Stigmas in Self-Publishing

This is another of those posts that we all knew was coming.

I’ve already addressed the differences between the two methods of publication. They both have their drawbacks and benefits. They’re pretty similar in terms of the steps that a manuscript needs to go through before it hits the market, but vastly different insofar as who does the work.

I’ve waxed analytical on this in this post right here. In short, big difference between trad and self is that in self, the author does the work. Sometimes it costs, sometimes it doesn’t.

It’s no secret that I’ve gone self-pub. I’ve tried the traditional route. A year of querying got me nowhere fast, and the free proof copy code from CreateSpace was sitting there, beckoning me to make a book happen on my own. And I promised myself that, if by my 24th birthday I wasn’t going to land an agent, I would use that code. Being a woman of my word, that’s what ended up happening. What also ended up happening was a whole lot of learning,and one of the lessons I had to learn the hard way was that self-publication carried certain stigmas that, while they are being slowly overridden, are as pervasive as ever.

Let’s start debunking them one by one, shall we?

1. A self-published book isn’t a “real book”. 

Well, you guys know me, I had to dive right in there.

First of all, what makes a book a “real book”? Having the publisher’s logo on the jacket? Or, if you have to go for the fact that a bulk of self-pubs are e-book only, would a “real” book qualify as being on paper as opposed to an e-reader?

Let’s start with a dictionary definition of a novel, per the gods of Merriam-Webster: an invented prose narrative that is usually long and complex and deals especially with human experience through a usually connected sequence of events. If you have to get slightly technical, we’re talking about a work of fiction that is anywhere from 50,000 to 125,000 words in length, per most literary guidelines. Word count differences are, occasionally, determined by the genre of the book.

Note that nowhere in this explanation did I note method of publication, book jacket, or reading medium.

And also, let’s state the keen and obvious: most of the so-called “qualifications” for a real book are bunk. That’s right, bunk. Crap. A load of hokum. A real book only requires being written. The publication medium, especially in today’s world, had never mattered less.

Think about it in terms of logic, and logic alone. Would you consider an audiobook real? Yes? Then why not an e-book? And if you don’t consider an audiobook real, tell me please: is it any less a real text if someone reads it aloud or if it’s not presented as a stack of dead tree? Not to get environmentalist on you, but with all the going green hoopla out there, have you considered the trees that can be saved if someone would just get an e-reader?

And as far as publishing houses, let me get into…

2. Self-published books can’t possibly be good enough if they couldn’t get to a major publisher.

Let’s consider that some of the best fiction out there had been thrown out of publishing houses for not being X enough or Y enough. Harry Potter had been rejected by multiple agents, and again by multiple publishers before it finally got picked up and made into a global franchise. And right now, some of the best fantasy and science fiction is all but guaranteed to be self-published – why? Because publishers don’t take risks. They get books going less for the reasons of quality, finding an audience, etc. and much more for sales. This makes for a double whammy: writers with a great plot concept and a pitch for multiple books in a series get nowhere, while writers who stick to the same formulas that have brought success to their predecessors would get picked up, regardless of their quality.

If I really have to go there, think about Twilight. Yes, I’m going there. It is a franchise by now, a brand name, if you will. It got picked up because there was a market – teenage girls – and it was presented to the market in such a proficient way that it got snatched up like hotcakes. But the writing itself is not good. It’s 80% purple prose, the main character is a complete Mary Sue who doesn’t grow or progress with the series, and if you analyze the messages presented to teenage girls in this book, it is just downright unhealthy.

But it was marketed well, and it sold. Which is why Little, Brown and Company is very happy.

Also to note: about 85% of currently self-published authors have, at some point or another, queried agents and publishers, and had gotten rejected each and every time, for the above reason. This is part of the publishing routine in trad-pub: you keep asking until someone doesn’t slam the door in your face.

As you can imagine, this gets exhausting fast. And if you’re going to sit there and say, “Well, that’s what you have to do!”, then I’ll scoff in your face. Self-publishing is a legitimate, and even lucrative, alternative to traditional publishing.

