« Discussion

Does Self Publishing Make It Too Easy?

Do the safeguards of traditional publishing offer significant advantages over DIY?

By Edward Nawotka


As author Bob Mayer discusses in today’s feature story, digital self-publishing has shortened the distance between reader and writer, both literally, figuratively and temporally. Previously, fans of an author would wait years for a new book: George R.R. Martin’s fans waited six years for A Dance with Dragons, the latest installment in his “Song of Fire and Ice” series; fans of Joseph Heller waited 13 years for Something Happened, Heller’s follow-up to Catch 22.

Today, fans demand immediate gratification (just ask Martin…as described here by Laura Miller in the New Yorker) and authors are indulging them by publishing a book every month or even faster.

The upside is sustaining a reader’s interest — after all, when a reader discovers an author, it is best to capitalize on their attention as much as possible before they get distracted by another. The downside is often work that could be vastly improved by rewriting, editing and proofing. As Mayer notes, he recommends a writer have at least three manuscripts written before they begin self-publishing. It’s the old maxim that practice makes perfect.

With the volume of new work hitting the Internet each day, it stretches credulity to think that so many people have been laboring in their rooms for so many years and now is their moment to shine. Then again, readers aren’t exactly being asked to commit a fortune to trying out many of these new authors — 99 cents is less than you’re likely to pay for a daily newspaper these days. Lower prices have made readers more tolerant of less-than-perfect prose (hey, you get this newsletter for free, so I’m sure you can tolerate a mistake or three).

Ultimately, as a reader and writer, do you think self-publishing makes it too easy for writers to pull the trigger on books that might not be fully-formed? Do the safeguards of traditional publishing offer significant advantages in this regard?

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  1. Posted July 25, 2011 at 3:30 am | Permalink

    I find Mayer’s advice that a writer should have at least three manuscripts finished before throwing himself or herself into serious self-publishing encouraging. Is it not, perhaps, the case that many of those who feel they have a story to tell find the urge satisfied when they have written only one?

    When I realized quite quickly that neither conventional nor independent publishing was going to provide an easy way for me to get a readership I decided to take another approach, one that may in the long run have advantages.

    I have read much in the past couple of years about ‘transmediality’ with its emphasis on ‘creating a world’ with rich narrative complexity. My ‘world’ is neither science fiction, nor fantasy and certainly has no room for vampires! But it is one which I have explored in four manauscripts already with a fifth in the works.

    The readership (and sales) I would love to have may still elude me, of course. But I am convinced that Mayer’s advice is extremely valuable for non-published writers and that ‘world building’ is a further notion to be considered seriously by those creating ‘content’ not for the publishing industry of yesterday… not even for the evolving industry of today… but for that of tomorrow.

  2. Posted July 25, 2011 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    Anything Bob Mayer has to say on this topic makes me take note. In a clear, this-is-the-way-it-is-folks, he’s presented promoted, profited and pays forward an approach to publishing that brings out the ‘this is possible/can do’ attitude in many. Love his (and Jenni-Holbrook Talty’s motto at Who Dares Win Publishing: “Lead, follow or get the hell out of the way.”

    Joanna Aislinn
    Dream. Believe. Strive. Achieve!
    The Wild Rose Press

  3. Posted July 25, 2011 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    Oh, I’m sure there are hundreds, maybe many more, manuscripts hidden in closets, under beds and in desk drawers just waiting to be pulled out and thrown up somewhere….

  4. Posted July 25, 2011 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    I think self-publishing can make it too easy for writers to release immature pieces. I’m guilty of that when I release my first book. I think the excitement of releasing it prompted me to work faster than I should. But now I’m more level-headed about the process.

    SP writers shouldn’t see self-publishing as a panacea to their unable-to-get-published problems. It’s a business like any other and even though you might sell your books for .99 you still have to offer a good product to keep readers coming back.

