Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Self-Publishing is a Bad Idea

For the longest time, as long as I have been in this business and working to be in this business, which now boarders on 35 years, the idea of self-publishing your own work was always a bad idea. And there has been for decades some very fine reasons for this belief system. And I was a firm proponent of the belief myself. I even argued against anyone doing it up until three years ago.

And I can’t even begin to describe to you the problems that my wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, had with her stories being in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction when she was editing that magazine, even though it was common knowledge and stated often that the former editor and publisher, Ed Ferman bought and edited her stories and forced her under contract to show him all her stories first. She paid a very large price because of this belief system that self-publishing is bad, to the point where she almost stopped writing short fiction and ended up quitting editing because she wanted to go back to writing.

The belief that self-publishing is bad was solid and very nasty for about fifty years. And for the most part, it was true. But like so much these days, things are changing and this belief now threatens to become a myth held by a few snobs just like so many other myths. So that’s why this is a chapter in this book.

Some history:

Most people don’t know that Mark Twain self-published much of his own work, that back in the 18th and 19th century it was common, and we wouldn’t even know about Tarzan or any Edgar Rice Burroughs if it wasn’t for his son convincing him to self-publish his own work when he couldn’t sell to publishers or magazines of the time.  There are thousands of stories of small presses, usually thinly hidden self-publishing ventures, or publishing ventures by friends or fans, that kept certain authors in print.

So why over the last half of the 20th century did self-publishing become so hated?

The answer boils down to a few different reasons, a couple that still apply today. But let me lay out the historical reasons first before talking about modern 2010 times.

Why Was Self-Publishing Looked Down On?

1… Books that were self-published were pretty much universally lower quality. Over the last fifty years publishing with traditional publishers has always been like auditioning for a play on Broadway. You weren’t allowed on the big stage for any reason until your skill and story ability were up to national levels. So lazy writers (or writers with too much ego and thought everything they wrote from word one was gold) would spend thousands to get a garage full of their own books to hawk to friends and family and local stores. That was usually where they stopped, their dreams shattered by the costs, the reality of distribution, and lack of room in their garages.

2…Quality of production was pretty much universally lower quality. Back before easy work on computers, pasting up quality professional-looking covers was difficult at best, so self-published writers usually allowed some scam company to do it for them for a large fee, and they always looked awful. And they all had a certain “look” to them of a badly put-together trade paperback that stood out in the days of mass market paperbacks and hardbacks.  And those writers who thought they could paste up their own and have a local printer do the job soon discovered just how difficult it was.

And that says nothing to the lack of proofing and interior layout design. Self-published books of the last fifty years just looked awful. Some still do, but we’ll get to that.

3… The Writer’s Digest Problem. For most of the last seventy years, Writer’s Digest has advertised to writers that they could get their books done cheaply and quickly. Sort of get-rich-quick schemes. And this constant push to find a shortcut to being publishing lowered the value of anyone self-publishing anything. Projects that should have been self-published because of topic or content were scorned, which cost all of us some fine books in niche areas.

4… The Only Game in Town Problem. Traditional publishing in the last half of the 20th century did a fine job of pushing the belief system that they were the only game in town. If a writer wanted to be respectable, to get into bookstores and distribution chains, they had to be published by one of the big companies. Of course, most of those big companies grew up out of small one-or-two person publishing companies. You know, like the two guys named Simon and Schuster. Or the guy named Putnam. And so on. But in the 1950’s and 1960’s the big companies tended to buy up any smaller press or just copy what they were doing to drive the small presses out of business, thus turning traditional publishing into the only game. And the rise of agents with close friends in editors tended to speed up this process. I can’t begin to tell you how many agents over the years I have heard talk down about small presses. Even when I owned the 5th largest publisher in science fiction and fantasy and horror and was working with Bantam Books on a co-publishing deal for books, agents wouldn’t hardly deal with me, or thought it below them to even have to call me.  In other words, if a publisher wasn’t in New York, they didn’t exist or was worth the time. And that went double for self-published books of any kind.

Also, large traditional publishers made deals with distributors to only distribute the larger company books, basically freezing out any smaller publishers and all self-publishers. The traditional publishers controlled the distribution completely and that just got worse with the advent of the large chains and the reduction in numbers of independent bookstores. For a time the specialty bookstores in science fiction and mystery kept many smaller publishers alive, but those stores are mostly gone now as well, leaving the large traditional publishers in almost complete control of any sort of distribution. At least up to about three years ago.

What Has Changed?

Some things have changed, some have not. But for sure it is no longer bad to self-publish or small-publish your own work now. Big traditional publishers have lost their grip on almost all areas. And that’s great for writers and for readers. Let me see if I can detail out the good changes from the no changes.

1) Quality Can Vary. Interestingly enough, quality of fiction out of traditional publishers can now vary just as much as it can with self-published work. Budget cuts and overworked editors and staff have made traditional publishers fairly sloppy these days, completely killing one major argument for only going with traditional publishers. Selling to New York does not guarantee your book will have a great cover or be well proofread. Nope, no longer the case.

But that said, writers thinking their first or third novel is golden and should be published might be better served to just let it sit in a drawer. Sure, the huge “noise” level out there will allow the good books to float and get word-of-mouth and the poorly written ones to sink like stones. But still, if you are too lazy to try traditional publishing because it just seems too hard, you might want to worry about your quality.

Here’s an idea for you to test your quality: Over a year or so send your book to twenty or so major editors in traditional publishing houses. Major editors are quality readers. If you are getting major editors to give you great rejections and telling you they are sorry they can’t buy your book, more than likely it’s good enough to put out on your own. But if you can’t get anything but form rejections from the super readers who are major editors, you might think about improving your craft before jumping into self-publishing. Just saying. Use feedback from major traditional editors as a sign of quality, even if they can’t buy your book for some marketing reason.

