The Double-Edged Sword of Self-Publishing

By Kat Meyer Originally published on The Bookish Dilettante Being the bookish dilettante that I am, I tend to wear many hats. There are ones—like this blog, that are frilly and fun and not very practical, and then there are the ones that pay the bills. Those hats are not necessarily flattering, but they do keep the chill off. For example, I make a sizable portion of my daily bread providing book marketing services to self-published authors. And, though the authors I meet doing this are almost always interesting and lovely people (and to be fair, most of them have already had a certain amount of sales success with their books), I generally do not enjoy this part of my job. In fact, on any given day, at any given moment, you might find me quite vocally damning the inventor of Print-on-Demand.

Why? Well, it’s complicated. But, in a nutshell, I think many self-publishing authors look upon the self-publishing route much as they would a very shiny sword – say, Excalibur. And these authors, who really want to get their book published (but who have either given up on or don’t want to be bothered with “traditional” publishing) see that gleaming sword stuck in that rock, and they hear it beckoning to them, “Hey, you, author – come and get me. You can do it. Give it a try.” And they figure, “Why not?” “Why not just take a chance and self-publish my book? I mean, I know I’ve got what it takes, and my manuscript is terrific, so it’ll all work out just fine.”

But, most of those authors soon find that they are not able to pull that sword out of that rock – their book does not fly off the shelves—why, it doesn’t even make it onto the shelves in the first place. You see, self-publishing services are about one thing – they are about getting books published. The better self-publishing firms will offer some copyediting and design services, and see to it that the book is made available by online retailers, but they will not create a demand for that book, nor make that book worth reading.

It’s like that shiny, gleaming, rock-stuck, double-edged sword just sitting there for the taking – it certainly looks easy enough; and there are very few barriers to getting your book published (money being the main barrier, though there are options where not even money is required). But the barriers to getting your self-published book read? Those barriers are real and they are many. This is because the so-called “barriers” that the self-pubbed author managed to avoid by circumventing the traditional publishing route, were not simply barriers. They were check points. They were safe guards. They were opportunities for a lot of industry trust agents to jump on board and show they not only believed in the book, but were willing to risk their own money, time, and/or professional reputations to see that book make it in the world.

Of course, you can call this process whatever you want. Some cynical types refer to it as “gate keeping.” Social media “experts” would call it establishing an author’s platform. I prefer to call it book curation. What it all comes down to is this: those barriers provide some assurance to the prospective reader that the book is a good investment of their time and money before they fork over any of either. Especially time, because life (as I’m becoming ever so increasingly aware) is just too short to be spent reading crap books. For traditionally published books, this vetting manifests as a byzantine process where millions of seemingly unconnected people work together, but apart — each taking some kind of personal and/or financial risk on a title. Agents, editors, designers, marketers, publicists, sales reps, reviewers, TV show hosts, bloggers, booksellers, librarians, etc., (I’m sure I’m forgetting a few people here) – boldy stand up and put their money where their mouths are, all so a traditionally published book can have a chance of making it in the marketplace.

And usually, these players are not just idly signing on to support a book because it’s "popular" or "trendy" (i love these "scare quotes"). They are often supporting a book because they are quite passionate about it. Their love for, and belief in the book is worth a lot to others in the list of industry players, and eventually enough people willing to risk enough time and money on that book translates into readers being willing to risk their time and money on the book.

On the other hand, for the majority of self-published books, there is no vetting, or gate-keeping, or author platform building, or curation process. And, the majority of self-published authors will find themselves trying to gain the trust and willingness of readers with no collateral to offer in return. That is usually the point at which such authors will turn to someone like me, hoping they’ll be able to drum up interest in their book via clever marketing campaigns. And, this is when I usually have to tell them that they need to go back to the beginning and start looking at those “barriers” they were avoiding in a new light.

They need to create their own platforms, find their own trust agents and listen to what their vetters might have to say about their book. That’s not to say self-published books can’t be commercially successful. But, I guarantee that if you look closely at the paths taken by books such as The Shack or Eragon, you will almost always find that their authors had the good sense to seek out vetting, and build their own author platforms, and gain the enthusiasm of trust agents of their own, early in their publishing processes. Because that’s the thing about great publishing – it’s very seldom done by one’s self. Successful books are a result of a lot of players being committed to, and passionate about a book.

Publetariat Editor’s Note: two days after the above column was published, Kat posted the following addendum:

Books Are Books, And It’s About The Reader

Well. I guess my writing is not as clear as I’d like it to be. And, in some ways it is clearer than I intended. But, No matter. The beauty of the Blog is that at any point in the online conversation I can tell you what I meant, what I really, really meant. Which, right now would be that I am not in any way shape or form against the idea of self publishing. I adore the concept. I exalt the concept. I think self-publishing has the potential to be the best thing since sliced bread (though, in the interest of transparency, i must herewith express my lack of enthusiasm about sliced bread cuz i think it’s kind of meh– however, i AM hugely impressed by spreadable butter – go figure).

My point was that there are a lot of blood and guts human beings who make their (usually quite modest – from a monetary standpoint) livings by being a part of what has been until recently, the way (for better or worse) book publishing worked. My point, dear readers was that most of the people who are in the business of (for lack of a better word) "traditional" book publishing are in it because they love good books. They love reading, they love making, they love SELLING good books to the world.

My point was – there really are legitimate reasons that the book world has worked the way it has, though it won’t likely continue to work that way. Things are changing. And to quote Lev Grossman from his article "Books Unbound" (btw, thank you, @jafurtado and Hugh McGuire for tweeting about it), "None of this is good or bad; it just is."

My point was – what will not change is the fact that readers will not read unless they have a reason to read. READERS will not invest their precious time and money in an unknown quantity unless there is someone or something compelling them to do so.

My point is: IT’S ABOUT THE READERS! It’s about engaging with the readers. If you are a (pardon the term) TRADITIONALLY published author, a self-published author, a non-published author with an inkling of an idea to someday BECOME an author of some sort — please please please — do yourself, and all of us potential readers a huge favor and think about US before you publish.

Start early (before you begin writing would be ideal) by becoming a vital member of the community that makes up your (prospective) reading audience. Get feedback from us. Incorporate that feeback into your writing and, keep us involved. Make us care. Make us want to help spread the word about your work. And when you DO publish, we most likely will not give a damn HOW you publish — we will just be happy to read what you wrote FOR US!

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