The Case Against Ebook Self-Publication

(Just joined us? Maybe you missed my first imaginary sockpuppet pundit making the case for ebook self-publishing, in which case, why not go back and check it out? Then rejoin us below as a second sockpuppet argues the case against, and pull on your gloves to fight for your favoured corner in the comments. Ready? Let's do this.)

The Case Against Electronic Self-Publication

Ebook self-publishing is a cop-out, it’s a settling-for-less born of laziness, and - lipstick the pig as much as you like - it’s no different from the self-publishing of old in any respect other than the novelty of its technological platform, over which - lest we forget - you have no control whatsoever.

Still think it’s a good idea? Here’s why you’re wrong.

In Praise of the Ivory Tower

It’s hard to get published. As a writer - someone who cares about great writing, even if only as a means to the end of doing something they love for a living - you should appreciate that fact, not resent it. It means that when you’re published, you have not only independently achieved a superior level of quality in your own work, but you’ve also been introduced into a system that will actively work with you to make your work better.

Is that elitist? Of course, just like Nobel prizes and Olympic gold medals are elitist. Publishing is about rewarding and promoting quality. Sure, there are some good writers self-publishing very successfully right now, and some historical examples of great writers who self-published. But they’re rarities, outliers; with no barriers to entry, the quality levels in any market will trend toward zero.

Publishers invest time, money and experience in making good books even better; they don’t have time to waste with crap, and you’re not yet a good enough writer to recognize when you’re writing crap. That’s why publishers use agents: they get to wet-nurse the notoriously unstable writer’s persona while they develop the raw rough-diamond talent into a sparkling gem of a debut book. The publisher then steps in and gets the book out to market, and passes the proceeds back toward the writer and the agent, in obedience to Yog’s Law.

In Praise of The Well-Oiled Machine

There’s a lot that goes into making the booksausage, but some parts of the process are kept hidden because they lack glamour. But you’re prepared to do all the behind the scenes stuff a publisher usually takes care of all on your own, aren’t you?

Good! So, you’ll want to start by doing a few structural edits on the book before passing it back to yourself - with some notes about how to make it more relevant to the current market, maybe - for some rewrites. Then you need to copyedit and proofread the book thoroughly - at least once right through, at each production stage; then typeset it all, do the text layout and a nice cover (no tacky clip-art!), check all file formats for errors and continuity; liaise with the printers if you’re doing physicals, sort out some storage (online or off), get it available for order through all major retailers, make sure the shipping arrangements all match up... and then you’ll have guided your book to the marketplace.

But you want people to be hyped up for launch day, don’t you? So you’ll have been using all your contacts in other media to sort out public appearances, puff pieces and radio spots; hustling for reviews everywhere and anywhere, from the New York Review of Angsty Musings On The Dreariness of Modern Life, right on down to Vik And Tad’s Sci-Fi-Fantasy Circlejerk Dot Com if there’s the slightest odds of a mention. And to make all this promo possible, you remembered to put together an uncorrected advance reader’s copy of the book in both physical and digital formats much earlier in the production process, didn’t you?

Excellent! Meanwhile you’ve been helping yourself plan your next couple of projects, keeping yourself calm, centered and fully motivated to carry on with the work of your life: writing books. The only thing standing in your way is the steadfast refusal of even the most ethically flexible medical practitioners to attempt to surgically remove your need for sleep.

That’s all the stuff that your agent and publisher will do for you when your work is good enough to make it worthwhile. That’s where the other 85% of a book’s cover price goes! Still feeling confident? Try throwing parenthood into the mix! How’s that next novel coming, champ?

Of course, you can hire in external talent to cover the jobs you have neither the time nor skill to do. Get a freelance editor to polish up the book, a design guy to do the layouts, cover and file conversions, a socnet wizard to hustle up some schmooze time on the blog circuit and maybe build you a decent website too... shouldn’t cost you more than, I dunno, four or five grand to get it all done to a professional standard.

That 70% of a few thousand sales at a buck apiece doesn’t look so much like money for nothing, now, does it?

Self-publishing is second-rate publishing

Let’s be blunt: for all your talk of egalitarian markets flattened by cutting out the middle-men, there’s a long-standing prejudice against self-published works, and it still pertains today. Now, the novelty of the new ebook platforms may be giving you some lucky exposure in front of some early adopters; when the cat’s away the mice can play, why not?

