Self-publishing = vainglory?

Dymocks’ announcement of the launch of D Publishing Network is lighting up the newsgroups and Twitter at present. It’s at pains to state that the venture is not ‘vanity publishing’, the service will nevertheless allow writers to pay to have their books designed and uploaded, with the distant possibility that some books may be distributed via the Dymocks chain of bookstores.

I am not sure how this model is different from ‘vanity publishing’, but it will allow Dymocks to participate in the shift to authors self-publishing that is already very common on Smashwords and Amazon.com.

I myself have books on both Smashwords and Amazon.com. Each of the titles was previously published by small presses (Homosapien Books and Five Star Science Fiction) and are now out of print except for the digital imprints I’ve now released online. These books have been through the curation process of having a publisher select them from submissions and polished in collaboration with a professional editor.

So, like Dymocks, here am I distancing my own online efforts from that dreaded label, ‘vanity press’.

Cory Doctorow doesn’t seem to have this problem owning what he does. But of course, he was a professionally published author long before he experimented so successfully with the digital self-publishing route.

Why is it that readers automatically assume self-published means bad books? True, we’ve all read books that were published in this way that were at best full of typos and at worst full of badly plotted, badly written, self-indulgent purple prose. But then, I have read professionally published books that are just as guilty of poor structure and style, many of which I’ve abandoned by chapter five because I just don’t have the time to read books I’m not enjoying.

If someone creates jewellery that they then sell at markets (or on Etsy), we might be intrigued and praise the artist for their work. We might similarly encourage and support musicians who fund their own CD to sell while busking. Such efforts don’t have the sales reach of an official music publisher or art gallery to promote them, but we don’t disparage the efforts or talent of such entrepreneurial creativity.  The popularity of such work will soon be determined by those who see and buy things on the spot, and help the creators build up an audience of enthusiastic fans.

But try to write a book, publish it and sell it on a roadside stall (or online) and everyone will just assume it’s terrible. Admittedly, it’s harder to determine in a short period whether the book will be your cup of tea. A painting, a piece of jewellery and even a track from an album can be assessed in a pretty short period of time. Taking out fifteen minutes to read the first chapter or two of a budding new work is more time consuming and maybe less revealing to the casual purchaser.

But this is not far from how we select books (either digital or paper) in the bookshops. There, we may leaf through the first few pages to see how it strikes us. We also go by word of mouth or, in digital books, a free sample to download and try. Staff and friend recommendations and reviews give us an overview of what we might like to read. Surely this same model can apply to self-published books?

I am trying to train myself out of the old gut response that a self-published book is necessarily a bad book. I’ve been disappointed often enough with traditional titles, and every good book started as an unpublished manuscript at some point. The self-published titles on Smashwords, Amazon and, in future, D Publishing, will eventually be sorted into wheat and chaff by virtue of the same methods used for books with publishing houses: reviews and recommendations.

Nevertheless, authors taking this route can learn a lot by understanding and valuing the process that takes place in traditional publishing, where manuscripts are selected, curated and promoted by experts.

Many self-published books fail on a basic level because of the lack of editorial input and proofreading. I owe so much to my own proofreaders and editors for catching things that I have missed because I have just been looking at the damned thing for far too long. It’s not fresh to me any more, and I’m reading what I meant to say; not what I actually said.

Those fresh eyes, who are paid to be constructively critical rather than being friends, who are looking out for my delicate writerly feelings, are essential to helping me become a better writer, and to releasing books that are as good as I can make them at the time. Luckily, the publishing house takes on the economic responsibility of paying these fine people in the hopes that my books will sell well enough for them to recoup their costs.

My publishers have all been small presses, so while finding distribution channels can thankfully be left to them and their expertise, on the whole, promotions and marketing are left a lot to me. It’s hard work, and it’s time spent spruiking that I would rather spend writing, but I have to get word out somehow. Those recommendations and reviews don’t write themselves. (Well, some try via programs, but nobody’s falling for that.)

Doctorow recently pointed out in a Locus article that self-publishing and especially marketing books is much harder than it looks.

In the end, I think that self-publishing can work and be worthwhile, but the author needs to exercise professionalism. Self-publish by all means, but be professional and businesslike in your approach to the manuscript. If you don’t have a professional publisher to take on the costs of editing, find an independent editor to at least proofread your work. Value their input. Even if you don’t agree with it, don’t dismiss it out of hand. If they’ve missed the point of your prose, maybe you haven’t written that passage well enough.

Take the time to learn more about the craft of writing. Learn about grammar, spelling and structure. Read widely to see how others do it. Accept constructive criticism gracefully. Be painstaking and check your work. Consider your marketing approach, because publishing is absolutely not a case of ‘if you write it, they will come’.

Be like those artisan jewellery-makers, those struggling artists, those hungry musicians. Put everything you can into perfecting your craft. Help to get rid of the stigma of self-publishing by respecting everything that a publisher does for a writer and replicating it as much as you can.

Then, with luck and good timing, the readers will determine what happens in the market.

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My thanks to Katherine Horsey, a fellow editor, who proofread this entry for me.

I will be presenting ‘Introduction to digital matters for writers’ at the Australian Society of Authors’ E-Exchange Day on 17 September 2011. Check out the ASA page for the details.