Self-Publishing Is Not The Minor Leagues

(This plays a little with the baseball metaphors dropped by Scalzi last week.)

Let’s all agree that self-publishing is a viable path.

It’s a real choice for authors.

You can, if that’s the type of person you are, be the publisher of your own work.

You are author-publisher. Behold your mighty yawp! Freeze-frame heel-kick high-five!

It is, overall, an equal choice to traditional publishing.

Let’s go ahead and just agree that. Even if you don’t agree — for now, nod and smile.

That means it’s time to stop treating self-publishing like it’s the fucking minor leagues.

See, here’s the thing. Though acting as author-publisher is a viable choice, it’s one that retains a stigma — lessened, these days, but still a stigma carried by other writers, by those in publishing, by bloggers, and in some cases by readers. The air, suffused with an eggy stink.

You want to get rid of the stigma once and for all? Clear the room of any bad smell?

Good.

Then it’s time to take a long look at the culture surrounding self-publishing. We’ve moved past the time where we need to champion the cause, okay? We’ve seen enough success in that space and have plenty of positive examples it’s time to stop acting as cheerleaders.

And it’s time to start acting as critics.

The attitude that pervades self-publishing is that it’s a good place to test your craft, to hone your work. We are reminded constantly that the cream floats to the top, that all the crappy self-publishing efforts have no effect on anything or anybody ever despite evidence to the contrary. The culture forgives and sometimes congratulates even the most meager of efforts because of how courageous someone is to take the plunge to publish their own work. The culture says, “Just click publish!” The culture criticizes the faults of traditional-publishing, but excuses (or celebrates) its own. And yet, sometime in the same breath, self-publishing gets painted as a path to traditional publishing, not as a path separate and scenic all its own.

The culture is full of contradictions.

“Traditional publishing screws you and you won’t get paid anything!” And then: “It’s okay to make $100 off your self-publishing because you just bought yourself dinner, now you’re living the high-life.” Well, which is it?

“Traditional publishing is just corporate control! Down with the Big Six! Er, Big Five! Big Four? Whatever!” But then: “Let’s hug and squeeze Amazon, a giant monolithic corporate entity kaiju who has changed the rules on us so many times our heads are whipping around wildly upon our necks! Amazon is the Big One! Yay lack of competition! Huzzah, all our eggs in a single basket! Woooooo corporations!” Wait, do we like corporate control or not?

“The readers are our gatekeepers, that’s who we care about.” Except: “Publish your first effort — it’s okay that it has errors, as long as people buy it! Who cares about readers as long as I’m satisfying myself?” Do we like readers, or do we wanna punish them with sub-par efforts?

“Self-publishing is a revolution! Traditional publishing is risk averse!” And then: you publish the safest, softest low-ball efforts that suggests it’s not a revolution but, rather, more of the same.

“Traditional publishing does it wrong!” And then: you do it worse. What the crap, people?

Get your head straight. Point north. Care about this thing you’re doing. You don’t want to be inferior to the books on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. This isn’t a garage sale. You want to be better than the books on the shelves at bookstores. You say those books have errors? Ugly cover or bad books or lack of risk? So go and do different! Do better, not worse.

Let me get ahead of this — someone somewhere, here in the comments or on another site, is going to accuse me of bashing self-publishing and its authors.

I am not.

Self-publishing is an amazing option. You can now write a novel however it is that the novel demands to be written. That book that lives in your heart? You can now crack open your breastbone, rip the book out and hold the throbbing crimson creature in front of readers and say, “This is the story I wanted to tell and nobody was able to stop me.” You can not only write it your way, but edit it, design it, market it — again, all your way. Nobody but readers can say “boo” about it. You’ll have no publisher telling you the material is too risky. You’ll have no publisher trying to put a cover on your book that you don’t feel represents the story you told. You won’t feel like the publisher has forgotten the book when it comes time to market it. If anybody fucks it up, it’s you.

Self-publishing is also great for traditionally-published authors. Acting as your own author-publisher is a way to put out material staggered with your other releases. It’s also great to have as an option for if the time comes when publishers don’t want your other work. They start giving you the we love it but can’t sell it story, all you have to say is, “Well, if you won’t publish it, I will.”

I will continue to exercise my own self-publishing options this year with a few releases.