But the cat’s not gone for good, little mice! If you think the publishing industry is breathing its last, you’re deluded. They avoided repeating the worst blunders of the record labels, and once they settle on a strategy they’ll be gaming the new system just as hard as they played the old one. They have experience; they have social capital (and access to the other sort); they have older, slower and more lucrative networks at their disposal than you do. You think appearing in search on a few websites is enough? Look, there’s a reason why when I Google for a tyre-change joint I find Kwik-Fit before I find your cousin’s place out on the edge of town. When the book marketplace becomes the next battleground for the SEO geeks, your afternoon in the sunshine is all over bar the shouting.

The big houses will be back on top soon enough, stronger than ever, hungry for new writing talent... in fact, maybe you should try submitting something! Just be sure to use a different pseudonym, won’t you, so the agent or editor doesn’t Google you and find the typo-riddled travesty of a Cold War political thriller (with zombies!) you spaffed out through LuLu three years ago.

Publishing is like an elephant: sure, it moves slow, but it’s long-lived and it’s powerful and it never forgets.


At the risk of belaboring what should be an obvious point, the two standpoints I’ve just set out are deliberately exaggerated for effect, and neither of them describe my own particular attitude, which pretty much boils down to “wait it out or suck it and see”; I don’t think the earthquake’s over yet, and unless you’ve a knack for the cut’n’thrust combat of a retail market power-vacuum, you’re probably best to let the hustlers hustle while you stick to punching keys and making stuff up in your head.

The most important thing to ask yourself about self-publishing is “what do I expect to get from the process, and what will i have to do to achieve it?” It’s demonstrably viable as a business model, but it’s neither a sure shot or a cheap route... and if it all goes to hell in a handcart, you don’t have anyone else to blame but yourself. The internet is full of seemingly free advice, and you’d do well to read at least some of it, no matter how partisan. But be wary of strangers bearing unfamiliar business models, yeah?

Paul Graham Raven

Column by Paul Graham Raven

Paul Graham Raven writes fiction and non-fiction, and leaves it to his editors to decide which is which; he'll be studying for a Master's in Creative Writing at Middlesex University from the autumn of 2011. He's also editor in chief of the SF/futurist webzine Futurismic, a reviewer of books and music, a cack-handed post-rock guitarist, and in need of a proper haircut."

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Comments

Brandon's picture
Brandon from KCMO is reading Made to Break October 21, 2011 - 2:17pm

Cheers to this article, man.

About five or six years ago, self-publishing and vanity publishing were a very small part of the game, mostly because it was just so fucking expensive to do it.  "Pro packages" were something like $1,000.

Now that this side of publishing has gotten so competitve (amongst each other) it's dirt cheap to do.  In some cases, it's free, so now we've got a bunch of writers so damn impatient with their careers that they throw their shit up at the first sign of resistance.  Hell, some of them will write a book with absolutely NO intentions of trying to go legit.

Hopefully, this will inspire the up-and-comers to put a little more effort into the publishing side of things.

Bradley Sands's picture
Bradley Sands from Boston is reading Greil Marcus's The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs October 21, 2011 - 2:42pm

I like the editorial filter publishing companies create. One of my favorite authors has been self-publishing print books lately (perhaps due to a disatisfaction with publishers--I would classify him as a "cult" author rather than a highly succesful one who chose to switch to self-publishing). And I have a couple of friends run their own publishing companies or their significant others handle the business side of things and I continue to read their books because I like them. But besides those exceptions, I would never read a self-published book unless its author contacts me about sending it to me for free and then I look into it and it seems like something that I may enjoy. I think a lot of the "success stories" as far as the self-published e-books involve books that are very similar to the convenential books that the big traditional NYC presses publish such as paranormal romance, mysteries, and technothrillers. And I don't know if there is actually much of a difference between the self-published books and the ones that are being published traditionally, although the latter ones may be of higher quality. But perhaps not. Maybe Amanda Hocking is as bad a writer as people say Stephenie Meyer is (I haven't read her and have only seen the first Twilight movie, which was pretty bad). Although it may make a great deal of sense for popular authors to go the self-published route because their publishers may not do enough to be worthy of earning their share of the royalties.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading A lot of Brian Evenson October 21, 2011 - 3:33pm

The perfect yang to the ying of the first article. That's some good sockpuppeting.

Shea's picture
Shea from Ontario, Canada is reading The Eagle of the Ninth October 21, 2011 - 4:18pm

Great article, but the world of publishing still seems like a mystery to me. I have read some books by popular publishing houses that are total garbage. I've also been impressed by self-published author Lisa Genova. It sometimes seems as though getting published has as much to do with being lucky as it does being talented.

