Thursday, May 7, 2009

Self Publishing: Everybody's Right - Sort of

If you want to stimulate a vigorous discussion among a group of writers, just raise the question of self-publishing. Almost immediately, they will gather into one of two camps. One camp sees self-publishing as the salvation of the written word. The other camp sees it as the death of literary quality. Truth be told, both are right.

The problem with highly polarized questions is that they force out the more reasoned evaluation that exists at some point between the the extremes. Self-Publishing is no exception to that rule. Rational discussion degenerates into open warfare between those claiming that self-publishing democratizing publishing providing the reader with a greater variety of reading materials than the traditional publisher driven system can provide and those claiming that self-published inevitably means poor quality.

The ugly truth is that both sides speak the truth just not all of it. Self-Publishing does create a greater variety of materials than is economically feasible for traditional publishers to produce. This is particularly important for writers and readers of niche literature. For instance, a traditional publisher warehousing thousands of copies of each book cannot afford to publish books of interest to only a few hundred people. However, the self-published author can write that book about underwater basket weaving and underwater basket weavers everywhere will rejoice to find new patterns for their seaweed baskets.

Using the internet as a distribution pipeline, readers with special interests can find the types of books they want and writers with a drive to write that type of literature can reach that audience. So, while sales of books in bookstores and through traditional publishers are down, there is no lack of publishing, buying and selling the printed word.

It's a beautiful world where self-publishing has saved the written word from extinction, then. Right?

Sorry, not quite. The other side claims, with some strong justification, that self-publishing is degrading the overall quality of printed materials. They say, that it is true we have more printed material available to readers, but just having more garbage doesn't make it any less smelly. The traditional publishing system of editors and editorial teams acting as gatekeepers produces higher quality writing and produces a better physical product.

I agree completely that most self-published material fails to meet even minimum standards of acceptability in terms of literary skill. Likewise, the physical product tends to be poorly edited and poorly designed.

When the only one deciding if a piece of writing deserves publication is the writer, there exists a huge hole for the devil to creep in. Who of us are truly objective about our own writing? We give birth to a book and it is our pride and joy. Like proud parents it is perfect in our sight and what isn't perfect, well, that just adds to the special-ness of the little tyke.

Unfortunately, most self-publishers are motivated less by a desire to fill a niche not being filled by the traditional media, but by impatience and incompetence. They don't want to go through the long process of pitching a book to multiple editors, then revising, editing, rewriting the manuscript until it is ready for publication. I can heat up a three-course meal in the microwave in 10 minutes. Why can't I get published like that? Well, I can. Just upload the text, choose a few designs, and after a few keystrokes and mouseclicks, you too, can be a published author. And you don't have to hear any editor telling you that your manuscript is not yet ready for publication or (horror of horrors) that is just isn't very good.

So, where does this leave us? It leaves us with and "embarrassment of riches." Self-publishing brings to the reading public many quality books each year that traditional publishing could not (or would not) publish. Certainly, those of us you enjoy Christian speculative fiction often depend on self-published materials to feed our hunger for the genre.

However, without any gatekeepers, all sorts of low lifes rush into the courtyard. The consumer has to be even more critical in evaluating their book purchases. They can no longer depend on a publisher to pre-screen the writing or to proofread the manuscript. They have to be more involved in the process of making an informed purchase. Perhaps, that is the biggest benefit that can arise from self-publishing.

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Blogger Mike Lynch said...


I enjoyed reading your article. I'm sure it will give a lot of people food for thought over this devisive issue. There are those who swear by their success as a self-published authors, and then there are those who believe it is the bane of publishing. As you astutely pointed out, both are right. In the end, I suppose either option must be weighed against the needs of the writer.

May 7, 2009 at 9:40 AM  
Blogger Terri said...

Yes, I agree Mike. I don't believe that a self-published work must be bad. However, the writer needs to be proactive to push on until the manuscript is actually ready for publication.

May 7, 2009 at 9:53 AM  
Blogger TWCP Authors said...

There have been some great successes in self-publishing (most recently, The Shack) and these bring much hope to all writers.

There are many successful (by my standards, not by those of the big publishing houses) self-published books but by a large majority, these are non-fiction books that appeal to a niche market.

Self-publishing has an important role to play in the marketplace because it can produce reading material that is not found elsewhere. I am thinking specifically of the kind of Christian speculative fiction that big houses won't touch because of its risk.

So along comes the self-publishing option. It does have a bad reputation (though this trend is reversing) and in many cases it is deserved.

The only way to circumvent popular opinion is to prove the naysayers wrong. Produce a quality product from beginning to end.

However, I don't want anyone to think that [I think] s.p. books = bad novels. It isn't so. I've certainly read my share of novels put out by big publishers that should never have seen the light of day! However, these companies have a reputation upon which they can ride, a self-publisher has to prove her/ himself . . . over and over again before they gain credibility.

May 7, 2009 at 11:02 AM  

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