The Undeserved Stigma of Self-Publishing
Services like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing have provided a new generation of authors an amazing opportunity to be successful outside of the confines of ‘traditional publishing’ – yet there’s still a stigma about self-publishing. As more and more authors choose to spurn traditional publishers, many feel that this stigma is increasingly undeserved.
As my writing career has become more successful, I’ve been more and more open to telling people about it. I’m now a writer full-time, and it’s pretty exciting to be able to support my family from book sales. And yet, when I talk to strangers about this, I still often get a strange reaction from them.
“Oh, I’d like to write a book someday. But, y’know – like a real book.”
I always like to ask: “What do you mean a real book?”
“Oh, you know – from a publisher.”
It’s funny, but almost a decade after Amazon changed the publishing game completely with the introduction of Kindle Direct Publishing – allowing anybody to publish an electronic version of their book (and now, through a print-on-demand service, physical copies of their books) there’s still this presumption that a book published by a ‘proper’ publisher is somehow the only way to be a ‘real’ author; and that self-published authors lack legitimacy.
To a certain extent, this is to do with the perception of publishing electronic books instead of print books (a topic we’ve addressed before) but it actually extends further since it’s now easy and affordable to print physical copies of self-published books. The stigma isn’t so much about electronic versus print, but more ‘traditionally published’ versus self-published. And while I think this assumption has some legitimate origins, as the world of publishing grows and evolves, it’s become less and less accurate.
That’s why I think it’s time to break down why more and more authors are spurning ‘real’ publishing altogether – and why self-published books are just as ‘real’ as those produced by traditional publishing houses.
A History of Self-Publishing
To understand where the assumption that self-published books aren’t ‘real’ books comes from, you have to look back in time a little. The scary thing is – not very far.
It’s been less than two decades since advances in technology changed the publishing industry forever, and before that the game was played very, very different.
Before products like the Amazon Kindle, books were printed on paper. This is an expensive and time-consuming process. The cost of the paper and materials itself is quite significant, but the real expense was in laying out the books in a print-ready format and setting up the equipment to churn out hundreds of copies. In fact, compared to all that, the cost of what was actually in the book – the words themselves – was relatively inconsequential.
Publishers wanted to make a profit, of course, so they needed to balance printing out as many books as they thought they could sell, at a volume that made the print run cost effective. Paper and ink was actually a lesser part of that equation, so the more books you printed the lower the actual cost-per-copy tended to be. Most major publishers wanted to print around 2,000 copies of a book because that gave them a good chance on earning more from the sales of those books than they’d spent actually printing them.
But as anybody who’s published a book knows, shifting 2,000 copies of a book is easier said than done. Even in an era in which people had to physically go to a bookstore, and the variety of choice was much more limited, not all published books managed to sell enough copies to pay their way. This is why publishers tended to rely on new books by established authors – an annual release by James Patterson or Stephen King, for example – rather than take a gamble on the unknown entity that was a new writer.
It’s this which made breaking into the writing industry so difficult. You needed to get your manuscript in front of decision makers – which, given the hundreds of books publishers received every day, was easier said than done – and then you needed to convince them that it would sell enough copies to be profitable.
Authors like J.K. Rowling – who became the first billionaire writer – received dozens of rejection slips before their books were published; and the vast majority of aspiring authors simply gave up after a while. Writing was a very closed community; and there was enormous cachet in getting the ‘approval’ of a publishing house, and having them back your book all the way from manuscript to seeing it in a brick-and-mortar bookstore.
If a publisher was willing to take a gamble on your book, then you were a ‘real’ writer.
Of course, even back then that wasn’t the only way to see your book in print. If you couldn’t get your manuscript accepted by a publisher, you could always print the book yourself. The same printing companies that produced publisher-backed paperback and hardbacks would also print your own book…
…for a price.
Generally, they did this for the same price as a publisher paid. So if you were an aspiring author and had literally thousands of dollars on hand, you could pay to do a print run of your own book. This is something that soon earned the title of ‘vanity publishing’ because you were basically publishing a book to flatter your own ego.
The problem was – you were then left with hundreds or thousands of copies of your book, without the same network and distribution channels as mainstream publishers. That made it very difficult to actually sell copies; as the only thing as difficult as getting your manuscript accepted by a mainstream publisher was getting those printed books on the shelves of a brick-and-mortar bookstore. There was the assumption that if you had to pay to publish your own book, it probably wasn’t going to be that marketable; and it would be better to fill those bookshelves with more profitable books instead.
Of course, that’s not always the case. Some small publishers sprang up and operated successfully with niche titles. Other writers were successful with self-publishing too. Henry Rollins, the lead singer of the band Black Flag, printed and sold his own books and continues to be very successful at it. Then again, he has a target audience of fans ready to buy whatever he publishes, and that gives him an advantage most self-published authors didn’t have.
The Wild West of Self-Publishing
In the beginning part of the 21st century, advances in technology changed everything. Digital software and more advanced printers finally made it cost-effective to print small numbers of books, and something called ‘Print on Demand’ or POD popped up. This basically enabled you to upload a digital copy of your manuscript and cover and print copies as and when you wanted them – right down to a single copy, if you wanted. While it wasn’t super cost-effective, the overall price for a single POD book was roughly equivalent to a mainstream paperback; so it empowered authors for the first time to self-publish without making a huge cash investment first.
This service was fantastic for authors who were good at marketing and self-promotion, and many soon began printing books and selling them. However, the convenience also saw the arrival of predatory companies that followed the ‘vanity publishing’ model; and took advantage of many aspiring authors. The most famous, PublishAmerica, was famous for marketing themselves as a ‘real’ publisher, yet accepting any and all manuscripts sent to them. They’d then offer to ‘publish’ the author on agreement that the author would market their own book. In reality, all PublishAmerica did was offer Print on Demand services and charge a massive premium for any and all books the author ordered or managed to sell. Worse than that, they offered no proofing or editing services, and took ownership of the rights to the author’s book; basically ensuring that any book with ‘PublishAmerica’ listed as the publisher was considered trash.
