The Real Source of Self-Publishing Stigma

So here is the thing…

There is a lot of talk about the “stigma” of self-publishing. But for the most part this stigma is rather contained. For example:

Mainstream Publishers/Agents: They don’t really care whether you self-publish or not. I mean think about this for a moment. If you’re self-publishing, you’re one less manuscript in their slush pile. If you fail, they don’t have to deal with you. If you succeed, then you are a proven quantity to them… a sure thing, which is something publishers like. So exactly why would they care? Publishers and agents reject bad writing all the time. They don’t remember the bad writing because they see so much of it, it all bleeds together (from one of the horses’ mouths.)

Agents DO discourage self-publishing very often on their blogs and such, but the stigma doesn’t really flow from them. More about that in a minute…

And while there is much talk about how if you self-publish you’ll ruin your future chances at a career because bookstores won’t order your books from a publisher because your self-pubbed books sold so poorly, that’s not a very strong argument and I’d like someone to bring in an actual bookstore book purchaser to confirm this. BOOKS are all returnable inside the brick and mortar bookstore system. They don’t HAVE to assess risk with a major publisher.

Chances are really good they NEVER stocked your book. So… if you’ve got bad sales, and since everyone claims brick and mortar distribution is Distribution Mecca, then… oh gee, maybe they’ll “get” that it may be a distribution issue and not that the book isn’t good. The double standards out there are astounding. Either way though, with a major publisher backing a book and taking their sales people around, do you really think bookstores are doing intensive background checks? Who cares if you self-pubbed a book?

With bookstores the stigma isn’t so much stigma as shelf-space. While it’s a common belief that self-published books can’t get shelved on brick and mortar bookstore shelves, this is BS. There is a vetting process whereby small press and self-published authors can get their books vetted and into the store, even the MAJOR chains. I know of many self-pubbed authors whose books are sitting on major bookstore shelves.

But if you WANT that, you have to do the legwork necessary. You have to produce a quality book and you have to get into Ingram and Baker and Taylor (the primary distributors of the book trade), but it can be done. At the end of the day it isn’t “stigma” that keeps a self-pubbed book off a bookstore shelf… it is the self-publishing author’s lack of education about the process to do it or willingness to do it, or the quality of their book. Plain as that.

Also, even if you can’t get on bookstore shelves, you should ask yourself whether or not this is something that’s necessary for you. The bookstore returns system can cannibalize your sales and for a small operator, that might not be the place you want to be at. Especially not in the beginning as an indie. Though your mileage may vary.

So far we’ve established that agents, publishers, and bookstores don’t really “care” whether or not you self-publish. If you’ll note bookstores don’t start big blogs ranting and whining about self-publishing. Neither do publishers. In fact, many are open to the idea of finding authors to sign among those who are successfully self-publishing. They understand due to distribution issues that it’s still hard for an indie to sell a lot of books and they adjust their expectations accordingly. While agents may discourage writers from self-publishing… it would kind of be contradictory to their business model to do anything else. It’s called self-interest, folks, not empirical reality.

If an author self-publishes and THEN gets picked up by a publisher, the agent wasn’t needed to scout out and find the talent. The author is then the one in the power chair. And that author is unlikely to call up that agent for representation. They may call AN agent, or they may call an intellectual property lawyer to handle their contract. But the important part in this scenario is that the author has the power, not the agent… more about that in a minute.

Now granted, the odds of succeeding as an indie are slim (but the odds of succeeding ANYWAY are slim.) If you’ve got the goods, you’ve got them, no matter how you publish. Agents have to wade through a lot of crap to find gems but right now their job is still necessary. If all hopefuls were to start self-publishing, or even if ENOUGH of them did, that publishers got all the work they needed from successfully self-published books, then the agents’ job description all but disappears.

Most of the “self-publishing stigma” hinges on the idea that all self-published books are bad and written by deluded morons who can’t really write. The moment enough truly GOOD writers buck the system and self-publish, this stops being true. In order for the stigma to continue, it must remain a self-fulfilling prophecy. And in order for THAT to happen, everyone WITHIN the system must heavily discourage anyone working outside it by appealing to their vanity and their fear of being ostracized from the community.

And if the agent’s job doesn’t completely disappear (i.e. they could go back to just doing what they were supposed to be doing: contract negotiation), their perceived power among writers does, because then their position in the system as the writer’s employee, is reinforced. I believe many of the agents out there on the Internet who verbally abuse the writer community every change they get, enjoy this false power they’ve been temporarily granted. But, if there is an easier and more drama-free way for publishers to find talent, besides the slush pile and agents, then agents go back to being employees and not a second round of gatekeeper.

I find it insane that while many in traditional publishing will pontificate about how indie authors aren’t “vetted,” GUESS WHAT? Agents aren’t vetted. Anyone can call themselves an agent and a bad agent is worse than no agent at all. Most top agents aren’t taking on new clients because they don’t have to. They’ve got enough good authors making them plenty of money.