Let me elaborate for a minute.

We all know the saying: money talks. So let me clarify the point a little by saying that royalties talk. Or, rather, royalty rates.

Royalty rates for self-published authors are, hands down, much better than the ones offered by traditional publishing houses. If a self-pub author goes through specific (mostly free-to-use channels), then the author enjoys a nice 70% on e-sales, and 45% on print sales. The traditional publishing alternative would be somewhere up to 16% on e-sales, and about half of that for print.

To make it clear, self-publishing is a more profitable alternative for the author if you crunch the numbers. And yes, that does make it very much a preferable alternative to going through the well-known gamut of trying to land an agent and spending months, if not years, waiting for a response other than a form rejection.

That’s right: people actually choose to self-publish because it’s more profitable.

Does that make their books less “real”? I personally don’t think so, if only on the account that those things on my shelf are hardly zombies, and same goes for the e-books that are populating my Kindle. They seem to be taking up space, they contain text that’s broken into chapters, and in a huge majority of the cases, I paid for them.

3. If it hadn’t sold millions, it’s not a book worth reading.

See above about Twilight.

Now, repeat after me, with feeling: a best-seller only sells well; it doesn’t make a good book.

Really. Little, Brown and Company made a killing on Twilight as a franchise, as well as a book. That doesn’t mean that the books are good. I lost a bet and had to read those books, and believe you me, I wish I had never made that bet. But it sold in the millions of copies, in multiple languages. Does that mean that it has to be great fiction if it had done so well in the market?

Absolutely not. And there are eggs like that every genre under the sun: they sell spectacularly, but the writing and storyline are very, very lousy.

Some of the best stories are mid-listed or dropped by publishers altogether because they hadn’t met sales-quota expectations. Why? Because of this very mentality, which people are very keen on buying into. If it must have sold well, then it must be great, right? Wrong. Again, Twilight. Also, half of what was written by Judith McNaught…seriously, if you want historical romance, read Philippa Gregory. I’m no romantic, but Gregory has a very rich, flowing style to her writing.

4. Self-published authors are lazy and not willing to put in the work that it takes to get published traditionally.

See #2, especially the part where I talk about money.

Now, let me give you a this-or-that scenario. Suppose you’re an author, looking to get your work published. You spent a year on rewrites, and another year of letting it sit and then rewriting it again. You have a choice. Do you:

a. send hundreds, if not thousands, on query letters and hope you hit jackpot somewhere, spending months of hopes and prayers for a five-figure advance sum but trade it off on low royalty percentages,

or

b. do a little bit of extra legwork, get your book on the market fast, not get an advance, but collect your royalties right away at a higher rate than most trad-pubs?

If you’re willing to wait and think that you would see a payoff in terms of volume sales at the lower royalty rate – okay, then you can go trad-pub. But also consider the tradeoff of publication rights. The publishing house isn’t just printing, marketing, and releasing your book: it’s also acquiring first publication rights, copyright, and distribution rights to your work, and depending on your contract, this can go into a ten-year stretch. So if your book is mid-listed, doesn’t sell well, and is otherwise not meeting the publisher’s expectations, then you will have a fun time wrestling your rights back under your purview. You will not be able to re-publish as a self if it doesn’t do as well.

With legitimate self-publishers, you do not give away your rights. Which, in turn, brings me to rehash something.

5. Self-publishing is paying to publish, and it can’t possibly be good enough if the author had to pay for printing/releasing it.

Call to your memory: first post about Book Country, second, and third. And fourth, about an Aussie vanity press.

If you’re not willing to click to read back through my last repeated ramblings on the difference between a self-publisher and a vanity press, I will reiterate: self-publishers never ask you for money up front for use of services. They may offer certain services for a fee, but none of them are required.

As a bonus, they let you keep the rights to your work. So you’re free to shop your work around after release, if you so feel like.