  5. Posted July 25, 2011 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    This is a topic I always discuss whenever I give talks to writers. Just because there is the capability of getting one’s work published quickly doesn’t mean that it should be. Authors need to let their manuscripts sit for awhile, let it gestate and make absolutely sure it is the best that it can be before sending it off to the printers. After all, it is their calling card and readers will not be interested in the next publication, if the first hasn’t been edited or meticulously fleshed out. This will also reflect on the POD publisher that is printing the work and those in the industry will be less likely to take any work seriously when they see just who is publishing it.

  6. Posted July 25, 2011 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Brittany’s right on.

    What I find interesting abot Carol’s comment is the last sentence, “those in the industry.” While those in the industry are still the defacto gate keepers of literary taste, it’s that same mindset that has lead to the huge changes in journalism and newspapers: for the good and the bad. The news industry’s fear and ignorance over non-vetted home-spun journalists (bloggers) blinded them to some of the real work that bloggers were doing in uncovering real news.

    The publishing industry does not want to become irrelevant, but are failing to see (or see and are petrified) that the consumer — the people who actuall buy the books — really don’t care about the imprint, as long as they enjoy the writing.

  7. Posted July 25, 2011 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Yes, Brittany is correct in that the market will correct any writer that puts out less-than-stellar work. Sure readers might buy the first book out of curiosity, but the second or third? More than likely not. Think of it as selection of the fittest.

    I also found Carol’s comment regarding “those in the industry” amusing as well. The time when the bulk of us have to care about what “those in the industry” thinks is well over.

    RJ is correct. The readers are driving the market now and will buy whatever they want, from whoever they want. “Those in the industry” are in a panic right now, scrambling to adjust to catastrophic royalty collapse.

    So those “in the industry” can have an issue with the route by which I published my books and not take my work seriously (which they frequently do) while I watch my royalties climb. I am totally cool with that :-)

    As I like to say… “Dinosaur, meet mammal.”
    I may be small, but I am fast and adaptable :-)

  8. Posted July 25, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    And a follow-up…

    I was just wondering who are these “safeguards” put up for? The reader? And why exactly must the reader be protected?

    Now with sampling and instant returns is the reader at risk at all?

    If they don’t like the book, for whatever reason, they can get their money back. Far more simply than they ever could through a bookstore.

    I find it amusing that so many people are worried about “the reader,” as if they were fragile and vulnerable, even though “the reader” is the one embracing self-published authors the most and driving indie authors such as John Locke into the #1 spot on Amazon.

    I have many “traditionally published” friends and I can tell you that I am making far more royalties then they are per month.

  9. Posted July 25, 2011 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    The author of the piece shows a lack of understanding of the history of our industry. Writing rapidly, publishing frequently, is new? Not really – it’s been going on for a very long time, as examples of prolific authors from the past demonstrates very well. Sometimes readers want to buy “Catch-22″. Sometimes they want to read the literary equivalent of the latest “Transformers” movie: fun, escapist, enjoyable entertainment.

    I completely agree that writing to the best of your ability is important. I disagree that you can put a time stamp on that, however. As a number of writers have illustrated recently, if you work full time at writing (defined as 40+ hours per week), you are very likely to produce ten times as much work per year as someone only working four hours a week on their writing. It’s basic math: if you work more hours, you produce more writing. If it takes the 4-hr-a-week writer two years to make a book, that same writer would probably produce about five books a year if working 40 hour weeks. And the writing quality would improve faster as well, because they’d be spending more time on the craft.

    The author also didn’t really *read* Mayer’s blog. Bob was saying you should write three or more books before launching so that you could *publish all three* and then gain three times the value for your marketing efforts. If you publish one book, then market it for months, then write another, and spend more months marketing it, you need to rebuild all your marketing efforts for each book. If you write several, then market all at once, you gain enormous economy of scale on any marketing you do.

    My tweak on this is a little different; I’d suggest publishing them as you write them, but avoid spending time marketing the books until after you have several up. Once you have several works available, then begin marketing. You might have already built some sales and gotten a few reviews on the first books, which can only help your marketing push when you make it. Locke suggests this model in his recent book on self publishing, but it’s not a new idea. You don’t start advertising the grand opening of your retail store until you have enough products so that customers will come back again to buy more things. The business of writing is no different, in this case.

