The Self-Publishing Exceptions

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?