Should Writers Self Publish?

So, Roy and Cathy and I have been emailing about self-publishing.  Well, really Roy and I have, since we seem to be the most loud-mouthed and vociferous in our opinions.  (Shocking, I know.)

The impetus (or inciting incident, if you want to use fiction terminology) for this discussion was Roy and Cathy’s visit to the Southern Festival of the Book.

Let me first announce loudly that I should have been in Nashville this past weekend for this event.  But, alas, I wasn’t.  So I relied on the reports from Roy and Cathy.

And they were not good.  In the past the festival has attracted huge southern writers (not huge in size but in stature) and seemed to have tons of amazing speakers and workshops and that always made me hugely jealous.

But apparently this time the only huge speaker was Rick Bragg, and according to someone who shall remain nameless, he is recycling his speech from previous years, when he actually had a book to shill.  (If, um, the book on the Jessica Lynch story counts.  I didn’t say that!  No I didn’t!  I’m still upset with the man for his uncredited use of stringers when he was at the New York Times.  And, guess what?  I’m not from the south, so I don’t have to engage in knee-jerk adoration of the good ole boys.  Not that that is a problem down there.  Just sayin’ I don’t do it.)

But I digress.  Lord, how I digress.  Kinda like a southerner.

He who shall remain nameless, but is the father of two children named Seth and Eryn, said that the festival was also disappointing because most of the booths featured self-published books.

And this provoked a passionate defense of all authors, even if they have written books about Jessica Lynch, from moi.  Because I KNOW how damned hard it is to write a book, any book, even if it is a crappy romance or a mystery without a dead body.  And if said authors can’t find a publisher but feel so compelled to present their tomes to the world, then I say more power to them.

And then I told him that I myself had gone over to the dark side, what with my recent foray into the Ebook world.  (Okay, it is just a beginning foray, but still.)

Whereupon Roy He Who Shall Remain Nameless begged me to come down off my high horse because what he was really talking about was outfits like the ones who charge you a lot to do what you could for yourself.

And then I had to shut up because I agree with him.

His point is that these businesses lure you into their publishing web by promising distribution and publicity, when in truth the books they produce are sneered at as little more than vanity publishing by the industry.  And he is correct.

Nobody is going to take these books seriously, folks.  Why?  Because there is no editor.  And what does an editor do?  He or she functions as an objective person who can read and comment on a manuscript.  We writers may not like this, but this vetting is a necessary part of the process.  We cannot be objective about our own work, period.  We need another set of eyes.  You won’t get this at one of these publishing houses.

I do so understand the frustration of pounding your fist against the door of a publishing house and not having anyone answer.  And I also understand why you might want to just say, enough, and publish your book yourself.

Honestly?  I think you’d be better off to start a blog and publish the book yourself, post by post.  Dedicate yourself to publicize it and network and you might just attract yourself a publisher.  Or take the money you’d spend with one of these publishing houses and publish the book yourself.  That’s what Richard Paul Evans did.

And , um, he’s rich.  He writes sentimental slop, but people love it and he loves it and he’s made millions.

Like I said, I respect even the authors of sentimental slop.  And those who write about Jessica Lynch. And I respect your impetus to share your words with the world.  Just don’t sell your soul in your rush to publish, okay?

7 thoughts on “Should Writers Self Publish?”

  1. Hey Charlotte:

    Good blog. Yeah, it always shocked me to discover that people ‘paid’ to have their books published. I mean, writing is a profession, a job. And a darn difficult one at that. As is the case with any job, 1) you go to work; 2) produce a product or offer a service; and 3) receive financial compensation in return. Plain and simple, as the cliche goes.

    Plumbers don’t pay to fix sinks. Truckers don’t pay to deliver goods. Actors don’t pay to make movies. So why has it become acceptable for writers to pay to see their words in print?

    Personally, I’ve seen and/or purchased between five to ten (vanity press) self-published books. Only two were readable.

    Thinking back on the Southern Festival of Books, I would have enjoyed it a lot if this year’s event was my first time attending it. And I am sure that many first timers loved it, as they should. But this was about my eighth or ninth time there, and I have a wider frame of reference. I am a fan of the event (always have been/always will be), but this year’s event was wanting. Oh, there were a few literary heavy hitters there. I’m not going to name names. Those are listed on the program’s Web site, and I am sure that their events were fine. But looking at the overall package, I think there are many opportunities to increase the Wow Factor in the coming years. I hope they will. (I’m sure they will.)