I don’t just like the option. I fucking love the option. It has changed the game for authors. Anytime creative people have a new door carved into the giant wall in front of us — the wall separating our work from our audience — I’m going to cheer and gibber and wail and probably swallow a half-dozen gin-drinks and maybe rub an aromatic lotion into my beard and then summon dark entities from beyond and couple with them.

But that love can still come with a criticism of the culture. Just as my love of traditional publishing can be tempered by its own criticism, too.

In fact: I criticize because I care. Because I want to see the option done right. If I didn’t give a shit, I’d just point and laugh from the sidelines and snarkily snark with other smug, self-superior traditionally-published authors. (And just as that superiority isn’t attractive from them, it’s not attractive from the side of author-publishers, either, by the way.) The authors who often get held up as paragons of the form? They’re doing it right. They’re treating it like it’s a professional endeavor, not some also-ran half-ass effort. They’re acting like it’s the real deal — a trip to the Majors, not time spent in some Dirt League.

Self-publishing isn’t a lifestyle choice.

It isn’t a hobby.

It’s not a panacea. It’s not pox on your home.

It is neither revolution nor religion.

(Oh, and it damn sure isn’t a place to improve your craft. That’s called “writing.” Writing is how you improve your craft — by doing a whole lot of it, by reading, by having your work read by friends and family and by other writers and by editors. Publishing is not where you improve your craft. You don’t learn to pilot an airplane by taking a job with U.S. Airways. A job as an executive chef is not analogous to a cooking class. You wouldn’t expect that of other careers, so why are we okay with it when it comes to author-publishers?)

Self-publishing is a financial and creative decision.

Self-publishing has no gatekeepers. That is a feature, not a bug.

So you’re going to have to be your own gatekeepers.

You are your own quality control. You are your own best critic.

I’ve said before and I’ll say again: it’s time to put down the Pom-Poms and time to pick up a magnifying glass — or, for some, a mirror. Don’t celebrate mediocrity. Don’t encourage half-assing this thing for a couple of bucks. This is scrutiny time. This is time to not to say, “Here, you’re doing this wrong,” but “Here, let me help you do this better.” This is time for conversation and constructive critique, not empty applause and pedestal-building.

The culture will need to start asking tougher questions. If we’re going to admit that self-publishing is an equal choice, then it’s time to step up and act like it. It’s time to stop acting like the little brother trailing behind big sister. Time to be practical. And professional.

Defeat naysayers with quality and effort and awesomeness so blinding they cannot see past you.

To reiterate:

Fewer cheerleaders. More critics.

Self-publishing isn’t the minor leagues.

You’re in the majors, now. Which means:

It’s not time get hit with a pitch and expect a high-five for it just because you stepped to the plate.

It’s time to play hard or get off the field.

232 comments

  • Cool rant but it comes down to money.
    I was approached by a publisher even being an indie.
    Liked my science fiction series so out came the sword the blades rang in the air.
    “Amazon pays decently meet me there “a gasp from the arena.
    “Peasant you should know your place in the world.”
    Ever hear of Spartacus I will not make the same mistake he did I will burn your establishment to the ground.

  • Self-publishing continues to suit many aspiring authors for the control and flexibility of the book-making process. Self-published authors have total rights to your work and own the entire process. Though it’s not as easy as other may have thought. Yes, it’s no longer a minor league! Great post!

  • It’s still the same game, you must raise yourself above the majority to get noticed. Self or traditional. At some point the game will be cleaned up and often, by those who are still interested in playing. Publish when ready and going through the process, as is pointed out in this post. Never before, unless of course your Mom says she loves it and it should be published…then by all means, slap it out of the park!

  • A pretty good post…If I were to have one criticism is that for whatever reason your pool of self-publishers and my pool seem to be a bit different. I think you’re pool contains too many people that don’t take it seriously and just hit publish because they can…not because they should. My pool is what I call he “professional” self-published. Those who treat it as a business and put out works indistinguishable from those through traditional publishing.

    When you say, “The attitude that pervades self-publishing is that it’s a good place to test your craft, to hone your work.” It brings to light the differences in our perspectives. People from my pool don’t work that way. They write the best damn novel they can…one that they think will be accepted by a reasonably sized audience…and then they decide whether self or traditional is the best route for it. It may be that they are turned down by traditional. But they KNOW it is a quality piece of fiction so they self-publish not because they want to “test it out” but because it is a work that they believe in. Even that belief may not be enough to make it a success. There are plenty of good books in both self and traditional that never “make it.” But I think the important thing to note…and what Chuck was saying in the first place. Is you don’t release something sub-standard. Always keep quality as your primary focus then you decide the route for getting that gem unto the market The crap you can leave in a drawer.

