How To Self-Publish So It Benefits Readers?

Yes, yes, fine, we know that self-publishing benefits the author.

It gives writers greater control and a greater financial stake in each sale and it forms a direct relationship between between said writer and that writer’s readers.

Yay! Huzzah! Let’s all dance around the tetherball pole and give each other playful buttock slaps.





It’s just — wait a minute.

Hold up, hold up, hold up.



Goddamnit, Jimmy. Thank you. Sheesh.

We’ve thought about the one side of that equation — the writer — but nobody seems to be talking about the other half of that. Nobody’s talking about how self-publishing benefits readers.

The reason?

It doesn’t. Not yet, and not directly.

If anybody’s left out in the cold when authors self-publish it’s readers. Yes, they reap some benefit — if they’ve an author they love then it’s all the better to have that author not bound up in a situation where it takes him 15 months from the completion of a novel to the publication of that novel. It also ensures that the reader’s money is going in greater steaming lumps to that author. So, in this way, fans are rewarded.

But regular readers? Not so much.

Now, some of this falls to Amazon and B&N, admittedly — curation and filter of indie books (and, in fact, all books) is awful. Sorting through books on those sites is about as much fun as sorting through a jar of marmot pellets looking for that one good Junior Mint. That doesn’t mean, however, that self-published authors can’t take some responsibility for the work they’re putting out in the world.

Let’s just say it now and say it proud, trumpeting it so loudly that You All The Way In The Back can hear: this should be the year that self-publishers take responsibility. For themselves and their work as well as the larger body of DIY work existing out there in the world. Let this be the year that indie writers step into Thunderdome armed to the teeth with all the best weapons and armor. (Instead of, say, a mop handle “sword” and a flak jacket made from Schlitz cans.) Let this be the year that you do the work and take the time to get your books up to speed so that self-published books become indistinguishable from any other book on the shelf. Because, let’s be honest: 8 times out of 10 you can spot a self-published book a mile away.

Let this be the year that self-publishing serves readers as much as it serves writers.

How can it serve readers?

Here’s a few ways (and use the comments to add your own):

Treat Readers Like Customers And Clients

One thing that traditional publishing offers authors is a thing most don’t realize: a buffer. Formatting error? Not the author’s fault! Weird marketing? Not the author’s fault! Ugly cover? Not the author’s fault!

To a publisher, a reader is a customer. To a writer, the reader represents audience.

Ah, but in this situation, the writer hath become a publisher, like some kind of literary Transformer (cue crunchy transforming noise), which means the buffer is gone and the excuses are cast to the wind like so much dried semen flower pollen.

Writers will self-publish best when they embrace the mind-set that readers are no longer just readers: they are a customer and client base. You’re not freelancing for a magazine, now: you’re freelancing for the greater body of readership, and that means trying to please and appease however you — and they – see fit.

Put Together A Good-Looking Book

I’ll totally admit that self-publishing has come really far. Doesn’t change the fact that a surprising number of self-published books still maintain as much aesthetic value as me rolling around in hot garbage and then splatting my pale, waste-besmirched body on an empty canvas. Also doesn’t change the fact that many are deeply riddled with errors — not a couple here and there born of formatting problems but errors born of writers who wouldn’t know what they were doing if you broke their noses with a copy of Strunk & White.

(And stop redirecting. If any of you are about to type into the comment box, “But traditionally-published books have errors too!” then I will tie you down and give you an Angry Crayfish enema. That’s not an excuse. Getting into a slapfight on the playground doesn’t become magically okay because those kids got into a slapfight, too. One crime does not make equivalent crimes suddenly acceptable.)

Get a cover that doesn’t look like a warty dick. Find a strong editor. Train yourself to be a better writer after every book — grow, excel, learn your fucking trade you fucking animals.

Ooh, sorry. I think I was snapping into Alec Baldwin mode, there.

Point is: put together a good-looking book.

And part of that means: write well.

Quality Over Quantity

In DIY-indie-micro-self-publishing, quantity serves the writer. The more work you shotgun blast into the world, the more work you have to sell (and further, the more legitimate your work appears — “There’s so much of it!”). Readers, though, are often treated to a bunch of half-baked half-ass material.

Stop giving them the half-ass. Give them the full ass. The total booty. The complete rumpage.

Take the time to earn their trust by offering works of maximum quality.

Stop treating self-publishing work like it’ll have to be “good enough.” Be the best, by gum, by golly.


Best Practices, Motherfucker

Most industries have an unspoken (or, sometimes, totally spoken) list of best practices. Meaning, the ways for those industries to be jacked up to Maximum Awesome. When I worked at the library, I did marketing and one of the programs I helped put together was a best practices for libraries to serve an aging population. The list wasn’t all, “Make sure old people have their own water fountains because they smell like rose hips and pee,” or, “Ensure the library has a handicap ramp; oh, it doesn’t have to be near a door or anything, you can put it on the roof for all I care, we just need to have one somewhere so we don’t get yelled at.”

