Self publishing: valid or vain?

San Ginés bookshop in Madrid, Spain
San Ginés bookshop in Madrid, Spain | PHOTO by FDV

Can self publishing save writers? Or should someone save writers from self publishing?

The world of self publishing still has a tacky sheen that hasn’t quite been rubbed away yet. For whatever reason, it’s hard to hear the words self-published and not imagine a deluded writer who thought they knew better than the people behind the rejection letters from publishers bundled together in a shoe box under their bed. A small cardboard box of misery and self-flagellation that should be disposed of, really. It’s always funny when the biographer of great writers goes through their collection of rejection letters and the words of the pompous, short sighted editors or agents who turned them down come back to haunt them again. But most people (sorry) who have been rejected by publishers and agents aren’t going to go on to publish a Booker winning novel about the melancholy of seashells as a metaphor for fragile human relationships or whatever, so really, burn the letters. Your biographer doesn’t need them because you’re not going to have one.

We need a Hilary Mantel to emerge from the self publishing world. She spent a long time as a ‘mid-list’ writer: never a best seller, but never in the remainders bin either. She sold enough and established herself, and her talent, sufficiently to build a loyal readership, and then unleashed Wolf Hall on the world and everyone went crazy for it, including the judging panel of the Booker (even though it was distinctly lacking in seashells).

Nowadays though, writers find it increasingly difficult to break through into the perceived legitimate publishing world. The mid-list author is a rare breed now, on the critically endangered list along with the black rhino and the Northern hairy-nosed wombat. There’s not much profit in books that sell only ok, so if the first novel doesn’t make it on to Richard & Judy’s book club then you’re dropped, it’ll be just you and your mum with 15 copies each. At least for the next few Christmases presents won’t be a problem. Ok, maybe it’s not as bleak as all that, but according to the Author’s Licensing and Collecting Society the average median salary for a professional writer is just £11,000. Not much, and of course even that sum isn’t guaranteed.

Self publishing is starting to become a little bit more acceptable – at least it’s stopped being called vanity publishing. When I worked in a bookshop, we would occasionally have self-published authors coming in trying to convince us to sell their books. They were viewed with pity; imagine them thinking they’re a proper writer just because they could afford to get a limited run of their book printed. They were usually sent away with some waffle about central ordering and ISBN numbers. Now it’s easier – you don’t have to face the contempt of a frustrated author in a Waterston’s polo shirt telling you to get in touch with head office. You just have to figure out how to get your book on to Amazon and convince people to download it. Of course then you have to face the reviewers, who will enjoy sharpening their teeth on the bones of your prose.

But is it the way forward? The Society of Authors have said that traditional publishing is no longer sustainable so perhaps publishing your own books is the way forward. It takes the power, and more of the royalties, back for the writer. It will of course all depend on the reading public; if they keep buying self published titles then maybe one day we’ll get our Hilary Mantel.

If you liked this you might like my posts on where ideas come from and novels on the big screen. You can also follow me on Twitter @SallyWJones.

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5 thoughts on “Self publishing: valid or vain?

  1. I think that its becoming increasingly more important. Publishers want an author who knows how to market themselves. With things like Amazon’s self publishing service, self publishing is easier. Success in self publishing then becomes the daunting and monumental task of social media strategy and self promotion.

    The way it used to be was: you write short stories, you get them published in a literary journal, you use that to sort of launch your career. But as you said, traditional publishing is no longer sustainable. Self publishing is a good way for people to show that they have a quality product and are capable of marketing it themselves without all the red tape of a publisher. It’s also easier to get some of those niche projects out to the public – the ones that publishers do very little of or are very specific about.

    But i understand. There are certainly people who write a crappy book and are also financially able to self-publish it. Those are the ones id worry about vanity from.

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    1. Hi Sean, interesting points. From what I read it looks like crowd funding is going on for books – especially genre fiction, and patronage is back in business, so to speak.
      I know a few people who have self published and they’re all talented (and a bit niche) but I think the general perception can be a bit negative.
      It’s definitely an interesting time to be a writer, or musician or any kind of creative really, I’m just not sure whether that’s interesting good or interestibg bad! If a sustainable new model emerges that means people can making a living from their work that would be great, especially if it gives a bit more control back to the artist. I think it’s a bit too soon to tell with self publishing – ultimately it’ll be up to the readers, if they keep buying it, it’ll get bigger but then some corporation is bound to try and leverage it for as much profit as possible.
      I think people will always have an appetite for art and literature, and people will always want to create it. Whatever happens I don’t think that will change!

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