Lorraine Devon Wilke's picture
Lorraine Devon Wilke from LA (by way of Chicago) is reading The Night Porter by Mark Barry October 24, 2011 - 7:57am

You said a mouthful. And a lot of it resonates. A lot of it leaves out the unfortunate state of the publishing industry, which has become a literal (and literate?) Fort of No-Passage requiring the cracking of a code given only to a select few who somehow have the inside track, know the inside people, or happen to have an inside piece that's either the next-genre-best-seller or that stellar non-fiction that's destined to inspire the masses. For the rest of us, those of us out here writing sharp, incisive literary fiction (horrors...THAT doesn't sell anymore!), or insightful but low-concept memoirs, maybe general fiction that tells a good solid story that turns the pages but doesn't have quite enough buzz-factor to excite an agent....well, what about us?

Live long enough and you come to realize the creaky old trope "the cream always rises to the top" is a big, fat, resounding bunch of bullshit. That conventional "wisdom" led many of us in younger years to the absolute conviction that IF we were truly good enough, we'd make it to the damn top just like that cream...ain't no mountain high enough I believe I can fly kinda stuff. But turns out there were plenty of mountains high enough and belief ain't enough to fly, and at this experienced age of my life I now know many spectacularly talented folks who, despite their true, marketable talent, weren't given the nod, the tap, the record deal, the agent, the publishing deal, the etc. They were skipped over for a myriad of reasons that have to do with things like a grossly out-of-balance supply/demand market, cultural taste that often eschews true talent in lieu of...something else. Fate, luck, not knowing the right people, whatever. If all the worthy artists WERE given the nod and the many lesser folks populating TV series, bookshelves, and Itunes were selling real estate and vitamin supplements instead, we'd have a seriously higher bar when it comes to the fine world of the arts!

But even with that being said, I'm actually with you on the self-publishing question. As a writer I appreciate the value, the acknowledgment, the achievement of getting accepted first by an agent, then, hopefully, by a publisher, who will then do all those teeth-grinding steps you enumerated above to make sure my book is given the best possible chance to succeed. That's the paradigm that gets a lot of us up in the morning and sitting at our computers, where we work our asses off to not only express our literary passion and tell our stories, but to achieve a level of excellence to, hopefully, attract all that support and help to get our book sold and into the marketplace to move/inspire/humor/terrify our waiting readers who only need to know about us to "like" us (that's for the Facebook crowd!:)

A good and worthy goal.  

Besides, I went through the self-publishing paradigm in the music business and, I'm here to tell ya, it's a beast! With a small partnership and very little money, I wrote, arranged, produced, recorded, replicated and marketed my own CD (Somewhere On the Way), a true labor of love of which I remain tremendously proud...and it was an endeavor that kicked my ass. Because despite fabulous reviews and loyal fans who did their best to street-market the damn thing, without the heft and breadth of a record label and its mighty marketing and promotional push, my fabulous work of good art got lost in the tsunami of "self-" product that over-saturates the very democratic and non-judgmental Internet and its sea of product that varies between stellar and shit. You can be easy to find - not hard to be easy to find on the Internet! - but you still gotta DRIVE people there, you gotta stir up buzz, gotta incite the masses, go viral and become a star. Not easy to do in a marketplace that is over-populated by every kind of Internet-savvy youngster (or even oldster) who dreams of stardom, sees its instant appropriation given to reality show stars of negligible talent, and decides he/she is a singer/writer/whatever of enough skill to deserve fame and fortune. And sometimes, yes, sometimes, the viral nature of democratic mass-speak chooses those over those talented. Sad but true.

But back to books: Since I'd exhausted myself on the self-publishing route with music, I'd never been drawn to its counterpart in the publishing industry. So after I finished my first novel, put it through several professional editors, readers and consultants, rewrote and rewrote, polished, shined, tightened, improved; gave it to more readers and editors, and came away with a piece of "warm, touching, insightful and somewhat irreverent piece of contemporary and very marketable literary fiction," (their words!) I hit the deck running. I was gonna get me an agent who'd fall in love with my book just as my many readers had (and not family, btw!) and that was gonna be --- oh, hell, you know what it was going to be! 

And...what happened? 



