A while back, Indies Unlimited ran a post asking readers if there were topics they would like to see discussed here. The one I chose to address comes from Melody Stiles, who asks:
“Why is there still such a stigma, even among writers, about self-publishing?”
I’d figured I would take a stab at this one, as I can admit “self-publishing” does carry a bit of a stigma for me, or at least it does under that name. The way I see it, the present-day stigma is due to two main factors, one of which precedes “Indie” publishing, and another which is the result of contemporary factors. In the interest of not making this post overlong, I will pontificate about the here-and-now next Friday. This week, I’ll take a glance back at the world before Indie publishing.
Many, many moons ago, when Grunge Bands roamed wild and free and everybody – everybody – was wearing flannel all day every day, even in summer, I was an apple-cheeked college student studying English and Creative Writing. I came up as a writer in academia, and as a result I was infused with any number of beliefs, foibles, and feelings about the craft, business, and profession of writing. For one thing, I don’t view the much coveted “Trad” deal as some pot of gold at the end of any rainbow. When I think of a trad author, I don’t immediately think of Stephen King or Tom Clancy or any of the very few authors who reached the status of Rock Stars through writing. Instead, I think of every prof I had and every published author I met at a host of events and conferences, the vast majority of whom were still teaching full time or working another day job, in addition to being a published author. The exceptions to the rule are just that: The exceptions. If you are writing for fame and fortune, you are betting on odds too long to calculate, and you might just have better luck getting on a “reality” show or putting your high school garage band back together. Writing for a living can be done, but fame and fortune are a long shot. I still believe that now as much as I ever did, “Indie World” notwithstanding.
Another thing I graduated with was the aforementioned view of “Self-publishing” as something that was equal parts delusion and scam. Back in the 1990s self-publishing was considered synonymous with “Vanity” publishing, where the author pays a press to print X number of their own novel, then sells the book on their own, copy-by-copy, as the press has no marketing wing analogous to an actual publishing house. Self or Vanity publishing was viewed, by my academic circle, as an attempt to try and circumvent the “gatekeeping” function of traditional publishers and get a book directly to market. The self-publishers goal, really, was still to get that trad deal, and John Grisham was the example everyone knew. Everybody was familiar with how Grisham had driven from bookstore to bookstore with his trunk full of novels for years, parlaying a sale here and a sale there into the deal that made him famous. The odds of that working for a writer were, however, even longer than finding mega-success with a trad contract. If there were hundreds of mid-list trad authors for every Nick Hornby, there were thousands of self-published authors who never made a nickel for every John Grisham.
“Self-publishing” was thus not a viable alternative for the budding young author who was seeking some modicum of even reasonable success when I was first becoming a writer. It seems to me, however, that now the calculus is totally different. The e-book revolution has changed the entire equation by drastically lowering the up-front costs to an author putting their own book out, and more importantly, it has created a marketplace where self-published titles share virtual shelf space with the biggest releases from the Big Six publishers. Something like that that was unthinkable little more than a decade ago, when physical books on physical shelves across the country were the only game in town.
“Indie” publishing, as it is called, is a totally different animal than self- or vanity publishing was a few years back, but it does still carry the baggage of those earlier forms. For some people, a book is not really a book until someone in New York decides their company can make a buck off it. No matter how many worthless political screeds, 15-minute “celebrity” bios, and flat pieces of lookalike pabulum traditional publishing spews forth on a yearly basis, some will always see the imprimatur of a Big Publisher as a badge of quality, all evidence aside. Those people won’t change their minds, but they will die off, as the world is moving on without them.
That is all the baggage of “self-publishing as it was at the time. Next Friday, I’ll talk about the stigma some Indie authors are presently making for themselves.
In closing as usual, another genuine one-star book rating, from a real reader. This week, it is from a book that was originally self-published (and thus was written before later books).
“My last Grisham book. How predictable he became.”
– A Time to Kill by John Grisham
13 thoughts on “You Asked for It: Melody Stiles”
Great post. The stigma that some readers place on self-publishing is something self-published authors really need to understand if anything is to ever change with it. Looking forward to next week’s continuation!
I still wonder if readers care about an imprint. If the book is good, do the look to see if it’s from Harper Collins, or Perry Wilson Books?
I’m with you on this coompletely. I think the “stigma” is a myth. Something writers who are having trouble selling, or making their publishing decision cling to. There authors out there selling a half million books a year on their own labels. If there is a “stigma”, why would that be.
This is nothing that writers “need to understand” (what will you do about it if you do?) it is something indie writers need to ignore. Anything like that is passing away with time.
There actually was a prejudice among agents and publishers at one time, but very definitely no longer.Readers have always bought SP books if presented with them.
It’s very important not to get hung up and brought down by this, or bewailing all those other writers who are out there besmirching the indie brand.
What you need to do is work on having something worth buying and figuring it how to get it where people will see it.
I love your answer so far, so thank you from me, the woman who posed the question. In response to whether readers still care about an imprint, I have to be honest and say I didn’t write the question from that perspective. I wrote it from my own writer’s perspective. However, the question of what readers care about is quite valid and I am grateful for the perspective of both PA Wilson for asking it and for Ed’s response to my original question.
Thanks for the question, Melody, and I should add that I agree with PA about the “average reader” not caring nearly as much about imprints as we might tend to think. All of us as writers are sort of “Indside Baseball” with info about the publishing industry, but the average person on the street may not have ever heard of “the Big Six,” either together or individually. Penguin may sound familiar, but Hachette or the Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group (Macmillan)? Who but writers even knows that stuff? 😉
LOL, Ed. I agree in large part with what you’re saying. I will only add the caveat of what 100% of ordinary readers say to me when they find out I am writing a book, “Really? Wow! So, do you have a contract from a publisher and an agent and all that?” So, yes, while most people just go to Amazon or wherever to buy a book for their e-reader these days and don’t seem to care where that book came from, it is my belief that there remains a perception that “real” books come from “some place in NYC”. Thanks so much for the truly fascinating history of publishing you provided and I am very much enjoying this discussion. I look forward to your posting next Friday:)
Exactly. What is is, they walk into a bookstore, or see a newspaper review or see something flashed in their face on amazon…and it’s from a big outfit.
They don’t know or care who published it. It’s either on their radar and fits their tastes or it isn’t.
Ed, I think you’re right that the “self-published” stigma will die off eventually. At least, I hope you’re right. 😉
I wonder what Grisham would do if he were coming into the writing business today.
I think what Melody said about ordinary people’s perceptions is spot on. Readers may not know or care who published their ebook but I think they still believe the myth that traditional publishers ‘know best’ and so are the arbiters of quality. This is the flipside to the gatekeeper issue and may be tied to the perception of value for money. When books cost $20 or more then you want to know that what you are buying is going to be worth it.
I think we’ll only know that the stigma has worn off when the average price of indie ebooks rises above $5!
Thank you for seeing my point. Not sure if anyone has seen the Kickstart/Plympton site. It’s very interesting and does relate to this conversation. It seems they are setting themselves up to be the publishers of indie authors willing to write serial fiction, paying indie authors for their time and only asking for money from readers and other supporters. Just saw it yesterday and it has certainly resulted in a lot of conversation in this house:)
A good question well met, Ed, and I look forward to next weeks segment.
Keep ’em coming, McNally. Always nourishment for cogitation. 🙂
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