errors and general unpublishabilitiness.

In short: please do yourself a favour:
do not even contemplate going down the s-p route unless for the right reasons and with eyes wide open. If you do have the right reasons and eyes wide open, I have enormous respect for you and wish you lots of luck. I certainly do not look down on those few s-p authors who produce an excellent book.

If you do decide that self-publishing (in any form) is your way to go, please follow this advice from a well-meaning, crabbit old bat:

PAY as much as necessary for:
  1. editing - authors should never never never consider editing their own work (apart from the obvious stages of self-editing that we all do before submitting to an editor)
  2. proof-reading
  3. design (unless you are a designer) - you need a fab cover, because we do judge a book by the cover, in the sense that we won't pick it up if it looks like a piece of piss; and you need the words set nicely on the page with decent margins, which s-p books never seem to have because they're scrimping on paper
  4. medical insurance, for when you have a nervous breakdown; not to mention child-care, house-keeping, and one hell of a lot of high-quality chocolate and quite possibly a gin or two ...
So far on this blog, you have all been very genteel and freindly with your comments. But I've noticed that when a blogger dares to criticise self-publishing/vanity he/she tends to receive vitriol in return. So, in advance of any of that I am going to arm myself with chocolate and write the 5000 words that I'm supposed to be producing today, for my completely "traditional" publisher ....