They don’t call it a Bare Minimum list. It’s a list of Best Practices.

So much of self-publishing seems devoted toward bare minimum.

So, for your audience, put together a list of your own personal best practices.

Targeted Cheerleading

Stop rewarding bad behavior. When the dog pees on the carpet, the dog is duct-taped to the couch and forced to watch  a VHS tape of his many indiscretions with this latest urinary mistake added to the pile. The dog is not given a ham bone and happy good-boy ear-scratches.

Cheerlead — by which I mean, recommend heartily — those self-published books that meet not just the minimum standards of quality but that exceed them. And those books that don’t? Fuck ‘em. I’m not saying you have to go full court press and ridicule them in the town square, but stop high-fiving them just because they’re self-published. Which leads me to…

Leave The Tribe

You’re not a tribe. Self-publishers are not “together.” But a lot of them act like it — “An attack on one is an attack on all!” — and that’s not only insane, but bad for readers.

Here’s the thing, and this isn’t meant to be a jab at unions, but when “indie” writers act like they’re banded together, it runs the risk of feeding on all the worst inclinations of a union. They all serve one another as customers and recommend each other endlessly and, most problematically, issues and concerns are hand-waved away by the tribe. Instead of embracing a body of people Doing It Wrong, we should be examining those who are Doing It Right.

Put more crassly, readers aren’t served by the self-publishing circle jerk.

All they get for their efforts is a bad case of spooge-eye.

If you want to come together, do so to be the best, not the worst.

Feel free to re-queue that Karate Kid music video.

Take Risks In Storytelling

Traditional publishing has become more risk averse over the years (though to suggest they take no risks at all is a suggestion born from a person who never takes a trip to the bookstore) — it’s why you see a lot of the same thing on shelves. It’s why the same cover is rehashed again and again. Same tropes, same genres, same narrative copy-pasta.

One could argue that this is just fine for readers — it’s what they want, it’s what they buy, and publishers are just bolstering the trends. I’d argue the opposite: setting trends and taking risks is what really rewards the audience. The rise of Stephen King was not because horror was really popular before he came around. Horror was a non-starter prior to King. King popularized that genre and helped to make it huge. He wasn’t chasing trends — he was the trend.

Problem is, self-publishers end up doing More Of The Same. Look at a lot of self-published work and it feels alarmingly similar to what’s already out there. So much of it can be described as a rip-off of something else.

Time to step up, self-pubbers.

Time to start taking risks. Time to stop following in the well-worn paths and carve out your own.

That will ultimately serve readers.

Take Risks In Format

Format needs risks, too. Traditional publishing is in love with the novel. The bigger novel, the better. Certain formats were non-starters: novellas, short stories, poetry, etc. Risky formats were not rewarded. Hell, they never even made it to shelf half the time — wasn’t worth the printing. E-readers have changed that (and, I’ll add here: e-books were a risk in format and see how that paid off?).

Explore different formats. Readers are a diverse bunch and can be served by various experiences — it’s time to stop serving them standard continental cuisine. Time to introduce some new flavors.

That might even mean storytelling experiences that leave the book.

(I’ll talk more about transmedia and self-publishing later.)

Go forth. Experiment.

Sell Directly

Not ever reader has the same e-reader, and not every reader wants to buy from Megabeasts like Amazon or B&N. Sell your book directly. It provides a fresh option for the audience in terms of procurement.

This is one that actually also serves the author. You hear a lot of “OMG YOU GOTTA PUB WITH AMAZON BECAUSE 70% ROYALTY OMG,” but you don’t hear a lot of, “OMG YOU SHOULD SELL DIRECTLY BECAUSE 80-90% ROYALTY OMG.” But that’s the reality. To give perspective, of all my self-published book sales last year, about 5-6% was with B&N. But almost 30% of my sales came direct from this blog.

Pay attention. Offer direct. Readers want it, and it pays for you, too.

That’s called a “win-win” situation.

Discover What Traditional Publishing Is Not Offering

This goes back in part to the “risk” discussion but, for me, deserves its own special corner of this here bloggerel. What is it that traditional publishing isn’t offering? No, no, not to the writer. We know that already. What aren’t they offering to readers? Where is there a deficit, a void, a secret and totally vulnerable thermal exhaust port into which an author-slash-publisher could in theory launch a proton torpedo?

Discover that, and you’ll know in part how to serve readers above serving yourself.

Your Turn

How can self-publishing serve both writers and readers?

Sound off, you crazy little wordomancers, you.


  • This line:

    “Stop giving them the half-ass. Give them the full ass. The total booty. The complete rumpage.”

    Has conjured upon my noodle some really strange images of a Full Monty/Rumpole of the Bailey mashup.

    It’s not pretty.

