Sunday, November 14, 2010

Self-publishing and bad advice

Self-publishing has its place. Some writers, like J. A. Konrath, have enough of a readership that they don’t need a publisher’s marketing or distribution channels, some writers have niches to tap and some just want to print and sell a few dozen copies of their books. There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing per se.

But it is not right for everyone. And when I see any writer being urged to do it, without thought for genre or sales or what that writer wants to accomplish eventually… well, I have to say something. Or write a blog post.

Henry Hutton, the person giving this terrible advice was one of the founding members of Lulu and now owns “a self-publishing agency” called Publish and Sell Enterprises, so he has a vested interest in getting writers to self-publish. And this is what he has to say…

What advice would you give to authors considering self-publishing?

Do it, and don’t wait. You’re only harming yourself if you do.

Supplies are limited, call now!

Talk about pressure. Working to improve your craft and trying for commercial publication is actually hurting you. Who knew?

I’ve seen too many authors that have waited years to garner a publishing deal, without success.

And I’ve seen too many authors who rushed their early efforts and learning experiences into print through self- or vanity publishing. Or who had manuscripts with real commercial potential, but wasted this and couldn’t get a publisher to accept a reprint.

Saying that people wait years for a publishing deal is like claiming that people wait years for a medical degree. That’s rather the point. I don’t want a doctor who graduated after six months.

By self-publishing, authors - especially first-time authors - will better understand the process and challenges of publishing.

How so? Does self-publishing teach them to write query letters or synopses or back cover copy? Does it teach them to self-edit? What about cover art? How do they go from uploading a book to Lulu to learning about marketing and distribution and returns?

Self-publishing to learn about commercial publishing makes no sense. Wouldn’t it be easier to research the “process and challenges of publishing” without trading one’s rights away for it?

They’ll learn what works and what doesn’t, and actually become better positioned - through the self-publishing success - to get picked up by a traditional publisher.

Assuming they have a success. The odds are heavily against them.

And if they don’t succeed, why would the commercial publisher (“traditional publisher” is a term usually used by vanity presses pretending to be otherwise) be interested?

Or, alternatively, they’ll find their niche and remain as a self-publisher to maintain control over their book and income. It can be a win-win, but you won’t know if you don’t try.

Or, alternatively, they’ll spend a great deal of time and effort trying to achieve sales outside their pocket market, only to run up against all the barriers – professional reviewers don’t touch self-published books, distributors won’t take them, stores won’t carry them, etc. And then at the end, they won’t have a career in writing. They’ll have one book which sold an average of 75 to 100 copies, and broke even if they were lucky.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I can do without that kind of “control”.

Thousands of people are self-publishing every day.

If thousands of lemmings were leaping into the ocean, would that make it a good idea?

And if we’re going by what thousands of people do, well, thousands of people query agents too.

Their book is being purchased, it’s being read, and the author is receiving feedback. Yes, sometimes the feedback is negative, and sometimes the book wasn’t as good as it should have been. If that’s the case, it’s better to have a small self-publishing failure (that you can quickly recover from) than a failure with a traditional publisher. That’s almost impossible to recover from.

Where to start?

Firstly, what is a “small” self-publishing failure? One where you only lose a few hundred dollars buying your own books and self-promoting, or one where you can’t get any publisher to accept reprint rights? Only writers can tell how quickly they’ll recover from these.

Secondly, when commercially published books flop, writers don’t say, “Now I shall hang up my quill and never write again, because it is almost impossible to recover from this debacle.” They submit the next manuscript under a pen name. And they get to keep the advance anyway. I’m sure it’s “almost impossible” to recover from getting thousands of dollars that you can keep even if a book flops.

Finally, I don’t like scare tactics, and this particular answer of Mr Hutton’s had them from beginning to end. It’s one thing to promote your own company’s products and services, but it’s another thing to misinform or try to alarm people into buying them.

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rodgriff said...