  10. Posted July 25, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    No author should rely upon the traditional world to impose discipline. If a self published author writes in order to “feed the beast” of public demand, he or she is both blessed and cursed–that is–blessed because she has such a demanding audience but cursed because she is driven to write that which may not be the best. The author must develop his or her own ways of discipline so that the craft of writing is not harmed.

    The publishing world is changing at lightening speed and I believe the author and the reader will be the prime beneficiaries. I have three “backlist” novels all part of the Osgoode Trilogy. I am in process of listing them with Smashwords because they format all books so that they can be downloaded on all reading devices.

    Should sales occur, I will earn [this is just an example] on a $8.99 sale about $5.00 or so. If the traditional world were involved I would be lucky to see a dollar or two. The arithmetic definitely favours the author since he doesn’t have to pay all the usual costs to publishers and agents.

    I was recently at a pitch conference and met acquisition editors at some of the major houses. It was very clear that they are in denial about changes in the industry. I really left wondering what possible advantages they could bring to an author. I also wondered: does any reader care who has published the author? Do readers really choose a book because one of the major houses has published it.

    This is not to say that life will be rosy for the author. Getting oneself published is not the hard part. The real work begins with promotion. Given the glut of books on the market, how does one let the world know what she has to offer? It’s an unending 24/7 task.

  11. Posted July 25, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Is it too easy? Yes, most definitely. Who does this hurt? Nobody but the writer. In traditional publishing, the process puts up hurdles that the writer has to produce ever-better work in order to clear. In self-pub, those hurdles don’t exist unless you give them to yourself–or, to see it another way, they’re hidden. Nothing is stopping you from putting half-baked work up there, and nothing will trip you up until you discover you can’t sell your work because readers aren’t returning for book #2 and negative reviews are scaring away new readers. The old cliche is true–you never get a second chance at a first impression, and I definitely see too many writers risking a first impression on something that’s not ready yet. I see self-pubbing as a viable option, but maybe not the best option, career-wise, for a lot of first-timers.

    I’ll also add, I think too many writers are spending too much time learning self-promotion and marketing before their writing is ready. The first priority should not be ‘How do I promote this book’ but writing the best book possible. The point (at least as I see it) is not to get a book out there ASAP, but to start a long-term career. Patience, little grasshopper.

  12. Posted July 25, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Publishers add several things that the new infrastructure is still working on finding consistent replacements for. One, editing. Yes authors can hire editors, but publishers can provide consistent editing; two that consistency translates to some readers looking to the same publisher for similar books and consistency ( I know many won’t agree, but some will); third, again related to consistency, is filtering. Yes, some ask who this is protecting? It is certainly protecting many readers, who don’t have the time to weed through piles of books to find the gem. With three million self published titles last year, who is going to review them? How am I going to find even a source of good reviews? Not the rigged Amazon review system…and large newspapers can’t sift through all of these titles.

    Thus, the point is well taken on a hybrid model not just for authors…publish some through a publisher, but some self published…but also publishers need to change to include more new authors and more flexibility…

  13. Posted July 25, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    Great article. Plenty of terrible books are self published each day. Make sure the books you publish are of high quality. Poor content/quality books are going to haunt you for a LONG time!

  14. Posted July 25, 2011 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    The paradigm of publishing is shifting. Is self-publishing making it too easy? I don’t even understand this question. Why should it be HARD in the first place? If I write in a style and genre that a group of people want to read, why should it take me years and years to get a book out. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect readers to wait several years between books.

    People want to read a lot, now. And that’s a good thing. It means people are reading. And the more we give them to read, the more we make, the more they enjoy and everyone goes home happy. Is every self-published author going to make millions. No. But the traditional publishing industry is held afloat by 10% of their authors who are best sellers. They lose money on everyone else and drop their marketing efforts if the book isn’t viable in a few months. For indie authors, we can work our way through that, because we run our own business. And if we run our business poorly, producing bad books or engaging in ineffective marketing, then we pay the price with no money. But more and more are learning how to market and run their business effectively.