  • Wordomancer has got to be my favorite “writer” synonym so far. :D *begins to chant in spooky voice, causing dead words to get up and dance*

    Your point about sifting through those sites looking for a good book is dead-on. I never go to Amazon or Barnes and Noble unless I’m looking for a- a textbook, or b- a specific book that I can’t find anywhere else or that is out of print. I have to know what I’m looking for or I won’t be able to find *anything.* If someone would invent some kind of bookstore-shelf interface online, now THAT would be helpful. Though I would probably still go to bookstores more often, because I don’t trust Amazon reviews for anything…

    And for the record, I hate the self-righteous “indie” self-e-published jerks even more than I hate the snobby traditional publishing jerks.

  • I agree entirely with this post.

    The thing that weighs heavily on my mind when it comes to self-publishing is that it sounds like you can’t get your book into libraries. If you’re writing books that you want kids to read (and despite my love for the Kindle, not every kid is going to have one), going the self-publishing route shuts down the most reader-friendly path.

  • @Arachne Libraries won’t always be out of the self-publishing loop. The way that large publishers are routinely screwing over libraries on e-books means that librarians will be searching for books that are actually convenient and usable for their patrons. It may take a while since many large libraries are locked into purchasing systems that only work with large distributors and have policies that mean they only buy books that are reviewed in Kirkus but that will have to change. All it will take is a large enough selection of good books that patrons are requesting and librarians will find a way to buy them.

    At the very least, I think self-publishers with quality material can look forward to a time when mainstream publishing has killed off brick-and-mortar bookstores so that libraries will serve as the only available showroom for print books. With print on demand being a fast turnaround option, a well-reviewed self-pubber can get sales and books on shelves with the same amount of effort (and maybe cost) to the library as interlibrary loan.

    Even with libraries taking a nosedive in funding, they’re lasting institutions that provide real service to their communities so I expect them to evolve in ways that will keep them relevant to authors. Since librarians are increasingly on the cutting edge of technology geekdom, I think it’s just a matter of time before libraries become a major market for self-publishing.

  • Hooray! Finally someone who recognizes that with every freedom comes a correlative responsibility; maybe even more than one responsibility.

    I’ve said the same (though not as thoroughly) on several discussion boards recently.

    I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve read the first two paragraphs of a self-published book (without knowing up-front that it was self-published) and have known immediately that it was self-published. (I subscribe to; get an excerpt every day.)

    Self-publishing authors do owe it to readers to put their best foot forward, but they owe it to themselves, as well. The problem is that many of them have no idea how bad/weak their writing really is.

    Almost without exception, every talented author/writer I know recognizes they can be even better writers than they are. They listen to editing advice; they study the craft and other great writers; they know and honor the rules instead of disparaging them, AND they know when and how to break the rules. Why? Because they actually do think about how their work affects the reader.

    Good on ya’, Chuck.

  • An excellent point, I work in a book store and what keeps the customer coming back?

    The personal service, exceeding the customers’ expectations. Some peeps are only interested in the cheapest of anything, most; on the other hand, want advice, recommendations, delivered with a friendly enthusiasm and a genuine love for the books we are selling. All this is very difficult to achieve over the faceless interweb. If you can keep all that in mind when you’re touting your wares, well maybe, you might be half way there.

  • I agree whole-heartedly with your post. I have jointly published an anthology of shorts. Every story has gone through a rigorous system of criticism and comment, and several have been published in magazines and as apps. Could they still be improved? Yes, I’m sure of it, but there comes a point where one has to let go and move on. This would also be true of a traditionally published anthology. Despite knowing we have released a quality product, I am still concerned that, with the exception of the externally published stories, we haven’t had the endorsement of a professional outfit and this makes me reluctant to publicize our book.

    I have got to the stage where I block the posts by some self-published authors on Facebook, because for me their relentless self-trumpeting is embarrassing and tedious. I know many of them aren’t up to standard because I have read extracts. Fortunately, they are immediately recognisable by their homemade covers which are a useful reflection of the contents.

    Everyone may well have a book in them, but it requires the judgment of an editor/agent/publisher to determine whether that book is fit for public consumption.

  • I like self published books a lot, but I never have a lot of money to buy them. So that always sucks. Especially when I see some that I know I need to read. Because I MUST HAVE IT. My precious…..

    I think it would be awesome to see some self published books in public libraries. That way authors can get the word out about them, and more people will buy the book because they loved it instead of the buyer just wanted to support indie publishing. My friend does that and most of it she doesn’t read. It ticks me off. A lot.

  • Everything offered so far I think is on point with what Chuck is talking about. But in talking to a couple of librarians they are really hesitant to purchase indie published work because it hasn’t been vetted by the gatekeepers of traditional publishing. Of course that was merely the couple I was talking to and doesn’t speak true for the whole sector.

    That said it may be ideal to offer deals for libraries and other such groups like schools so that they get your work. Whether that’s by providing it for free or at cost is a different matter. – Any of it requires some investigating and your local library is likely to welcome the your work more readily than a library across the country.

    Helping readers identify your work and the elements about it that would interest them I think is another area that writers are failing on. There is supposedly the ability to tag books put on B&N, Amazon and other sites but apparently too few customers make use of such features to find books and that may be systemic of the fact that authors aren’t doing the tagging to help promote their books.

