Lake Atitlan, Panajachel, Guatemala

“Reading and writing are acts of empathy and faith. Guard that trust carefully — in this rapidly changing business, it’s the only sure thing.” ~Erin Keane
"Never give up. And most importantly, be true to yourself. Write from your heart, in your own voice, and about what you believe in." ~ Louise Brown

"Write something to suit yourself and many people will like it; write something to suit everybody and scarcely anyone will care for it."
~Jesse Stuart

"A writer's job is to take one thing and make it stand for twenty." ~ Virginia Woolf

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Problem with Self-Publishing

It used to be distribution. A self-pubbed book couldn't get into bookstores. Now? Does that even matter at all? No, not really.

The self-publisher can go electronic, promote like crazy using social media and a link on the blog, and sell amazing amounts. Karen McQuestion did just that with her ebook, A Scattered Life, and now it's being published by Amazon (when did they become a big press???) and made into a movie.

A book not making it to the bookstore shelf is mattering less and less as we speak. A recent NY Times article chronicles the problems bookstores, including the massive Barnes & Noble, are facing due to the ebook explosion. And booksellers thought they had it bad back when Amazon took hold. Man, that was nothing compared to what's happening now!

So here's the question. Why bother with a publisher at all? Why bother with finding an agent, getting rejected, looking for a publisher, getting rejected, writing queries, getting rejected, submitting partials, getting rejected? Why not just save time, forgo the misery, and go straight to Smashwords? Or CreateSpace and Amazon?

If distribution doesn't matter, and marketing dollars are scarce (authors are having to promote like crazy anyway), then why not just do it all yourself and end up with a bigger piece of the pie?

A post yesterday on Melissa Cunningham's blog, A Writer's Reality, answers these questions, from the perspective of a debut author. EDITING. Did you hear that? I'm sure you did since I was shouting. EDITING. One more time. EDITING.

Sure you can have your work critiqued, even pay thousands of dollars for an editing service-- but all those people are so easy to ignore when they tell you something hard to hear, like:

These 3 chapters drag and don't add anything to the story--No way! That's my favorite part and is the essence of my book!

150,000 words is a bit much for a YA novel. Better cut by half-- I can't take out that much. Look at the 4th Harry Potter. It sold fine.

Your main character is annoying and will alienate readers-- What? The main character is based on my cousin, and this is true to her personality. I can't change it.

The boy and girl are both named Corey, very confusing-- So what? I like the name Corey.

There's an awful lot of telling in the first six chapters-- But that's because the reader needs to know the background to understand what comes next.

An editing service will be nice, make suggestions, and end up letting you do what you want because you're the boss. You are paying them. Not so with an editor at a publishing house. Who will be a complete jerk may not be nice, who will make unreasonable demands, incredibly annoying requests, give strongly worded direction for the changes that must be made to your manuscript before it can go any farther.

Now if you're an amazing writer with the ability to self-edit with great skill, and the ability to take critique and run with it, polishing your work until it shines-- then you may be an excellent candidate for self-publishing.

I have nothing against self-publishing. Each writer needs to go the route that makes the most sense for him or her. But the editing.... that can be the real stumbling block. So if you're considering self-publishing, just be aware of the editing. Have a plan for that.


  1. You are so right, Karen. If you are going to self-publish, you must hire a good editor and listen to their suggestions. I was fortunate to find a fab editor who really helped me shape my memoir. Then the self-publishing company I used also had on-staff editors who further helped. I am pleased with the finished product, despite still wishing it had been traditionally published.

  2. I totally agree on the painful truths piece. Our peers we can take or leave as 'makes sense' the agent or editor have A LOT more experience with what will sell and what won't. I think this is RELATED to self-publishings OTHER problem. People think they are done LONG before they are done, so self-pubbed books are less likely to be clean, which means the READER is taking a far bigger chance, and not all readers are willing to do that, so by self-publishing, you are limiting your audience. Now it CAN be overcome, if you get some credible recommendations or reviews, but those have to be REALLY big, trusted sources. I would only trust someone I KNOW, or someone with a known history of telling it like it is (Stephen King comes to mind--I only like about 60% of his books, but I almost always agree with his opinion on whether he likes somebody else's or not)