    Some people write fast. Some genres take longer. All of it has a place. The indie world is not for everyone, but it certainly does not have the stigma it used to and it’s gaining in popularity as more and more readers enjoy the discounted prices and faster access to new work by their favorite authors.

    To make publishing HARD so that only a few elite can do it is not a mentality that promotes the love of books or reading. And it doesn’t guarantee quality or success. Plenty of those books are not written well, or do poorly in sales.

    At least now we can control our own destinies in our careers.

  15. Posted July 25, 2011 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    Uh, Kevin, the writer of the piece is the editor-in-chief of the website, a former book columnist for Bloomberg News and daily news editor for Publishers Weekly (among many other titles) – I’m betting he knows plenty about the history of publishing.

    I think the answer to Edgar’s question is certainly yes, and the proof slaps this reader in the face every day. That’s a maturity thing, I think – and the natural result of the get-it-immediately-send-it-immediately-text-don’t-talk generation now approaching its 40’s.

    I’m more interested in the one book vs. five books picture. It’s certainly unrealistic for the author of a fully formed, finely edited story that involves a current topic to hold it for 2-3 years while several others are written and stockpiled for simultaneous release. Perhaps it is just as unrealistic to think that ebook buyers who feast on 99 cent specials will forget the author and title of the book he liked so much two years before. Can you get him back? Why not?

  16. Suzette
    Posted July 25, 2011 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    I’ll start by saying that I don’t think it has to be one or the other. Whether an author pursues self or traditional publishing can be decided on a project by project basis, depending on the commercial goals, time frame goals, target audience, funding, and so forth. Both paths have pros and cons.

    I think the idea that traditional publishing puts up blocks that are ‘good for the writer’ and the industry is too simplistic. The roadblocks (“acceptance” by editors, agents, publishers, PR houses) aren’t what’s good, it’s the services provided by SOME of the people on that path that make a difference in the quality of a book. And hose services can now be found elsewhere, for less money and with faster turn around and often without the attitude. The roadblocks are set up by gate keepers who want to control the process for, in many cases, their own benefit. Self publishing makes those gatekeepers optional… it doesn’t mean the path should change… that an author can or should skip things like editing or marketing their book. It also doesn’t mean that they don’t need good representation if they want more than the basics for their book– i.e. if they want foreign rights or tv and film options or games or apps… then it makes sense to go with the professionals. But it also doesn’t mean that a self published book is guaranteed to be bad. A SP author can (and should) hire an editor… it just doesn’t have to be one that ‘approves’ the book before agreeing to pass it on to an agent. The gate is there – the gate keeper is gone.

    In terms of other services, like marketing and promotion, the traditional houses often don’t do that anymore unless you are a big name. So if the author is going to have to market their own book, create their own PR buzz, fund their own tours… and if they can print their own books and handle distribution on their own (which they can)… WHY would they do all that and still give up the profits to a trad house? If I can hire an editor for less than what I’d pay my publisher, find my on POD source, handle my own distribution, and manage the marketing… and keep the bulk of the profits instead of a little royalty… what incentive is there to publish with a traditional house?

    Also, I think the idea that roadblocks are there primarily for quality is not true. Books these days get sold by agents to publishers based on whether the publisher can sell it. It has to do with the market, the trends, the name of the author… very little has to do with literary quality. Otherwise, explain to me how Snookie and Palin have book deal. Really. Publishers put those blocks up to ensure their own profits. That’s it. Well, and maybe to create an artificial sense of prestige and limited access… which helps profits.

    Having said all that… I do actually think many self published books are lower quality than traditionally published… but that will change. As the indie pub movement grows, more people will become aware of freelancers (editors, designers, formatters..), and will learn the steps to go through so they can do it on their own. And as more big names (like Eisler and Konrath) go lead the way… quality will improve.