    But of course there isn’t much in the way of tagging on an author’s own site just a synopsis or blurb and maybe some reviews and recommendations. Those are all great but should they also offer a list of elements in a book to help a customer decide why they should pick your book about the zombie dinosaur space pirate showdown over the space pirate dinosaur zombie shindig offered by someone else. The most difficult part of doing any sort of tagging is to avoid giving away any elements that would spoil the story.

    And yes I know genres are supposed to be a means by which to differentiate books but that doesn’t help when authors are doing just as Chuck suggests and taking risks with their writing.

    Another possibility beyond the online presence is offering a real-life presence. For example spending one day a week writing in a particular place and having some of your work for sale with you but also making it known that you’re available to talk, sign and hang.

    Anyways, those are just some thoughts on the subject that I wanted to share.

  • What are we offering the reader? We’re offering diversity.

    Imagine if the British Royal Family only allowed cousin-humping.

    There would have been no Diana. There would be no Katherine. It could be argued that Fergie was an unfortunate choice, but she was better than cousin-humping.

    You see where I’m going here…

    Of course they have to do their best, that goes without saying.

  • As you state: “You’re not a tribe. Self-publishers are not “together.” People self-publish for a lot of reasons. Most of the self-published books worth reading follow all of your rules and best practices. I can’t be responsible for people who don’t. And while I’ll publicly state that most self-published writing is crap, I’m not going to go around denouncing individuals and calling them out. I’m going to defend Amazon’s policy of allowing almost anyone to publish anything even if it doesn’t help the reputation of self-published books because I like the idea of an open marketplace (even if it’s run by a big company). People are trying “different formats” in self-publishing. Many risk going DRM free to load their books on Smashwords so they are available in EVERY format. Others make their books free. If you’ve managed to sell 80% of your books on your blog good on you. Most people don’t have blogs as popular as yours or big followings. They won’t get many readers that way. My books are all over the place even though 95% of my sales come from Amazon. My aim is to go where the readers are, and Amazon has most of them. What I will not do, is go along with Amazon’s recent “exclusivity” attempt, but I’m also not going to condemn those who do. (I do have an imprint website through which I directly sell my paperback, but not many buyers through that. And brick and mortar bookstores have thus far not been my friend, even when the paperback has been offered on consignment.)

    As for your main thesis, that self-publishing doesn’t serve “the reader,” That’s nonsense. If you write a book and self-publishing allows readers to discover it, and they like it, they are being served. Most of the self-published books (not all) that have done well seem to fall into certain genres, the same genres which also dominate the “traditional” bestseller lists. While there may not be much innovative about these books, clearly the writers are connecting with an audience and therefore serving readers. But there are tons of other self-published books that don’t fall into those categories or that subvert them. Those books would be too risky for traditional publishers to take a chance on. Self-publishing allows those books to become available and allows readers to find them. While I may be a writer, I’m also a reader, and I can think of several self-published books that I “discovered” and loved which would not have had mass appeal but appealed to me. I felt very well served by them.

    Ultimately, any art form is about connecting. I’m sometimes amazed that while I haven’t exactly reached bestsellerdom, my modest sales have still brought me readers who “get” my book. I’ve not only served those readers, but they’ve served me as well.

    Could most people be doing a better job with this than they are? Sure. But frankly, I think you are speaking to the choir. The people who are churning out crap, aren’t listening. It’s a conundrum. The reputation of self-publishing will continue to be low as long as “anybody” can self-publish, but if restrictions and barriers arise, it will be even harder to connect and serve readers.

  • All good points. With direct contact with our readers, we shoulder all the responsibility.
    Direct sales is something I’ve been talking about for a while but few people take seriously. I give readers the option to buy from Amazon or B&N on my site, but also a direct buy option. Most choose to go the McDonalds route (I’ll buy from the known) but we generate some nice change with direct sales. We automated the process so they get the eBook right away in the correct format. It cost a lot to do, but has been worth it. Also, for print sales, they can get a super-dooper personalized signed copy from my grubby hands to theirs.
    We also offer personal customer service. If someone has a problem with something, all two of us at Who Dares Wins Publishing get the email and we respond ASAP and fix any problems.

  • Lovely thoughts as usual, sir.

    One might also add that it’s OKAY if you don’t have the mad skillz to typeset your book & design a Truly Awesome Cover. Someone you know does, or someone they know does. Hire them. It will be so much better that way.

    And you sure as hell better pay in more than beer. Unless, you know, that’s the going rate wherever you are.

  • Now these are great points. This is why I earned masters’ degrees in both writing and business.

    To be armed. To the teeth. Not with a broom handle and rusted shiv. No, we’re talking a superior Skyforged war axe with a fiery soul drain enchantment that does 45 damage.

    Because you’re right. It’s up to us. I can control nothing but my books and stories. And I endeavor to support other indie authors who do so as well.

