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Thursday, July 31

The Persistent Stigma of Self-Publishing

By Dario Ciriello

Part of the Indie Authors Series

Sometime last year, I was very surprised when, after I’d posted about my then-recent novel, Sutherland’s Rules on Facebook, a well-known pro writer friend chimed in that he’d read and loved it. A few months later, when another author I enormously respect told me how much she’d enjoyed the book, I was stunned.

My shock wasn’t so much that they thought the book was good: after years of writing and critiquing, of editing anthologies of other people’s work, and with a prior successful book (Aegean Dream) under my belt, I knew I could write decently. No, what astonished me was that either of these authors, both of whom are traditionally published, would even consider buying a book by a self-published author1.

Because whatever anyone tells you, self-publishing is still heavily stigmatized. True, things aren’t as bad as they were, but we’re still viewed by many as wannabes and second-class authors who aren’t good enough to interest a “real” publisher.

Then and Now–Roots and Realities

It’s not hard to understand the root causes of this prejudice. Before self-publishing mainstreamed with the advent of POD, we had vanity presses (we still do), a derogatory term for publishing houses that charge desperate authors stiff sums of money to produce and print small runs of books, typically in the 1,000 to 2,000 copy range. There was no screening, no editorial process, no proofreading (though some vanity presses would offer these for a price). Like the early rush of POD books that we began to see in 2009 or so, the vast majority of these books were truly awful, and their authors usually and deservedly ended up with a garage full of unsold books.

Five years later, the overall quality of self-published books has improved enormously. This happy event is largely the result of (i) the very lively and ongoing dialogue between self-publishers made possible by the internet, and (ii) competition in the marketplace. A handful of celebrity self-publishers, along with the growth of interest and coverage the field has received in the mainstream media, have helped.

But the stigma among the media, the reading public, and many of our fellow writers persists, and this legacy of prejudice against self-published work manifests itself in ways both obvious and subtle. Almost all mainstream reviewers (and most book bloggers, who ought to know better, given that they are self-publishing their reviews) still have firm policies against looking at self-pubbed work; many trad-pubbed writers still look down their noses and (openly or behind your back) sneer at their self-published peers; and bookstores—even those who brag about supporting local authors—rarely want anything to do with us. And of course publishers and agents have a strong vested interest in perpetuating the stigma.

I’ve experienced, and I expect you have, all these prejudices at first hand. Hundreds of dollars and dozens of hours spent on researching, crafting individualized covers, and mailing print ARCs (Advance Review Copies) to bloggers and reviewers who completely ignore you; trad-pubbed author friends who listen politely then change the subject when you talk about your newly-released book; and, worst of all, friends—sometimes close friends—who are regular, even passionate, readers and yet somehow never get around to your own novel.

This prejudice against self-published work is undeserved, injurious, and discriminatory, and it’s time to out it and bury it. And we, the self-pubbed community, have to roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves, because heaven knows nobody else is going to.

A Map Towards Change

It’s important we acknowledge that although trad pubbed books have the ability to be every bit as dull or bad as many self-pubbed offerings, trad publishing does offer the reader some assurance that the book has some semblance of structure and throughline, a reasonable approximation of good grammar and syntax, and formatting that probably won’t make your eyes bleed.

We also have to recognize that most self-published authors—and that likely includes friends of ours—are just not ready for prime time. Self- publishing, both digital and print, has become so easy, so affordable, and so damn alluring that it’s hard to resist2. Someone who’s been playing the piano for just six months wouldn’t dream of hiring out a theatre and performing before a large audience, yet there seems to be no such restraint when it comes to writing and publishing.

So task number one is to continually raise our game. Good writing aside, self- and indie- pubbed books don’t have to look as good as what the Big Five are releasing, they have to look better. We need to produce books that show an artisanal level of pride in every aspect of production, from editing to formatting to cover design. This needn’t break the bank, but it does require time, study, and thought. If we’re not prepared to do that, we only perpetuate the stigma.

Second, we need think hard and honestly about whether we’re ready as writers to put our work out there before the world, and whether our book itself is really polished and ready for public release. We need reality checks, benchmarks, and validations (see further resources, below).

Third—and this is the toughest one of all—we need to help our peers, watch out for them, and cover their backs. In the same way that we wouldn’t want a friend to drive drunk, we should look out for our more starry-eyed and impetuous friends.

This is hard to do. I’ve more than once been approached by writers who want feedback on something they’re getting to ready to self-publish. Three sentences in, I’m already frowning: what does one do in this situation? In some instances I’ve tried to tactfully let them know their writing isn’t ready, using a gentle, come-to-Jesus approach, and every time they’ve ignored me and published anyway—and in truth, if publishing had been so easy when I was an adolescent writing purple prose in the style of a hormone-crazed Robert E. Howard, I wouldn’t have listened to advice, either.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the best approach in these cases, if asked directly for an opinion, is to answer directly and honestly (with no intent to wound but only to protect) that they, or the work in question, aren’t ready and need to spend more time working on their craft or polishing the material—usually both. It may be helpful to point them to some outside articles (I’ve linked a couple below) on self-evaluating and considering their readiness to publish. More than that, and being a friend if things don’t turn out well, one cannot do.

Finally, we need to put our money where our mouths are and directly support self-publishers, starting with our own circle of friends and acquaintances. I’m serious: few people, including self-published authors, regularly buy self-pubbed books by people they know.

The why of this, given we’re talking buying an ebook that’s probably cheaper than a foofy coffee drink (and how hard do you think before buying one of those?) is unfathomable—what’s the big deal if you spend five bucks and then decide you don’t like the book? So what? We can begin to change things right here by promising to buy a self-pubbed ebook, preferably written by someone we know, at least once a month. And if it’s good, talk it up, and buy a copy for a friend or relative.

If we want to come out of the ghetto, we need to lead by action and example. Raise our game, watch out for each other, support one another, and hold our head high. Because feeling like a victim doesn’t help anyone.

Have you ever felt stigmatized for being a self-published author? How have you dealt with it?

Dario Ciriello is the founder and editor of Panverse Publishing, a small press with a mission to break the rigid barriers of category and genre and put story first. His Panverse Anthology authors have been nominated for both Hugo and Nebula awards, and the winner of the 2011 Sideways Award for Alternate History. On the novel front, his authors include T.L. Morganfield, Bonnie Randall, Doug Sharp, and Don D'Ammassa. His own work includes Sutherland's Rules, and the travel memoir Aegean Dream. Panverse is currently open for submissions.

Website | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound 


1 Technically, I’m indie- rather than self-published; but since I’m both founder and editor of Panverse, the indie press which publishes my work, along with books by various other authors, people still see me as self-published.

2 Heck, Amazon et al want you to self-publish, regardless: if they have a million books that sell just a hundred copies each in their lifetime (they do), and they make a buck off each... (It’s called “the Long Tail”).

Further resources
Lessons Learned From Self Publishing
Are You Good Enough to Self Publish?
So You Want to be Published?
Self Publishing Stigma--Do We Deserve It?
The Long Tail of Publishing
Smashwords Authors Publish 10 Billion Words