And, in all honesty, that wasn’t an altogether unfair description for a lot of the books that they did offer to publish. One of the problems of opening up self-publishing to everybody was that many of the things that traditional publishers did well – for example, proofing and editing books prior to publication – were simply skipped entirely. That meant a self-published book was liable to be filled with typos and errors, lacking the professional polish of a ‘proper’ published book.
This is a situation that just grew worse when Amazon launched the Kindle – because now that authors could self-publish digital copies of their books, AND enjoy access to the world’s largest online marketplace it truly became the ‘wild west.’ People were publishing short stories, erotica and other books on Kindle without any form of proofing, editing or quality control. What’s more than that -they were selling copies of them. Self-published books were being listed alongside print and electronic books from traditional publishers; and when you compared the two it soon became very clear why traditional publishing still had value. Books – even electronic versions – that came from traditional publishers were generally going to have a professional layout, tight editing and a good cover and blurb. They were, for the most part, superior.
This is, I believe, where the stigma of self-publishing really started to develop.
Traditional publishers used to be the gatekeepers of getting your book onto the marketplace, but now they existed alongside self-published authors with no easy way to discern the difference before buying the book and being hit by the vastly different quality of reading experiences.
And I know this first hand, because I published my own books for the first time in 2011, and I too failed to proof and edit my books, and the covers and layout were amateurish. When I look back at some of the stuff I used to publish during my first foray as a writer, it makes me cringe.
The Evolution of the Art
Times change, though – and even in the space of the last five years, the publishing industry has become unrecognizable.
Now that self-published authors had the opportunity to sell their books in the same marketplace as traditional publishers, a few authors started to get smart. They invested time and money in professional covers, high-quality editing and did some slick marketing – and something incredible happened: A small but growing group of authors started to produce self-published books that were of equal or greater quality to traditionally published books.
On the digital bookshelves of Amazon, it became increasingly difficult to tell which books were self-published and which were published through a traditional publisher, to the point at which you now can’t really tell unless you dig deep into the book details and look it up yourself.
Amanda Hocking, author of paranormal romance stories, was rejected by countless traditional publishers until she started self-publishing. Her books were an instant hit – and she soon became one of the most successful young authors of her generation. E.L. James, author of the Fifty Shades… trilogy has a similar tale to tell, as does Robert Kiyosaki, author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad, who went the self-publishing route as early as 1997 and has now sold over 26 million copies of his books.
Today, a huge number of the most successful authors on Amazon are self-published – and their books are not just of equal quality to the books of ‘traditional’ publishers, they’re often better. The days of the wild west of self-publishing are over, and having the cachet of a publishing contract is no longer a reliable indicator that your books are ‘better’ than self-published novels. In fact, fiction sales for the top five mainstream publishers are declining – as more and more fictional authors self-publish.
In fact, that’s the ironic part of strangers telling me they want to publish a “y’know, real book.” It demonstrates how little they know about the publishing industry – because for more and more authors, the idea of going through a traditional publisher is just a bad bet.
Profit of Publishing
Since the contents of a book are the cheapest part of traditional publishing, it’s no surprise that those publishers generally only pay their authors 10-12% of the royalties for the books they sell.
On Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program, authors can receive as much as 70% royalties – which makes a massive difference.
Essentially, a traditionally-published author has to sell seven times as many books to make what a self-published author does; and that makes self-publishing more and more attractive for writers who know that they can sell books.
I myself have seen my writing career evolve and these days I invest in cover design, editing and marketing services – but even after all those expenses are taken out, I still make significantly more than 10% in royalties per book sale. I would arrogantly claim that my books are the equal or superior of anything published by a ‘traditional’ publisher, and I make a lot more money than I would if I did manage to get any of my manuscripts accepted. So when somebody says to me “oh, I want to publish a real book” I genuinely want to laugh in their face.
These days, in fact, self-publishing is one of the gateways to a traditional publishing contract. You used to have to send in your manuscript to an editor and hope they’d read it, like it and accept it. These days, those same editors pour over the Top 100 authors on Amazon and reach out to them – offering to give them a publishing contract in return for the rights to their books. Publishers are now trying to play catch-up with traditional authors; and it’s a game they’re losing year after year.
This is why publishers are focusing more on political, non-fiction and children’s books – which remain the profitable niches – and more and more fiction authors are publishing themselves. These authors are essentially becoming their own independent publishing houses – hiring cover designers and editors – and they just happen to be able to do it far better than traditional publishers.
Somebody once said to me “you only ever get offended by things that are true.”
Which is why I will never be offended when somebody tells me: “Oh, I want to write a book – but, y’know, a real book.”
I’m not offended, because I know that their opinion comes more out of ignorance than anything else.
I, and a growing number of fiction authors, publish books that are of equal or greater quality than traditionally-published books. I sell more copies of them, too – and I come home with a larger share of royalties. Self-publishing has allowed me to pay my mortgage, put food on the table and fill my car with gas; and with an average royalty rate of 10% that’s something very few ‘traditionally’ published authors can claim.
So the stigma of self-publishing is a misnomer. Self-publishing is the future. The idea that you are only a ‘real’ writer if some faceless editor from a publishing company deigns your book ‘worthy’ is as outdated as stores like Blockbuster or Borders.
The truth is, the readers are the only people whose opinions matter – and they’re increasingly demonstrating to traditional publishers that the only ‘real’ books are the ones that sell copies.