Vanity presses do charge you money up front, and their contracts and terms of use are sometimes so vague that you don’t notice that you’re signing away your distribution rights, copyright, and first-publication rights. Moreover, there are precious few vanity presses that actually deliver on their promises. iUniverse is probably one of the best ones, because it focuses on developing the author’s brand and business name.

If you don’t know what PublishAmerica is, then this subforum in AbsoluteWrite will give you a nice picture of what authors go through to get away from them. They pose as a legitimate publishing house, then proceed to fleece authors at every turn, even for their own book copies. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a vanity press and a scam.

Also, to clarify, a scam doesn’t necessarily have to be against the law. It’s just making money by dishonest means. And fleecing authors is dishonest.

However, back to my point. You don’t pay to self-publish. In fact, you keep more of your royalties because you’re covering only distribution and raw materials (if you choose to print). However, does CreateSpace charge a “set-up fee”? Not once in my three and a half years of use have I encountered it. It comes with default Amazon distribution, at no charge, and offers a one-time fee for expanded distribution. Is it required? No. But if $40 is all it takes for CreateSpace to list my books on the site of its parent company’s (Amazon) biggest competitor, that being Barnes & Noble, then you know what, it’s a good deal, as opposed to forking over $99 to upload and do everything myself (see Book Country posts). Is it required? No. But I like having expanded channels.

6. Self-published authors don’t work as hard as traditionally published authors.

Bull. Sorry to be blunt, but that’s just plain old-fashioned bull.

I’ve yet to meet a single self-published author who didn’t put in years – yes, years – of blood, sweat, tears, and sleepless nights into their work. Because a self-published author is, quite essentially, going through the publication process on his/her own, then the workload quadruples. There’s no in-house editing team to fillet the manuscript and make sure that the plot flows, the spelling’s proper, the grammar is cohesive. There’s no graphic design team to draw or photograph and create the perfect cover for your book. There’s no layout and printing expert to ensure that the PDF file that goes to the printers will meet their expectations precisely. There is no help. So the author is doing everything.

Daunting? Yes. But that’s what self-pubs do. They may hire outside help, or they may take a couple of months to learn all of that on their own. There has been many a self-pub author who had gone to class to learn Photoshop just for the sake of that perfect cover, and there will be plenty more, at that.

So, really, don’t give me the line about self-pubs not working as hard. Traditional publishers hold the author’s hand when it comes to the pre-release gamut. Self-publishers have no one but themselves and whoever is willing to lend a helping hand.

7. The self-published books aren’t worth their price, therefore a reader shouldn’t have to pay for them.

Now this right here, which is something I’ve encountered more and more in recent time, is utterly infuriating.

A writer is not just writing for the sake of telling a story. This is an intrinsic enough part of the process for a writer that it shouldn’t even need to be said, or spoken of. However, a written work – just like a painting, a meal in a restaurant, a cup of coffee – is a product. And last time I checked, in the world of commerce and retail, customers are required to pay for the product they are receiving.

I will repeat the prior point: self-publishers work very hard to produce their product. They work harder than most trad-pubs. The money that you’re paying for the book is what enables them to pay for the web access bills, for the electric bills, and the roof over their heads so that they can continue to produce their product. Same as where the money goes for a traditional publisher.

At risk of being blunt, I will ask you point blank: what makes you think that you are entitled to someone’s work for free?

Seriously. What, pray tell, makes you or anyone else so special that you think you don’t have to pay for your books? You don’t expect a coffee shop to give you a free cappuccino. Don’t expect an author, regardless of publishing avenue, to give you a freebie either.

I give away free copies from time to time, but there is always a tradeoff involved. It may be a review, or it may be traffic, it may be recommendation, but there is a tradeoff. But to give away a free copy just because someone thinks that being self-published means that I just have to give it away? No way in hell.

