Issues on the Ether: Is Self-Publishing a Flying Leap?

In Discussion by Porter Anderson

21 January 2014 iStock_000032347166Small photog fergregory texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. Our Live #EtherIs­sue Chat is Wednesday
  2. So How Difficult IS Self-Publishing?
  3. Wednesday’s #EtherIs­sue: So How Difficult IS It?
  4. Last Week’s Topic: Amazon’s Many Faces

Our Live #EtherIs­sue Chat is Wednesday

Publishing Perspectives Editor in Chief Edward Nawotka and I will host a live Twitter chat on our Ether topic this week on Wednesday at 4 p.m. GMT / 11 a.m. ET / 8 a.m. PT. We’ll use the hashtag #EtherIssue. Feel free, as always, to leave comments for us at the column here, and consider joining us for a frank and collegial real-time exchange Wednesday. Watch for @PubPerspectives and @Porter_Anderson on Twitter.

Back to Table of Contents


So How Difficult IS Publishing?

If I’d been writing On Becoming a (Self) Publisher for Publishing Perspectives here, there’s be little surprise in finding this line early in the piece:

Whether you are self-publishing, a publisher, or doing any other type of content sales, it is hard. Very hard.

Nick Ruffilo

Nick Ruffilo

But this was Nick Ruffilo, a highly visible and frequently heard from technologist in publishing.

After appearing on a panel in New York last week at Digital Book World Conference & Expo—here is Ed Nawotka’s Five Things We Learned at Digital Book World, as a follow-up — Ruffilo wrote his “On Becoming” piece as part of an exercise in learning what this whole thing is like.

Previously with Vook and BookSwim, he’s the chief technology officer now with Aerbook, a cloud-publishing venture that specializes in creation, conversion, marketing and sales of digital books. So when it comes to someone kicking the tires of self-publishing in a let’s-see-what-this-is-like experience, Ruffilo is the kind of guy you expect to sail right through. He has written a series of “Tips for Technologists” articles here at Publishing Perspectives.

But here he is on his experience in self-publishing:

Some self-publishing super-stars tout the benefits of being independent and show sales numbers from their latest book as results of success. They often fail to show the years of work it took them to build the writing skills, build the audience, and put together the team necessary to publish a successful book. Yes, even self-publishing folks need a team. You need an editor, a cover designer, a web-designer (to make your blog and/or style your author pages on Amazon/Goodreads, etc).

And here we arrive at one of the most vexing elements in the fast growth of self-publishing, particularly in the States and, increasingly, in other nations in which self-publishing is ramping up. Note: I didn’t say anyone is vexing. Like Lyle Lovett, I Love Everybody (Especially You).


But ideas of how much support a good author needs are among the highest-visibility differences of opinion you can find in the business these days.

The traditional industry, of course, represents the historical standard of approach. While pressures to get to market more quickly are having some impact even in some of those houses, the basic concept of an extensive set of procedures in both editorial and physical (and digital) production involves multiple people and departments.

As the self-publishing side of the business matures, the conversation seems to widen about what authors can expect to do on their own and what they need, if not a village at least a team for, as Ruffilo puts it.

Lexi Revellian

Lexi Revellian

A comment from frequent London-based novelist Lexi Revellian, for example, follows Ruffilo’s article, with this response to his point about needing “an editor, a cover designer, a web designer” and so on:

Not necessarily, depending on your skills and how much you are prepared to learn. I do my own proofreading (cue collective sharp intake of breath), use beta readers instead of an editor, design my own covers, and set up my website, blog and Amazon pages myself. The advantage of DIY, if the author can manage it, is you are in profit from the first sale.

Granted, Revellian’s “sharp intake of breath” suggests she knows that the proposition of genuine do-it-yourself work in publishing isn’t for everyone. But there are many, many authors who actively advocate self-reliance at every possible stage, many pointing out, as Revellian does, that there are cost advantages to not paying specialists to work on a book. And some players, including the professional editor and author K.M. Weiland, have written extensively on their own processes as a guide to others.