2) Anyone can do professional covers and professional-looking content. Computers are a wonderful thing and with a slight learning curve anyone can do covers. And if you have a little art background and have been paying attention to covers of the books you read over the years, with some practice you can do a cover good enough to look professional. That is so different from just ten or fifteen years ago.  However, as I have said in other chapters in this book, most writers don’t want to take responsibility for their own money, let alone go through a learning curve to design covers.

3) Electronic and POD Distribution Has Snapped the Traditional Publisher’s Monopoly on Distribution. That’s right, any smart small company or self-published author can get books now into the distribution chains, both in electronic markets and paper book markets. This has all changed in just the last three years. And traditional publishers are lost to this fact and did nothing to stop it as it started to protect their monopoly. Now stopping it would be almost impossible. They lost their stranglehold on distribution. That simple.

Authors and small publishers would still have a very, very hard time buying their books into the shelves at Barnes & Nobel. Or Walmart. Traditional publishers, for the moment, still control that. But that is quickly becoming a minor way that books are found by readers, and as many people have noted lately, all stores seem to have the same books in them these days. Readers have always wanted variety and they can get that through Amazon and other online bookstores, both with paper books and electronic books. And today, anyone can get a book easily and cheaply into those stores. Anyone. And once again independent bookstores are starting to vary their inventory, picking up the local books by local authors.

And anyone can get their book into the order system at all the major bookstore chains. Again both electronically and paper editions. That is easy and cheap.

4) The Writer’s Digest Problem still exists, just in different forms. I can’t begin to tell you how many small business have sprang up offering to writers to do the work for a percentage of the sales. One major agent in New York, seeing this coming a number of years ago, got a lot of his clients to let him put up their electronic books for a percentage. Of course, by the time all the cuts are taken from the work along the way, the writers see less than if their publisher was doing it. And that amount is tiny. One writer friend of mine was going to let someone put up his backlist for 15% of the money earned until he got smart. I think he finally understood that 15% of money coming in for decades was a ton of money for a very small amount of work.  So this problem is still there. Just morphed to catch the lazy writers who don’t want to do it themselves in any fashion.

5) Backlist is Gold! For those of us who have been writing for a long time and signing good contracts and getting our books back when the reversion time kicks in, this new world of electronic and POD publishing is pure gold. Konrath has been talking about this a great deal. I have a HUGE backlist of stories and novels and so does my wife. All of those stories were making us NO money for decades. Now they are coming slowly back into print, earning some here and some there, but a ton more than they were sitting in drawers.

Dropped series books can now also come back into print. My wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, had a very, very popular fantasy series called The Fey that ran for seven books before Bantam dropped them. Kris has all the rights back and all seven books of the The Fey will be coming out over the next year, and now there is a reason for Kris to write the new Fey novel, actually the three novels in the Third Place of Power series that so many fans have been hoping for. New York would never touch a dead series, but now in this new world, fans can get the books they want and authors in control can give it to them. Yes, fans of The Fey, Kris is scheduled to write a new Fey novel next spring and it will come out in about a year after all seven of the first Fey novels have been brought back into print.

How Will This Myth Play Out?

I don’t usually make predictions, but for this myth I think I am pretty safe on a few.

Prediction #1… Right now there are still some people who think self-publishing is a bad thing. Mostly they are older editors and writers and English Professors who do not know the history of the writers they have their students study. So they will bad-mouth anything they think is self-published. It’s going to be part of how this myth will develop shortly. These people will think they are defending some mythical gate that needs to be defended. Ignore them, folks. They will die off in twenty years or so.

Prediction #2… Readers will not care. Readers love a good story told well. They will buy a book if they hear good things about it, know an author’s name, or run across the cover and think it looks good. Sampling in electronic and paper sales will help a great deal. Readers will not care if a big traditional publisher’s small imprint published the book or a small press imprint of an author published the book. No one buys books because of who published them. That is a proven fact and will not change.

Prediction #3... The crap, the bad writing, the bad stories, even over-pushed books by an overhyped authors, will sink like stones in this new world. Traditional publishers can no longer hold up a book through sheer might. Readers now have too many choices and too many ways to get their reading. Top stories told well will find audience, maybe slowly, but over time. The days of treating every book like a quickly ripening tomato to be sold at once or tossed away are almost gone. Thankfully. Books take time to find readers. Now, for the first time in a very long time, they have the time.

Prediction #4… Big publishers will not go away, but many will fail who do not adapt. Traditional publishers will not shrink either. Smaller publishers just starting out now will become major publishers down the road and the cycle will continue as it always has for centuries. But now, standing side-by-side with the traditional publishers in the distribution system are the small publishers and the self-published authors. The smaller players can get their books into almost the exact same distribution channels as large publishers, and what few differences that still exist now will slowly vanish over the next ten years.

What kind of Conclusion Do I have?

Simple, actually. The traditional publishers’ control over what readers can read has ended. The traditional publishers’ control over what writers can write and get into print has ended. There will be those who will badmouth anything small-published or self-published. And from them this myth will grow for a short time. But I have a hunch that like the myth that every writer needs an agent, this myth will die quickly over the next twenty years. Granted, it was a myth grounded in fact for a few decades. But now that the world has changed it’s time to accept that these days it is perfectly fine to self-publish your work and your backlist.

Just do it smart. Don’t pay anyone else to do it for you.


Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith

Okay, I admit it, I am self-publishing this chapter of this column and will self-publish the entire book when done. And this is now part of my inventory in my bakery. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, losing control of your writing, having it made, speed equals making money, more on agents, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated over this last year. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

Thanks, Dean

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