    Charlotte and I were part of a group of people several years ago who started a creative writing program at Middle TN. State Univ. We were mindful of protecting the students from outside people, organizations, forces that wanted to use these raw, new, aspiring writers to generate cash. I was deeply saddened to see the vanity press companies with booths at the festival with their business cards and bookmarks. By putting these companies alongside university presses, creative writing orgs, and so on, then these ‘press-for-hire’ operations are given an elevated level of credibility.

    While this may be difficult for an aspiring writer to know, I think there is some truth in the following statement: in many cases, if a publishing house is not prepared to pay you money to publish your words, than your words are not yet publishable. If this is the case, before someone spends $500 to $5,000 at a vanity press (self publishing outfit), I would encourage that person to take that money and join creative writing orgs (AWP, state orgs), subscribe to Poets & Writers magazine, attend conferences, buy $500 worth of books and go into hiding and read and learn.

    Yes, I know that a few famous writers started out by publishing their own books and selling them out of the trunk of their cars, but so what. There’s how many hundreds (thousands?) of published writers in America? How many mainstream, successful can self-published writers can you count? I am not sure, but I bet it is not many. It sure isn’t enough for the masses to start writing checks and passing out unedited (or lightly-edited) prose.

    Oh well, here’s my two cents worth…for what it’s worth….

  2. Wow, Roy, thanks for your long and worthwhile comment. You said it a lot better than I did, and really added a lot to the discussion. Thanks! And kiss Seth and Eryn for me.

  3. I’ll admit upfront that I’m not very knowledgeable about the publishing business. I agree with you wholeheartedly that virtually any writer needs an editor (that would help me tremendously).

    On the surface, it does seem a bit counterintuitive to pay someone to publish your book for you. However, a book publisher of any stripe is typically the entity that assumes most of the financial risk related to publishing a book.

    I’m not familiar with “vanity press” publishers, although I think I understand what they are about. Their model seems to follow more of an entrepreneurial bent vs. writer as quasi-employee who can incidentally make one heck of a commission with the right contract and a best-seller. The vanity press publisher does seem to have a vested interest of bringing lots of new/unestablished writers into their stable.

    Are “vanity press” publishers really any worse than the established companies, who are basically using the writer to crank out material, push volumes and make profits? Other than the benefit of an editor, aren’t the two types of companies more alike than unalike? The difference between paying a publisher for producing and distributing your book vs. a contract whereby that transaction is already covered by virtue of the fact that the big publisher is the first one who gets paid, then the writer’s cut trickles down to them – is it really that different? After all, the writer doesn’t usually get retirement or medical benefits in either case.

    I don’t have your experience, so I’m theorizing.

    I still can’t overturn your argument about the lack of an editor!

  4. Hey Mark:

    Great comments! Read your posting several times.

    Traditional publishing houses and vanity press publishers (also known as self-publishing) are not alike at all.

    Scenario One:
    With traditional publishing houses, the writer/publishing house relationship is more of a business partnership with both partners taking on significant roles and risks. The writer risks his/her time, the time it took to create the book. The publisher takes on the risks of editing the book, producing the book, shipping the book, and taking back unsold remainders. And this doesn’t even include the money spent marketing the book, promoting the writer–all done at NO/ZERO up front costs to the writer. And in most cases, the publishing house gives the writer an advance on future sales (ie: money), as well as pays the writer when the book begins to sell. And if the book does not sell as well as projected, the writer gets to keep the advance.

    Scenario Two:
    With vanity press/self-publishing outfits, the company takes money from the writer and publishes the book. Everything is on the shoulders (and wallet) of the writer. Even if one of these publishers provides one of the above mentioned services, the writer pays for it all, probably way upfront. This publisher invests NOTHING in the writer. This is the opposite of a partnership.

    So, if you were an aspiring writer, which scenario would you want to participate in?

    And there are many, many more differences and reasons NOT to go the vanity press route. Too many to write on this blog at the moment.

    Mark, you seem interested and engaged. If you want to start to learn more about this industry, here is a fast, easy way to start the learning process.

    Go to Amazon.com and purchase the DVD Stone Reader. In addition to all of the publishers and editors and writers that you will hear speak about the industry in this documentary, the second disk has many more features and interviews. This is a great way to start to get an idea of how it all works. And along the way, especially after you continue to read such mags as Poets & Writers, you will start to understand why you would want to do one thing verses another.

    Hope this helps!

    All my best, Roy

  5. Wow, its always the posts I think nobody is going to read that get the most comments. Thanks for both of your thoughtful replies. I’m going to do a second post on the topic tomorrow.

  6. Pingback: Self Publishing Redux | Charlotte Rains Dixon

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