K.M. Weiland

K.M. Weiland

Weiland’s How I Self-Edit My Novels: 15 Steps From First Draft to Publication may have a deceptive headline: no fewer than four of those steps involve a team of four people, one of them “a freelance editor, two who are critical readers, and one who is a superfan (guess whose opinion I like best?).” Her article on her process, in fact, was the product of popular demand:

When I ran a poll a few months back, asking what subjects Wordplayers would like me to write about, one of your most frequent requests was for more info on how self-edit my novels.

Clearly, there are many in the business today who do believe that handling a manuscript’s editing needs is something they can take on successfully, themselves. By contrast, others make a point of recommending members of the teams they use. A self-publishing icon for many, Joe Konrath lists in the right-hand alley of his popular blog page recommendations and links to his cover artist (Carl Graves); his ebook designer (Rob Siders); his proofreaders (grammar.rulesAtoZ — the link on Konrath’s site will give you an email address); promotions (he recommends; his print designer (Cheryl Perez); and his Website designer (

  Similarly, author Hugh Howey has recently listed four key players in “My Indie Toolbox,” on his own site, the left alley, including cover artists Jason Gurley and Mike Tabor; formatter Jason Anderson; and editor David Gatewood (the link on Howey’s site provides an email address).

Rachelle Gardner

Rachelle Gardner

And a powerful testament to the importance of editing, especially in memoir, comes from literary agent Rachelle Gardner of the Books & Such agency. In Trust Me, You Need an Editor, Gardner puts together a thoroughgoing explication of how things can go wrong without professional editing, particularly in memoir. Without naming the book or its author, she tells of reading “a self-published book on a topic I’m passionate about, by an author whose blog I occasionally read.” While the read started well, she tells us:

It quickly devolved into a self-focused, rambling hodgepodge of preaching interspersed with bragging. I did finish the book (luckily it was rather short) but I ended up with strongly negative feelings toward the author. Since this was a memoir, I doubt that’s what the author was going for.

Here is a concise list of things Gardner says an editor could have helped with in the book she’s using as her example. Her original write expands on each point; these are just the top-lines:

  • A good editor would have coached the author to find his main theme, and to focus tightly on it, cutting out rabbit trails and eliminating entertaining stories that didn’t fit in this book.


  • An editor would have conveyed that teaching and preaching don’t belong in a memoir.



  • An editor would have eliminated bragging, and suggested ways to convey moments of success or triumph without sounding arrogant.



  • An editor would have brought out the importance of a humble tone, of admitting the journey isn’t over and you’re still learning.



  •  An editor would have challenged the author to truly let the reader in.



  •  An editor would have ensured readers didn’t feel like complete losers if they don’t currently share the author’s lifestyle.



  •  An editor would have protected the author’s reputation.


It’s good to see such definitive points brought to bear on the discussion by Gardner. Too frequently we stop at “not good enough,” or “boy, an editor really could have helped this.” She’s writing here about the kind of developmental editing work, the need for which can be too easily overlooked in self-publishing settings by writers who may not have the experience, or perspective on their own work, to be able to recognize.

Joanna Penn

Joanna Penn

Even as Joanna Penn, a prominent self-publishing author, carried a guest blog from Sarah Kolb-Williams headlined 10 Ways to Fake a Professional Edit, Penn explained in her intro that the idea was “to improve your own self-editing before you hire a professional” (emphasis mine), not as a means of avoiding professional editing support. And when Laura Dawson, one of the leading metadata experts and chief of Bowker’s SelfPublishedAuthor site went through the process of self-publishing to test out the services offered by Bowker, she had some pointed things to say about editing and its value. Her book, The Place Where I Come From, is a story cycle created from material she had written years earlier. It had been given developmental edits at the time. In her account of the process, Eating Our Own Dog Food, Dawson writes:

I quickly hit “export,” gave each file a look-over, and proceeded to upload them to Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Which was a mistake. Never copy-edit your own work. You will miss many things.