    I also don’t think editors and agents will go away. I think they’ll adapt (well, some won’t, and they’ll go away). They will start to help and represent indie authors, they’ll take on a bigger role as coach and mentor, they’ll become media/transmedia consultants, and they’ll even start their own publishing imprints so they can help get books out there that otherwise wouldn’t make it. And ultimately… after all this… the consumer will decide what book succeed or fail. And yes, that unfortunately means Snookie’s books will succeed. But it may also mean a growing number of self published authors can succeed too.

  17. Travis Butler
    Posted July 26, 2011 at 12:30 am | Permalink

    “I was just wondering who are these “safeguards” put up for? The reader? And why exactly must the reader be protected?”

    My time is valuable. Are people truly that ignorant of what the slush pile is really like? Do so many hopeful self-publishers really think that readers will spend hours wading through mediocre (or worse… MUCH worse) self-published books, just in hope of finding something cheap and entertaining enough? Let alone the one-in-a-million gem among all the dross? People read fiction for fun, and most people I know don’t have fun skimming through hundreds of stories with (mildly) interesting blurbs looking for the few actually written well enough to entertain them.

    I spent years in the fanfiction community in the mid-90s, before I dropped out because the volume was getting too tiring to dig through. Yes, there were stories that entertained me, and that I enjoyed helping to critique and improve. Yes, some of them were even as good as traditionally-published books. But they were very rare, and in the end, they weren’t enough to keep me involved with the scene.

    Now you’re suggesting that I should go through that again, even paying for the ‘privilege’? Uh-uh. No, thanks.

    And yes, as another commenter said, some of the authors will undoubtedly improve their craft, hiring freelance editors, and so on. What difference does that make? The real issue is that as long as there’s no significant barrier to entry – the very thing self-publishing proponents cite as an advantage – there’s nothing to keep the self-publishing market from getting flooded by hopefuls who are certain they’ve written the next Great American Novel but didn’t bother to learn how to write well. Based on my experiences, I feel very confident that this is exactly what will happen.

    I’ll stick with traditional publishers and the small presses I can trust, thank you very much. They are far from perfect; but at least I can be confident that minimal standards of grammar and readability will be met, and that an editor (whose livelihood depends on their taste) thinks the story will entertain enough people to keep it from losing too much money.

  18. Posted July 26, 2011 at 4:54 am | Permalink

    As a self-published author, I agree with the idea that self-publishing is too easy. I am not claiming that I am a misunderstood genius or anything along those lines, but I write popular genre fiction (not literary) and I live in a country (Japan) where there is no English-language publishing in that field. It is not impossible, but it is very difficult indeed, to attract the attention of publishers outside the country. I therefore decided to self-publish my first book (not the first novel I had written, by the way, but none of the others was good enough to be printed) – and I was appalled when I started to read it as a “final” printed book. Though I had checked it several times, I still discovered errors in it. The story still stood up, but the book stood out as being amateur – misprints, punctuation errors and the like. I therefore withdrew that edition and produced a new edition – it may not be 100% error-free, but it is at least as good as many commercial books. It’s about 110,000 words long – a decent length for a novel.

    For my second book (120,000 words), I took much more time and used two more pairs of eyes to look through it for misprints and infelicities. I am actually happy with the way that it turned out, and it is again up to the standard of a commercial book, in my opinion, as is my third title (65,000 words), due to hit the shelves in a week or two.

    I am horrified, though, by those people who turn out 25,000 words on a word-processor, send off the largely unrevised and unedited file to a DIY e-book publisher and claim they have written a novel. There is a reason for an editor in a publishing house – and it’s not just proof-reading. At its worst, self-publishing is vanity. At its best, it’s a way of getting unknown authors into the public eye – but the invisible hand of the market will soon discover that the signal-to-noise ratio in self-publishing is unacceptably low – there is far too much noise out there to risk buying such titles – and the serious self-publishers (I count myself as one – of course), of whom there is a goodly number, will suffer.

