Pulling the Curtain Back from the Stigma of Self-Publishing

self-publishing stigma

Examining the stigma against self-publishing.

In recent years, self-publishing has become an acceptable way for authors to share their work with a readership. But just a few years ago, self-publishing was the last stop on the rejection train. Authors usually resorted to self-publishing only after dozens of failed attempts to land an agent or sell their work to a publisher. For this reason, self-published books carried a negative stigma, which is only now being shed.

Since most self-published books failed to pass the litmus test of the publishing industry’s gatekeepers, they were seen as universally unworthy. And in many cases, they were. Agents and editors won’t get on board with substandard books, so those books are less likely to get published.

But that doesn’t mean every rejected book is substandard or all writers who self-published did so because they couldn’t secure a publishing contract.

In fact, some of the most notable writers in the literary canon self-published: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, William Blake, Benjamin Franklin, Edgar Allan Poe, Gertrude Stein, Mark Twain, and L. Frank Baum. And if that’s not enough, Wikipedia lists even more self-published authors and self-published bestsellers.

The Truth About Rejection

The truth is that plenty of books that went on to great success were initially rejected. Lolita was “overwhelmingly nauseating.” Jonathan Livingston Seagull was “ridiculous.” George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which critiqued communism, was rejected by none other than T.S. Elliott, who said “We have no conviction that this is the right point of view from which to criticize the political situation at the current time.”

Anne Frank’s diary was rejected sixteen times. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected eight times. Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected by over 100 publishers before its authors went ahead and published it themselves. (Source: Flavorwire)

Let all these instances of rejection and self-publication be a reminder: agents and editors are only human. They read ridiculous amounts of prose and are tasked with picking only the ones that, in their estimation, have the best chances of becoming bestsellers. And they make mistakes. I’m sure the eight publishers who rejected Harry Potter will carry the weight of that mistake for the rest of their lives.

When you stop to think about the jobs that agents and editors perform, it’s easy to understand why so many great books slip through their hands. Maybe an agent read a book when he was tired, hungry, or stressed out. Maybe he just read three other books with similar storylines. Maybe the story touched a bad nerve. Maybe the editor who read a book loved it but didn’t feel like his publishing house could find an audience for it. Maybe he disagrees with the narrative’s philosophy. Maybe he’s looking for a zombie story.

The fact is that just because a book is rejected five, ten, a hundred times does not mean it’s bad or that it can never be successful.

The Other Truth About Rejection

We can’t escape the other truth about rejection, which is that some books really are rejected because they’re not very good. While authors must remember that a rejection doesn’t mean their book can’t go on to find success, they also have to figure out whether their book has the potential to succeed.

The best way to gauge the merit of your own work is to be well read. If you haven’t absorbed a hearty portion of the literary canon, you have nothing to gauge your own work against. You need to read good books, bad books, mediocre books, and great books and learn to identify that je ne sais quoi that differentiates them.

The New Era of Self-Publishing

If you ask me, the new era of self-publishing was inevitable. Its fate was sealed when Internet access became widespread. Of course authors are going to self-publish their work now, and in droves. Before we had all this fancy technology, self-publishing required a hefty investment. You’d have to find a printer and pay for a run. There was no print-on-demand and there were no ebooks. You placed an order — 500 books, 1,000 books, 15,000 books. You paid for all those books and then you went out and sold them, trying to recoup your investment and turn a profit. Nowadays, most self-published authors hire an editor or proofreader, cover designers, and maybe a PR consultant. Back then, you had to do all that, plus pay thousands of dollars for copies of your book. Technology changed all that, making it easy and affordable to self-publish.

Some people have decried the wave of self-publishing that’s sweeping across the Internet. Some terrible works are getting published! We need the gatekeepers of the publishing industry to weed out the bad books! I think that’s nonsense. Let the market — let the readers — decide which books they want to buy and read. Let authors take the risk, put their work out there, and see what happens. It’s an ideal business model that creates a broader and fairer playing ground.

And the best part is that it puts the power of publishing into the hands of the authors and readers, removing middle men who controlled what got published and what didn’t (which is kind of a scary thought).

A Living Example

In 2011, Hugh Howey self-published Wool, a short story, through Amazon’s Kindle Direct program. As it grew in popularity, he developed the story into a series (check out the complete Wool (Omnibus), and in 2012, he sold the film rights to 20th Century Fox. Film legends Ridley Scott and Steven Zaillian have both expressed interest in working on the project. Most recently, Howey entered a contract with Simon and Schuster, who will distribute Wool to retailers in the the US and Canada. And for the record, the contract allows Howey to continue distributing Wool online himself.

And Wool was never even rejected. Howey made a conscious decision to self-publish. Here’s what he said about self-publishing just a few days ago:

“I never shopped Wool to agents. After my first book release with a small press, I decided that self-publishing was for me. I never looked back. It wasn’t until agents and publishers began approaching me that I engaged in a dialogue. I actually predicted this before it happened. Over a year ago, I told anyone who would listen that every book should *begin* as a self-published work. Let it prove itself in the market and then allow agents and publishers to approach you. I was mocked for espousing this view, but it has now become more and more common. DBW recently posted a story about the 300 6-figure advances in 2012, and how 45 of them were for books previously self-published. That’s a healthy percentage.” (Source: Goodreads)

Of course, self-publishing isn’t for everyone, but it’s certainly an option all writers should explore. In upcoming posts, we’ll explore the benefits and drawbacks of both traditional and self-publishing.

