Friday, May 20, 2011

Self-publishing from the Writer's Perspective...

Image from istock
Self-publishing is still a dirty word in many circles - whether you're a bookworm or a writer (or both).

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.


ryivhnn said...

I'll be self publishing for pretty much the same reasons as Ms Wolfe...when I finally get around to publishing :|

Have you looked into the self publishing "houses" that are around the place?

Sif Dal said...

Yes, I was talking to one this week. We figured out that if Dave did the "typesetting" (which basically means formatting and packaging up for print), then I could cut costs considerably. They would offer a copy editing service, cover design, abn and isbn applications and liaisons with the printer - it would still cost a fair bit, especially when I add the costs of a professional edit (for style and content) and a publisher assessment... But ultimately, I would get published and it would look professional.

ryivhnn said...

You have artist friends right, could them+Dave cover design? The other stuff sounds useful, it would tempt me anyway, if I were writing books :)

Anonymous said...

I’ve landed on your very thought-provoking post by a very roundabout route, and hope you don’t mind a lengthy comment, but it resonates strongly with some slow-burning thoughts of mine.

About 10 years ago I did something I’d always wanted to do – I wrote my novel. It took two or three years. I learned loads by doing it, I finished it, I was very proud of myself, and I was fairly pleased with the result. I then set about trying to have it published, and following the advice of everything I’d read, I approached agents rather than publishers. The second person I sent it to was quite a big name in the industry, and she was very encouraging. She asked to see more, she said some nice things, but in the end she passed.

I then went through a cycle of rejection letters, with most people clearly not even reading what I’d sent, before a very new agency agreed to take me on. It was all done on-line, and they gave me some very useful editing and polishing help with my first three chapters – some relatively minor changes seemed to make an enormous difference to the quality of my work.

They then asked me to put together some marketing material – a blurb, a prĂ©cis for publishers, and so forth, with a heavy emphasis on the big sell for the mass market. I did this, and the next thing I received was a rejection – my work was never going to sell a million copies. It didn’t fit squarely within a genre. Despite a number of e-mails from me, I never heard from them again.

At this point I more or less gave up. I was really pleased that I’d created something I could call my own, but I didn’t need the grief of trying to get published. I know I can write, and I think what I created was good, but maybe not quite good enough. I’ve occasionally thought of self-publishing, but not seriously. But then earlier this year I told a friend this story. He’s someone very much into technology, social media, and the power of the web, and his immediate and very strong advice was: self-publish – it’s now the way of the world.

I haven’t yet, and lately I’ve been distracted by this whole blogging thing. But I think it’s the right the thing to do. You’re absolutely right about the corroding influence of the celebrity author. From what I can work out, self-publishing is not necessarily the same as vanity publishing, and you can do it these days without parting with a lot of cash. And if you’re going to have to be heavily involved in the selling process, you have to ask what publishers are really adding.

So if you’re still thinking about it, I would go for it. What’s to lose? Best of luck, whatever you decide to do.

Sif Dal said...

Hfbtest, thank you for your story, it is similar to others I've heard and I think it reflects a narrowing of the focus of publishers. I am fairly certain self-publishing is in my future. I will even go as far as to say, I believe self-publishing will begin to change public opinion of what big publishers have to offer. I see it becoming somewhat like commercial television where the reading market will turn to big publishers for formula writing and to self-publishing to more stimulating, thought provoking and innovative writing. That is, unless big publishers wake up and smell the stale bread.

Good Job!