    Now that I’ve got other authors with Exciting Press, it’s more important than ever. But it’s also valuable. Because you’re right: I’m here for readers. When readers are dissatisfied, I want to know why so I can resolve issues. That’s my job. I’m an author.

  • Thank you, again. Particularly the point about “Quality over Quantity”. So many self-publishers (and indeed, they seem to be the cheerleader types as well) keep harping on having a *lot* of books available – almost like they were manufacturing corn flakes. Now, I like corn flakes – but not in my reading material…

  • I think that society in general would be well-served to have more excellence and pride in their craftsmanship. Sloppy slop is embarrassing.

    If I am going to put my name on a piece of work, you better believe it’s going to be the best thing I can make it. My name, my reputation is ALL I have.

    Each of us. Reputation is everything. Guard it. Build it. Polish it.

    lest ye be devoured by the mediocre ogre…

    • Here, a brief story.

      Have a relative, an older relative, who got a Kindle and ended up surfing the Amazon store for Kindle books.

      All the indie books and regular books are mashed together and the indie books are often nicely-priced. In fact, one of the flags of indie books is that they’re cheaper. Right? Right.

      So, she picked up a couple for a buck and then went to read them.

      And found what was inside fairly bad. Not just story-wise but just… unreadable. Looked okay on the outside, maybe, but a snaggletoothed shit-bomb mess inside.

      What that means is, she’s now not going to take the same kind of risks. Particularly with self-published books because indie books are marked with cheaper prices and less well-known names and she know thinks to stay away from those two red flags. Hands off, game over, no-touchy. She’ll stick with the traditionally-published books written by authors she already knows.

      That’s why self-pub needs to serve readers. That’s why we need to stop cheerleading or excusing bad self-published work and expect that it’s just fine-and-dandy that it’s out there. That’s why authors need to take responsibility and be told to take responsibility because they’re now more than just authors: they are, as the name suggests, publishers.

      — c.

  • I prefer to buy direct! It doesn’t stop the customer from going to the other sites (Amazon/B&N/Wherever else you sell your books) and reviewing them to get other readers to buy. I don’t have an e-reader, so PDFs work just fine for me right now (and the author gets a bigger cut).

    I’ll weigh in on taking risks in format as well:

    I have seen another author recently who made one of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories as a free phone app game called “Wizard’s Choice.” His story-telling is wonderful, it felt like I was reading a great book (with some typo-errors) and I can’t wait for the next chapter to come out.

    He does have a novel called “MetaGame” which, as a reader, I am now interested in due to his free content I’ve been hooked on.

    Having some prime, free-to-very-cheap content available can also help boost interest in your work.

    People carry their phones everywhere, see if you can tap into that the way the guy did with his app (Sam Landstrom, if you’re interested/curious).

  • I like what you said about taking risks. I want to see new and startling things come out of selves. Startling in their audacity and quality and creativity. Time for writer geek wives to create with their tech geek husbands to create a whole new way to read.

    • That’s the thing, @Ellie Ann — above, @Darlene notes that diversity is what self-publishing offers the readership.

      The possibility of that is true, but in practice, I’m not so sure. I don’t see much bravery in terms of indie authorship. Some, to be sure, just not a lot. Indie film and indie music were both bellwethers of culture shift and tended to put forth a foot that the traditional media wouldn’t touch. A lot of self-publishing is just more of the same (and, in some cases, worse than the same).

      — c.

  • Awesome advice Chuck. You missed one piece though. Spend a good chunk of cash on:

    A: Cover (and sometimes interior) Art
    B: Proofing
    C: Editing
    D: I.T. (eg: Hosting)

    The polish you’ll get by investing in these areas will result in better quality for the reader, and gradually improve the perception of self-published works.

  • Great list of tips Chuck. Some I strive to meet. Some…I need some work on. I think common sense could be another item. Don’t spend $99 when you don’t have to :/ Oh well, we live and we learn, right?

  • From a comic book standpoint, we have a similar problem with distribution. Self-publishing is basically a necessity to break into comics but you won’t get carried in a comic shop unless you hand deliver your product to the shops and have a decent conversation with the owner. Comics essentially have one distributor and getting into their catalog is nothing short of a year-supply of reach arounds if you know what I mean. They expect indies to have a guaranteed number of pre-orders that other publishers are not required to meet.

    “Being a tribe” in comics does actually help. It’s networking. It’s making friends with other creators that will help spread the word of your products and link to your site. I take personal recommendations that come from friends seriously. I have seen books that I would not have ever known about because of their lack of Diamond Catalog presence.

  • I totally, absolutely agree, Chuck. I sometimes find it hard justifying my own self publishing, because I look around and I have difficulty finding a self published book I would enjoy reading. Why should I want to join that club?
    Well, because in the writing and the formatting and design, I am taking it seriously. My novels I pay to have professionally copy edited, and my short stories I test out on beta readers before I publish. I’m learning as I go along, and I’ve got a helluva lot to learn yet, but I want to do this as professionally as possible.
    The good thing is, the more I have sifted through the pile of self published books, and networked, and read the blogs, the more I am starting to find those golden nuggets of good self published works. They are out there, after all.
    I’m going to tweet this post, as all ‘indie’ authors need to heed it as a rallying call to excellence.