Have you considered self-publishing or given any thought as to whether you want to choose traditional or self-publishing? Have you read any self-published works recently? Share your thoughts on self-publishing by leaving a comment, and keep writing!

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.


7 Responses to “Pulling the Curtain Back from the Stigma of Self-Publishing”

  1. I admit, at first, “vanity publishing,” as it used to be called, turned me off. But that was in the days you describe – before technology. I’ve read some pretty darn good books that have been self-published. And to further prove your point, Melissa, the winner of the 2012 ABNA Young Adult competition, “On Little Wings” had previously been self-published.
    The toughest phase of releasing a book has been, is, and always will be promotion; trying to get the general public aware the thing even exists. Creative thinking is what brought the story to the page, and creative thinking is what will bring the story to readers.

    • I think we need to distinguish vanity publishing as a subset of self-publishing. When writers self-publish, they generally pay for services (editor, book cover, etc.). If they are purchasing copies of the book up front, they would pay for the printing services. Vanity publishing is something else, where the publisher charges an additional fee. From Wikipedia: “These companies make the majority of their income from the fees paid by the author and not from sales as would be the case with traditional publishers. These companies are also known as joint venture or subsidy presses.”

      A vanity press doesn’t care about selling the books or helping the author find readers and it’s mostly seen as a money-making scheme and/or scam.

      I love what you said: “creative thinking will bring the story to readers.” That is so true!

  2. Joseph McCaffrey says:

    When an author presents a manuscript to a publisher, that author asks the publisher to invest his time and money in a property that will reward the publisher with a profit. Most manuscripts never even come close. I’ve known “writers” who complain about the monopoly of the publishing industry and when I see their work, I shudder. I cannot begin to list the hundreds, no, thousands of faults that can be found in one manuscript. Most are rightfully rejected.
    But then some publishers decided that if there are enough people out there who are willing to front the money themselves, why not let them spend their own money, take their money and send them a carton of their books, deal closed.
    The “self-publishing” industry, like smart businessmen, is giving its customers what they want and are willing to pay for.
    Of course there is the occasional “Harry Potter,” the self-publishers have seized on as good advertising.
    And the term “vanity press” is too harsh. These people aren’t vain, they’re desperate for recognition. Many have been writing for years in writers groups or alone. They want to be known as writers, so they join groups calling themselves “mystery writers” or “romance writers” but they have nothing to show for it. But they really are writers, even thought they have no published works.
    The self-publishing industry will give them the right to call themselves writers, if they pay for it. The self-publishing industry is fighting to make self-publishing respectable, even striving to remove the old name, “vanity press” with all its negative connotations.
    But after buying books from friends who “self-published,” and having an unreadable book on my hands, I won’t do it again. When I buy a book I’m investing my money, trusting it will reward me with a good story, fresh ideas, and entertainment.
    I’ve had enough of the tedium of self-published books. I”ll let the traditional publishing industry do my initial screening for me

    • Here at Writing Forward, there are no “writers.” We are all just writers.

      Harry Potter is widely recognized by publishers, writers, and readers as a phenomenon. Its success hasn’t been duplicated in traditional or self-publishing and we’ll probably never see a success of that magnitude again (although I hope we do). Many people mistakenly look at authors like JK Rowling as the success story to aspire to. However, writers do not need to achieve that level of success in order to make a living (full time or part time) from their writing. Plenty of authors who are traditionally or self-published are not world famous and are not millionaires but they get by. You’ve never heard of them but they eke out a living doing what they love.

      You are using the term vanity press incorrectly. It is not the same as self-publishing (although it is a subset of self-publishing). It has negative connotations because it’s a business model designed to scam writers and it specifically targets people who are vulnerable or naive.

      I have to object to your claim that people who self-publish are desperate for recognition. That’s quite a generalization! Writing in general is hardly a way to get recognition. If you want to be famous, there are much better ways to do it. Of all the writers I know who self-publish, most just want to work independently of big corporations. Some don’t want recognition at all; they just want to make a living from their craft. My post focused on choosing self-publishing after multiple rejections but most people I know who are self-publishing today never got rejected because they never even sent their work to agents and editors. And there are plenty of authors who were once traditionally published and who have now moved to self-publishing. Some of their stories are enlightening.

      One does not need to have a published work to be a writer. One needs to have written, but publishing isn’t some threshold you cross and then get to claim yourself as an official writer. I tend to think of an author as a writer who has been published but that’s not an official definition. Anyone who writes is a writer.

      As for screening books, it’s not so hard to do with Amazon, which lets you look inside almost any book you want to buy. Most self-published authors make large chunks of their books available. Reviews can also be quite helpful in guiding purchasing decisions.

      Personally, I don’t have much better luck with traditional publishers. If you ask me, they’re putting out a lot of garbage. Some good stuff too, of course, but I can’t say that I fully trust them to screen books and only publish those with true merit. In fact, traditional publishers, with their own clever marketing strategies, have made millions off of books that I think are better suited to lining my cat’s litter box than sitting on my bookshelf.

      Anyway, we’ll have to agree to disagree. Lots of people are strongly opposed to self-publishing for one reason or another. Both types of publishing are going strong, so the good news is that we can all get the books we want from the sources we want.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed your article and I’m encouraged by the possibility of self publishing. Thanks!

  4. Great post! I am a member of a cooperative indie group of writers all publishing our books. The shared expertise and cross promotion is a wonderful support :-) http://indie-visible.com/