It used to be called ‘Vanity Publishing.’ The term conjured images of would-be writers who couldn’t write very well at all, pandering to their own egotistical and self-delusional ideas that they could, by publishing their own work. There were fears that the market would be flooded with inferior quality, badly written books that de-valued the profession and made it all the more difficult for good authors to be recognised.
If we look at the book industry now (which includes fiction, non-fiction, prose and poetry, novels and short story collections) it is probably true to say that it is over-saturated. This relates to both published books and self-published books and the label of ‘badly written’ could probably be hung on both. That’s what happens whenever there is a ‘glut.’
The necessity for self-publishing was provoked by several factors but possibly the most significant was the way that an oligarchy of ‘western’ publishing houses were able to determine who would be read and who wouldn’t, simply by virtue of what they were prepared to publish. It was not so long ago, relatively-speaking, that ‘minorities’ including women and non-white writers struggled to have their literary ‘voices’ heard especially if their work articulated their fight. Independent publishing houses were established as a direct response to this, where the founders had the means and the finances, to address this situation, but even within such noble enterprises there was the potential for ‘elitist’ or ‘separatist’ agendas to reject the work of anyone who did not quite fulfill their ideals.
In 1995, Jeff Bezos launched his online bookstore Amazon.com and in so doing, changed the dynamics of the publishing world forever. His concept legitimised self-publishing and relegated the term ‘vanity’ to the back seat of the discourse of publishing. Two decades on, there are millions of self-penned books uploaded to the site. This hasn’t hurt the publishing giants; they continue to vertically-integrate and consolidate their media companies and products (in the interests of more audiences and bigger profits) so that they can benefit from their best-sellers, especially those that become films with popular music scores. So there is room for two kinds of players.
The big question is, how do those self-published books square up to those that have been published by one of the giants? Do they have a monopoly on quality as well as popularity? In this interesting article (2013) Dr Jim Taylor pointed out that ‘despite their warts, the publishing industry does serve a valuable role as an initial arbiter of literary quality (however flawed it may be). Books that are accepted by a genuine publisher go through a rigorous (though obviously imperfect) multi-layer vetting process that includes an agent, an editor, several outside reviewers, an editorial committee, a sales and marketing committee, and often the publisher him or herself.’
He also reminds us that ‘a few self-published books have had great success and the authors have since received contracts from established publishers, for example, Amanda Hocking, who has sold more than 1.5 million copies of her self-published books, and E L James, the author of the Fifty Shades trilogy. Additionally, established authors, including David Mamet, have chosen to self-publish as a means of gaining more control over their works and keeping more of their profits. Many famous authors started out self-publishing their works including John Grisham, Jack Canfield, Beatrix Potter, and Tom Clancy. Here’s a factoid: Twelve publishers rejected J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book before she found a relatively small publishing house (Scholastic isn’t small any longer!) willing to give her a chance. And you know how she’s done since! There are, I’m sure, many great works of literature that have not seen the light of day because of the myopia of the book industry. And self-publishing gives those works a chance to shine.’
There are some important messages that can be taken from what he said. If you are going to self-publish then you really should make sure that your work has been scrutinised through all of its edits. An appraisal of some of the collections of self-published poetry out there, for example, demonstrates a misconception about what ‘poetry’ actually is. It certainly is a very maligned discipline, sometimes thought of as the poor relation to prose. In many ways the comparison is the same as the way painting has been privileged over photography. A lot of the bad press, in the case of poetry, is simply due to a lack of understanding but some of it, worryingly, is because there are too many self-proclaimed poets out there who have not studied the various forms of poetry and do not follow their rules. Even blank and free verse should be recognisable by its conscious deployment of form, language, metre, stress, syntax or literary devices, but for some it is the license to re-package and re-present prose as poetry just by breaking paragraphs down into uneven lines. When the art and quality of poetry is undermined so is its reputation.
If you are undeterred by the challenges that face you as an authorpreneur (the latest buzz word in the self-publishing industry) who wants to self-publish or use an independent publisher to facilitate the production and distribution of your self-published book then this article is really worth reading: https://www.book-editing.com/how-to-self-publish-a-book. It is very comprehensive and covers every process, starting with the questions: When to Self Publish? and When Not To Self Publish?
Few writers who self-publish are going to hit the literary jackpot and be subsequently picked up by a publishing house that can deliver the kind of distribution that self-publishing just can’t achieve. Self-published authors are unlikely to become rich, let alone earn a living from doing it this way but, as so many who have done it this way can attest, there is an unquantifiable joy in seeing their work in print and online (on sites such as Amazon Kindle) as the tangible evidence of all their hard work and creativity. For some it is even their legacy.
In addition to using an editor to make sure that your writing holds up to grammatical and presentational/format scrutiny (and assuming you have studied the form you write in and know it really well) then you could consider getting peer reviews of your work-in-progress. This is what we do at The Scribblers of Brevard. We are home to several published and self-published authors and we are very diverse in the forms, styles and genres we write in. This guarantees that at any meeting, you will find there are people there who have the knowledge, skills and experience to be able to appraise your work as you present it.
Our next meeting is on Saturday February 22nd, 2020 at Eau Gallie Library, starting at 9.30 a.m. for convivial chat, nibbles and coffee with lots of support and encouragement thrown in. Come and join us!