Monday, 30 November 2009

Max Dunbar Is My New Best Friend...

...because of a single line in an article of his in 3AM Magazine called The Great Underground Myth: Why Self Publishing Doesn’t Work.

"Jane Smith is a lonely Cassandra in a sea of frothing bullshit."
I have to admire his perception. The rest of the article isn't too bad.


Caroline said...

Oh, how I wish he was my new best friend too. He's a clever man x

Lauren Ruth said...

Great write-up! Congrats.

A while ago I wrote on my blog that self-publishing websites are simply a giant copy machine in a tie. It appears that Dunbar is in agreement. While I can't ignore the fact that some self-published books are marvelous, I think readers lean toward books produced by mainstream publishing houses for the same reason editors lean toward agented authors: someone who knows what they're doing liked it.

In terms of sales, when an author is pitching his or her own book to booksellers or readers, it can't be ignored that the author is "tooting his own horn" while a publishing house pitching its latest projects is promoting a piece of work that showed enough promise to be agented and then had enough merit for the marketing, publicity, sales and editorial professionals of the publishing company to believe it would sell and sell well.

From where I'm sitting, it appears that the fact that all these schooled and experienced professionals saw merit in a book serves as its first five-star review, even if the readers are only subconsciously treating it as such. And a self-published book, more often than not, lacks that initial oomph.

Lauren Moriarty

Jarred McGinnis said...

I hate being a me-too-me-too but Max hits the nail on the head when he points to laziness. The urge to self-publish comes from that inner-brat that stamps his feet and whines, "but it's really really hard to get published".

Ah, but some much sweeter the victory when it happens by one's merit rather than lucre.

Jane Smith said...

It's difficult for me to comment about self-publishing without coming across as anti-self-publishing, which I'm not: it's great for the right author and book, but most of the time it's an indulgence, and an expensive mistake.

I have a great deal of admiration for the writers who do it well; but I get so frustrated when I see writers going ahead with it for what are clearly the wrong reasons. It's awful. Eugh.

Sally Zigmond said...

He's right. You're right. Of course. But, I agree, it's not easy to convince those who won't listen. Too many people would rather cocoon themselves in the soft, warm comfort of their own delusions than face the icy winds of reality.

I have no animosity whatsoever towards these people--or those who know exactly what they're doing and why--but against those who cynically feed them these delusions. I'm reminded of the White Witch when she fed Edmund that delicious Turkish Delight. Then again, it can also be a case of the blind leading the blind.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article. I'm thrilled Max is working to dispel definition of "self publishing." We can thank the vanity presses for muddying the waters in their ongoing effort to make authors feel better about their publishing choices. Amazing how a misdirection can change someone's perception - regardless of whether it's true or not.

Anonymous said...

Jane, when I read the back-jacket copy on the self-pubbed books you review, one thing that strikes me is how often (not always) the author praises him/herself to the skies... not the work, but the actual brilliant human who's perpetrated it. And how this often seems inversely proportional to whether the author in fact knows how to write.

Which is a way of saying that it seems like many will heed the warnings about self-publishing, and those that don't may have an I-sight problem.

Joseph said...

Max Dunbar wrote: "Acres of webspace are filled with fantasies of the print novel being replaced by downloadable books read from screen and ‘bricks-and-mortar’ booksellers dying out."

Not such a smart thing to write on the weekend after Borders UK went into administration.

From the Borders UK home page:

"Borders (UK) Limited has 45 stores, 36 trading as Borders and 9 as Books Etc across the UK.

The joint administrators are currently working with the Company's management in order to attempt to sell the business as a going concern.

The joint administrators are continuing to trade all stores whilst they assess the financial position of the Company."

Not really a fantasy is it?

Jane Smith said...

Joseph, I understand the point you're trying to make here, but you need to do a little background research first.

The reason that Borders has gone into administration is because it wasn't selling enough books (and that's widely considered to be because of mismanagement rather than a reduction in the overall market). A quick Google shows me that Borders' market share in the UK was recently estimated to be as low as 5%; and an independent publisher I spoke to a few weeks ago told me that while Borders used to represent around 35% of its sales, in recent years that share had shrunk alarmingly so that now, their exposure in this bankruptcy was around £150. No big deal. Especially when you consider that the article I've linked to estimates that even in this difficult economic climate, the books market is worth £1.8bn in total--a huge amount by anyone's standards.

