Self-publish and be damned? The modern writer’s dilemma

Paul Raven @ 24-03-2009

Damien G Walter has been thinking about self-publishing, reassessing the established wisdom that self-publication is de facto a bad thing.

To date, self publishing has been a bad idea. People without the necessary skills and experience full prey to vanity publishers. Writers with some talent but who are still learning can expose their work too soon. Excellent writing can find itself swamped among the dross that is self published every year and no one bothers to go looking for it. The general wisdom on self publishing for anyone who aspires to become a professional author has been… don’t.

Walter goes on to point out that the landscape has changed somewhat in recent years, with rising stars such as John Scalzi and Kelly Link owing some portion of their success to self-publication of one stripe or another, and with the publishing industry suffering at the hands of market forces.

The main argument against self-publication is that it usually results in work that will harm the author’s reputation: rip-off vanity press jobs, or simply work that isn’t ready for publication which would have benefited from more revision and/or editorial input. These problems apply more to the beginning author, though; the point has been made before that an author with the stature of Stephen King could probably self-publish with a great deal of success (not to mention a bigger profit margin). But the principle appeal of self-publishing for a new author with genuine skill is the opportunity to start building an audience and having readers engage with the work… and that’s not so easy a benefit to dismiss.

Walter concludes:

If the general wisdom about self publishing has been ‘don’t’, its likely that wisdom may change to ‘do – but with great caution’. There has always been a role for self publishing, but as that role grows, the provisos that accompany self publishing will grow all the more important. Authors will need to be aware that self publishing means more than just having a book printed. It means being an editor, a distributor and a marketer of your own work. It means investing in yourself in exactly the way a good publisher invests in their authors, whilst taking the risks a good publisher also takes. It means understanding the arc of your own career as a writer in the same depth that good editors and agents do. And most of all it means having an honest and accurate understanding of the quality of your own writing, maybe the hardest thing of all.

For most self publishing will continue to be a mistake, but for writers with enough talent and determination it is already becoming an important part of building a readership, one that for many writers it will be a mistake to simply dismiss.

For what it’s worth, my work as a music reviewer has exposed me to a similar evolution in the music business; it’s easier than it has ever been for a band or soloist to record their work and make it available to anyone. As with writing, many of them jump the gun and release before their work is up to a standard where it can survive against product recorded and promoted by the established labels… but there are the occasional success stories, be they out-of-nowhere newcomers or established acts turning their backs on an exploitative  system.

This contrasts with our recent post on comics self-publishing, where Jim Munroe pointed out that the stigma against self-published works in the comics field is minimal by comparison to the literary field, and suggests that it may be because it’s easier to discern the quality of comics ‘at a glance’.

Will we see a change in attitude toward self-publishing in years to come? I think it’s inevitable, though it will take time… and the sheer mass of terrible self-published work (much of which Futurismic receives email about on a daily basis, I might add) will do much to slow it.

But economics may provide an accelerating force; all bets are off on how things will look in five years’ time. So, writers in the audience – published or otherwise – have you self-published, or considered doing so? And what factors influenced your decision?

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10 Responses to “Self-publish and be damned? The modern writer’s dilemma”

  1. Mark says:

    The thing that’s unspoken here, is that the same capacity for self-publishing makes it trivial for people to set up small presses. I think small press publishing is, basically, the way to go.

  2. meika says:

    I did it. It was great fun. I learnt it really does take a house of people to make a book. (Most of them outside noses on the window.)

    No sales, but 20 000+ downloads.

    I had the time and resources, and some skills, to play with POD publishing.

    Got a drubbing. (see )

    Mostly from a “how dare you” crowd who fetishize ‘publishing’ (more so than the physical object of the book).

    Apparently one is not allowed to play at publishing. One is not allowed to chill out and just jam, ‘publishing’ is too serious a thing to explore new forms.

    Busking ist verboten.

    It must be a huge threat to people sense of themselves. A huge threat to a nothingness. The industry simply follows this set of expectations, it’s cynical beliefs that it controls this through marketing is hubris, but middle-aged gods never really understand the old gods.
    amazon link

    So shocked was I by the market’s deep emotional laziness to new technology that I’ve moved into sculpture. A real art where play is allowed, where even if I do the exact same thing, no one gets shirty or pompous.

    Most publishing is really just like a horse racing form guide, and more so everyday.

    sorry if i haven’t hyerlinked the links but there’s no preview button

  3. Paul Raven says:

    Sorry for the slow publication of your comment, meika, the mass of links caused you to be held in the moderation queue.

    I can’t speak with authority on your experiences with the publishing world, and I’m sorry to see that people were harsh about your work. That said, having taken a look at the first dozen pages of your book on Scribd, closer attention to grammar and punctuation on your part might have made for a better first impression. Publishing is an old-school business, sure, but some of its strictures are there for better reasons than others.

  4. meika says:

    Dang, it happened again.

  5. Paul Raven says:

    Well, that’s the thing; busking isn’t verboten, but it opens you up to public criticism as well as potential handfuls of small change, if I might overextend the metaphor. Maybe I’m just too fussy, but I’m more likely to take a busker seriously when it’s obvious he’s spent a lot of time learning and practicing the basic chord shapes. Your mileage may vary, as the saying goes.

  6. Annabeth says:

    I’ve self-published tons of stories on the internet, but once I had my novel, I went for traditional publication. I’m at one of the larger houses, and while I won’t pretend this doesn’t involve some occasional frustration, I have the kind of sales and exposure that virtually no self-pubbing author could get on his/her own. I wouldn’t condemn anybody for self-pubbing if it really works for them and its what they want to do, but for “building an audience,” publishing with a large house is going to win every time. The trick is getting in — but I didn’t know anybody, and I got in just fine. It can be done. And self-publishing advocates do their cause no favors by acting like publishing is just some racket nobody can break into.

  7. jon says:

    Here in Japan there has been a big boom in mobile phone ‘novels’ over the past decade which are often read as they’re being written, with the plot sometimes being steered by reader feedback along the way. This is not for everyone but it does reflect more of a jam-session style than anything traditional. Some of them have gone on to become bestsellers in print form, through, er… major publishers.

    Total DIY will only rarely be a match for a writer with a big communications, editorial and promotional machine behind them. And writing demands a much higher level of commitment from its audience than other artforms, so I never read too far into a self-published work which hasn’t passed a gatekeeper first – in the form of a review, list or podcast. I’ve been burned too many times.

    DIY is good for getting your work out to more than just the traditional agents or publishers, so the chances of getting lucky are increased. But publishers will still exist in some form or other.

  8. jon says:

    oh, I just wanted to add that finding new, un-famous yet talented writers was the main reason I started reading Futurismic.

  9. Ashli says:

    For some folks, DIY will make MORE sense. For authors savvy enough to create smart business plans and brand themselves (or for those that already have a strong following through career accomplishments or popular blogs) self publishing can be a better way to go (believe me, I worked at a publisher, and aside from great distribution, we offered little by way of marketing). I’m actually pulling together a conference for self published authors (or those that want to) in San Francisco in July – InStock – see for more info.

  10. Richard says:

    With POD publishing, I made sure to put a strong emphasis on editing to make my work the best it can be. As a result, I’ve got some great reviews and have confidently forged ahead with my marketing plan. I’m close to completing my second novel, so I’m hoping that the traditonal pubs will look at my marketing skills and moderate success with the first book and take me on.