  3. But it's like you said in the beginning of this post. Writers are self-publishing and selling their books, regardless of proper editing. Just like Karen McQuestion self-publishing THEN getting a publisher and a movie deal, I have two writer friends who've done similar. One friend self-published and then got a publishing deal, my other author friend ONLY self-publishes and she whips out the WIPs, like 3 books per year! They sell like hot cakes! Whatever those are ;)

    Seriously though, I'm so daunted by submitting, I might just go straight to self publishing. Then I won't have to deal with opinionated editors tearing my manuscript to shreds either! I think ebooks are going to set a new standard for writers and we'll see much better work available to the general public as a result.

  4. Heh -- both the kids are named Corey. I hate when that happens. :D

    I agree that editing is a huge problem with self-publishing. But I think marketing is still a major stumbling block. Most self-published books get sold to friends and family. Breaking beyond your social acquaintances is really, really hard -- which explains why most self-published books sell a few hundred copies at most. The ones like Karen McQuestion's succeed with marketing because they're great books, which brings us back to editing. A bad book won't sell no matter how much marketing money you throw at it.

    It will be interesting to see how the next few years play out. I expect the role of reviewers will become much more important. With SOOOOO many books getting self-released, the average reader is going to look for some guidance. And if you find a reveiwer you trust, like Hart said above, you'll probably stick with them. I foresee reviewers' websites getting pretty busy and individual reviewers becoming rock stars! ;)

  5. BEST post I've ever read about why self-publishing is not so great. You're absolutely right--both w/the critiques AND the writer's justifications! Excellent work~ :o)

  6. Suz, "One friend self-published and then got a publishing deal, my other author friend ONLY self-publishes and she whips out the WIPs, like 3 books per year!"

    Wow, no wonder you're considering it with examples like these. I don't blame you. Can these friends serve as your critique partners? It sounds like they know how to write for an audience.

    Regardless of the level of editing (and it could be great, I don't know) in your friends' books, they're selling like hotcakes (LOL which are pancakes btw) because they are writing what people want to read.

    Amy, Reviewers becoming rock stars LOL. It could happen, seriously. Already publishers schmooze reviewers and book clubbers with all kinds of free stuff. Actually, this industry is changing so rapidly that anything is possible. Watch for crazy stuff the next couple years.

    LTM, Haha, thanks! I could have gone on forever with the critiques & justifications, was definitely having fun with that part.

    And as for both characters being named Corey, this is TRUE. The author refused to change the names and self-published instead.

  7. This is a fantastic post, Karen, as usual. I love that you approach self-publishing as a reasonable option, without the self-pub-hate that seems to circulate around the blogosphere sometimes.

    Editing is huge - and not all editing is equal (just as not all writing is equal; not all covers are equal). Sometimes it is virtually impossible to get far enough outside your MS to see it's flaws, even if you want to. Even if you don't resist. The very best editors will inspire you to take your story to even greater heights. This, as far as I can tell, is the greatest service that publishers (large and small) have to offer.

    Thanks for another great post!

    p.s. self-pubbers should also take great care with covers. They make a huge difference.

  8. I agree, Karen. My view is that successful unedited self-published books are the exceptions that prove the rule. Otherwise there would be many more of them.

  9. Really thoughtful post and definitely hits one of the main disadvantages of self-publishing. The number of self-publishing success stories, while that number is likely to grow, has so far been very small. There are a number of famous examples of people being discovered after self-publishing, and those are enough to make a lot of people believe in self-pub as a route to a writing career. But the average number of self-published books sold is 75, and those are all to friends and family. If that's all the author wants, great. But if the author is in search of a *career*, they're not likely to find it through self-publishing. And, notice, to truly be defined as having "made it," those few exceptions went on to get agents and publishers--i.e., those will remain the standards/benchmarks for "making it" in this industry, at least for the foreseeable future.

  10. Excellent post. Editing services is where I see the current publishing houses having to move if they want to stay in the field. Precisely how this will happen still remains to be seen, but change IS coming/happening.

  11. Great post, Karen. I've read some brilliant self-pubbed books but yes, editing is SO important. It's really hard (almost impossible) to be objective about your own writing!