Factor in the point that at present online sales represent only around 30% of the UK bookselling market, and you begin to understand that while it's horrible that Borders has failed (and here I'm thinking of the staff, and of the tiny presses which might go to the wall as a direct result of this), Borders' failure doesn't yet signal the end of brick-and-mortar stores in the UK. And bearing in mind that its Administrators might yet find a buyer for the Borders chain, it's quite possible that this market segment will live to sell again. Fingers crossed, eh?

Max Dunbar said...

For what it's worth I think there's a real possibility of online bookselling replacing bricks and mortar shops. But most books sold online are and will be from mainstream publishing rather than self/vanity publishers.

Donna Hosie said...

I am seriously impressed he managed to get "frothing" and "bullshit" in the same sentence!

I recently asked a friend who I know self-publishes if she would consent to be intervewied for my blog about why she chose that route. She won't because she doesn't want people - including those who I know buy her books - to know she self-publishes. Shame really because she is a talented writer, just one who wasn't willing to wait.

Daniel Blythe said...

Surely those who buy her books will know. It's usually pretty obvious.

Anonymous said...

"J D Salinger is rumoured to put his finished novels in a sealed box, unread by anyone except himself. It seems sad but it's a better outcome for him that any writer will have if they go into self publishing: which is vanity publishing in a hired suit, and is to actual publishing what alternative medicine is to medicine."

What on earth is this gibberish supposed to be trying to tell us? Books should be sealed in a box and never read by anyone? No-one should be allowed to publish a book without permission? From whom? Self-publishing is synonymous with vanity publishing? Am I vain to pay my printer for his work? Or my builder for his? Is my doctor wife a charlatan for using acupuncture because she knows it works? What tripe; and in dire need of an editor.

"More and more people are getting into self publishing. Why?" Because they can, that's why; not because "it is the lazy perception of the talentless, that proper publication depends on 'who you know'." Twenty years ago ordinary people couldn't self-publish; now they can; and why shouldn't they? Their dreams are no longer dictated by commercial publishers; who, incidentally, do not 'pay to publish books' but invest in them with carefully calculated anticipation of profit.

Self-publishing and the internet regressing "to the eighteenth century"? Is he the same industry expert who said "This iPod thing will never catch on" or "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home"? Are the two thirds of Salford's population that are apparently not online the ones he saw in the library writing digital CVs and applying for jobs in California? Or are they just blagging off their neighbours' wifi?

Such a monumental upheaval in both publishing and communications deserves more reasoned debate than this rather juvenile posturing. There is certainly 'frothing bullshit' here, but most of it comes from Mr Dunbar. And his ilk, as he is not alone in trotting out this patronising, Luddite hysteria, which is becoming rather drearily predictable. Publishing books? They'll be wanting the vote next.

Joseph said...

I'm reminded of King Cnut rather than Cassandra when I read your blog, Jane. Did you read to the end of that article you quoted from? The UK books market is dominated by a handful of discounted titles sold in supermarkets. For the rest, you need to go to Waterstones (which is plugging Sony's e-reader) or get online.

"It is estimated that one in five books is now sold on the net, which has had a devastating impact on bricks-and-mortar retailers, with the same trend mirrored across the Atlantic. This week top American bookseller Barnes & Noble and the original Borders both announced bigger than expected recent losses. And they now face a new challenge as the digital age arrives in earnest..."

Jane Smith said...

Max, I agree that online sales will eventually outstrip sales from physical bookshops: the most recent forecast I've seen (which is based on real research and proper statistics, rather than on guesses and rhetoric) suggests that it'll happen in around five years. So we're not quite there yet.

JFBookman said...

Yes, that's a really great line, and well deserved too.

A rational person (like you Jane) can see that many self-published books are crap, but not all of them. Hooray for the intelligence to tell the difference. It's not all one way or the other. Some authors and books do just fine as self-published, many would have been better in the box under the bed, if the authors aren't going to do more to make them publishable.

Just keep doing what you are doing, it's a real service.

Anonymous said...

SleepyJohn said: " Twenty years ago ordinary people couldn't self-publish; now they can"

They could self-publish 20 years ago as well, but it was less well known. All they had to do was take it down to a printer and get it type-set.

All that's changed is that self-publishing has got better at marketing itself and decided on more sophisticated pricing strategies.