  19. Posted July 26, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    I got news for you all — we are already suffering. Yes, self-publishing is ridiculously easy. But along with that there is a pervasive idea that somehow an author is supposed to use the industry model to produce a book and market it the same way. And we are rapidly overshadowed by celebrity fluff and irrelevent books, all of which have huge (and wasteful) print runs which don’t even sell a thousand copies. When I first started out publishing my first novel the stigma was glaring enough that I grew angry, and from then on I committed myself to producing the best work possible and NEVER use a traditional publisher to sell my books. Since then I have produced 12, some of which have gotten good reviews, but when we get a giant retailer like Amazon deliberately discounting prices to 99 cents despite all efforts to the contrary, readers see the price and buy, but only to stock their ereaders and nothing else. At that point, price governs who gets read and who does not. Editing and good grammar means nothing. And the print books are not selling that well. In the face of that kind of football game, self-publishing means also having to shoulder the blame for bad writing and hasty pubication which has been passed off to the public for centuries in the guise of “honorable tradition”. It’s nothing more than a dogerel.

  20. Kai Tadewi
    Posted July 26, 2011 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    Travis Butler: You’ve obviously found a way to filter your reading material that works for you. Therefore, you seem to have proven the point that readers don’t need to be protected like fragile hothouse flowers from the unwashed masses of self-published authors. You’ve found sources you trust; so do others. Some readers, less exhausted than you, still love the process of “discovering” new writers on their own, especially with sample chapters available. Some hate doing that and rely on book blogs or reviewers or publishers they trust. But when I think of people putting time and energy and passion and love into getting words on paper, and putting those words somewhere where readers can find them…believe me, it will be a happy, happy day for civilization when “too many people are making art, damn it!” is the worst problem we face. People writing? People creating? People thinking about language, and characters, and stories, and ideas? Yes, they’ll do those things with varying degrees of skill. But I, as a reader, don’t need to be “protected” from them. I know I can find the books I want to read, and avoid the ones I don’t want to read. But I’ve also found that the coolest discoveries I make are the ones I make by accident. I love happening across an author I’ve never heard of, and finding magic there. And I have to say, this has happened for me more often in the last year than in the last twenty. So write and rewrite and learn and unlearn and self-publish your hearts out, people. Somewhere out there is a reader waiting to fall in love with your work.

  21. Posted July 27, 2011 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    Sure, self publishing has become easy and the stigma once attached to it is gone. But “too easy”? No, readers – who don’t need to be “protected”, thank you, we can all defend ourselves very well! – readers, as I was saying, will not buy again another book from a writer that they deemed hopeless.

    And there are a lot of hopeless self-pubbed authors out there. The market will weed them out and in the end, there will be precious little difference in the quality of self-pubbed and traditionally published works…

    Because, quite frankly, have you never come across a traditionally published book that was hopeless? I have!

  22. Posted July 31, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    I self-published my novel this past spring after sending it out to agents, landing it as finalist in an excellent lit contest. (I’ve been pitching it for a long time) I had it edited, found a great cover designer and have made sure it gets the attention of book clubs, book club kits at libraries and read at public events and book stores. I’ve sought out organizations who might be interested in its background story. For this particular novel, I think this is working. It’s selling in book form and on-line. I’m revising and editing its prequel. Still sending out manuscripts to agent.. I’ve learned a lot about marketing and how to care for my work, but I write every day on new material.

  23. Posted July 31, 2011 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Two advantages of self-publishing are that wonderful niche market books are finally being published (some going on to win major awards) and that authors can now reach readers interested in the types of books they prefer to write without having to change those books in order to achieve mass appeal. As a writer, I’m extremely thankful for the new world of self-publishing. Over the years as an indie author, I received a long list of awards and wonderful reviews. As a self-published author, I started out selling a small number of books. A few months later, as of today, my sales have suddenly increased by 120 times the original number of sales. :)

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