Whilst it is true that some of the people promoting self publishing have a vested interest, it is also true of the mainstream publishing industry.
Agents virtually never explain themselves and publishers leave it all to agents. When I get a letter that just says, "This is not for us - keep trying." I have no idea whether it means we don't accept authors who are 65 or older because they won't live long enouh to make us any money. Or maybe - we saw something similar last week, or a hundred other meanings, including "What a load of junk".
Why not be honest instead of evasive.
By behaving the way it does the industry can get away with a bunch of lazy self fulfilling prophesies along the lines of "If your book does not get taken up then it must be bad" and the implied inverse, "All published books must be good".
You don't have to read too many books to know that the later is not true, so the former is probably fasle as well on some occasions.
Why do I call that a vested interest - because these sorts of attitudes and responses make it all too easy for both agents and publishers to carry on as usual. They are doing nothing to improve the standard of books, so not serving their customers at all. In fact if they gave useful feedback and as a result the general standard of writing got better, then it would make their job harder. They probably only do have the time and energy to pick a small percentage of what gets sent - so if it was all much better it would be harder to pick. So, paradoxically they have a vested interest in getting a large amount of rubbish.
There are two routes out of this for a writer, one is paying book doctors and others to advise and the other is self publishing. They both seem to cost about the same and no one appears to collect any data to tell a new writer which is best.
What would be good to see is some real objectivity and better still some data. All appear to be sadly lacking.
So is this just sour grapes on my part? I hope not. I'd be the first to accept that my books could be better - show me a book that could not be improved. I will continue to work at it, mostly because I love doing it but it would be really nice to see some more openness in the book trade.
I doubt if any other industry could get away with being so rotton to the people who actually do the creative work.

Donna (Bites) said...

Wow. That guy's a doink. Talk about trying to shill to disenfranchised writers. I think I just died a little on the inside.

Renee Miller said...

Great post. I have seen self published authors succeed, but those successes are very few and honestly, 'success' is subjective. Are they able to quit their day job? No. But then many traditionally published authors can't do that either.

Either way, great thoughts and tips here. I especially like the point about waiting years to publish. Very true. It should take a long time to publish. In that time you learn, grow and become better so that your first novel is the best writing that you can put out there. I'll tell you, I am so glad my first novel didn't get published. I'd be hiding under a rock somewhere if it had. It was terrible. If I'd self published that I'd have ruined my chances for traditional publishing, or at least seriously limited my options.

The publishers and agents refused it because I wasn't ready. And I must point out, for ever vague, form-type rejection I get, I also get one that encourages me.

Lisabet Sarai said...

There are good reasons to self-publish and some not-so-good. If your work is highly unusual, falling outside the bounds of popular genres or perhaps controversial in topic or style, self-publishing may be an appropriate path. And a well-established author who already has crowd of readers may well want to self-publish, in order to keep a bigger piece of the pie.

Desperation or frustration, though, are not good motivations. Self-published first novels tend to disappear into oblivion - even if they're exceptional. I have a friend with a wonderful novel (called "The Ancestors of Star" - you can read a review on my website). He published it with Lulu and has barely sold any copies, despite its high quality.


Anonymous said...

@rodgriff: The reason they don't say anything more than "not for us" is because they're busy. They don't have time to write a personal response to every submission they get, especially if that submission isn't something they wanted to represent. I'm sorry you got burned, but they aren't being evasive, they're just trying to get through the hundred e-mails in their inbox. As someone who is both a writer and slush pile reader, I know what you mean that it would be nice to know, but it's just not a viable option, most of the time.

Marian Perera said...

Hi rodgriff, thanks for commenting! A few points in your post that I'd like to address...

1. An agent might not be honest and say that a query stinks because are some crazy writers out there. Some people don't even take polite rejection well, let alone blunt criticism.

2. About agents giving useful feedback... let's assume you're a successful agent. Each day you get 100 queries. Of those, 90 (and I'm being generous here) are poorly written, not in a genre you represent, etc.

Now, let's assume you're nice enough to offer personalized feedback to all 90 of those writers, and that it takes you two minutes to read each letter and write a response. That's 180 minutes, or three hours.

