Monday, June 8, 2009

Please. Self-publishing is not real publishing, is it?

You know that song "Dinosaur" by Al Jarreau. Lately I feel just like that. Despite the success stories I keep hearing about people who've published their own books, despite knowing exceptional writers who have, due to the blindness of publishers, had to publish their own books to prove that their work is marketable, I still struggle with the notion that self-publishing is a legitimate route to book publication. This hang-up is about me, I think, internalizing old media messages.

Maybe it's that self-publishing is also called vanity publishing. After many years of Sunday School, I know vanity is a sin. Perhaps my mind is equating self-publishing with sin-publishing. Hmm. I need an exorcism!

If you look at this poll on self-publishing that I think I created in 2003 or 2004 at a site I rarely visit now but for sentimental reasons am still a member, you'll see that my apprehension about self-publishing is not a new affliction. When I say afflction, I mean torment. The debate keeps me confuzzled.

I can tell you why self-publishing, especially for people for color, is viable and reasonable. I know the history, how many well-known African-American novelists had to publish their own works first because white publishers wouldn't do it and black publishers were nearly nonexistent. I concede that even today, good poets in particular, still have to step out on faith and publish their own books of poetry first.

At the same time, I applaud writers who finish their books because it's something I have yet to achieve. Grrrr! And I cheer them on when they send them to press themselves. "Oh, you go girl!" I say, gesturing thumbs up, weeping on the inside that my book still isn't done.

Furthermore, I know as the African-American Books Examiner, I will be reading novelists who are either self-published now and will be big names in the future or who used to self-publish and are big names now. And yet for myself I don't think I will feel published until I finish a book and sell it to a publishing house.

Even if I wrote a book, couldn't sell it to a publishing house, then turned around and sold millions after publishing it myself, I think the devil on my shoulder would still needle me and say, "Ah, but you didn't really publish a book, now did you?" Clearly I suffer from giving "authority figures" too much power over my value as a writer.

This is insane, I know. It's some kind of mental block, and seeing self-published books that could have used a good edit only reinforces my thinking. This sticky topic is on my brain again most likely because the latest Writer's Digest magazine arrived in the mail this weekend, themed "Pub 101," and over at the WD site, I read Jane Friedman's "The Truth about Self Publishing."

It's good, but I kept wondering can WD tell the truth about self-publishing since it gets advertising dollars from P.O.D. publishers? I think it can. Friedman did not paint a rosy picture of self-publishing. She reminded writers how much of the marketing work is on their shoulders when self-publishing. She also suggested writers pay editors to proof and tweak their books before they publish.

Good for WD, but I swear, it may have been reading Writer's Digest regularly years ago that convinced me self-publishing was a terrible route to go. Maybe I don't adjust to change well. Undoubtedly this post is one more blink in my "Omphaloskepsis for the Midlife Writer." In the original post I mention briefly my self-publishing hang-ups. If I drank, I'd be downing a shot of Bourbon now. I'll have to settle for a prayer.


Good and plenty said...

I, too, have felt the same dilemma. A couple of things are influencing me to change my mind.
The biggest is that I started and ran a film festival and an open studios event for visual artists. Independent filmmakers make their own films and then market them and work to distribute them. This is totally self-directed.

The other reason is that the technology has improved so much to allow one to easily self-publish. Even today in the self-publishing world, there's a distinction between vanity presses that will publish virtually any manuscript because the author is paying for it and a self-published writer who markets their work.

There is definitely bias against self-published writers and they have to work hard to get any space on book shelves. I am trying both approaches. I have an ebook I'm working on and I have manuscripts with the few editors that will look at an unagented writer.
I know that even when (being optimistic) a book is published by a "legitimate/traditional" house, I will still have to market it since I'm not writing blockbuster type of material.
Go for it!

Lovebabz said...

I love the idea of self publishing. There are folks out there who do a way better job of public relations and marketing than publishing house. Self publishing has taken the mystery out how to get a book in front of the masses. Those that self publish know how to use social media.

Those who aren't understanding self publishing are indeed dinosaurs and will suffer the same fate as dinosaurs. Self publishing is powerful and engaging and really geared to folks who like to control their own destinies. Who are entreprenuerial in nature and can't sit and wait for someone to grant them apporval about getting their blod, sweat and tears onto the shelves.

I have not self publishing YET...and I am certainly up for it and excited about.

There are so many cool tools and sites and support out there to put out a really strong and good book.

Change your mind and step into the new world order.

Vérité Parlant said...

Thank you, Candelaria. You're closer to my age and probably remember when "self-published"="can't write." :-) I know it doesn't mean that exclusively anymore, but former perceptions are hard to break.