SleepyJohn said: "Their dreams are no longer dictated by commercial publishers; who, incidentally, do not 'pay to publish books' but invest in them with carefully calculated anticipation of profit."

Many self-publishing companies do exactly the same thing, only their carefully calculated anticipation of profit comes from the up-front fee that they charge to authors. Alternatively, it's reflected in the high cover price of the book (which the author will most likely have to further mark-up in order to turn a profit).

The majority of self-published authors lose money. Those self-published authors who have hit the big time have done so because they were bought up by commercial publishers who did all the distribution and marketing for them. I've heard of some cases of self-published authors who gained commercial publishing contracts for advances that still didn't make up the costs they'd incurred trying to get a commercial publisher's attention in the first place.

- C. Hooton.

Jane Smith said...

John and Joseph, I'm glad you made your comments. You've both illustrated a point which has been occupying my thoughts for some time.

One of the things I found interesting about Max's article, and the one from Stacia which I linked to before, is that they both rely very heavily on rhetoric to make their points. There's nothing wrong with that: rhetoric is an ancient technique which is very effecitve when used well. But you've taken exception to that rhetoric and have responded with your own rhetoric, and a few insults besides. I'm saddened by that, but I'm not at all surprised.

Almost every day I read articles written by people who believe that self-publishing is the way forward, and that mainstream publishing is finished: these articles invariably rely on not just rhetoric but on information which is just plain wrong (so much so that sometimes I wonder if it's been written with malice in mind--if you read vanity publishers' websites you'll see plenty of it); and yet novice writers soak it up and believe it and often end up making the wrong decisions about their writing as a direct result of that misinformation.

When I, in my lonely Cassandra guise, argue against such misinformation and do my best to put forward well-argued, evidence-based responses I frequently get shouted down, and insulted in ways which you can only imagine. That same sort of emotional and potentially misleading article very rarely appears on the side of mainstream publishing; and when self-published writers come here to defend their side I do my best to respond respectfully, and to use logic and evidence to put my side forward, rather than arguments and insults. Sadly, they often don't give me that same respect.

Why is there so much anatagonism directed towards anyone with a mainstream slant who dares to criticise self-publishing, even when that criticism is valid and established? And why are so many self-publishers so determined to "prove" that mainstream publishing is corrupt and decaying that they're prepared to rely on flawed and misleading evidence in order to do so? Can't they see they're making themselves look foolish in order to prove a point which doesn't exist? And where does this resentfulness come from?

I could understand it if we fuddy-duddy old mainstreamers said that all self-publishing was a steaming pile of poo but on the whole, we don't: for example, I'm always careful to use the most reliable data I can find, and to point out the pitfalls of the process rather than to sneer at the people who use the process: it's an important distinction.

I'll not say more, as I'm preparing a whole blog post about this: but I think it's something that all of us could consider.

Nicola Morgan said...

Excellent article. "Ray Bradbury said that the secret of being a good writer was in knowing when to reject success and when to accept rejection." Amen to that!

Dan Holloway said...

I am so sad I was too busy to respond earlier. Oh where to start. I miss sparring with Max - I never seem to see him around much these days.

I disagree with Max of course on every single crass generalisation he makes - though not, of course, with many of the rather sharp details of specific vanity publishers, and not for thinking Jane is lovely - she is.

Oh but where to start, dear deluded boy. The problem with articles like this is that they go all straw man on you. I am sure there is a smattering of reality to the claim that people confuse vanity and self-publishing but I don't know any serious self-publisher who does. I don't dispute the very poor sales figures of self-publishing for one minute, but if one goes in eyes wide open, how does that make it bad? That's the same as saying someone who chooses a career as a social worker is an idiot because they chose not to be a doctor.

There's too much misinformation here for me to pick apart at this tmie of night but i want to say something to keep this thread warm so I CAN do so tomorrow. So I'll say a very brief word about why I self-publish.

1. yes, I write uncommercial literary fiction that probably wouldn't get a publisher because it makes no financial sense for them. OK, that's probably one to Max. Whether that makes my fiction bad I leave to others to decide. I just want to note uncommercial for them doesn't equal uncommercial for me.

2. I want to outsource what I do directly. I want to do what a publisher does, and do it myself. I DO care about control - of editing, of covers, of marketing, of where I promote my book and how.