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  13. I'm still hung up on the stigma of self-publishing (which is why I won't).

    But you are sooooo right. Another aspect is if the person does print, usually without an editor and a type-setter, the book is really strange. Besides editing problems it will have extra quotation marks, paragraphs in the wrong spot, and lots of grammar errors.

    Self-publishing is just not up to par yet. Maybe one day, but not yet.

  14. Sorry. It didn't read the way I wanted it to!

    I have picked up some beautifully written self-published books (and maybe the author has hired or had someone edit the book) and a few that are awful (either not a good editor, or none). Having a second or third or fourth etc. pair of eyes to look at our work is crucial!!! Unless, as you say, we're one of those rare people (who are they?) who can clearly see their own writing. I know I can't!

  15. A good editor and good editing are so essential in elevating a novel/film/etc into something else sublime. I think if you are going a self-published route get a recommended freelance editor - no idea how but there must be ways of doing so!. I think your novel deserves the very best care and attention especially from good editing.

    Take care

  16. The comments here have been really helpful. Overall, the decision needs to be thoroughly analyzed and thought out before taking the step. And if you do go this route, avoid the vanity presses that charge for everything, then pay you "royalties". Best to set up your own company for publishing your books, and look for editing, typesetting & cover design for reasonable rates. With publishers laying off people, there's plenty of individuals out there with services available.

    L. Diane Wolf wrote an excellent post recently on the various types of self-publishing, very thorough and well-researched.

  17. I'm not sure if I'd do the self-publishing thing, but if it works for some people, good for them. I think I'd rather take my chances with a regular publisher, and one of the advantages is, like you said, an editor who would help me improve the book. Somehow self-publishing seems like it'd be a lot more work.

  18. Please remind me I said this if it ever happens, but one of the things that excites me the most about possibly being published someday is the idea of smart people helping to make my book better.

    Cannot agree with this post enough!

  19. So true. Some of the suggestions (orders) by my editor had me in a panic mode and my head was reeling. Once I sat down and tackled things one at a time, they made such sense. The final product was much better thanks to her.

  20. This was such a great post and timely for me to read. I know that I am not objective enough to edit or critique my own stuff. In fact when my writing group tells me what they are envisioning my novel doing after reading the first three chapters. Sometimes I'm left scratching my head and saying thats not what I meant at all. We all percieve things different and I feel you need to know what that is as an author putting something out there that hopefully will stay out there for a long time. they've edited

  21. You have a good point there - editing is the crucial. I don't think authors should give up on agents just yet:)

  22. Great post because I always wonder about this subject. I know I will most likely go the traditional route (I like torture). I know I would need an outside POV. Plus, I'm still learning this whole world so the more experienced advice I get the better.
    Hope you are well!

  23. I do think we will still see a lot of change in the next few years relative to self-publishing. I think there's a huge opportunity for services. I like the fact that self-publishing is an alternative for those who can't work their way through the traditional maze. It's kind of interesting -- the two routes each have their own challenges.

  24. This is such an important point. Editing is essential. Editors make us look good (even when we are complaining and resisting)

  25. Hooray for editors! :D Yes, I can see where an author might not pay as much head to a "hired gun" editor as they would to a staff editor, but as you point out that's a huge mistake.

    I've been on both the editor and the author side of publishing, and I can tell you that giving criticism isn't any easier than receiving it, so it's never given without good reason.

  26. Excellent post. Some who self-publish do pay for an editor, but there's still many things a publisher offers that is more difficult to do on your own.

    At BlogHer, I attended a workshop about publishing trends. Someone in the business said self-publishing no longer has the same stigma and some are doing pretty well. But she warned that a very polished piece of work goes out there, and you will spend more money on promotion than you would with a publisher.

    With most agents only accept 1 in 3000 (once they account for the books that don't meet their guidelines), self-publishing is an enticing option. And if it does well, it's been a good way for some writers to get a contract.

  27. Very true! I've bought some self-published books and noticed exactly that. I'm sure some authors are good enough editors on their own to turn out a top-class book, but I sure wouldn't want to try it.

