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Why Self-pub Authors Need to Stop Whining

September 13, 2012 by Kiersi

I really like author and blogger Noah Murphy. I’d like to think we’ve had a good relationship on Twitter. I’m excited about his upcoming book, Ethereal Girls. But I’m growing pretty tired of self-published and indie authors whining about being repressed and “kept down” by the traditional book publishing industry when that is clearly not the whole story.

In his article, Publisher’s Weekly Review Double Standard, Murphy accuses book periodical Publisher’s Weekly of extorting self-published authors. As you probably already know, Publisher’s Weekly reviews traditionally-published books for their book review section. But they also have PW Select, which reviews self-published and indie-published books. The catch? The regular PW only takes submissions for books published by a publishing house, and it’s free to submit; however, PW Select charges a fee for your submission.

Murphy writes:

To Publisher’s Weekly, we’re not real authors – worthy of consideration for free – because we’re not part of the club. We decided to go outside the system and therefore we should be punished for that by extorting us. We have to pay to even be considered worthy of a review. This is the major way traditional publishing can keep us down because otherwise they’re quaking in their boots.

This is the kind of whining I am talking about, and it is totally delusional. If the traditional publishers (and their lapdogs, the periodicals) had the kind of time to plot ways to keep self-published authors “down,” don’t you think they’d spend it doing something a little less nefarious? Like, trying to make money? If the money (and the future of publishing) is really in self-publishing, as Murphy seems to believe, then shouldn’t PW be throwing themselves at the opportunity to take a bite out of the pie?

If anyone should be on trial extorting self-pubbed authors, it should be vanity presses like Author Solutions–not Publisher’s Weekly, who simply has a business model that doesn’t fit self-publishing.

Let me start at the beginning and try to disentangle this big mess of hurt feelings and the principles of economy.

Why Self-Publishing?

Friends and family are always asking me, “Why don’t you self-publish?” Often they are appalled to hear that I have considered this option and voted vehemently against doing it myself–for now.

If I wanted to spend a ton of my own money on editing, on professional cover design, on buying ISBNs and learning to code for e-readers (and not the one-size-fits-all Smashwords way, but do it for real with fancy chapter headings like Cheri Lasota who is awesome), then sure. I’d go self-publishing. If I wanted to take the time away from writing books, which is what I really love to do in all of this, then I might consider it. But I don’t. I want to write books, not code them and manage contractors and incorporate and get a Tax ID number and all that other crap that an author intent on self-publishing has to do. (Authors have to market themselves anyway now, regardless of whether we go traditional or self-pub, so I won’t bring that up.)

Of course, there’s the argument that not every reader out there is looking for high literature, or a professional book cover. Many readers are happy picking up a book in their niche and aren’t bothered by typos or poor cover design or any of that. Okay. Sure. But that’s not the book I, personally, want to publish with my name on it.

But there are a lot of reasons authors do choose to self-publish. I think they fall into three categories:

1. “I am good enough to skip all this.”

Querying agents? Too much work. Submitting to publishers? Blah, I don’t want to deal with that. My book is great as-is. I am going to knock the world flat with this magical 250,000-word novel that I can’t be bothered to edit down to a reasonable length or scour for typos. I’m better than that.

2. “I was rejected because of reasons. That are false. They just can’t see how great my book is.”

I can almost guarantee that every traditionally-published author with a book coming out this year was rejected at some point in time. It’s a good thing. We learn from rejections. The best rejection I ever got was after a request for a full manuscript. The agent wrote back to me that the book “just didn’t grab” her.

My first thought was the same as many up-and-coming authors: She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Duh. My book is great.

But take that feedback in your right hand and go back to your manuscript. View it through a new reader’s lens. You might suddenly see something you didn’t before–that the first ten pages of your book are downright boring. That you have all this great backstory (you spent so much time on that backstory!) but little to no action.

Know why queries are so often rejected? Because a query often tells an agent everything he or she needs to know about you. And he or she didn’t like what they saw on that first glance. Maybe your writing really isn’t as top-notch as you think it is; maybe you need to work on the skill set some more. We live in a culture of bloated egos, and this is a symptom. As writers, we all have something to learn–some more than others. Man up and acknowledge that. Work on it. Even authors who have published dozens of books are always refining their skills.

3. “I want to keep as much of my profit as I can.”

Alternatively: “I want total control over my book.”

Well, good on you. Keep at it, then. If you’re making money on your self-pubbed book (like this totally cool guy, Will Hertling, who had coffee with me last month), then I see no reason not to keep doing it and encourage others to do it.

But Publisher’s Weekly is not out to get you.

