Friday, February 11, 2011

6 Things I Love—and Hate—About Self-Publishing

by Joel Friedlander

Did you ever feel like you lived on both sides of a border, an issue, a trend?

1. I love self-publishing because of the absolute finality of the process. At the end, you are left with a book in your hand, one that will probably outlast you and most of the people you know. There aren’t many occupations where you get to leave such a tangible mark, where you can hold the results of your hard work and your investment of time, money and attention.

But . . . when I cruise writer’s websites I’m reminded of just how much I dislike the prejudice that persists in many parts of the publishing world against authors who decide to publisher their own books. Despite the explosive growth of self-publishing, the invasion of a tradition-bound industry by the indie spirit, many writers continue to heap scorn on self-published authors. Even more infuriating is the obvious ignorance about self-publishing that these writers exhibit in their comments.

2. I love the creative expression that self-publishing provides to the entrepreneurial author. It’s an old truism that the power of the press belongs to the person who owns the press. Modern self-publishing has taken this idea to an extreme. Now, you only have to own a computer with an internet connection to “own the printing press.” A writer who wants to share her work with others, or to profit by selling directly to interested readers, has a significant amount of influence that was unavailable before.

But . . . many writers have used this power to publish unreadable, unresearched, and uninteresting books that nobody will read, let alone buy. For many of these books, this didn’t have to happen. Like everyone else, authors can be lazy, prejudiced, inept, or close-minded, and self-publishing brings more of these books into existence.

3. I love how when you self-publish you get to decide what your book is called, what it will cost, what it will look like, when it will be published, and how you will sell it. Do you want a book with a completely black cover, 5″ x 8″ and with 700 pages? Hey, why not? There’s nobody to tell you not to do it, and the expense involved can be held to such a low level that there’s no reason not to experiment with what you think might be of interest to your readers. I love that the freedom to make these decisions is in the hands of authors.

But . . . it amazes me that fear and elitism continue to rule many writers’ ideas about publication. I can’t tell you how often, reading a writer’s blog or a discussion of publishing, that I’ve come across this sentiment: “Well, if I keep getting rejected, it means I’m not ready for publication. Agents and editors are the best judges of what should and shouldn’t be published and, if I never get an acceptance, I’ll just accept that my work was never good enough, and that’s okay with me.” And every time, it leaves me heartbroken.

How did we learn to hand so much power over our creative life to someone else? This kind of respectful timidity has condemned many writers to a life of frustration. I want to grab them by the shoulders, give them a big shake, and tell them “Wake up! It’s not the 19th century any more. Publish your book and let the dictators be damned. If you sell a bunch of copies, they will line up at your door. You are the creative one, you are the content creator, the idea generator. Don’t give up your autonomy so quickly!”
4. I love when there’s a close collaboration between an author and the publishing professionals they bring in to help get their book to market. Skilled editors, designers, printers and marketers in the service of a clear concept and a sound marketing strategy can produce truly unusual and valuable books that might never have seen the light of day from a traditional publisher. I love being involved in these projects, where the author has determined to put out a book that competes with the best books coming from big publishers.
But . . . it’s still true that self-publishers can’t match the distribution power of a traditional publishing house, and the entire book distribution system is geared toward only the books of big publishers and well-established niche publishers with a line of books. I hate the way the distribution system works—and I’m not alone on this—to make the bookstores of America into a vast consignment operation, where your book, if it doesn’t sell in a few weeks, is likely to get returned to your warehouse (or your garage) with barely time for the ink to dry.

The “blockbuster” mentality can only work for big companies with deep pockets who are willing to make big bets. The careful, community-nurturing, personal type of publishing that works for self-publishers has virtually no home in the book distribution system, and that’s a shame.

5. I love the digital printing revolution and the print-on-demand distribution model that have produced such big benefits for self-publishers. This technology has allowed thousands of people to publish a book with almost no financial risk, and without the depressing sight of their garage filled with unsold books in aging cardboard cartons.
Print on demand has done more for self-publishing than any other innovation to date, and I love the ability to quickly and economically issue a book. We can respond quickly to events in our niche, or simply experiment with content focus, size, cover graphics and other parts of the product cycle because the risk and financial exposure of printing books has been almost eliminated.
But . . . when authors go looking for a way to get their book into print, all too often they are seduced by misleading or downright fraudulent advertising by the industry that’s sprung up to sell services to these authors. So-called “self-publishing companies” sell inflated “packages” of services, of unknown quality to unsuspecting authors who are confused about the process of publishing or unwilling to take the time to educate themselves about the difference between a book printer and a subsidy publisher.

Although there are reputable and enthusiastic subsidy houses if you look for them, the biggest operators seem to capture all the advertising space and media attention, leading even more authors into the clutches of what may well become an expensive, restrictive and frustrating publishing situation that can be hard to disengage from.

6. I love the ability to take ideas you’ve been thinking about for many years and translate them into a medium that can be read and appreciated by any interested person. I love the power it gives to thinkers and writers to spread their concepts and solutions to problems. Without having to survive the rigors of querying agents, or the year or two of waiting until your book comes out, you can take an edited and prepared manuscript to print in a matter of weeks.

But . . . many of the authors who’ve decided to “let someone else do it” and ended up at one of the less palatable subsidy publishers often have reason to regret their decision in the first place. Having dealt with authors who got substandard editing, lackluster book design and book prices that doomed their book as unsaleable, these authors sometimes come to the conclusion that they never should have started at all, and that’s a shame.
Even the self-publishers who want to migrate to a better supplier have a hard time escaping the subsidy publisher when they find out they cannot get their cover artwork, even if they paid for it, or request a PDF of the book interior to use elsewhere, and find their subsidy publisher will only supply them with a “watermarked” version that will need substantial work before it can be used for book production. That’s just mean, and I hate it when it happens to unsuspecting authors whose only crime was to skip a bit of homework, or who got taken in by hyped-up marketing.

What About You?

Having been a self-published author, a publisher of other authors’ books and a book producer designing and helping authors bring their books to market, I’ve seen the best outcomes, and some of the worst. There’s a lot to love about self-publishing, and a lot to hate.

What would you add to my list?

Joel Friedlander is a self-published author, a book designer and blogs about book design, self-publishing and the indie publishing life at He's also the proprietor of Marin Bookworks, where he helps publishers and authors who decide to publish get to market on time and on budget with books that are both properly constructed and beautiful to read.
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