  28. This is true about the editing, I don't believe any book can't be improved by editing. But don't underestimate the hassles authors can have from useless publishers. (I definitely DON'T include St Martins Press in that comment!) When you give your book over to an agent or publisher you lose a lot of control and you allow those people into your life. You have to keep your fingers crossed they'll handle you and your precious book OK. A bit like sending your kid off to school for the first time, really :)

    If you get published by someone else, then it is fantastic to have the services of a professional publicity agent with the name of the publisher behind them, it definitely gets you noticed more. Publishers have a better chance to get you into literary festivals and on the TV and radio. And there is some interest in being part of a business scene, realising that your book is not just about you but connects with a wider world.

    Interesting post.

  29. Jenny, "don't underestimate the hassles authors can have from useless publishers." Excellent point which is why it's important to go into everything with eyes wide open. Even then there can be problems too numerous to mention. You've got to trust the publisher, since you're assigning them the rights to your work. Good analagy with kindergarten, LOL, because that work is so very much like your precious baby!

    However, it may feel like a baby but it isn't flesh and blood. It's business. And the most successful authors know that. They do their best work, and then move on to write another book and another, and don't waste time agonizing over a chapter the editor might have removed from that first book. Or don't waste time backpedaling wishing their publisher had done this different or this or if only this had happened yadayadayada. The best recourse is to just move on and write the next book.

    I've seen authors on the internet agonizing over something that happened with their book like 10 years ago, and they have not written anything since. What a big mistake. No writer is going to have it all fall into place perfectly each and every time. Best to just move ahead and be professional about it. Write the next book. Live and learn.

    Thanks for your comment Jenny, and I'm glad you're having a good experience with your publisher!

  30. Excellent points! I think the other part that goes hand-in-hand with editing is experience. The publishing houses KNOW what sells. They can't predict what will be a break out, runaway hit, but they do have enough experience to know when readers are going to turn on your characters.

  31. Psst - Karen, come over to my blog! There's a surprise for you... :)

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  33. I am 100% with you on this one! I learned my lesson when I accidentally self published my memoir. Yes, could only happen to me! So I ended up with a book that had a clunky edit and even though it still sells well I feel my readers are getting the literary equivalent to slightly damaged furniture - still does the job but it comes with a tarnish it shouldn't have. When it came time to receive editorial advice on Without Alice (which is traditionally rather than self published) I welcomed it and actually enjoyed the whole process.

  34. Certainly editing and revision is a major concern that should dominate a writer's time if they're going to self publish. But it can be done. I know the feeling. Using several different readers who's opinions are reliable is a good idea.

    Then the key is to make a list of all the things that need doing in revision and editing and then follow the list in a systematic way. That's the most efficient way to do it.


  35. Excellent points Karen! I think if you're going to dive into self publishing you have to be very strong with your grammar, punctuation, editing skills, story lines, the works. You also have to be one hell of an advertiser.

    I don't care to be self published, I'll take my chances in the slushpile of the agenting world. I know there is at least one right agent out there for me.

  36. All excellent points. I'd have to say, though, that the editing of traditionally published books often leaves quite a bit to be desired too. Even stupid things like spelling mistakes aren't unknown, which is incredible really.

  37. Interesting post. And from an editor's perspective, I agree. Editing is important, but I've learned that those who ignore editors are likely not going to be the ones picked up by traditional publishers anyway. In short, people who do not listen to constructive critiques, no matter where they come from, are setting themselves up for failure.

    And if I were feeling really snarky, I would add that going the traditional route does not guarantee that a book is going to be well-edited or improved. Haven't you read traditionally published books and then wondered how in the world a reputable house could put them out?

  38. Jennifer & Simon, Yes! I have thought that many times about traditionally published books. I could name a half dozen right now, but I won't LOL.

  39. Good to hear this. Painful perhaps, but true and necessary.

  40. I promote and praise editors often. At least once or twice a month. Its the best advice I can give anyone. Have that second set of eyes look over your MS. Most editors will do a chapter for free so you can see their work too.

    Stephen Tremp

  41. I'm so glad both my agent and editor work through my writing enough to make it shine. They've kept me from embarrassing myself, for sure.