Once upon a time — not too long ago — nobody would take you seriously as a writer if you were self-published. As one writer recalls:
In this–the age of the Selfie–when Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and more reveal to the world any- and everything about you, it’s hard to remember the stigma that was once attached to self-publishing. But it was very real. By contrast, to have a book legitimately produced by a publishing house in the 20th century was not just about having copies of your work bound between smart-looking covers. It was also metaphysical: you had been chosen, made intelligible and harmonious by editors and finally rendered eligible, thanks to the magic that turns a manuscript into a book, for canonization and immortality. You were no longer a kid with a spiral notebook and a sonnet cycle about Sixth Avenue; you were an author, and even if you never saw a dime in royalties, no one could ever dismiss you again as an oddball.
A writer of integrity, a “real” writer, was one who submitted herself to the arduous process of 1) obtaining an agent (kind of the way actors seek agents to represent them), 2) having the agent submit the book to the publishers, and then 3) winning a contract from the publisher.
It wasn’t an easy process. Getting an agent was, and remains, very difficult because the agents are looking for a sure thing — a best seller or, at least, a book that will make a lot of money. Editors at publishing houses are similar fixated on what they hope will be the newest greatest thing. So, before they can get a publishing contract, writers have to please both an agent and an editorial board.
Self-publishing was for failed writers who, in desperation, had to resort to printing the book themselves. These writers paid specialty publishers — generically called the “vanity press” — to print their books. The fee for getting this done might run anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000. And then there was the cost of marketing.
The problem with marketing a self-published book was that a) nobody would review it, b) no book stores would carry it, and c) most readers weren’t interested, since the book wasn’t legitimately published.
In the old days, publishers printed anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 books for a book’s first run. That meant the publisher had to store these books until they were bought. Storage and transportation cost a lot of money. This was necessary because typesetting, printing, and binding were time-consuming — the publisher had to make these books ready well in advance of their release.
Thanks to digital technology (high-quality inkjet printers and inexpensive computer typesetting), publishers can now print high-quality books quickly and easily. So, print-on-demand means that a publisher prints only the books it needs to meet current sales.
As a result, print-on-demand eliminates the need for warehouses to store books and the transportation and labor to move those books from the printer to the warehouse. Now a publisher has only to print what it needs and ship those out to the buyers. This has made book production much cheaper and therefore much more accessible to small publishers.
Desktop publishing is nothing more than printing out books using a simple computer and attached printer. Thanks to typesetting software like InDesign, just about anybody with a computer and printer can become a publisher now. This technology led to a revolution in the 1990s that gave rise to many small presses who filled in the gaps left by the big publishers when the big publishers consolidated and dramatically narrowed the market for writers seeking publishers.
The digital revolution centers on the fact that the internet offers information, art, education, music, software, training, technology and so much more for free. Free or cheap e-books have been part of this change. The proliferation of digital books has allowed almost anybody to get in on the publishing game.
On the internet you can post book reviews you’ve written, chapters from your novel, blog entries about the literary scene: you do this for free and you offer it for free. The result is that we now have a huge fund of free writing online. This has democratized “publishing” by making it a much broader, looser enterprise.
Things changed dramatically in 2007 when Amazon made it possible for any writer to publish an e-book and sell it online. Sony had pioneered the technology several years earlier. Barnes & Noble released their Nook in 2009. There are now several e-reader formats that writers can use to publish their work.
Traditional (print) publishers were slow to accommodate e-books. They didn’t quite know what to do with them or how to market them. But Amazon did: through its Kindle, Amazon capitalized on the e-book, promoting digital publishing heavily and offering e-publishing services to any and every writer.
There are now over one million e-books on the market.
Despite the growing popularity of e-books, they have not overtaken — much less killed — print books, as many observers predicted. Recently, e-book sales have flattened, while print book sales have increased. At this point, it appears that the e-book will simply be an alternative to print books, not a replacement. (There is some suggestion that e-book readers are a distinct group who prefer digital media over traditional media; this makes e-books a niche market, not a mass market.)
Virtually every writer who publishes a traditional print book also publishes an e-book version. But these two forms of publication are not equal. E-books stand well below print books in the estimation of many readers and critics.
For example: many professional book reviewers do not review books that are available only as e-books because a great number of these are self-published. Often self-published books are not subject to the same stringent publishing standards as traditionally published books. So there remains a stigma attached to e-books, as there is generally for self-published books. It’s still rare for a self-published book — in print or in e-form — to get a review from a professional reviewer.
What is more, most bookstores will not stock a self-published book. One reason for this is that the market is already so glutted with traditionally published print books, bookstores can’t even fully represent those, much less shelf books by self-published
But attitudes towards self-publishing are changing, as we know. There have been some remarkable success stories about self-published writers. “50 Shades of Gray” is one such example: a “fan fiction” novel written by a writer who had never been published previously. Sales of her self-published book went viral, and then a “legitimate” publisher picked it up. Then she got a movie deal and so on.
I know of a writer who self-published two e-books on Amazon that did so well, a traditional print publisher picked her up. And now she’s regularly publishing print books (and e-books) with that publisher.
But we have to be real about this. Statistics show that such success stories are rare. Sure, it’s worth dreaming about but let’s be honest too: a lot of self-published writing isn’t ready to be published. If I’d had the opportunity to self-publish my writing when I was twenty, I might have done it. But the truth is, my writing wasn’t ready for the world at that time.
Had I published my writing when it wasn’t ready to be published, would I have regretted it years later? Yes, of course. So, you might understand why the traditional method of publishing is still considered the gold standard: it demands that writers work long and hard until they can get an agent and/or get the attention of professional publishers.
That said, many writers have indeed worked long and hard and feel that it’s time to put their writing out in the world. They may be frustrated with the constraints of traditional publication. So they go for it on their own. You might be one of these writers.