8. Self-published authors are greedy and don’t want to share their wealth with others.

At risk of, again, being blunt, why should they share? I call it fair trade. If a traditional publisher is going to help the author at every turn with turning a manuscript into a book, then the 85% of royalties that they withhold from the book price are fair for keeping the production team paid. The editor, the cover artist, the marketing specialist, the book signing coordinator – all of them need a paycheck at the end of the day. Where does that come from? The royalties.

So why, exactly, should a self-pub share any more than they share already? Every time they publish a book and price it below cost to stimulate sales, they’re paying for it by taking a financial loss. Every time they give away a copy, they take a loss. The distributor takes a small cut of the royalty too. And considering that they didn’t have the editor, the cover artist, the marketing specialist, etc., why exactly should they share?

9. People self-publish because there’s no traditional option for their brand of writing.

Now that one actually holds some truth to it. That or, again, the big publisher will not take a risk with that particular genre because it doesn’t think that the book would sell well, even if there is a genre for it enough to, at the very least, mid-list the book.

Niche genres, and niche subgenres at that, are notoriously difficult to make a success, because the audience is limited. Most people reading mainstream books do not know what steampunk is. A lot wouldn’t understand the term urban fantasy.  However, both of those subgenres have a very dedicated and surprisingly large following. Do the publishing houses consider that? Rarely. Which, again, is why an author in a genre like urban-fantasy, steampunk, or even poetry – which is notoriously difficult to publish traditionally – would consider self-publication.

Self-publishing doesn’t differentiate by genre; it’s simply there. It does, however, put the onus on the author as a businessperson and marketer, and necessitates the correct outreach and brand-building, both for the book and the author alike. Building a brand from the books and the author alike is that ends up selling the self-pub. Yes, it’s infinitely more work, but it’s more work with a solid, long-lasting fan base. Which, in turn, produces sales.

—-

The unfortunate truth to the above is, while I can refute and dissect the preconceptions, until the public at large will get with the program and acknowledge self-published authors as individuals who have made an informed decision about their writing future, these stigmas will continue.

I won’t lie: it takes a long time for a self-published author to generate some steam. This is why cross-marketing, as so very well put in this post here (by Candace Mountain, awesomely), is crucial. Authors supporting authors goes a long way, and it pays off in the long run by generating readership.

While at times overcoming these stigmas may seem like a Sisyphean battle, with potential readers and reviewers turning up their nose with a sneering response that your work, which you have sweated leaden ingots over, is somehow now good enough because it’s lacking a Big 6 copyright clause, it is worth it to keep going. Whether or not it seems like it when you’re surrounded by the people who believe that your self-pub book is somehow less real, you do have an audience and you do have a following to reach. It just requires a lot more elbow grease than what people may give credit for.

Special thanks to the members of the FB groups WriMore International and SelfPubEBooks for the feedback on the stigmas.

Onward and upward, my fellow self-pubs.

K.G.

Notabene: My books are still 99c for ebook. After mid-January, back up they go to $2.99 each. Yep, I have paperback too. Click here.

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8 thoughts on “Stigmas in Self-Publishing

    1. Indeed; a perfect example. And I’m sure that one of the reasons that his stories weren’t published was because they were “too macabre” for the readers of the time.

      Perhaps, but they sure gained an audience.

  1. Every point you make is valid. As a self-published author, I got tired of rejection letters and I knew I had a great book just waiting to be enjoyed by others, so I did the research and took the plunge to get it self-published. I couldn’t be happier. I didn’t write the book to make money, but instead wanted to share my story with others. The nice thing about self-publishing is the total control I had over the process. I was informed every step of the way and was able to make my decisions accordingly. I would do it again in a heartbeat!

    1. Thanks, James. This is actually the same way that I had ended up as a self-pub as well. After a year of nothing but steady rejection letters, I had nothing to lose by going self, and considering how the opportunities had started to improve in recent years, I know that it was the right path for me. And yes, the control of a self-pub is absolutely unparalleled. I’m getting ready to get my fourth book out there, also a self-pub. REGRET NOTHING.

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