That's three hours of work for which you don't get paid and for which you are highly unlikely to be compensated (since you're nlot going to represent a writer who, for instance, writes in a genre you don't handle).

In your line of work, would you be willing to do three hours of unpaid overtime each day?

And what should the agent do if half those writers reply, asking for more feedback?

Rejection hurts, especially form rejections - but I don't see too many viable alternatives. An agent or publisher doing their job and rejecting the 99% of submissions that don't meet their standards (and that figure is from Teresa Nielsen Hayden) is serving their customers.

You're quite right that they can also do this by helping and educating writers - but I think there are more effective ways to do so than by personalized responses along with rejection. For every writer who benefits from this, there are two or three who take it as an invitation to start a dialog, change the agent's mind, vent about the publishing industry, etc.

3. If a writer doesn't want to deal with agents or major publishers, there are other options - for instance, a reputable small press (or a university press, for certain kinds of non-fiction). It isn't just the majors or self-publishing.

4. Finally, I don't think the publishing industry is rotten to people who do creative work. Tough, yes. Nasty or dismissive, no. To me, rotten would be belittling or cheating a writer. Not offering feedback to a writer who isn't a client or under contract... I'd love to get it, but there are reasons why it doesn't usually happen.

Marian Perera said...

Donna - Yes, why not just mention the benefits of self-publishing rather than making it seem like the only workable option?

In the interview, he also claimed that self-publishing was a very viable path to commercial publication - "We saw this happen all the time at Lulu. Publishers would look at our top seller list and contact those authors". And yet he didn't mention the names of any such bestselling books or authors.

Renee - That's exactly how I feel about my first novel too. If it had been published, I would cringe each time someone mentioned it. But because it was rejected so many times, I kept researching and correcting my mistakes and writing.

Marian Perera said...

Lisabet - Great points. Those authors who do well with self-published fiction either had a readership in place or are incredible marketers or both, like Konrath.

I read your review of The Ancestors of Star and the books sounds both unusual and intriguing. That's not a sub-genre I usually read, but there's definitely a market for it. That's one reason to be with a publisher - they know of these markets and can access them more easily than writers can.

Thanks for commenting!

LM Preston said...

I have to weigh in here as I've personally met and garnered relationships with successful self-published authors who's great sales efforts and product garnered them publishing deals with larger publishing companies. I believe before anyone does anything with their work, they need to know what their expectations are and realize that publishing is a 'sales' based business. If they don't do research, learn the business, set realistic expectations and enjoy selling their own work - then don't do it. But I personally know 4 authors in which this was the best thing they did for their writing careers.

Mary Witzl said...

You write so well, so sensibly, logically, and persuasively. But I almost wish I hadn't clicked on that link in your response to Rodgriff. I can't imagine indulging in that sort of hatefulness and rudeness just because I couldn't get a story published in a flipping anthology.

I would really, REALLY like to live in a world that was 99.9% idiot free. I think I could take the .1% just for amusement value, but the proportion of idiots nowadays is way too high.

Marian Perera said...

Hey L M,

Totally agree with this : "I believe before anyone does anything with their work, they need to know what their expectations are and realize that publishing is a 'sales' based business."

This morning I checked out a writer's website after he asked for help regarding a lack of sales of his self-published book.

The website was a complete turn-off. The writing may have been brilliant - I can't tell, because neither blurb nor excerpt were provided - but the marketing aspect needed a lot of work.

Still, as you said, there are self-publishing successes. But those tend to be the writers who went into it knowing what to expect and what to do.

Marian Perera said...

Hi Mary - Thanks! Sorry about the link; I should have included a warning. I've read of cases where authors have threatened reviewers and booksellers too, unfortunately.

Even before we opened our doors, someone wrote to say, "I have many friends in that area, and I'm going to send them all to your store to buy my books. But if you don't carry them, they'll never shop there again."

I just wondered, "What were you thinking?" (or drinking)