Publications and companies like PW are not the boogeyman in the closet, whose only goal is to spit on self-published and indie-published authors and grind them under the toe of the corporate boot. They are for-profit enterprises who know one thing: a book through a publishing house has passed the gatekeepers. It is going to have name recognition. It is probably going to be readable, and maybe enjoyable, and maybe even a good candidate for their review section. A self-published book doesn’t come with even a tiny portion of this guarantee.

I know mediocre books make it through the publishing house “gatekeepers” all the time. That’s not my point. My point is that a book through a publishing house comes with the assumption that it’s worth looking at.

The publishing industry (literary agents, periodicals, publishing houses) performs a weeding function: sometimes it’s a sheer numbers game. Agents and editors receive hundreds of queries, and turn down 99.9% of them. Imagine if even a tiny portion of those rejected queries turned around and self-published that book instead. We now have 100 times as many self-published books as traditionally-published books. And that leaves a company like Publisher’s Weekly in a bit of a bind: they can afford to pay a few staff people to review those traditionally-published books because they know how many to expect, and they can pay those staff with advertising and sales revenue.

But how many people would PW have to keep on staff to review those thousands upon thousands of self-pubbed books? Most of which are published by the first two kinds of people and not the third? It is just unfeasible for a for-profit company. It is unfeasible for the business model they use.

Maybe that’s PW showing its age. But I think it’s also that self-publishing has shown itself to be a mixed bag. For every great book, there are ten not-so-great books. It’s a greater risk than in traditional publishing, not to mention ten times as many staff reviewers required to basically “slush pile” it. The fee dissuades authors who aren’t serious about submitting, and it probably pays employees to staff PW Select.

Obviously, this isn’t the case everywhere. Amazon has done a great job of designing a system that allows the best of the self-pubbed and indie-pubbed books to shine and get picked up by readers. Social media makes choosing a book easier, and gives self-pubbed authors a great marketing opportunity.

So please, self-published and indie authors: stop whining about being left out. You’re in a young industry. You’re trying to convince companies who rely on the traditional publishing model to open their doors to anyone and everyone, without any kind of filter in the middle when they’re used to having one. It’s going to take time to change the whole business model, if it changes–and I am not convinced that it should change completely. As a reader, I want some standards. And until some kind of universal benchmarks are established in the self-pub community, companies like PW are not going to blindly believe in you and hire those two-dozen extra staff.

And Publisher’s Weekly may go out of business eventually, opening the door for new ventures that can intelligently deal with self-publishing. I’m cool with that.


10 Comments »

  1. jayang says:

    I have never been rejected, not once. Oh wait, you mean in publishing. Whoops. (Great as always)

  2. Self-publishing is tricky. There are some really good self-published books, but… there are some really bad ones too. The problem is that anyone can self-publish. I think that’s why there are different rules. I’m NOT saying I agree with them, but I think it will probably always be that way because there’s not really a filtering system.

  3. Noah Murphy says:

    Honestly, I self publish because its easier for me to handle, but its not for everyone and its extremely tough and grueling path to take if you want to be successful at it. K23 Detectives, my first series, bombed. But at least I figured it out after nine months as opposed to years trying to get published the traditional way wondering why I’m getting form letter rejection letter. I’m a better author for it and Ethereal Girls will reflect it what I’ve learned both in how it’s marketed and how it’s written.

    .Believe me, I’m well aware of the sea of trash in self-publishing. Most self-published authors seem to want to pat themselves on the back for writing a novel then actually building an audience,There’s a serious difference between people like me and the “average self-published author” and you wouldn’t be interacting with me if there wasn’t.

    Finally, I was well aware of the other side of the issue when I wrote that article, but decided not to argue it for length issues and well, you argued it better than I ever could. 😀

  4. […] us seriously, then they can die the same slow death that the rest of the industry currently is. Read an excellent response to this by Kiersi. Share […]

  5. I have a few late-night thoughts that hopefully make sense.

    Every time and market has had its mechanism for filtering.

    Traditional publishing has gatekeepers in the form of agents, publishers, and even bookstore owners, and reviewers, whether for industry or for consumers (e.g. newspapers, magazines.) But most of those actors are motivated to sell you something: of course a publisher will tell you a book is great, and so will a bookstore. They want to make a sale. Reviewers played a role as an educated, presumably unbiased source, but they were always a constraint in the system: they could review only so many books, and of course they had their own likes and dislikes.

    The Amazon marketplace wouldn’t exist without peer reviews. There simply aren’t enough expert reviews to review everything for sale. If there were, and they worked for Amazon, we wouldn’t trust them, because they’d be motivated to sell us everything.

    Expert reviews are not the answer, going forward.