  • Great post! But say it louder next time, so everyone can hear!

    A writer friend and I’ve been having this very conversation. There’s so much pressure to review/tag/star and whatnot whether you like the book or not. It doesn’t even matter if you’ve read it. But that’s just pooping in your own nest!

  • Thank you for saying this. I’m new to the publishing / self-publishing world, but this was the first issue that struck me (and bothered me) when I started learning. I think of this in terms of “costs” (not just monetary) that get shifted around:

    It’s great and wonderful that it’s easier for writers to self-publish (in many ways, it “costs less” for them to do so), but self-publishers need to realize that they’re shifting those costs onto the backs of the readers. So, for example: the writer doesn’t have to subject herself to the demands of the publisher, but the reader has a much harder time finding quality work.

    Thank you also for starting a list and discussion about how to reduce those costs for readers. It seems to me that the ultimate goal of a writer should be to connect with readers (at least through the writing itself, if not through any other ways), and if that’s the case, then the writer should be very concerned with the reader’s experience and making that connection as easy and “low cost” as possible.

    I think your concern about the tribe mentality is particularly important, especially when that mentality obscures or ignores legitimate concerns and problems with the self-publisher/reader interaction.

    One glaring issue for me so far is how difficult it is to find anyone talking about real data. Things like: total self-published books compared with self-published books that earned over $X, or compared with traditionally-published books that made over $X, or any of this broken down by digital vs. print, or by genre, etc. Who’s asking these questions and reporting the answers honestly? Success stories are great, but I find it hard to get any real sense of the context for those successes.

    I love technology, I think the ability to self-publish is great in itself, but I worry for the reader. Thanks again for your posts.

  • Not sure if I missed this or not, but a nice advantage for readers when it comes to the self-pub route, is that often the writer will read and/or follow a lot of what readers, reviewers and general fans are talking about in relation to their stories. This allows the author to listen and decide upon material – even which book to put out next – when creating new ones. Content can be changed if it appears a lot of readers are not fans, direction can be altered, what plots to focus on …you get the idea.

    I’m not saying, as a writer, change everything for *they* want, but if definitely opens up the lines of communication and feedback.

  • From what I’m understanding, the self-pub biz is kinda like the indie film and music movements. Keep costs low, strive to offer something different, and don’t compromise on your own voice. I’m curious, though, in order to offer a quality read do self-pub authors typical hire an editor to look over their work or do they just publish whatever they write? From what you wrote, Chuck, it sounds like quite a few people don’t have anyone read over their work for clarity and grammatical mistakes.

  • I cringe when I hear writers crowing “After 23 hours of caffeine stimulated writing, I have just finished book 3 of my Shitpile trilogy. It will be online by the weekend, woot! TGIF!”

    The only time I have submitted crap like that was a paper to my 12th grade History teacher and it was certifiable rubbish. Which he explained to me. In a kind, but firm note. Attached to the paper marked with a gigantic red F.

    You have given me courage, Chuck. I plan to write a kind but firm note. I will use this note anytime the *gag* reflex is triggered by poor writing.

    Dear Aspiring Author:
    I greatly appreciate that writing a book is a massive undertaking, and for accepting that challenge, I salute you. However, if you wish to know the true pleasure of a job well done, I might suggest that you remove this manuscript from the public realm and return to work on it. I was unable to read past the first page due to : (list of problems here).
    I sincerely hope you will not give up on your dream of being an author, but reapply yourself to the craft, working and shaping your prose until you have words worthy of your aspirations. Remember “What is written without effort is in generally read without pleasure.” Samuel Johnson
    A Reader

  • I found this post very interesting. At times it really pushed my buttons and at others it made me think ‘yeah good point, fair enough’ but, above all, it made me want to express my feelings on the issue of self publishing. I will try to be impartial but I am bound to be biased, I am a self publisher you see.

    Although there might be quite a bit of deadwood out there, obscuring a gem of a story, that can be said for both traditionally published authors as well as self published authors. If anything, I feel a little bit like I’m shopping at Tesco when it comes to buying traditionally published books. I’ve been researched as a customer ‘the market’ and someone I don’t know from Adam has been paid to pick out a book from the slush pile that they think will sell on mass commercial basis. Well I am not a mass commercial market, I am me, and I get tired of seeing the same things on the shelves of big chain book stores. It’s predictable and intentionally predictable too. Publishers want to make money, of course, money pays the bills.

    I have libraries on board, helping me to promote my novel in exchange for a donated copy of my book. They get people in the doors and awareness for the library and I get a book on the shelves and an opportunity to meet readers and sign and sell some copies, so everyone’s a winner. I also sell through Amazon as an e-book and paperback, direct via my website and through social networking. There will always be room for improvement and that should be said of everything we do. Perfection should be seen as an unachievable target, but a target nonetheless. Without it we don’t progress, but if we believe we can attain it then we put a cap on how well we can do and how far we can go. Even as a debut novel, with the occasional blip here and there in punctuation, my books have thoroughly satisfied their readers and left them wanting more. That’s what a good book should do.