3. I want to be part of a collective of like-minded people. For me that's people who care about writing the best fiction they possibly can and to hell with commerciality. At Year Zero we want to push the boundaries of forma nd content and see what we can do with words and if we can't maybe, after years of working and thinking together without stricture, come up with something genuinely new and exciting. And we don't think we can do that within the mainstream. Of course we would love to make a career out of writing, but if that means giving up our artistic goals, we might as well just keep the day jobs we already have. So we do keep the day jobs we have, and pursue those goals, and not persist in patronising readers by supposing they won't be interested but instead going out and seeing if we can find people who are.

4. I am increduous that in many fields the DIY brigade is hailed as groundbreaking and independent - only in literature is there such near-universal ridicule. Albeit ridicule from the establishment and writerly peers. Yes almost all self-published books are utter junk. So are most self-pressed CDs and most YouTube videos. But we don't deride aspiring bands who sweat out their own material and promote it at endless gigs.

Hmm, bathtime calls. Back for more tomorrow.

Agnieszkas Shoes said...

OK, I have to come back whilst the bath runs. What I like about Jane is the nuance "it's great for the right author and book, but most of the time it's an indulgence, and an expensive mistake." - I'm a happy self-publisher but I agree with her 100% on that. Very few books are suited - and very few authors (and you've got to have both).

What I object to is the unnuanced version of the argument. If we want, to lift Jarred's term, an example of laziness, it's crass assumptions that everyone who self-publishes has leapt into it for all the wrong reasons.

I'm now confident enough that I'm at the stage I don't enter into these arguments much. 1. you'll never convince someone convinced they';re right 2. I'd rather spend the time doing what I do as well as I can and let the people who think I'm making a hash of it judge me on my work. Which they won't of course - not one of them will click through to Year Zero and see if what we're doing has any merit. I also realise I'm at the start of what I hope will be a long - health permitting - path in writing. There is very little to judge me on. So mybst course of action is to produce a body of work - both written and in terms of contribution to the arts in general, and be judged, ultimately, on that. And if it's rubbish it's rubbish. I will also - as a happy self-publisher - spend a lot of time and energy trying to put people of self-publishing if it's not right for the - and if they are unputoffable steer them as safely with as much info as possible. I refer most people who ask me about self-publishing to Victoria Strauss' excellent site, and to Jane. I wonder how many on the other side of the fence are so oncerned about what's really right for a particular author that they bother pointing anyone to my site. I now fear I have a flooded kitchen floor :)

Joseph said...


I'm not a self-published author.

I don't believe I have objected to anyone's use of rhetoric and I don't think I've used rhetoric myself.

I have done a lot of research. I've thoroughly read all the articles you've referenced. I have worked in publishing, know many people in the industry and have been following developments there with keen interest for 30 years.

I disagreed with one statement in Max's article. I think it is a very important point and that's why I made my comment.

The reading public (in which I include myself) must increasingly look to online distributors for for their reading material. This is not a fantasy, as Max said, it is fact.

Once you start doing that it is not such a big step to start downloading your books rather than getting them delivered through the mail.

Authors who want to consider the long-term earning potential of their work should consider the industry trends and the opportunities that digital publishing have brought. They need to think about their earnings across their lifetime, not just this year or next. No-one can forecast how quickly things will change but it is possible to observe trends and comment on them objectively. The trend is definitely towards digital publishing and it has been picking up momentum this year. Aspiring authors need to take this into account when they consider the best publishing model for their work.

No-one should pay to get published. That is not self-publishing.

The controversy about self-publishing has arisen partly because of the abuse of this term by companies who want to exploit inexperienced writers desperate to see their work in print. We are all agreed that no-one should pay to see their work in print.

But I am buying and enjoying books from creative and literate people who know how to use the technology to publish their own work at no cost and find an audience they could never find by traditional means. They are doing a great job and I applaud them. I call this self-publishing and there's nothing wrong with it.

WritingToFly said...

I think Joseph has a valid point, if I may interject here.

There are two types of self-publishing here - one that is objectionable, and one that is not.

The objectionable kind is vanity publishing, because it preys of authors dreams about getting published. It presents itself in opposition to some sinister conspiratorial industry that is holding writers back, and then dangles the carrot that they are the keepers of a solution to this, if you only pay this fee. This is why there was such an uproar about Harlequin going into "self-publishing". It was a major publisher moving into a field that is defined by exploiting the impatience and/or gullability of writers.