I could go with an e-book for poetry because poetry gets to a certain level at which whether it's considered good or not is purely subjective. Plus, who really expects to make money off poetry?

And when you're writing speculative fiction or something that you know is, as you say, not blockbuster material, then self-publishing is a realistic route. I think that's when you know you're doing something for love of the topic and feel a message needs to be delivered regardless of what the majority society may think.

I'm all for self-publishing political messages, unusual self-help messages, or books by black authors or other authors of color that traditional publishers don't believe in because history has shown that big publishers frequently fall on the wrong side of publishing important social works.

And what you say about still having to market yourself even if you are picked up by a house is true. There are books on the shelves right now that don't sell well because the house didn't support it with marketing and the writer didn't do it either.

I think that smart writers with good agents can avoid going with publishing houses that suck in writer support.

Thank you for commeting.

Vérité Parlant said...

Babz, thank you for commenting. I've made a living writing non-fiction, but I'd prefer to do that as a fiction writer, and self-publishing would only be an option for me if nobody else would publish my novel. So if you see me self-publishing my first novel one day, then you know that book is my flag of defeat, that every publishing house has either rejected my work or there are no more publishing houses in existence.

Please notice I said "first" novel. I think that once a writer makes a name for herself, it may be more lucrative in some instances to self-publish after that.

If you see me hawking a self-published book of poetry, however, then you can just as easily figure I didn't bother to submit anywhere and decided I wanted to put out my poetry in book format as an artistic experiment. Publishers aren't clamoring for poetry.

I think there are only two reasons to self publish: 1.) The writer is impatient and wants to be in full control and take more of the profit. This is good for novelists who've paid their artistic dues, respect story craft, and value editors. YAY! for them saying they are the captain of their fates. I know a good writer who did this and who admitted she was too impatient to wait for a publisher. 2.) The other reason to self-publish is that the writer is the type for whom the term "vanity press" was coined, the one who storms from the writing class because she can't take honest critique. She doesn't want to be accountable to anyone, which is quite different from wanting to chart your own destiny. If this kind of writer were a dancer, she would refuse to learn how to stretch properly or take rudimentary ballet because she simply doesn't respect artistry, technique, or great dancers of the past. For these kinds of writers, seeing their names on a book is more important than saying I wrote a good book well.

That's not for me.

Please do not assume that saying self-publishing is not for me means I don't "understand" self publishing. Self-publishing is not a new concept. It's one with which we old dinosaurs are quite familiar. I've been aware of self-publishing since I was a teenager many years ago. Black writers in the past had to resort to self-publishing because the publishing industry giants were white-owned and not interested in books with black characters. Again, I'm speaking of fiction writing because that's been my focus.

However, now that African-American books are booming and other alternative publishers are making a mark, good writers who don't write mainstream stories have more choices. There's no excuse for not submitting your work to a publisher other than you think you're so hot that only your opinion matters. In that case, the writer had better be a better marketer than he or she is a writer.

I, however, would rather submit, and find out whether anyone wanted to publish my work first before I'd put myself into the position of having to do it all by myself.

Furthermore, I respect feedback from professionals. But if everyone turned me down and I still believed I had a good book, I might publish it myself. I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.

Finally, I'm glad to be a dinosaur. It means nobody expects me to join the rat race. Plus, it just wouldn't be fair to step on all those mice who excel more at social media than they do at writing. :-) Just kidding. My ego is not that big, but I can't resist amusing imagery sometimes. I respect writing, readers, and other writers too much to ever assume I'm the best writer in town. But I know who I am. I'm a writer, not a marketing guru. Interesting I think all that means is I may never get rich from my writing. It doesn't mean I'll never be published.

Gregory K. said...

I think another way to look at the question is "are the readers of self-published books real readers?" I'd say yes, so on that level, stigma aside, self-publishing is just as real as any other form of publishing.

As to whether it's the right path, that remains a personal choice, of course. Done right, it's a ton of work, and not necessarily "fun" work for many. Still, I think that for filling niches and for smaller projects, it's a more and more viable path as costs decline... as long as you treat it like the business that it is!

Vérité Parlant said...

Bingo, Greg! Thank you. It is about choice and what makes us comfortable. There's probably a market for almost anything. What kind of reading audience do you serve?

I used to publish a newspaper. Selling is hard work and it takes time away from writing. So, saying I'm going to self-publish anything is more than a notion. As easy as it is to publish a blog, blogging still takes time away from any other kind of writing and can only fulfill writers who love blogging, getting instant feedback, etc.

Another point, some very good writers are by nature not cut out to market their books themselves. In particular, I think of Octavia Butler, who was not a people person and in later life became reclusive but still produced good work. A genius. Will the current Octavia Butlers be able to make it as writers?

