28 September 2008

Self-Publishing: How Does It Stack Up for Authors?

The first two books I had a hand in were self-published. I edited two small anthologies, What on Earth (1992) and Electroplasm (1993), which contained stories and poems from the writers' group I belonged to in Dunedin - one of the writing groups to which there's a dedication in the front of Transported. Dan McCarthy designed and printed them, and we sold a decent number of copies of each - you can find them in some New Zealand libraries, and I still have a few copies of Electroplasm if anyone would like one.

My next three books, Boat People (poetry), Extreme Weather Events (short stories) and All Blacks' Kitchen Gardens (poetry), were published by Wellington small press publisher HeadworX - I say "small", but HeadworX publishes at least four books per year. My fantasy novel Anarya's Secret was published by RedBrick, a New Zealand games publisher, who publish the hardback and softback editions of their books via Lulu.com, which is a big self-publishing firm. And my short story collection Transported was published earlier this year by Vintage, an imprint of Random House New Zealand, a large New Zealand publisher.

So I've had experience with self-publishing, small press publishing, and large press publishing. The latter two haven't changed a lot since the early 1990s, but self-publishing certainly has. It used to be all about getting down and dirty and producing the book yourself, then selling it off to friends, family, and through the occasional bookshop that was willing to take a few copies on a sale-or-return basis.

Now there are companies that specialise in helping authors to self-publish, including the New Zealand-based BookHabit (which specialises in e-books) and PublishMe. PublishMe puts the pitch of the new self-publishers concisely:

The world of publishing is changing fast. Everyone is feeling it, from the authors through to the book stores. The age of Internet publishing has arrived and is redefining how written information is shared. Whilst such change is creating frustration and uncertainty it is also creating opportunities that have never been available so clearly before. One of these is the rise in the power of the author to become his or her own publisher.


That is the fundamental advantage that self-publishing offers to authors: there's no gatekeeper standing in the way. If you want your book to be published, it can be, without having to jump through the hurdles of acceptance by a traditional publishing company. And you no longer have to do all the scut work yourself: for a fee or a percentage, the self-publishing company will do it for you. They will even put you in touch with freelance editors, proofreaders and so forth. These roles are vital to ensure the quality of a book, but it's no longer only traditional publishing companies that can provide them (though, in my experience, publishing companies' editors do an excellent job).

Yet there is still one major hurdle to be surmounted, and I am not sure that self-publishing has cracked it. If you want people to buy your books (and some people are happy to offer them for free or a donation), then they have to be able to find out about them, and find them.

Traditional publishers have built up a sizeable infrastructure devoted to precisely this - a system involving advance review copies, promotional material, national and/or international distribution networks, and representatives who promote your book to bookshops. Despite claims that Amazon has revolutionised book publishing (note: article will open after an ad, which can be skipped), the traditional publishing industry makes a strong case that their approach still results in a better income for writers.

I have no ideological objection to self-publishing. But I am yet to be convinced that, except in rare "breakout" cases, it can reliably offer as much in the way of distribution, publicity, sales, and income for the writer as traditional publishing can.

Nevertheless, self-publishing has come a long way towards closing the gap on traditional publishing since the 1990s. In five or ten years' time, the current arguments against self-publishing may no longer apply.

What do you think?

5 comments:

Cliff Burns said...

Tim, this is a smart post and every point you discuss has been a preoccupation me me as well. Initially I published on my blog in order to draw attention to my work--then I realized many people around the world were reading me AND I hadn't endured the torture of the submission process, finding an editor with two functioning neurons (always a challenge), shopping around for an agent. etc. I consider my site my exclusive publishing venue and didn't even bother shopping my second novel around before posting it. The problems, of course, involve getting people to PAY for reading my work AND protecting copyright. The technology is still evolving (as you point out) and 3-5 years from now I see print publishers struggling like daily newspapers, like big music companies, thrashing about like speared fish. Right now it's a thrill to present my work in the way I envisioned it, without tampering from braindead morons who think Sophie Kinsella is the paragon of fine writing.

Thanks for this, very timely...

Tim Jones said...

Thanks, Cliff. As I mentioned in my post, my experience with editors and publishers (roles that can be separate or combined here in NZ, according to the size of the company) has been good. When you say "finding an editor with two functioning neurons", are you referring to the commissioning editor, who buys books, or what we in NZ call an editor, i.e. a copy editor?

And if it's the former: is it just that the neurone-deficient editors won't accept the manuscripts you've sent them, or are there other, less subjective reasons for you to doubt their ability?

Lee Pletzers said...

Hi Tim, I've had good experiences with self publishing. My first book sold very well, my second -- not so well and the third was picked up by a small press publisher and is now released as The Last Church.

When you say self publishing, do you mean Print on Demand or print runs of a thousand copies?

Tim Jones said...

Thanks, Lee. This post dates from 2008, before I'd signed up to Twitter, and it's clear that Twitter offers a very good platform for authors to promote their books to individuals likely to be interested - a "narrowcasting" rather than "broadcasting" model. You do this well!

Since self-published authors can use Twitter (and Facebook) just as effectively as traditionally-published authors, that lessens the marketing advantage which traditional publishers have had.

To me, self-publishing and Print on Demand are different things: traditional publishers can, and do, use Print on Demand as a printing and distribution technology, while self-publishers can produce e-books, POD books, or print books in print-runs of whatever size they choose and can afford.

Does that answer your question? I may have missed the point here.

Donna Carrick said...

Excellent article, Tim. You offer a fair assessment of the benefits and challenges involved in self-publishing.

The questions I had to ask myself before starting on the SP journey were: 1- Is my work ready? 2-What do I hope to accomplish? 3-Is there a more traditional method easily accessible to me and 4-What are my expectations in terms of reaching readers?

After answering these questions, (and quietly burying my 1st few lesser manuscripts) I was ready to take the plunge. I have no regrets, but I will say it is not a road to be taken without careful thought and investigation.

Regards,
Donna Carrick