Writing My Novel: The Stigma of Self-Publishing, Part 1

My wife works in programming for a public library, which means that part of her job is setting up book talks and signings with various authors. When I see a program I want to attend, I always ask Jenn the same question: “Is the book self-published?”

Whether the answer is “yes” or “no” has yet to sway me from or convince me into attending a program. But it’s still the first thing I ask because I want to know what to expect from the author, the book, or both.

I see self-publishing in a much friendlier light than many people, but there is definitely a stigma attached to self-publishing and those who choose that route for their books. Some people don’t consider self-published authors as “real” authors. And even those who are seen as legitimate have rarely made a living off of their fiction.

So I find it kind of interesting that my current (yet tentative) plan for writing involves having two self-published ebooks online by Christmas 2011. Part of that plan involved deciding whether or not I could deal with having that stigma applied to me. I realized that I can because, like everything else in life, there is not a single label that defines who I am.  And if I can make a living off my writing and do it with self-publishing? Yeah, I can stand some people not taking me as seriously as traditionally published authors.

3 Kinds of Self-Published Authors

In my experience, there are three distinct categories of self-published authors. I’ve come to see these categories based on my experiences with authors and those I’ve read about.

The First Kind

This kind of writer just might think that revision is changing a few commas around, maybe putting in a few extra lines of dialogue, or changing the manuscript font to something other than Comic Sans MS (into Papyrus?). These are the authors who get rejected from a couple of agents or literary journals and Tweet “THEY DON’T UNDERSTAND MY ART!!1!!” as they upload their masterpiece into PublishAmerica’s database.

These are the authors who, in my opinion, give self-publishing its bad name. They don’t understand that writing is a business that requires work. And they don’t understand promotion. These authors think that the hard part is writing the book. (While being a daunting task and a worthy accomplishment, writing the book is only the first step along the journey to making a living from it.)

One author who spoke at my wife’s library (yes, it’s hers and hers alone!) had just a fantastic idea for a book. In fact, we have a copy of the book on our shelf at home. The author was a little awkward in front of people, but that’s okay. We had a good chat at the program, and I decided to look her up online afterward.

What I found horrified me. During the program, she talked about how she was disappointed in her sales, but when I checked the official site for the book, there were a few comments of praise, and then a single followup from the author that read something along the lines of “Oh, wow, I just saw these comments. I always forget about checking this site, but thanks for looking at the book!”

My jaw dropped. My heart sank. If that was the public persona this author was wearing when discussing her work, it’s no wonder she wasn’t selling very many copies. She didn’t take her writing or herself seriously.

The Second Kind

These authors aren’t trying to make a living from their writing. They may or may not take the writing and editing seriously, but then again, they’re not looking to make more than a few dollars or say they’ve written a book that is listed on Amazon. They don’t really promote. They might do a few signings here and there–mostly local–but for the most part, they write because they want to.

These authors are fun to talk to generally because they just love what they’re doing. They have fun talks set up, and they genuinely get happy whenever someone buys a book because it means that someone is then likely to read that book. If they get a few good or bad reviews on Amazon, then good for them either way, but their life and habits aren’t likely to change because of it.

The Third Kind

The third kind of self-published author is the kind who is making all the waves in the industry right now. We have Joe Konrath and Amanda Hocking and Karen McQuestion. We have the authors who are able to make a living with their writing completely (or mostly) outside of the traditional NY publishing houses.

These authors treat writing like the job it is. They hire cover artists and editors. They don’t upload garbage; they edit their manuscripts until they are as close to perfect as they can get them. They tirelessly promote themselves (and their friends) through social media and other outlets in order to build themselves as a brand. These folks also tend to prefer the term “indie” to “self-published,” which is the topic of an upcoming post on the rhetoric of self-publishing. Stay tuned!

In other words, the main (but not only) difference between the third type of self-published author and a traditionally published author is who gets to do all the legwork and earn the right to click “upload” on Amazon.

I want, within five years, to be one of the third kind.

Now, I know that I’m vastly oversimplifying these folks into caricatures, and if you have any to add (or to critique these), please let me know.

What have your experiences with self-published authors been like? Share your story in the comments!

Continue reading “The Stigma of Self-Publishing” with Part 2.


Comments

  1. There’s a fourth kind: the quiet ones.

    We put the stuff out there and we go on to the next. We may have to do our own covers because we can’t afford to pay someone else, but because we have to, we get as good at it as we can and we move on. We edit our works as carefully as anyone can, then we send it to a dozen friends, all of whom do likewise, and then we put it up and move on.