Perhaps we'll see book marketing companies pop up to help the talented but shy writer not to mention the talented but disorganized writer. It takes good organization and strategy skills to market a book well.

I keep thinking of Tony Morrison who thinks writers shouldn't even take jobs that drain them of creativity. Self-published writers won't have that luxury. They're going to be drained unless they're natural dynamos.

But it is about choice. Choice should mean fewer people get left behind. However, if publishing keeps turning more toward expecting all writers do their own marketing, to being social media wizards, etc., it could mean we'll never hear from some very gifted scribes.

And we forget that not all writers are desperate to publish best sellers. Some just want to make a decent living and sleep well at night knowing they're good wordsmiths.

Jane said...

Lots of wonderful comments here.

I think the key thing to remember is that there are many routes to publication, none more "right" than any other. What works for one person doesn't work for someone else.

I can tell you many stories of unhappy traditionally published authors, who didn't realize it's sometimes worse to be traditionally published when your book doesn't sell.

If you want to set yourself the goal of being vetted/selected by a traditional press, which will select you based on how well your work meets market standards, that's very different than setting yourself the goal of spreading the word and attracting loyal readers or followers.

On an inspiring note: Richard Evans published his book through Kinko's (photocopies) and distributed it to his family, and it was loved so much and reached so far that a publisher read it, and the book ended up traditionally published (The Christmas Box).

Mark Folse said...

I decided to publish Carry Me Home using Lulu.Com because I thought the market for a Katrina-related book was 1) passing quickly and 2) extraordinarily local. I had (published) people who knew my work and had seen at least part of the manuscript encourage me to go traditionally, but I wouldn't listen.

Hell, Chris Rose did very well with his book starting out as a self-published work and sold enough to land a contract with a big house.

I've done OK but now where near the break even point when I gave every store owner that took it on consignment a copy, spread out reader copies to people I thought might blog or otherwise promote it, etc.

I had a bad experience with the lack of an editor meets on-line publishing (which I need to blog about sometime), but let's just say the first 100 copies are now valuable first editions. (Google Errata and Carry Me Home). Long story, now corrected. And I had volunteer editors helping with selection and my rework of what were once blog posts, and good proof readers.

Marketing is the real rub. Locally, Susan Larson won't touch a book not from a traditional publisher. (And I had to giver her two copies, one of the "valuable first editions" and then a clean one with a note of explanation, which probably did not increase my credibility).

I've sold books at every event I've done but I need to do more, I need to get a table at the Frenchman book fair, I have to do so much to try to get my book out there that a publishing house would do. That's the real rub.

I follow on Twitter and my blog reader a woman in book publicity who goes by Yodiwan on Twitter who made a good point the other day following a panel at the big book event up in New York two weeks ago had a panel on traditional v. online publishing. A traditional house provides editing, design and marketing that you will have to do all by yourself if you go online.

Vérité Parlant said...

Mark, how can I break this to you? Hmm. Lemme see. You don't count! LOL.

I'm kidding but seriously, with your career as a journalist, with the aftermath of Katrina being a hot topic, and the fact that publishers think nonfiction is less risky, most likely you could have gotten a book deal with a "traditional" publisher, possibly not a big house but a traditional publisher. So, when I became aware of your book, I suspected Carry Me Home went to Lulu just because you wanted to do that. (I have a CD on Lulu, poetry with another poet). It's that choice thing again.

I know some good writers who went with self-publishing.

I also know a writer who got an agent and then had all her work locked up for years because the agent was sick and didn't try to sell it, but she couldn't get out of the agent contract. Writer's nightmare.

That's interesting about Susan Larson, and it lets writers who read this know that the bias or stigma is still out there and something a self-published book may need to overcome.

I just finished interviewing a NYT bestselling author who started out as a self-published novelist and now has a fat "house" contract. She's from NOLA and I asked her had the Picayune ever done a story on her. She said "No." Now I think I know why.

They might do one now, but they probably wouldn't have before when she was self-published only.

Some book reviewers may feel the way Jane says some writers like me feel, a need to see some industry vetting before too much time is invested. But I don't do that to other writers. I'll buy a self-published book and review it too.

For myself, however, I'd want industry vetting for fiction, to know if a book publisher thought the book was marketable. Apparently some book reviewers feel that way about investing time in book reviews too.

What Yodiwan said is correct. However, there are writers who were picked up by traditional houses who only printed the book and offered no marketing. The author still had to do it mostly themselves with the exception of the fight to get the book into a bookstore. Now that would tick me off because one of the reasons the publisher gets such a big cut is that the publisher helps sell the book. If the publisher's not doing that and the writer is, the writer should get more money.