  • There aren’t many words that begin with “self” that don’t come with a whiff of narcissism, and “self-publishing” is certainly no exception. It may be that “self-publishing” is to “publishing” what “selfies” are to “portrait photography”. It’s also clear from the popularity of sites like Wattpad that many people are self-publishing more for fun than for profit. Those who are in it for money might want to consider organizing a concerted effort to re-brand themselves, call it Alt-Publishing perhaps, anything but Self. Just as gardeners don’t call themselves farmers, and guitar players don’t have to be rock stars, there is nothing wrong with self-publishing as an amateur and hobbyist.

    • Library of Alexandra did it have a publishing house?
      “Yes”
      Scribes would ask to borrow a self-published book do one copy then return it to the owner.
      Self-published was the normal until Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg allowed the mass production of printed books to be practical on a mass produced scale of economy.
      So the wheel turns the massive structures in place for publishing are falling apart do to business entropy.
      From Tom Graves:
      the more tightly the system is controlled, the fewer opportunities are available for reverse-entropy. Given ‘total control’, often the only option for the system to refresh itself is in a phase-change that’s often experienced as ‘catastrophic collapse’ or ‘revolution’.

      A lesser form of refresh can be created by going part-way towards ‘chaos’, leveraging different rates of decay between the components of a system versus the system as a whole: loose-coupling of elements enables greater opportunity for micro-refresh of the overall system. This is the fundamental principle behind service-oriented design: the system-components (services) are more stable than the system-as-a-whole (delivery of ‘business process’), hence we can refresh the system by reconfiguring the relationships between services, without changing the services themselves. This is, in effect, a return from non-useful order to useful order, where the only chaos element is in the process of reconfiguring of service-relationships, and perhaps also of specific services, rather than redesign of the entire system.

      My question is why waste energy and resources on a dying business when we can create our own business model.

  • You bring up some great points. Just because it’s easy to hit “publish” doesn’t mean that you should. You should go through the same editing, proofing, etc. process and make sure that the work is great. Too many people rush to put out poor quality work just to do it and it’s what is ruining the reputation of self-publishing.

  • Thanks for the timely pep talk! I found it after searching “treat self publishers like crap” in a moment of dispair. I’m a children’s author/illustrator and I was just feeling pretty down about how much time I’ve been spending trying to market my books to zoo/national park gift shops. I quit my day job to do this, somehow expecting to spend my days writing, researching, painting and designing. I’ve spent weeks now on marketing, watching money fly out of my pocket and running up against huge, corporate distributors that won’t give me the time of day. I’m doing my best to appear “big,” formed my own publishing co. Eternal Summers Press LLC, etc, but most of the time I feel painfully small and ignored. Strangely I’ve sold quite a few books on Etsy of all places, but not enough to cancel out what I’ve spent. Your words are a comforting reminder of why I’m doing this.

  • If you have “quality and effort and awesomeness so blinding they cannot see past you,” you will be picked up by the majors.

    Sure, we’ve all read a book or two published by the majors that stank out loud. But only a book or two, while the rest are quality overall.

    On the other hand, I’ve only read a book or two self-published that had quality worth reading. The rest stink out loud.

  • Recently I edited for a self-published author. I strongly suggested he remove his first two chapters. The first was so self-congratulatory it was sickening. Literally “if you do not understand the important things I say in this novel you are a moron. Your mind will be blown.” The second chapter had nothing to do with anything.

    Guess what? He re-self-published with those chapters intact and in place–and with spelling errors.

    And thanked me as his editor. By name.

    SMH

  • Also, you can’t play Carnegie Hall the moment you pick up a violin for the first time.

    I am fairly equal-opportunity. If a novel’s subject interests me, I pick it up. But I will say, in all due honestly, I’ve only read a few self-pub books I felt were worth the time, and only a few trad-pub books I felt weren’t. And I read blind when it’s on Kindle/Nook. I just download. And when I realize, within two chapters, that I’m bored out of my head or finding nothing but passive writing, I’ll check the publisher and INVARIABLY find copyright by the author or amazon. I’m sorry, but it really is true. Even one of my favorite self-pub books could still benefit from a bit of editing. It was suspenseful, compelling, realistic, and beautifully written–but the climax occurred in chapter one.

Leave a Reply to Brenna Aubrey Cancel reply