    Just because a book has been published traditionally it does not mean you are guaranteed to be satisfied and on many occasions I haven’t been. With a self published book I am of the frame of mind that ‘you win some you lose some’. However, from traditional publishers and agents who are paid and educated in spotting trends and money spinners, they have failed. Not only have they failed but they have earned my trust in their abilities to spot something fantastic, taken my money and left me wanting.

    As a society we increasingly want people to do the donkey work for us so we can sit back and be intravenously fed with the things that we ‘like’. Who is living your life, you or the person sat behind a desk picking and choosing what is best for you? I would prefer to listen to word of mouth, research the internet and browse the shelves of libraries and bookshops to make my own mind up about what I would like to try. I don’t want a set menu on my reading table. I want to retain my right and ability to choose, not between self published and traditionally published, but between one cracking good story and another cracking good story.

  • If you can’t proofread, buy a proofreader. If you can’t edit, buy an editor. Uh, that is, services of. Regardless of the merits of your story, errors that basic are unacceptable. If you make unacceptable errors in your writing, chances are good your story is incomprehensible as well. To me, that’s the danger of self publishing.

    Chuck, everything you said about the publishing industry being a buffer between author and reader is on the money. I was going to suggest anyone who wanted to publish their own work, in whatever format, should also learn the basics of the publishing industry standards. Face it, if they haven’t figured out how to wipe their sentences with grammar and spell check, they probably have no idea those standards exist.

  • I take your point about self-publishers taking responsibility, but I thought the statement that self-publishing doesn’t benefit readers now to be false. Some of my favorite books ever have been indie books, and also, based on various reasons, I can see why they wouldn’t have been picked up by publishers. I am so glad those authors decided to put their stuff out there, even if I did have to read a few typos to get it. Yeah, I would’ve preferred to read it clean, but I’m glad to have read it at all. That’s the benefit – getting books we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise (whether that’s because the book was too genre-confused to get published, or whether the author just thought they couldn’t make a living the other way, whatever).

  • I think one thing that self-publishers can and should offer is criticism of other self-publishers.

    I don’t mean reviews, although those are precious enough in the indie world. I mean criticism in the NY Review of Books vein, or the New Yorker, so on. Criticism that engages with a piece, breaks down themes and works with them, gets into the heart of the piece. Screw giving a book four stars, that means nothing to me–what does the book grapple with? How can that impact my life? That’s the kind of criticism I want to read (and the kind I’m beginning to offer).

    A big problem with indie publishing is lack of credibility; since the major publishers don’t want anything to do with us, a lot of people still turn their noses up–just look to the librarian story from Sven. Criticism on the level I’ve described can legitimize the whole indie scene because it would suggest we take ourselves seriously.

    This basic theory of mine is cultivated from French New Wave cinema; in the beginning, a lot of proper film critics and gatekeepers didn’t accept the artistic value of FNV. Yet the essaying of Bazin, Truffaut, Godard, et al in the journal Cahiers du Cinema, crafted a critical response to the new styles and aesthetics, thereby positioning the movement within accepted terms. French New Wave became important when it appropriated old discussions and revolutionized them; indie publishing can absolutely do the same.

  • I agree with this article in most respects — self-publishers who are serious about this need to take their work seriously and present it professionally. And that WILL happen. There are MANY self-pubbers who already do so…and, yes, there is great difficulty in standing out from the “just throw it out there” authors who have neither the experience nor knowledge to present professional-grade work.

    But what a remarkable change: For the longest time, the self-pubbers were the despised untouchables of the publishing world. We were told we were untalented, worthless, incapable of selling, that no one wanted to read us.

    Then a few self-pubbed authors dared to prove that mainstream publishers are full of crap.

    Editors (and other publishing employees) are just people, not omnipotent gods, and they have their prejudices that lead them to reject quality products that actually do have a significant audience.

    A few authors dared to pull the curtain aside and show just how wrong NY was…and the ongoing vitriol from the publishing establishment is stunning.

    Self-pubbers now find themselves in a position that would have been inconceivable a year or two ago: We’re now the “popular kid” instead of being scorned, mocked, ridiculed, humiliated for daring to tell NY publishing to frell off.

    So pardon us if we are a little exuberant in showing our backsides to NY publishers and shouting, “I told you so!” from the rafters. Every once in a while it really does feel good to rub it in.

    There is a big difference between “you’re not good enough to sell to NY” and “I am good enough but I choose to go my own path.” I have sold to NY, repeatedly…but I chose to self-pub because I prefer the freedom to do what I love, my way, on my terms. I work very hard to produce professional books. And I’m sure the self-pubbers who are serious about building a career in this industry will continue to work very hard to produce great books.

    As for selling direct, also in great agreement. Quick question, though: What tools do you suggest for shopping carts, order processing, fulfillment, etc. What works best and is easiest in your opinion?