Then you have the other self-publishing, the real one where a writer sits down, researches, and ventures to learn all about printing, marketing, design and does all the jobs that a publisher would do. This is a very legitimate form of publishing, and little shade should fall upon it.

I think it would be good if those of us who are in the industry would strive to use the correct terminology, and use the terms vanity publishing for the deplorable kind and self-publishing for the acceptable kind. That way we can talk about legitimate self-publishing, without constantly having to explain its legitimacy.

Dan Holloway said...

I am 100% with Joseph (er, that's not you is it Oli?). I would (oh bugger I hate doing this) point out in Max's defence that he has stated on the thread here that he does not see the growth of online distribution as a fantasy (OK, he's talking ebooks rather than online distrib of POD or short run, and they ARE two issues, but I'm not sure he has them separate in his head). He qualifies this by saying he feels that this will still happen through established names. This is a valid point, albeit I think a semi-wrong one. By semi-wrong all I mean is that in 10 years I think there will be household names we look to as gatekeeper distributors, but I don't think they are necessarily groups that are even in existence now.

Henry Baum said...

Perhaps you're seen as anti-self-publishing because you laud an article titled "Why Self-Publishing Doesn't Work." Here's my rebuttal on the same site:

Michael said...

One of the most interesting points made in Max Dunbar's article is the level of high emotion around this issue.

The emotional nature of the debate is heightened because there are so many different arguments feeding into it at once.

Firstly, self publishing is not the either/or proposition that it's often presented as: that either all self publishing is worthwhile or none of it is.

There are some authors and creators who are clearly a natural 'fit' with self publishing: non fiction authors who know their niche; people who want to create something personal like a family history, a local history or even a set of cherished communal stories. Dan Holloway argues convincingly on the merits of self publishing for niche fiction, or for ideological or experimental reasons. He presents what is clearly a serious plan for an alternative publishing model.

But the majority of self publishers do not fall into these categories. It seems to me that what these people are really arguing over is legitimacy, even if that's not how they're framing the argument. e.g. they want to be 'authors' in the widely accepted sense of having been published. Traditionally, the writer's work had to be pronounced good by an independent and respected arbiter - a publisher. The term 'author' was granted, not assumed, which made it a special title to be earned.

In order to make the case that self publishing confers the right to say "I am an author", too many would-be writers try to argue that publishers themselves are illegitimate. The world of books and publishing as we know it is painted as collapsing, with the future belonging to the do-it-yourselfers.

There are very real problems with contemporary publishing - the unwillingness of the corporates to take risks; the narrowing of distribution chains; the rise in the production of crappy books like celebrity memoirs; the increasing burden on the author to participate in the marketing of their own book and so on.

Self publishing is presented as a liberating antidote to all these very real problems. The writer can do their own marketing and thereby cut out the middle man and keep all the profits, while not having to lower themselves to writing the celebrity memoir or other rubbish on the shelves at Waterstone's.

But to maintain the argument that self publishing is a convincing road to the title of 'author' takes a lot of sleight-of-hand arguing and ignoring of real world realities.

The word that almost never comes up in the discussion is 'distribution'. Without access to a distribution chain, self publishing efforts are largely doomed, because access is granted by contacts, volume discounts, a track record, a well-known corporate identity and so on. Amazon presents itself as a distribution alternative, but without any marketing or reviews to support the book, the self-published book simply hangs as a pdf in space.

Self publishers shore up their arguments further by denigrating expertise: editors are presented as those stupid, out-of-touch people who turned down Harry Potter; book design is something that can be done by a graphic designer mate; editing is simply proofreading.

What writers are presenting as liberation ("I can do it myself and keep all the money!") is actually a sign of amateurism.

It's also, in most cases, a sign of a writer whose work has been rejected as unfit for publication. So the writer is often building all these arguments about self publishing on top of a deep hurt.

The future may be a 'back to the eighteenth century' scenario, where writing becomes an amateur past time, once again. Or we may see a world where publishing is concentrated in ever fewer hands, with fewer titles being produced amid an avalanche of self published books.

At the moment Kindle readers do not distinguish between titles that are self published and published; after they've been burned by self published books, the publishing imprint may become far more important to the reader than it is at present.

Maggie Dana said...

Michael said:


It's [self publishing is] also, in most cases, a sign of a writer whose work has been rejected as unfit for publication. So the writer is often building all these arguments about self publishing on top of a deep hurt.


To which I add: YES, yes, and yes.