Dawson, LauraDawson writes that she ended up getting help with such details from a feedback source who is “getting a huge present from me.” It took a team, after all. And in Ruffilo’s post—even after writing that the easy part was the writing (which may send some readers running for the doors)—he goes to the mat on what he calls “the hidden value, editing”:

I owe a great deal to all of the editors I’ve worked with. While I can read through something I’ve written and find grammar and spelling mistakes, editors can take a detached look at your work and craft it. Editing can make or break a good book. My first cut at the Zen of Technology mini-guide seemed to have all the right information, but after I got my editor’s comments, I realized that I could be adding much more value. I was lucky to know a few editors who were willing to help me with these experiments, but if you need to find an editor, there are services like BiblioCrunch that help you find editors for your project.

Epic oneRuffilo’s post, like Dawson’s, goes beyond the issue of editing. And it’s in his marketing section that he concedes, “This is the hardest part by far.” He has a set of useful points, then goes on to write:

I knew going into this that marketing would be tough, and selling content would not be easy, but I was surprised at the value I found in the editing process…There is so much more to the publishing process than writing a good story (fiction or nonfiction) and submitting your content for sale. In fact, that is only the start of a very long journey if you want your content to sell and be a commercial success.

And Publishing Perspectives’ Nawotka has helped set up our coming #EtherIssue debate Wednesday with his discussion piece based on Ruffilo’s write, Is More Crowdsourced Editing Coming to Books? Some would ask if crowdsourced editing is even practicable. Others might run right to it. So to our #EtherIssue debate. Back to Table of Contents

Nick Ruffilo's site: Good place to check into if our #EtherIssue discussion gets too intense.

Nick Ruffilo’s site: Good place to check into if our #EtherIssue discussion gets too intense.


Wednesday’s #EtherIs­sue: So How Difficult IS It?

We want to know your experiences and opinions:

– Despite all the advances in what digital publishing make possible, how many writers are surprised at the difficulty level of self-publishing?

– How many find it easy?

– Is Ruffilo right that the writing is the easy part? Or is that just the experienced technologist talking?


– Of these elements of book production work, which would you say is the least important to engage professional assistance on? And which is the most important to engage professional assistance on?

  • Copy-editing
  • Developmental editing
  • Book cover design
  • Internal pages design
  • Formatting
  • Marketing
  • Distribution
  • Website design (to support the book)

– And here’s an interesting question: How aware do you think the average reader is of these issues of book and/or ebook production and professional standards? Can they see the same weaknesses in a badly published book that you or I can?

These questions, and yours: let’s have them all on Wednesday at 11 a.m. Eastern, 8 a.m. Pacific, 4 p.m. GMT on hashtag #EtherIssue — see you then.

Back to Table of Contents


Last Week’s Topic: Amazon’s Many Faces

Taking the Digital Book World focus on Amazon’s impact on the industry as a cue, we asked readers last week to talk to us about Amazon. We’d started with a background post—Issues on the Ether: As at DBW, the Many Faces of Amazon. In it, we proposed that almost like the old six men and the elephant fable, the retailing giant is something different to each person who encounters it. And, indeed one of the most interesting part of our lively hourlong live-Twitter discussion on the matter was the many answers we got to a single leading question:

Tell us how Amazon looks to you: What is the key issue, positive or negative?









Probably the most prickly moments in the discussion lay around corporate tax issues with Amazon in Europe (where EU regulations allow it and other companies to be based in Luxembourg).

And when I asked the “intention question,” it was author James Scott Bell who was ready with an answer:

And, in fact, we’ll give Bell the last word here, for encapsulating why so many authors see Seattle as one big friend, not the corporate enemy many publishers and booksellers fear:

Thanks to all who were with us! See you on Wednesday. Back to Table of Contents


Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. His Issues on the Ether column appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Tuesdays, followed by an #EtherIssue live discussion on Twitter on Wednesdays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether is read on Thursdays at, and he is a regular contributor to He writes the Porter Anderson Meets column weekly for The Bookseller‘s Friday magazine in London with a live #PorterMeets Twitter interview with a newsmaker on Mondays. More about him is at Find him at Google+

Main image – iStockphoto: FERGregory

About the Author

Porter Anderson

Facebook Twitter

Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.