    Peer reviews sometimes work well, and sometimes they don’t. Most of the time we’re not getting a review from someone who is approaching their review from a critical perspective. So we look at numbers (let’s see what 100 people said), and who said it (how articulate was their review), and what they cared about (they talked about character development, but I mostly care about plot).

    Peer reviews are helpful, but they aren’t game changers, either.

    Influencer reviews (e.g. people who we trust in a given sphere, people with whom we have a natural affinity) don’t give us the same critical perspective a literary reviewer gives us, but their words come with weight: we trust them for who they are, and what they do, and what they’ve said many times over. One of my influencers is Gifford Pinchot, cofounder of Bainbridge Graduate Institute. If he says “buy this book”, then I buy the book. He doesn’t need to give me a lengthy explanation.

    In the world going forward, I think its these influencers, especially online influencers, who will be the new gatekeepers. They won’t give us the same sort of unbiased, reasoned review that allows us to decide for ourselves if we want to buy a book; rather, they are a shortcut to the decision-making process: if they think it’s worth recommending, then it’s worth buying.

    These are the people that writers need to court going forward, whether they are self-published or small-press published or even big-press published. In short, unless you’re an A-list writer getting the big promotion budget from a publisher, you need to be thinking about the influencers of the readers you’re trying to reach.

    Don’t look at book review sites, or Publisher’s Weekly, because those people are either too constrained in what they can review, or they don’t have the kind of trust that inspires people to run out to buy books. Instead, look for single-author blogs that have a big following, and court those bloggers.

    By the way, when I look to the future, I expect that book recommendations and peer reviews will become far more useful. Consider Netflix’s movie recommendation as an example. When I’m shown that the Matrix is rated 4.7 stars, I’m really being told that “of the people who are like me, who have rated other movies similarly, the average of their ratings is 4.7” For the population at large, the rating may be far lower. Amazon hasn’t gotten this smart yet. I’m shown all reviews, and book star ratings are based on all reviews, rather than being based on the the ratings of people with similar likes to me. When the Amazon rating and recommendation system gets smarter, it’s possible that it will be so good that we’ll trust it more, and it will require less promotion effort on the part of writers. But in the meantime, look for online influencers.

    Will

    • Kiersi says:

      I don’t know how I missed this before, but all great points, Will. And I want to second the notion that Amazon’s peer reviews are, as it stands, not exactly helpful. I also really like Netflix’s rating system and I’d like to see something like that implemented. Because it does come down to what readers prefer. There are some things I just cannot stand that don’t bother other readers.

      Thanks for coming by!

  6. I think you left out an important self-publishing type: those who decide to do it because it philosophically suits them. Because they’ve written a book and now they want to share it — properly, I might add (with professional editing, design, etc.). I haven’t decided whether to self-publish or not, but if I do it will be for that reason.

    • Kiersi says:

      Sure. I think there is a whole category of people who self-publish not as a shortcut, but because they prefer to handle it on their own and not go through the whole agent/publisher process. Good luck with following your own path to publication. 🙂

  7. Deanna says:

    There’s a fourth reason to self-publish: You’ve written a book that doesn’t fit into the mold of any publishers at the time. For example, you’ve written a spiritually uplifting book where the characters talk about God. That’s not what secular publishers are looking for, but the book is not clearly Christian, so it’s not what Christian publishers are looking for either. This is the situation I found myself in, and self-publishing was a last resort. But the book was praised by secular and religious reviewers alike and received an award.

    I just used PW Select for their December issue, and I would definitely not recommend it. The majority of authors who submit to PW Select pay $149 for either no review or a negative review. I submitted a book that won a legitimate award, was nominated for another award, was field nominated by reviewers for four ALA awards, received many positive reviews from other review publications, and is still undiscovered by most readers. PW Select did not review it, but most of the books they did review received negative reviews. They are not following their mission to “find the undiscovered gems out there” (http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/diy/faq/index.html). If they were, why wouldn’t they review a book that had the indications of being an undiscovered gem? It seems like they’re instead finding the books they don’t think are gems and having a good time tearing them apart.

    I want to spread the word and warn other self-published authors. Call it whining if you like, but after wasting my money on PW Select, I feel like I’ve been had. If PW Select were a legitimate publication, it would do what its mission statement says. Maybe that’s logistically impossible with all the self-published books out there, but that’s what it would take to have a review publication that’s actually worth something: book submissions at no charge and then the reviewers doing the work of finding the ones they like and pointing them out to their readers, as opposed to ignoring award-winning books and focusing mostly on the books they do not like. By relying on fee-based submissions, they get to do less work and make more money. The result is a supplement that does not appear to uncover the hidden gems and is probably only read by ad reps who use it as a directory of self-publishers who might want to buy more overpriced and worthless ads.

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