    The kind of self-promotion that the Konraths and Winters and Hockings of the world can do is a special thing, with its own skill set and its own requirements, and not all of us can do that. We compensate by moving on to the next book, and the next book, and the next book. It’s all in the title count. I now have six titles up as wooden books, and six as ebooks (not the same six). I even have a four-star review from Zoe Winters. 🙂

    But the key to this approach is the next book. Move on. Write more. Learn more.

    Read. Write. Repeat. The best writing advice ever given to me.

    • I may actually verge on that kind, too, Levi. I don’t know if I will be able to pay someone else to do that stuff. I have friends who are designers, and I’m (very luckily) married to a fantastic and credentialed copy editor/literary critic. I am trained to do the same things, so I hope that I can get past my darlings being //my// darlings long enough to kill them.

      My main concern on that topic is twofold: I don’t know a lot of writers IRL who would be able to work as critique partners, nor do I belong to a critique group. I also don’t know how to really focus in and find the best possible beta readers for the novels.

      I think I can eventually move into that kind of promotion, but we’ll see. I need to get a better grasp on it, for sure, but a few years after I start, I don’t think I’ll be too shabby at it.

      I think, however, that you’re right on the money regarding the writing and reading. I think one of the most important aspects of being a successful self-pub is keeping a constant stream of content. In a lot of ways, the basic tenets of being a successful blogger apply to self-publishing novels. I made a list the other day, and I have ideas for enough novels to keep me busy (at my current rate) for at least the next 6-7 years.

  2. An aspiring author friend of mine is completely against the concept of self-publishing. I’ve talked to him about it before and he seems to think that if you self-publish, you will be black listed from any and all major publishers. What are your thoughts?

    I looked at it like the music industry, in that it used to be that self-publishing wasn’t really successful. You did it if that was the only option available to you. But anymore, indie and self-publishing is a valid method of getting your music out there and making a living, possibly even preferable depending on the artist and their preferences.

    • My thoughts on that are influenced by Konrath: if you are able to make a living selling self-published books, who cares? If you want a career in traditional publishing, then if you aren’t 100% you can sell over 10k of that book in a couple years, then don’t do it. Even then, that 10k might hurt because of cited “market saturation” (which I believe is hooey, by the way). It’s a double-edged sword, but I fall on the side where if I’m able to do what I love–which is write–full time, then I don’t care if it’s from self-publishing or traditional.

      And then there’s the issue of whether or not the book was quality when it was self-pubbed or if you’re submitting a self-pubbed book to agents/publishers instead of new work and what avenues of self-publishing you went through when you did it.

      My best advice for him is to do the research, read about the ins-and-outs of both sides of the industry, find anecdotes regarding both in terms of success and horror stories, and critically think about which makes the most sense for his lifestyle. I’ve spent the last 15 months doing just that, and I’ve come to the conclusion that self-publishing might be the best way to approach the career given my life-plan and personality.

  3. Dblade

    Problem is that you have to compete against not only 1 and 2, but 4, 5 and 6, which are:

    #4 Legit free ebooks given gratis either because they are public domain, or as a marketing tool to raise awareness.

    #5 Pirated ebooks.

    #6 “Dollar store” ebooks: cheap content snatched up and dumped on the market to make profit because of low costs.

    #3 is going to suffer the most over this, and will struggle competing against them. This is typical of all content, not just ebooks: look at flash games, online video, and mp3 music or podcasts. This is why I can’t get why so many authors are uncritical of ebooks. EBooks have the potential to hit the market ten times worse than remainder and used sales ever could once they reach a critical mass of users.

    I really worry that we are setting ourselves up for a huge fall. I think ebooks in particular are more like flash games than indie movies, and to make money on either involves scarcity or moving them to other modes of marketing, like console gaming or dvd sales.

    • I agree and disagree here.

      I agree that ebooks are going to move into new modes of marketing. We only have a 1st/2nd generation of ereaders right now, and there are bound to be new ways to get those books disseminated across the world that we haven’t even thought of yet. I don’t see it as a fall, per se, but a paradigm shift. Right now, it’s still very traditional. I expect there to be more of an iTunes-style revolution coming than Kindle and others have started.

      As for your 4 and 5 that you list, I don’t think those are going to be a lot to worry about. Most of the research I’ve read regarding media piracy comes to the conclusion that the vast majority of pirates would not have bought the media they stole anyway. So it’s not technically a lost sale, but a shot at wider exposure. Will I be tracking down my books and trying to get them taken off pirate sites? Sure, when I can; just for the “Don’t steal from me” principle. But I won’t be breaking my back doing it, either.