    — Bill Smith

  • Chuck – I used an online service called BookBaby to format my book into Kindle/Nook/Apple iBook/Sony Reader format and paid $99. I see the folly of my ways :/ going PDF and selling online would have been better. I’m doing that with the rest of my books.

  • @ Samuel, on literary criticism for indies, ditto! I would love to see more established and official venues for self-pub lit crit. I love book bloggers to pieces – especially the ones who are open-minded enough to take a chance on indie books without blasting the whole WILL NOT ACCEPT SELF-PUB bullshit on their review policies – but even the best of them are still just a weighted personal review.

    I am writing literary fiction myself, and it’s one of the few things I find missing by going the self-pub route (as well as many major literary prizes – the physical shelf space I could care less about.)

    And Kirkus Indie can kiss my ass with their $425 indie review. *rolls eyes*

    All that said, Library Journal *does* actually accept submissions from indies. They require galleys of the book 3-4 months before publication though, and a lot of indie authors don’t want to hold back their finished books that long. And while they do accept them, I’m not sure how many indie authors they’ve actually reviewed though.

  • Bill Smith – Unfortunately, the writers screaming about “showing NY” typically are shouting to the choir, since most readers don’t know self-published until they read a couple crappers and vow to stay away from them forevermore. And of course, it’s easy to “show NY” when you have them in your background already. Just sayin’…

  • This post makes me happy in the pants.
    I’m so sick of wading through self-published crap looking for that one needle in the haystack that might be okay. Think about it, the traditional print route offers more gatekeepers. Even if those gatekeepers like Twilight and Nicholas Sparks and other things that make me pee myself (and not in a good way). At least I know when I pick up a shiteous book at B&N, it’s probably not going to have a mix-up of “they’re,” “there,” and “their.”

    Asking self-publishers to step up and become their own gatekeepers? Brilliant.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Excellent idea, Samuel X Brase. The FNV did create itself, didn’t it, by way of questioning what had gone on before it and then offering their own take on the matters, both by way of criticism and their movies.

  • Over the past year I’ve found more than half a dozen new writers who I’ve added to my list of recommendables. They are out there. Perhaps part of our duties to our customers is to not just point them in the right direction, but give them the knowledge necessary to wade through the swamp on their own.

  • You are too funny and insightful. Forwarding on… Well for me as a tech geek, a lover of the customer, I always think about what someone would like. how my graphic design will come through on the cover. for example, there’s this issue about what should be on the cover, sex, race, design, so instead of giving the massive one thing, why not give them what they don’t expect. you want diversity, give them the same book but add a few varies covers to please everyone in the crayon box. Nothing saying “you understand me more then seeing someone like them on the cover” Well, that’s what I’m betting on…

  • I can’t remember the last time I hugged my monitor. It must have been a while ago since my cheeks are now smudged with dust.

    I love how you focus on the reader in the ‘self publishing equation.’ I’m all about user experience and customer service. Better yet, I love how you force people to take accountability for the quality of their work.

    I’m working on my first self-published book, and I’ll be coming back here to make sure I get all my ducks in a row before I play slap buttocks with someone.


    P.S. “Let’s all dance around the tetherball pole” evoked and image of you and Patrick Stewart prancing around. Not sure where that came from… maybe I should stop watching Star Trek before I sleep.

  • A post at Ebook Friendly today ( collects some helpful data about the success of self-published ebooks in 2011, and it’s great to see this kind of data getting collected and reported.

    According to the report, 18 self-published titles made it into the Top 100 for 2011, which is a huge increase from 2010 (where there were none). This kind of data is encouraging and makes the cheerleaders get very excited. And that’s great … there’s much to celebrate there.

    However, this same data reinforces the warnings raised in this post. If we assume the number of self-published books in 2011 is at least the same as in 2010 (and it’s probably higher than the 2.8 million published in that year), then the percentage of all self-published books that made it into that Top 100 is about 0.000006%. The percentage for traditionally-published works (about 318,000 in 2010) is about 2.6%. That means a traditionally-published work is still about 400,000 times more likely to make it into the top 100 than a self-published book. [Math was never my strong suit … please verify/correct.]

    That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t self-publish, and there’s all sorts of factors in play on both sides of that. But those numbers still exist, and they should be sobering for writers, and they should be pointed out alongside all the encouraging numbers and the cheerleading.

    And they should definitely underscore the main point of this post: self-publishers should take all necessary care to serve the readers responsibly, because the readers have a lot more to choose from and the same limited amount of time to spend.

  • Wow what a breath of fresh air. Everywhere I read, including on my blog…ha…there is a lot of discussion on self publishing vs. traditional publishing and it is always about how it will benefit the author. After reading your post I am more informed on how it benefits the reader, especially the part about offering something that is of high quality. I find a lot of self-published authors are more interested in pushing out as much content as possible as quickly as possible to maximize profits without thinking about quality. Thanks for the fresh perspective.

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