the great “self-pub vs. trad.-pub” debate

I was recently involved  (marginally and cautiously) in an epic comment thread with the title “why self-publishing might kill the industry”. The exchanges have been fairly heated, let me tell you! I think I made a few good points, although I am not as well spoken as some other posters. It was a good discussion at first, but devolved quickly into a war between self-publishing lovers and haters. I tried to keep myself respectable (and mostly succeeded).

One of the big reasons I hopped in to the discussion was I am kind of on the fence about trying to submit my latest story. I feel like I might finally be at a place with my writing where it would be picked up. Not definitively, of course, but I feel kind of okay about this one. So, I have considered it. And gone over a pros/cons list. So when this thread popped up, I jumped in to the fray.

The main points in favor of traditional publishing made in this extensive (205+ posts) thread are few:

1. Quality. Major publishers are putting out more quality work than self-publishers. If you can’t get traditionally published, you probably shouldn’t be published.

2. Reputation. To be accepted in literary circles, to gain respect as a writer, you must be published by a legitimate publishing house.

3. Assistance. Marketing, editing, cover art, and “author-branding” assistance is provided by the publisher.

I feel all three of these reasons are mostly bullshit. Reason #1 is less than half right. The best you can say is usually the quality of trad-pub is better, and that is because the self-pub market has a lot of duds which lower the average, even though they rarely sell and so hardly ever show up in searches. Reason #2 might be totally true, but who cares what elitist assholes think, anyway? Reason #3 is perhaps partially correct, though at a small genre press, I wouldn’t expect too much help beyond editing and cover art.

The benefits of self-publishing are multiple. I won’t even go into all of them, because honestly it’s too much. A few major self-pub bonuses: keeping control over all aspects of production, holding rights to your work, receiving a larger percentage of sale price, setting your price, writing whatever and whenever and however you want.

So, I’m kind of leaning towards self-publishing this story.

But part of me wants to know: if I submitted it, would be it accepted? And…okay…I do kind of want the respect of those elitist assholes. And I wouldn’t mind a smidgen of support, either. Ahh, decisions, decisions.

Well, back to that thread… I think the title should have been worded differently. The question really was not about self-publishing, but rather about e-books in general. The original poster was concerned that the massive influx of (mediocre/poor quality) e-book offerings would make people turn away from reading in general, and thus “destroy” the publishing/writing industry. I replied that this is false. People will not stop reading if they happen upon a bad book, they will simply be more selective the next time. E-books, I asserted, could only increase readership.

So then I was reading my local newspaper, and I see a letter to the editor entitled “My world of books is being dismantled! Help!” Written by a gal named Marsha, a 68 year old from my city, who complains that the library is losing books, in favor of e-books. She bemoans the loss of her precious paper tomes, and calls the kindle and the nook her “enemies”. I’d like to say her letter was ridiculous, but she made some fair points.

1. Paper books are physically pleasing. Well, you are right, Marsha, they are. Not only the feel and smell, the reassuring weight of them. But also the way that paper choice and font selection can be so specific to each book. Are the pages trimmed cleanly, in a precise smooth cut? Is the cut edge gilded? Or are the pages deckled, adding a rough textured accent to each sheet?

2. Paper books show their size at first glance. You know immediately if you are dealing with a novella, or a weighty epic. (Although, for the even-slightly-tech-savvy, this is easily noted of e-books as well)

3. Bookstores are nice, and they are disappearing because of e-books. Yes, true and true. But for me, bookstores were always a bit of a heartbreak. I could never afford all the books I wanted, and I could never have housed all the books on my wish list even if I’d been able to buy them. perhaps bookstores will adapt, become more a source for reference books and children’s books and periodicals? I hope.

4. Picture books are no good on e-readers. No argument. I have a real problem with children’s digital book offerings. They are not so great. And for kids, especially little kids, the picture book is a necessity. I have enough chewed-cornered, drool-marred, torn-up examples of board-books from my kids’ toddler years to prove this point. A good book is physically loved by children, and rightfully so. My kids routinely kissed and hugged their books, and sometimes even slept with them. They provided a tangible comfort no e-reader could ever duplicate.

5. People who cannot understand/afford e-readers are left out. Well, this is a good point, and though Marsha doesn’t make it directly, I think it is a big part of her argument. She fears the reduction in the quantity of physical books available at her local library. Going to the library, which used to be a simple activity equally accessible to people of any age, education level, and economic background, now requires computer assistance and a digital device. I can see the problem. Even more frightening to Marsha, an new all e-book library is supposedly going up in Bexar county, Texas. The times, they are a changin’.

I guess when I think about both of theses things (the letter and the comment thread) , what I am really left with is the high value we place on printed books. Even though the publishing industry has it’s faults, and even though e-books are undeniably awesome, there is a magic quality to a physical, printed on paper, professionally bound book. As if, by putting the effort forth to create such a thing, the value of the words contained within are increased, the merit of the author is attested to.

But what about all the books that are available in e-book form that never would have been printed? As a writer of m/m romance, I can say the availability of printed books in “my” genre has been historically scarce (or non-existent). So many great stories, in so many genres, are now available digitally when before, they’d never have been printed. Not because they are trash, but because they would not have brought in enough money to justify the investment a publisher would have made in them, or because they were too controversial.

