The Self-Publishing Exceptions

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After yesterday’s post about why I won’t self-publish, there was such a variety of responses from you lovely readers that I wanted to look at self-publishing some more.

Today I did a Google search for self publishing successes. Of course, that gives about 64 million results—literally—which is funny, since self-publishing success is the exception, not the rule.

According to the Wall Street Journal, citing publishing business tracker R. R. Bowker,  the number of self-published titles rose 160% between 2006 and 2010, from 51,237 to 133,036 titles.

That is, in technical terms, a crap-ton.

On the other hand, though, a USA Today article from earlier this month says 15 authors only have gotten a book into the top 150 titles on the USA Today Bestselling Books list in the last year. The “only” is my addition: while the USA Today article says those folks are “threatening to change the face of publishing,” 15 authors is just a drop in the bucket.

Let me ask you this: Have you read a self-published book? I haven’t.

Who springs to mind as a self-publishing success? Christopher Paolini and Amanda Hocking, sure: but they both took the opportunity when it arose and signed with traditional publishers. Other writers, like Barry Eisler, have turned down huge traditional contracts in order “to cut out an expensive middleman.”

That’s a deep divide. New writers jumping at the chance for a traditional contract, and established writers turning down contracts because they feel they can make better money working for themselves and self-publishing.

For new writers (like me and like most of you who read this blog), it makes sense to snatch at the big-name leg-up and marketing power that a large publisher has, while an established writer can bank on her existing sales record and fanbase to continue selling her novels on her own.

The comments on yesterday’s post were pretty evenly split between self-publishing and the traditional route. I maintain that I want the traditional contract, but it does look like the industry is changing at least a little, right at the time when I need to start considering my options.

Here’s the trouble, though, with saying that the industry is changing: If the number of titles self-published has grown 160% in the last five years, how many more people are going to start self-publishing in the next five years? It’s an easy fallback, too easy, making it possible to get work out there that should never have seen the light of day. The nice thing about those tough agents and publishers is that they act as gatekeepers, separating the wheat from the chaff even as they do overlook some titles that perhaps deserve more attention.

If everyone who can’t get a contract jumps into self-publishing, readers are going to be inundated with mediocre titles. Yes, word of mouth will tell us what we might like, and the worst of the unedited works will filter out of our options, but if we all jump into self-publishing, we’re making it harder to become one of those drops in the bucket that actually succeeds.

Please don’t think I’m advocating for one route over another, or even that I’m trashing those who choose to self-publish. I don’t have the answers. I’m just trying to work this out as I go along.

I guess my concern boils down to this: Will we self-publish ourselves into obscurity?

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9 thoughts on “The Self-Publishing Exceptions

  1. After having read your posts from yesterday and today, I’m wondering how you define ‘self-publishing’ and ‘traditional publishing’. Or, more specifically, where you would categorize the myriad start-up boutique publishers that are around now. You submit to them, someone reads your work, and if they like it they send you a contract. Most of these places give the author more control than one of the big publishing houses would but have few resources for promotion – although it sounds like unless you’re Janet Evanovich, you have to do your own promotional work anyway. So when you say you won’t self-publish, does that mean you’ll only work with a big established publisher? Thanks,
    Amy

    • Kristin McFarland

      Thanks for the comment and the swing-by. In answer to your question, no, not necessarily. What I mean is, I won’t e-publish or, say, LuLu publish. Again, there are exceptions to that: I would consider e-publishing if I had someone coaching me or at least a feeling of close-to perfection for my book. Those start-up boutique publishers, I consider more like traditional publishing than self-publishing. They’re not the old guard, sure, but you do have a larger company distributing your work.

      • Thanks for responding. The reason I ask is that I’ve had a couple things accepted by small publishers, which is amazingly cool, but at the same time it leaves me wondering if maybe I’m not reaching high enough. My strategy has been to try to get a few (5 – 6) publishing credits with small publishers before even approaching agents or big publishers and I’m learning a ton with every project that I do.
        Good luck with what you’re working on, and thanks again for your thoughtful post(s) and follow-up comments.
        Amy

  2. Hi, Kristin,

    You seem to have a good handle on many of the issues. Your Wana112 group and the other Wana groups will be a big help to you here. These days, many authors do both — traditional and indie — simultaneously (although usually not for the same book. The question seems to be best answered on a per book basis. In other words, “which publishing method is best for this book at this time?” And to answer that, of course, most of us find it necessary to have publishing goals and a plan for reaching them. Good luck to you!

  3. Hello Kristin,
    I love this post; those are the same things I’m wondering about. From my research, I’ve decided it is not bad to self-publish as long as I can take the time to market my book. And, I’ll have to hire an editor then make the necessary changes before I publish. If all authors made sure they had the best product before submitting their story, then I don’t see the problem with self-publishing. But, of course, once my manuscript is complete, I’ll query to agents/publishers first.

    Keep smiling,
    Yawatta

  4. I think that is a possibility – all of us newbie writers self-publishing ourselves into obscurity, but you also have to consider your goals. It sounds like your goal is to become traditionally published – whatever that means to you. So, go for it and good luck! :)

  5. I love your thoughts on self-publishing. You got me right at the end of your post. About the agents/publishers.

    When I hear stories about them rejecting Kathryn Stockett 60 times, and Lauren Kate being rejected over 100 times before reaching phenomenal success I get angry. “Those stupid people.” But you know what? Kathryn is quoted as saying something along the lines of this: she kept improving her work until someone accepted it. I think all those rejections must have made both authors better writers. Otherwise, we finish a draft and think, “Wow, I’m so awesome.” It’s only when the “big” guys tell us we’re sh*t that we notice these little–or big–issues.

    I’m with you on this one. Self-publishing drowns out the good writers who otherwise would get noticed if it weren’t for the mediocrity being published.

  6. I’ve actually read a number of self-published books that were every bit as good, and sometimes better, than the books I purchase at the store. There have been a couple that I couldn’t get past the first few pages because they were so awful. But I’ve spent good money on traditionally published books that I couldn’t finish reading either-for the same reason.

  7. cool just wanna say that I found this article a big help with questions I have about the publishing game, thank you, I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to get my stuff published and as I am a bit of a Noob to this side of the writing world I found your thoughts inspiring!

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