Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Vanity, thy name is Self-publishing

A couple of years ago, I pulled my boss aside and told her that we were on the cusp of a revolution. She gave me a funny look, but was intrigued. I told her that we had all of the tools in place to convert college textbooks into an electronic format. This would allow us to store the books in a virtual warehouse, pull 100% of the profit and take control of every aspect of text book publishing for the university I work at. Her response was that it would still be a lot of work and that the key component would be the issue of editing, especially in an academic setting.

A year later, I was sitting with my writing/reading group and I blurted, "You know, as authors, we really have all of the control we need to self-publish and sell our books digitally." My statement was met with raised eyebrows and a succinct discussion, the gist of which was, "Most authors don't want that responsibility. They don't want to do it themselves."

I would propose that as time goes on, authors will be required to do more and more in terms of marketing themselves and their work. In fact, when I've had requests for manuscripts from agents, they have generally asked, "Do you have a Web site or can you create a site? Do you blog? How much can you market yourself? Etc."

At this point, you're probably asking, "What's your point, Neal?"

My point is that authors can't just sit back and be authors anymore. In this economic environment, the more you know about marketing yourself over the Web, the better off you'll be. I think that the days of an author simply writing a book and the publisher promoting that book are over, if they ever really existed at all.

But I'm actually going to take things further. My background is in digital media - I have a Master's Degree in Visual Communications with an emphasis in digital media. What does this mean? It means that I know most of what a person can know about building Web sites, digital documents, graphic design, design software, typography, etc. I also have quite a bit of experience in writing and editing, believe it or not. The thing is, I don't believe that I'm unique. I've seen too many creative people with the ability to cross-over to other areas. I've seen musicians transition into fine art. I've seen actors become good musicians and vice-versa. This leads me to believe that writers, as creatives, can cross-over into publishing, especially digital publishing.

The best thing about this is that the conditions have never been better for authors to self-publish in the digital domain. There are plenty of free tools provided by sites like Amazon and Smashwords that allow authors to put together e-books. Why bother submitting to agents or publishers and waiting on the rejection slip?

Some might say that the stigma of self-publishing is reason enough. Two-years ago, I might have agreed with that. I might have snickered at a local author who told me she or he had been published only to find out that this person had actually gone to a vanity press. I might have snubbed my nose at the idea. The climate is different, now. Big time authors like Stephen King were experimenting with self-publishing digital copies of their work. The Plant is one example of King's work that came out digitally in installments for .99 ea via his Web site and PayPal if I remember right. Christopher Paolini (Eregon) is another example of being self-published. Paolini's first 10k were sold as self-published work before a publishing house approached him and said, "Hey, we want to give you money!" Recent examples are Amanda Hocking (who friended me on goodreads.com :), J.A. Konrath and Seth Godin.

Please understand, these authors are very good writers and at this point, they really are the exception. However, I think that as time goes on, we'll see more and more of this.

Personally, I think the economy has caused a lot of publishers and agents to concentrate solely on looking for that next best-seller and only that next best-seller. If there ever was a chance for an author to be represented by an agent or published simply because the story was good and the writing was good, I think it's gone right now. Money is what makes the publishing industry go around and it always will be. If an agent or publisher doesn't think a book is going to be a NY Times Bestseller, it has very little chance of getting published. Because of this environment, there is no reason we shouldn't be self-publishing our work digitally.

Despite this power and the excitement that I have about this new frontier, I do have some caveats. First of all, the work has to be excellent, well-edited and ready-to-go. Secondly, you have to be willing to market yourself. You have to blog, you have to get the word out via Twitter and your own Web site. There is no getting around the work that you'll have to do. I never said it was easy. In short, you have to be the hardest worker, the best writer, best editor and you have to self-promote the hell out of yourself.

Secondly, you have to question yourself over and over as to whether or not it's the right choice for you. Is the work really good enough? Take the time to find out. Send out parts of it to people that you trust to give you an honest assessment. Get people to read it first then get constructive feedback. Test it out on sites like authonomy.com where people can read parts of your book and provide feedback and rate it by shelving it or backing it.

I still believe that standard publishing houses are necessary. They have the clout and the money to get your book out in a printed format, which a lot of people, myself included, still love. I still think that it's a wonderfully humbling exercise and experience to send your query letters out to agents and get rejected. It sharpens your skills and makes you a better writer.

The tools that we have available level the playing field in the digital arena. The difference will be that the quality of players will not be level and it's up to you to do the training and hard work necessary to be the best.

That's all for now.


  1. Awsome. Yes, the field for academics has changed dramatically in the last few years. I guess I always assumed that peer review was a part of the vetting of a new text. This could certainly be done electronically. So, with the exception of some faculty not wanting to respond to emails, your arguement is valid.

  2. @Jason - Thanks for the comment and for reading!


  3. My publisher friends tell me the "dirty secret" of the writing business is that unless you're one of the famous Steves or Toms or someone, you end up marketing your own book, even if it's published by a traditional publisher. Self-publishing (electronic or paper) is so accessible, affordable, and high-quality, that it really makes a lot of sense.

  4. @Mike - I agree 100%. I think that this is where things need to go and maybe, just maybe, it will give publishers a kick in the pants that says, "Hey, there are a lot of good authors out here that you're missing because you're trying to win the damn lottery. Wake up!"

    As authors, we've truly never had this amount of power over how our work is presented to the public and I think that we need to embrace it rather than fear it or snub our nose at it.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!