One last note: In honor of Banned Books Week, let’s consider how e-books and self-publishing have helped with this age-old issue. How can you ban an e-book? Well, I guess you could outlaw it, but how could you stop people distributing it? I don’t think you could. Not when an author could simply e-mail a .pdf to ten thousand people. And self-publishing means that any message, any subject, no matter how controversial, could potentially be published. Even if (hypothetically) amazon refused to distribute it, an author could use the kdp formatter to create a .mobi file for free, and distribute it themselves. Something else to think about, for sure.

So the debate rages on. I am partial to e-books, for their convenience and availability, but I still go to the library a lot (geeky habits die hard), and I still have a lot of over-stuffed bookshelves.

7 thoughts on “the great “self-pub vs. trad.-pub” debate

  1. You have a good point on book banning & ebooks. They’d have to take our Internet away.

    And the existence of ebooks goes straight to one of the main points in the thread you started the post talking about, the “If you can’t get traditionally published, you probably shouldn’t be published” one. Not everyone who’s rejected by a publisher is rejected because the writing or story is bad. Many stories get (regretfully) turned down every day simply because the publisher doesn’t feel they can sell that story to their readers–maybe it’s the wrong genre, maybe it’s just “off” the publisher’s genre enough that it doesn’t fit the audience, maybe it’s too out there, maybe they just can’t see how to market it using their existing marketing resources. I’m glad publishers don’t try to publish works they don’t think that THEY can sell well: it makes good business sense and keeps the publisher in business so they can continue to put out the books they know they can sell and make money for their authors. Before ebooks, though, the fact that publishers wouldn’t “take chances” was a big problem for any author who took chances with their stories. As the many rejections of some now-classic books attests, it could be very hard to find the publisher willing to risk a lot of money on something they believed in but wasn’t a sure moneymaker. Ebooks have made it possible for authors to take chances where publishers can’t. It’s brought back novellas and serialized novels. (Some people don’t think the latter is a particularly great thing, but I enjoy serializations—it’s like watching a season of a TV show. You can read each part as it gets released, deliciously anticipating the next part, or you can wait till it’s finished, buy the “DVD,” and binge-read it.) It’s brought all kinds of stories and genre twists and subject matter that never would have seen the light of day if they’d had to go the traditional route. And since even digital-first publishers have businesses to run, overhead to cover, etc., self-publishing becomes where the real chances can be taken. (Are chance always taken? No; there’s a flood of fiction that mimics all the other fiction that’s come before it in the genre…but then there’s also a hungry audience that will eat that up too, because more of the same is exactly what THEY are looking for, and publishers can’t necessarily keep up.)

    And my final thought is, “What’s so great about the status quo [traditional publishing] that we have to protect it anyway?” Yes, it brings us books, and a good publisher does a lot for their authors in terms of editing and promotion, etc.—I don’t want to lose the availability of people/companies who dedicate themselves to helping birth a book and get it out into the world. But publishing-as-it-has-existed-in-the-past is not a sacred thing. Change is constant; you have to adapt, not cover your ears, dig in your heels, and cry blame.

    • “What’s so great about the status quo [traditional publishing] that we have to protect it anyway?”
      Yes, I think that was the real bones of the argument. So many authors have lived and worked their whole lives with the goal of being traditionally published. For them, acceptance by a publisher means success. So they defend the industry, and revere publishers-as-gatekeepers, because their entire career path hinges on the traditional publishing model. They see self-publishers as cheaters, and hacks.
      I agree, the publishing industry needs to adapt, and I hope it will. Self-publishing is great, but everyone is stronger with a partner. And now with Amazon becoming more and more a monopoly, it makes sense for us as authors to have an advocate in the world of bookselling who is concerned with our interests, and will fight for us. I think in many ways the smaller genre presses do this better than “the big 5” maybe just because they are more digital-focused, and are newer, and able to move faster.

      • The big dust-up between Amazon is Hachette makes me worry that Amazon could get too big for advocates to be able to fight for us. Amazon makes up a scary-large percentage of my sales. On the one hand, I’m thrilled and grateful that there’s a place so convenient and trusted to buy from that I can sell lots of stuff there. On the other, eggs/basket.

      • Absolutely, though I also know of a few authors who sell directly from their websites… which of course assumes you already have a big audience, but it’s an option anyway. I suspect more authors will go that route in the future. But one-click ordering and whispersync are hard to compete with 🙂

      • I have my books set up on PayHip and linked on the site for the press I self-publish under, but so far no one’s bought any there. I like that PayHip lets me make coupons, though, so it’ll be a good way to market books to newsletter subscribers.

      • Another thing as far as the promo coupons go is a site called “instafreebie” which I have used with some success. It lets you upload an epub of any book, and generates a promo code for you to share with whoever. Then people can go to the site, and download a drm copy of your book in any format. I plan to give out some copies that way at GRL as swag. I wish amazon had some kind of coupon system, that would be convenient.

      • Oh cool! I wish Amazon had coupons too. (I also wish they let self- and small publishers put up pre-orders, or at least let you set up your book with a release date, so you’d know exactly when it would go live, rather than this whole “sometime with the next twelve hours…maybe…” thing. And I get why they don’t let you edit your book when it’s in the review/publishing/updating process, but it would be really nice if they ~did~ let you, because I don’t know how many times I’ve realized an hour after submitting changes that I have another change to make to the listing. BUT…they’re miles better than Google Play, as far as interface and reporting and all goes.)

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