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I've been investigating self-publishing a fair bit this week for several reasons. I want to know what my options are for the future. I want to know how well a self-published book might be received by readers and peers. I'm not rushing to publish my novel myself (for one thing, I don't have the money), I'm really just testing the waters.
Why would I even give self-publishing a second thought? The reasons a many and varied.
The publishing industry seems to be very closed. Certainly, the major publishing companies seem quite conservative, and why wouldn't they be, they don't spend much on market research, so every publication is a punt. If they take a chance on a writer and that chance pays off big, they will keep going back to that writer until sales of their book sales begin to decline. Publishing companies have also discovered the rich soil that is celebrity publishing. Find a hot celebrity, someone whose name is already in lights and publish something by that celebrity - sales are almost guaranteed!
As a writer, I must keep my ear to the ground for opportunities to submit my unsolicited manuscript and then I must hope my manuscript doesn't end up on the slush-pile. Publishers receive thousands and thousands of unsolicited manuscripts every year, and most of those manuscripts are not well written or edited. Many are rip-offs of the last best selling book in their genre, and so on and so forth. If you write something with a competent level of skill and it's fresh, but not too different from what has come before, then you're in with a slim chance of being noticed and picked up.
If you do get noticed, they will sign you up for a contract, help your edit and polish your manuscript and then they will publish a small run of your books (I think about 1000 copies - I could be more or less wrong about that). After this it is up to you to sell the book. That's right, the writer is responsible for a lot of the promotion of their own book. Even when submitting an unsolicited manuscript, writers are asked how they would promote their book. Once the writer has promoted their book to the best of their ability they receive a very small percentage of any profits (if there are any profits).
So, considering how hard it is to get noticed in the first place, and how publishing companies seem to limit their support mostly to paying for the cost of publication itself, it doesn't seem so far fetched for a writer to publish their own work, promote it, and keep whatever profits they manage to make. Once an author's book is published they become eligible for so many more competitions and awards than those available to unpublished authors.
Now, obviously, the strongest stigma surrounding self-publication is the quality of the work that finally sees the light of day in book form - or rather the presumed lack of quality (because it is assumed a brilliant writer will always be picked up by a publisher). However, poor quality writing or editing is not something that must be true about a self-published book.
I remember a lecture about falacies during my Communication degree where our lecturer said there was a relatively easy test for spying a falacy. If you invert a statement and it doesn't remain true, it's probably a falacy. For example:
"Self-published books are poor quality books."
Inverted that would be...
"Poor quality books are self-published books."
or you can test it by seeing if the opposing statement is also true...
"Books published by publishing companies are good quality books."
Is that true? Absolutely not! Many, many books published by publishing companies, including well known and well respected publishing companies, are poorly written and riddled with typos and other mistakes.
Writer's centres offer manuscript assessments and Publisher Submission Appraisals (basically letters to publisher stating the publishable quality of the manuscript), and so a conscientious writer - and let's face it, if you're footing the bill, it pays to make sure your book is the absolute best quality it can be - can have their manuscript appraised and use feedback to edit it to a point where it is at least equal to work published by the major publishing houses.
The First Tuesday Book Club this month talked about how books and reading are changing with the rapid change of technology. One comment made by a panelist was that with electronic book writing, people are writing prolifically and possibly not valuing their writing. This was the old quantity versus quality argument which plays into the idea that because a writer can publish a book from home, and do so relatively quickly and easily, the process of this accessible kind of publishing may not value the end product.
I believe this depends on the writer. Virginia Wolfe was a self-publisher because she valued her own work so greatly she couldn't bear for others to mess with it. Self-published works can be of great quality and artistic merit if the writer chooses to be meticulous about their craft and their final product. In a world where it can be very difficult for an unknown writer to be published, and where publishing companies expect writer's to do much of their own promotion, I can see more and more writers opting to self-publish high quality work.