Sunday, February 25, 2007

Self-publish or Perish the Thought

Be warned. This is a longish rant.

There’s been a lot of activity on the CWC listserv of late about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. For those of you who may not be clear on the difference (evidently I’m not because I haven’t done both), basically it’s this: self-publishing is where you, the writer, pay the publisher to produce your book, while traditional publishing is where the publisher pays you an advance against royalties for the right to publish your book. Not a difficult concept. No degree in rocket science required.

Self-publishing used to be called “vanity press.” You’ve probably seen ads in the newspaper or in magazines such as Writers’ Digest: Be a published author today! You gave them money and they printed your book using exactly the same technology as regular publishers. Um. Wait. Isn’t that self-publishing?

I pretty much started the kerfuffle by writing, “Fine, if you can't find a traditional publisher willing to take a chance, and actually pay YOU to publish your book, by all means, self-publish.” But some people took serious umbrage to my position that self-published authors are not “published” in the true sense of the word. Anyone can self-publish a book, no matter how dreadful, and call themselves an author.

It was quickly pointed out to me that both Margaret Atwood and Stephen King self-published at one time or another. Cheryl Kaye Tardif posted a long list of “Famous Self-published Books” that included The Celestine Prophesy and The Self-publishing Manual, although in all fairness, it also included Ulysses and The Adventures of Peter Rabbit. James Dubro even trotted out Samuel Johnson, for god’s sake.

Both missed my point, which was that all self-publishing outfits make their money from writers desperate to be published, whereas traditional publishers hope to make their money from readers desperate to find something worthwhile to read. Vanity presses don’t take any risk when they print a book. They are guaranteed a payback. Traditional publishers aren't. One could argue that most, if not all, traditional publishers in Canada get money from various levels of government, but generally they get it because they support writers.

In traditional publishing, it’s the writer who provides the service, in the form of content, to the publisher. Because the publisher is in turn providing a service to readers, it’s in his/her best interest to ensure that the product is as good as it can be, hence editing, re-writing, more editing, and so on.

Because vanity presses make their money from the writer rather than sales, there’s no real need to produce a worthwhile product. As a result, a significantly higher percentage of self-published books are astonishingly bad. There’s rarely any editorial control or decent editing. Cover art is often amateurish at best. And unless you’re prepared to pay extra, there’s no distribution or marketing. They’ll ship your books to you and put you up on their website. They might get you listed with Amazon.

Many self-published authors very good writers, a lot of whom eventually find their way into traditional houses. But it’s my view that most self-published authors haven't paid their dues. Maybe they just don't have the patience to go through the process of writing and re-writing and editing to produce the best product they can, then sending out dozens and dozens of queries to find an agent or a publisher. Maybe they just can’t handle rejection after rejection after rejection. And while self-published writers might think they've sweated blood over their books, they don’t know what sweating is until they’ve anguished over a scene or a paragraph or a sentence or a word because an editor says it just doesn't quite work and if you want to keep that advance cheque...

Yes, it’s bloody hard to get a traditional publisher to take that chance. It took me more years than I care to think about. Luck plays an important part in it. Perseverance does too. But believe me, folks, there ain’t much as down-right mind-blowing exhilarating as that first advance cheque. You almost wanna frame it -- almost! But if you think that’s exciting, wait till you open your first box of comps! And you didn’t have to pay for them, except in years and years of blood, sweat, tears, toil, editing, more editing, postage, disappointment, frustration, anger, fear, more disappointment, more postage, more sweat, more blood, more tears, more re-writing, more editing...

Hmm. Maybe there's something to this self-publishing thing after all.

1 comment:

Rick Blechta said...

Actually, Michael, you are describing vanity publishing. To be absolutely correct, self-publishing is where the author pays to publish the book, but doesn't go to a vanity press to have it done. Those are usually scams. What the author does is set up his/her own publishing company. Vanity publishing and self-publishing are two different things.

I did this with my first two novels. In many ways it was a very good learning experience. I now have a pretty good idea how the (wacky) world of publishing works -- from the inside.

The author is responsible for not only getting the book written, but hiring an editor, hiring designers, finding a printer, and well, basically everything a traditional publisher does.

Was it worth it? It certainly fast-tracked me when I went looking for a "real" publishing deal, but it took a lot of time and effort, not to mention expense to get the job done.

I do think the experience made me a "wiser" writer and I made pretty well all of my money back. Would I go to a vanity press? Probably not.

But then I've always been a hands-on sort of guy.