      Regarding free ebooks, I think they’re a great idea. I love them. I snag them whenever possible whether or not I intend on reading them in the remote future. Why? Because I never know when my tastes might change, when I might read an article that intrigues me about them, or when that book might be taken down and be unavailable for purchase ever again. In some ways, I’m a hoarder. But in the past, freebies have worked for me. I downloaded two of Konrath’s books he offered, Whiskey Sour and Jack Daniels Stories, and I read bits and pieces of them both. And while I’m not going to buy those particular books, I bought his thriller Origin, eagerly await its sequel, and I intend to work through the Jack Daniels series over time because I like how he structures his novels. Did he lose money on me by offering freebies, or did he gain a reader and the potential for more sales?

      As for number 6, I am torn about it. I see this “dollar store” mentality as a good and bad thing. I like that I can keep myself in books that I want to read (that I may not get to read otherwise) far more cheaply than I could if they were at bookstore prices. But then again, being able to toss any crappy short story I write on Kindle for $0.99 means the market gets inundated with everyone’s crappy stories. Sure, they might sell occasionally, but is that worth having that much garbage out there? Like I said above, I see this one as being an agreement that needs to be come to between readers and authors: stop putting out crap and stop reading crap. Don’t give in to the easy, give in to the quality.

      • Dblade

        You can already get ebooks from virtually every open and closed format on the web on your Ipad, for example. Ebook readers are hitting under $100 for a dedicated one, so the tech aspect is settled. I’m not sure you want an Itunes style solution considering that Apple is hitting magazines on the Ipad hard in terms of fees.

        The piracy issue is more that you are taking a book format that was hard to impossible to pirate and shifting it to one that is remarkably easy to. That will cause lost sales in a media form that had plenty of lost sales as it is.

        The free ebooks I’m not sure on. He had to first write two that he would accept being complete loss leaders. Books are very time intensive, and you could be spending years of your life making free product. Then he has to accept the entire burden of marketing them, as well as hiring editors. Part of the advantage of traditional publishing is that your literary agent as well as your publisher shoulder some of the burden of those aspects, freeing you to write more.

        Now you also have to plan for your novels that you hope will actually sell. I worry that this model is going to increase the author’s time burden and put him at a disadvantage.

        I don’t know. I’m very worried about the future of media in general. This may not even be an option any more, considering I just woke up to see this:

        http://voices.allthingsd.com/20110213/chapter-11-for-borders-new-chapter-for-books/

        It might wind up being moot as the only way for midlist or smaller authors is to self-publish, where as the print format will be dominated by licensed properties and established or fad authors.

        • It might wind up being moot as the only way for midlist or smaller authors is to self-publish, where as the print format will be dominated by licensed properties and established or fad authors.

          That’s kind of the way I see it. I rarely go into a bookstore and buy an unknown. I buy unknowns used or borrow them from friends or, now, I buy the cheap ebooks/try a sample.

          I figure I have to approach this pragmatically. Do I have a better shot at making a living writing bunches of novels, novellas, and short collections as ebooks and getting 2 bucks per sale, or do I have a better shot at making a living through writing a handful of genre-specific novels and querying agents/publishers? In my mind, the first one is more likely because of the low chance there is at being offered an advance at all, much less one that would make a living wage.

          • I have no delusions I’ll be the next Rowling or Patterson or (God help me) Meyer, so I see epublishing as a way to let mid-list authors develop a fanbase and actually have a shot at their dream.

            I don’t want bookstores to go under. Quite the opposite in fact, but I want ebooks and QUALITY self-published books to lose the stigma the way indie music and films have.

  4. Being a product of the intellectual-property nightmare that is the Irish legal system, I’m particularly wary of the e-book format. I’ve heard Dan Simmons say that only five- or six- hundred writers in the US make enough money to survive solely by writing; and these are almost-entirely authors with the backing of the publishing houses. Are e-books sufficiently in-demand to allow someone to make a living on their sales — barring a few names like Konrath et al?

    Also, as Dickie alludes to, isn’t there a sense that the author cedes quite a lot of ‘sovereignty,’ for lack of a better word, of his IPs when he/she e-publishes?

  5. I think the stigma of self-publishing is rapidly vanishing as more and more very good authors are seizing the opportunity to control their publishing fates instead of being at the mercy of the legacy presses. I truly believe that we’re looking at a real revolution here!

    Brian January
    http://amzn.com/B005WM0HN6