After two years of unrelenting and admirable vigilance, tremendous heart and resilience (no thin skin for me, dammit!), I have no agent, no publisher and no deal. Despite what I'm told is an excellent query letter, I've been rejected by all who've taken the time to respond (very small percentage, mind you). Though I have deep experience, writer's cred all over the place (www.lorrainedevonwilke.com), writing samples in high places; as I continue to get my book out to top readers for review and notes, continue to be told I have an excellent, deserving, worthy novel that deserves to see the light of day, I can't get arrested. Nope.  Can't seem to get there from here.



Perhaps my book isn't good enough. Could be. But I don't think that's it. I think the industry has circled the wagons so tightly not much gets in that doesn't fit a a preconceived idea. I think that like a very picky mate-hunter who is looking for love to knock them over the head in a 5-minute date, dismissal is quick and not too judicious. But just as real life has taught me, sometimes the most meaningful love comes a little deeper in the narrative. 



Truth is, forget mine; some amazing books we all know wouldn't get arrested in today's marketplace.

We can impugn the self-publishing route all we want; we can denigrate it as the last resort of the losers, the place where rejects go to play, but as Shea above said, some great books have been rejected by traditional publishing and done well in "self" and some books agents and publishers clamored all over themselves for are great big pieces of shit. That's just the way it is. 



So if someone who's written a great book truly can't get arrested by traditional publishers, despite the value, the worth and the true artistry of their work, well.... sometimes, despite "The Case Against Ebook Self-Publication," you take that teeth-grinding, challenging, really lonely route to your goal because it's the only one available. And though you start writing a new book and keep all your other plates in the air as best you can, you don't want to abandon this worthy book just because that other shiny, happy group is not inviting you inside.

Thanks for the forum and sorry this got long....this topic just really gets to me!

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated October 22, 2011 - 1:20pm

It's a very brave and true claim that most people can't or won't do what's needed to be the best, but sadly very rare. Even rarer for someone to admit it applies to their own work. The vast majorty of any group who aren't doing well, either in self publishing or finding a market, can trace that back to not doing the work.

Caleb J. Ross's picture
Caleb J. Ross from Kansas City, KS is reading on the toilet by himself October 23, 2011 - 10:44am

Lorraine Devon Wilke, you are my new hero.


As for me, self-publishing can't be the cesspool this article makes it out to be. For one simple reason: shitty books get the traditional publishing treatment all the time. Sure, traditionally published books are technically flawless (in terms of grammar, typos, and line-edits), but technical strength is not what makes a book good. It makes a readable book, yes, but not a good book.


Also, I think too often the method is attacked, when instead the product or even author (or whomever is creating the product) should more likely be attacked. Self-publishing is not a bad thing. However, I agree, that it is generally indicative of bad things.

laurelin gilmore's picture
laurelin gilmore from Sacramento is reading Tropic of Cancer October 25, 2011 - 1:13am

I don't know, man.  I think, after reading both of these articles, my plan looks like: Trust in a very strong group of reading friends and their uncensored opinions for shoring up and editing; Try to get my short stories published as individual pieces in electronic and paper publications (let people get to know my voice and style); Shop my book around to publishing houses; No?  Then shop to agents; No? Then self-publish.  I like the punk rock vibe of DIY, but feel like a bit of a hypocrite since I don't read much DIY.  That's not true for music, though.  I get my music by finding it live, heeding suggestions, and supporting friends and friends of friends.  So I'd be very into finding places to let me do readings, signings, talks and whatnot to a live group.  I never got to be a rock star since I can't play music, but I can write a little bit.  Time, though.  Time is a thing.  I'm already passionate and starving in my other life, so...  Anyway, getting the golden publishing deal is top of the wish list, but I wouldn't just shelve something I love because it's not marketable right now.  Thanks for your articles!

Caleb J. Ross's picture
Caleb J. Ross from Kansas City, KS is reading on the toilet by himself October 25, 2011 - 3:02pm

So I'd be very into finding places to let me do readings, signings, talks and whatnot to a live group.  I never got to be a rock star since I can't play music, but I can write a little bit.

Sounds like you'd be right at home with Brandon Tietz and I. We try this same approach around the Kansas City area, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Either way, we always have fun. If you're ever in the KC area, let us know.

Andrewbee's picture
Andrewbee from Chicago is reading some YA book, most likely September 8, 2014 - 10:35am

"Sure, traditionally published books are technically flawless (in terms of grammar, typos, and line-edits)"

You'd think that, but my daughter and I have found a couple of typos in the Harry Potter series! Yes, Harry Potter. Even with the legions of editors that'll have gone over that stuff.