Publishing: Advocate or Be Damned

This Thursday, March 8th, I’ll be taking part in the Irish PEN debate ‘Traditional or Self-Publishing?’ at the United Arts Club in Dublin. I thought I’d repost an article I first published back in 2010 in light of this event. For full details of speakers and debaters at the event, go here.

Self-published or traditionally published—what are we really advocates of?
There are those in the traditional world of publishing who believe self-publishing has the potential to tarnish an author’s book. Usually there are a myriad of under-the-surface reasons for this view, but, at least as far as tried and trusted publishing practice is concerned, their valid argument is that an author who chooses to first self-publish their book gives up their first publication rights. When an author or agent tries to sell a book that has been published before—no matter how obscure or whatever format, print or e-book—it removes one of the single biggest selling attractions to an editor at a publishing house—exclusiveness. Publishers may be businesses, but they are not entirely soulless—they love having something they consider unique, different or better than what is already out there, but still a quality and saleable work to market. Better still, they were the first to view and consider it for acquisition ahead of their publishing rivals. Perhaps in this regard, we can understand how the agent has leverage, and a number of publishers can get into a bidding war when far too many eyes see the potential of a winning manuscript.
Believe me, there are many editors and publishing houses who have got themselves into such a situation, like hungry NBA teams bidding for the next great star or English Premiership soccer teams bidding for the next Ronaldo or Rooney, they finally sign the contract and cheque, but still wake up the following morning, gulf deeply, and think to themselves, ‘OH FUCK!’ Now we really do have to make sure this hot shit sells!
There is no doubt, self-publishing does make it harder to sell a book to a mainstream publisher—if it wasn’t already hard enough. Sure, if you or your agent can tell Editor X from Mainstream House that your book was downloaded 1500 times in the last two months on Smashwords—of course it is going to make a hell of a difference. But…has your book actually sold 1500 downloads on Smashwords in the last two months…?
No… I didn’t think so either. Let’s get back on track and the real world for most of us.
Publishing is not a world of absolutes—that much I have learned. Whether you are an established or new author, I believe the reading public is fickle enough to accept the hyperbole presented by a heavy marketing campaign, and equally fickle to turn their noses up at what a publisher believed and marketed as the next big literary or commercial thing.
It is simply not true to say a book is done and dusted if it is self-published and that any wide recognition and commercial success is beyond its reach. Self-published books continue to be picked up by mainstream publishers. A. J. Healy, author of Tommy Storm, who self-published his children’s novel in 2006, sold 3000 copies, and got picked up by Quercus UK. Quercus, in spite of Healy ‘using up first publication rights’ went ahead and re-published their own edition of Tommy Storm. In 2009, Quercus went on to publish the sequel book. In the USA, William P. Young published The Shack through his own supported self-publishing endeavours through Windblown Media. In some ways, a self-publishing phenonema like The Shack, owes a lot to Kinkos where it first saw the physical light of day. It has racked up 2m in sales, and remains a Windblown Media title. Hodder UK bought the publishing rights in the UK.
Is this an exception to the rule? Of course it is, and when you are talking million of copies, it is an extraordinary exception. A few thousand self-published units has long stopped being an exception to the general publishing world. That perhaps says more about how self-publishing has come along over the years, than it necessarily says about the remaining pervading attitudes towards it. The rules will always get broken and publishers are becoming a lot more open to self-published books which prove to be successes. When Quercus took on A. J. Healy, they didn’t go, ‘sod you Healy – that’s 3000 books we’re not going to be able to sell’. Instead, they took the view, if Healy on his own can shift 3000 – imagine what we could sell.
As it stands, mainstream publishing is, and should be, the first port of call for any author. I enjoy and love the work I do here at The Independent Publishing Magazine. It has been suggested here on this site – through comments and in my everyday life meeting authors and publishers alike – that I am a ‘self-publishing advocate’. It is a phrase I have been tagged with many times. I am not entirely comfortable with the term; simply because it suggests I see the publishing world from one perspective. Anyone who has sought a consultation with me or who has avidly followed this site knows this is simply not the case.
Yes, I am an advocate—absolutely!
I am an advocate of publishing (self-publishing is a part of that – like it or not) and the right of the informed author to choose their own publishing path. I am an advocate of supporting authors once they have made the choice of path. I am an advocate for associations and organisations who support an author once they have made their choice in publishing. I am an advocate for publishing information and advice. I am an advocate for anyone, author or publisher, who challenges and presents innovative ideas to write, edit, deal and trade in an industry which changes by the month.
Most importantly, I am an advocate of the reader. They include the best writers, reviewers, editors, agents and supporters the world over. But singularly, the reader is the most powerful force in publishing. Each day, throughout the world, they put their hand in their pocket, and they make book publishing work. Dismiss, fool, confuse, ignore or treat them lightly, and they will in turn reward us with what we fear most – prosecuting written but unheard voices into the wilderness.
The first question I ask any author who contacts me and asks me for advice on self-publishing is – ‘why have you decided to self-publish?’ If the author has not engaged with the tried and trusted channels of mainstream publishing first, then, of course, I will strongly advise the author against going the self-publishing route. Would you buy a house if you knew fuck-all about finance and mortgages??
Here is my advice for authors looking at self-publishing I give out day in day out.
1. DO NOT self-publish and then think its ok to submit to mainstream publishers. It is not a good idea, and books already published elsewhere (by whatever means) are normally sold to publishers by skilled and experienced literary agents who do sell subsequent publishing rights.
2. For the most part – self-publishing provides only very modest financial rewards at best, even when an author can place books into physical stores. The personal rewards will most always outweigh the financial rewards. You must decide if this is to be your pleasure or your bitter destruction. I can deal with bitter self-published authors who are disillusioned—I have little time for traditionally published authors who are disillusioned but won’t try any other path.
3. Fiction is the hardest kind of self-published book to sell and does not best suit this type of publishing. Fiction is ephemeral and just doesn’t sit still like non-fiction which you can better nail down with a good marketing plan.
4. There are self-publishing successes, though, there are some who don’t like to focus or highlight attention on these. These successes are the exception to the rule. There are some very common denominators with authors of self-publishing successes. The books, if non-fiction, already have a known and reachable audience, and most often, the authors have a very high degree of business acumen and entrepreneurial skills. They have usually worked building up their own business and know a great deal about marketing. Fiction…? Yes. It can also find self-publishing success – but far less often than non-fiction, though, in my experience, I have found the same set of skills operating in the business world, as well as bucket loads of determination and resilience.
4. Exhaust every conceivable avenue of mainstream publishing before you consider self-publishing. You must understand and take on board any feedback which helps and guides you to perfect your book, rather than running to the self-publishing hills after a few rejections.
5. There is nothing wrong with self-publishing provided you have followed the above and understand why you are considering self-publishing and crucially you know what it entails and tailor your expectations to a reasonable and realistic level.

6. Never consider self-publishing to be the poor man’s entry into publishing. Publishing by whatever route is a business no matter how big or small. The author becomes a publisher and is selling a product and needs to consider competition, quality and market first and foremost. Self-publishing is not a process of ‘that ‘ill do.’

(This article was first posted in February, 2010.)

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