The Problem With Self-Publishing

by Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

[A version of this article originally appeared on]


Unless you’re a traditional publisher with a vested interest in the status quo, or an insecure writer who puts a lot of stock in the name of one’s publisher, there’s really nothing wrong with self-publishing that’s not a problem for the publishing industry in general:

  • Too many mediocre books being published? Check!
  • Minimal marketing support for the vast majority of books being published? Check!
  • Too much up-front money being put towards vanity projects? Check!
  • Lackluster editing and/or pedestrian design? Check!
  • Huge, out-of-control egos in need of a reality check? Checkity check check!

Except for Marvel and DC Comics, very few publishers have the kind of brand recognition that can influence sales at the retail level. Their strength is primarily on the backend, their ability to get books onto bookstore shelves and into influential critics’ hands. Ask 100 people in a bookstore who publishes Stephen King, or Stephenie Meyer, or the “For Dummies” series, though, and you’ll likely get a blank stare and a shrug from 75% of them.

Most people would say their decision to read a book comes from some combination of three criteria: personal interest in topic/genre, recommendations, and sampling.

Only the latter point is really influenced by a traditional publisher, as theirs are the books most likely to be on a bookshelf available to browse and sample, but between Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature, free samples via the Kindle and iPhone, and smartly designed and optimized author (or publisher) websites, even that isn’t an obstacle for any book, self-published or not, that hits someone’s radar via the other two, significantly more important criteria. In fact, the ability to sample a book digitally opens it up to a much wider audience than having 1-2 copies in a bookstore, buried in alphabetical order between a bunch of similarly unknown authors’ names and unimaginative titles.

Distribution and visibility aside, the most commonly noted “problem” with self-publishing, of course, is that self-published books mostly suck and there’s so many of them being cranked out every year that finding a good one is a near impossible and not terribly worthwhile task. While literally true, it ignores the larger reality that taking a stroll through any Barnes & Noble or Borders in search of a good book can be a similarly frustrating and unfruitful undertaking.

The fact of the matter is that writing a book is hard; writing an objectively good book is even harder; and writing one that can survive the subjective tastes of influential critics, well, that’s practically impossible.

Just ask Stephenie Meyer, best-selling author of the Twilight series, who got ripped by Stephen King in USA Today a while back: “The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good.”  I’ve never read any Potter or Twilight novels, but King’s criticism of Meyer’s writing is one I’ve seen made many times, in a variety of places, of both of them.

It’s true that the vast majority of self-published books are vanity projects, most by authors who never bothered to attempt to go the traditional route because their primary goal was getting the finished product into their own hands, not the “validation” and “legitimization” so many tend to associate with a traditional publisher. As a result, the closest they’ve come to being edited is a cursory reading by a couple of friends or family members followed by compliments and encouragement to pursue their dreams. It’s like a poetry slam where 10s are mandatory; most of it is self-indulgent dreck with a narrowly defined audience of one.

Less typical, but often lumped in the same category, is the wannabe author whose work probably wouldn’t get past the critical eye of an editor or agent without a revision or three, and goes the self-publishing route of out of frustration (or pride), usually in hopes of landing a copy on an influential someone’s desk to become the next one-in-a-million success story who nails a lucrative publishing deal after proving their worth. While this certainly does happen, it’s rare because of the stereotypical stigma that still defines self-publishing for those on the inside of the industry.

Finally, and for whom Publetariat was primarily created for, is the ambitious author who understands that, no matter who their publisher is, they’re going to have to bust their ass to market their book and hand-sell it to as many people as possible, one copy at a time, in person and online. These are most often non-fiction writers with a niche expertise and poets — and to a lesser degree, REALLY ambitious comic book creators and fiction writers — who have the ability, innate or developed, to perform in front of a crowd of tens or hundreds (or online, millions), able to schmooze just as comfortably on a one-on-one level as on Twitter.

These savvy authors tend to have built a platform for themselves over time — something almost every traditional publisher pretty much requires these days — and know how to use it, attracting a loyal tribe and continually nurturing it.

For these entrepeneurial authors, there aren’t any problems with self-publishing at all, as they stand to reap significantly greater rewards for their greater effort. If anything, it’s traditional publishing that has the problem, with expectations for the same level of author effort in return for minimal marketing support and a much smaller cut of the sales of each book.

For these authors, self-publishing is ultimately a question of independence, and for them, Publetariat is a community where that independence is encouraged and honored, while also serving as a much-needed support system.

Nope, no problems here!

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Spindle Magazine. He’s won some poetry slams, founded a reading series, co-authored a book of poetry, and still writes when the mood hits him and he has the time. Follow him on Twitter: @glecharles