What about all the review sources who won’t review your book? Another myth. There ARE self-pubbed books that are reviewed in major sources. If you do things the right way the issue of whether or not your book is self-published shouldn’t even come up. i.e. You have an imprint that isn’t YOUR name (like not Sally’s Books), you have a professional-quality book, and you’re presenting yourself as a professional.

You may still not get reviewed, but… it’s not because of the stigma of self-publishing. It’s because of ALL the books out there and how competitive it is. Most trad published books don’t get reviewed in major sources either. Also, most major sources for reviews are drying up and being replaced by the voice of readers on book reviewer blogs that gain a following. It is a WHOLE different landscape out there, and yet many are still functioning as if it’s 1999.

Readers: I don’t care what anyone says, readers are why writers write. There is no other reason. If you want to make money you can find something that will pay you far better than writing. Writing is what you do because you have something to express and share with the world. So reader opinions? The buck stops with them I’m afraid.

You just can’t delete readers from the equation no matter how much the industry seems to want to. They are the end consumer of the book. And the more the traditional publishing system abuses and disregards the wants and needs of the readers, the more readers will shrug and go find other entertainment options, whether it be small press and indie books, or reality TV. Either way, they’ll get tired of the shit eventually.

So what do readers think? Well, for the most part, since most of them aren’t exposed to bad self pubbed work, since crap doesn’t rise to the top, they don’t care. They don’t know who your publisher is and they don’t care who your publisher is. While there are SOME readers who have either somehow been exposed to a lot of bad self-pubbed work and got a bad taste in their mouth over it, or who are plugged in enough to the pulse of the publishing industry that they have become influenced by the “stigma”, most readers don’t know about all this bullshit politics. Nor do they really care one way or the other.

You don’t have to overcome reader objections to your method of publication if you produce a quality book. The reason you don’t is that publishers never branded THEMSELVES. No one knows who Dan Brown or Stephen King’s publisher is… or not average readers anyway. They don’t know the different imprint names or publisher names for most mainstream-produced book. They can’t tell a small press imprint, from a division of a larger well-known publisher. SOME of them, can’t even tell AuthorHouse from Random House (This one is Henry Baum’s brilliance, not my own.)

So you don’t have to overcome reader issues. In fact, if I didn’t interact at all with the writing community on the Internet, and just went about my business self-publishing, I’d never run into any drama whatsoever about my method of publication. I choose, for better or worse, to get into the debates that I do, because while I know I won’t change the pig-headed views of the person I’m talking with most likely, I *may* influence the view of someone reading who hasn’t made up their mind yet. And that, to me, is worth it.

Okay… so if the source of the stigma isn’t “really” agents, publishers, bookstores, reviewers, or readers, what is it?


Traditionally published authors who get bent out of shape about self-publishing, may, in fact, have a partly altruistic motive of protecting authors from making bad business decisions, though I think the better alternative is to teach a writer how to assess business risk, rather than making up asinine rules like “money always flows to the author.”

However, don’t ever be led to believe it is merely altruism that causes a traditionally published author to rail against self-publishing. Self-publishing is a threat. It doesn’t matter that a lot of self-published work is bad… many trad pubbed authors suffered through years of rejection to get “accepted.” They have been validated by a certain system.

If it becomes socially acceptable to work outside that system, then where does their validation go? It becomes less valuable because readers already don’t care. Bookstores already don’t care. The only people who REALLY care are other writers. And so it’s important to set up this “cult of truth” for writers and make everyone goose step and ostracize those who don’t.

If someone won’t march in line like the rest, you attack the quality of their writing, their character, and their mental state or capacity. They aren’t good enough, they haven’t been validated, they are lazy or taking a shortcut. They are delusional. They are naive. And if none of that works, you define them as “the exception” and say they shouldn’t encourage anyone else to do what you’re doing. Writers are so desperate for validation that often they will ignore their own will in favor of being accepted by their peers.

But guess what? Indies have their OWN peers.

Unpublished writers generally want to be accepted by those they look up to. And so because the self-published author is the only one “beneath them” on the food chain, they join in the mob to attack as well.

So let’s sum up… in a really competitive industry the stigma against going outside the system is your competition.

Have a different view about that stigma now? The moment you stop associating with these people and focus on the readers, they just fall off your radar. I’ve chosen under this name, to be loud and out there about being indie and to confront stupid arguments head on because I know for many it’s too hard to stand up to the people who have either been elevated or elevated themselves to grand high potentates of publishing.

Though now I need to probably take a bit of a break from arguing, so I can get something worthwhile accomplished… like I don’t know… publishing.


This is a cross-posting from Zoe Winters’ blog.

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