Jane Smith said...

Joseph wrote, "I don't believe I have objected to anyone's use of rhetoric and I don't think I've used rhetoric myself."

Joseph, If you scroll up to read your earlier comment in this same thread you'll notice that it begins with this:

"I'm reminded of King Cnut rather than Cassandra when I read your blog, Jane."

And were you referring to King Canute there, or is it a lucky typo?

Jane Smith said...

In answer to my point that I'm often wrongly considered to be anti-self-publishing, Henry Baum wrote, "Perhaps you're seen as anti-self-publishing because you laud an article titled "Why Self-Publishing Doesn't Work.""

Henry, I linked to the article because it contained a funny quote about me. I then said, "The rest of the article isn't too bad." How is that "lauding" the article in question? Perhaps you just don't get my sense of humour; perhaps you can't percieve the irony in my posts. Or perhaps you're just determined to think badly of me, no matter what I say or do.

As it happens, I think that Max's article contains some good and some bad points. It's flawed, as is your rebuttal. But then I don't go to 3AM in search of thoughtful, logical prose; that's not what it provides.

Daniel Blythe said...

Pedants' Corner, Part 1. You can spell Canute as Cnut or Knut, I think. They're the same person. Alternative Scandinavian spellings and all that.

Pedants' Corner, Part 2. Joseph's comment is unintentionally amusing, as he presumably means "you are trying to hold back the waves." However, the Canute/Cnut reference is always used wrongly in this way. He *didn't* believe any such thing. Canute took his courtiers down to the beach precisely to show that he could *not* do everything, and was not capable of turning back the tide. He wanted to demonstrate that he was only human. For some reason the context of the story always ends up being misquoted!

Having said all that (!) I don't think the analogy works for self-publishing/PoD. Michael's point quoted by Maggie is, for me, the nub of the whole thing and says it all - and is borne out, sadly, by Jane's many reviews of self-published books on her other blog. The oft-quoted idea that "conventional" publishers play it too safe to publish people's edgy, experimental fiction, and won't touch it because it isn't commercial enough, displays a misunderstanding - and ignores the many risky, experimental and not immediately "commercial" books which are published by mainstream fiction imprints every year.

Like Jane, I am not anti-self publishing, and think it can be good for things which obviously don't have a broad appeal. My father, for example, self-published a booklet on the history of the church clock in his village. He sold about 1000 copies and made a small (tiny) profit which he donated to the church.

[Word ver: uncianti. Some kind of Italian wine version of anti-matter??]

Joseph said...

It is impossible to be definitive about the story of Cnut and the waves, since our primary source is the work of Henry of Huntingdon, and Henry's story, besides being twisted by successive generations (how could they!), is itself ambivalent. His history of England was, by the way, published by one of England's most wealthy and eminent self-publishers, Sir Henry Savile, whose life of St. John Chrysostom cost a fortune but only achieved meagre sales. Still, I'm sure he found the project intellectually satisfying, to say nothing of his soul's repose.

But, yes, the point of the allusion was to suggest that you can't hold back the tide of progress. To say self-publishing doesn't work, or is somehow stealing from the poor, or is only for people whose work has been rejected, ignores what is happening around us. Some successful authors who have already had books published by mainstream publishers are turning to it because it gives them more control over their work and the income from it.

No-one need be "burned" by self-published titles. On Smashwords, for example, you can download free samples and only buy the books you like.

It is wrong to imagine that amateurs can't outshine the professionals in epublishing -- the professionals are not yet taking ebooks seriously. I recently bought a copy of Bear Island by Alistair Maclean from Harper Collins. I bought it from the W.H.Smith ebook site so it is a legitimate copy. The title page says "Bear Island by Akustair Maclean." This is a glaring error that no amateur would make.

It's true that some bestselling authors can't spell and their works would look very shabby without the intervention of a good editor. But it's equally true that first-time authors are expected to deliver a perfect manuscript if they want to impress an agent these days. So why shouldn't the first-time author publish that perfect manuscript independently?

The traditional publishers are trying to delay the take-up of ebooks. They can only delay it for so long. Eventually ebooks will be everywhere. The idea that you have to get your book into bookshops is already old-fashioned. Now the internet is your shop window. That's why aspiring authors are told they have to have a blog, be on Facebook and use Twitter. Publishers can't have it both ways. If the author is expected to do all the research, all the writing, all the editing and all the marketing, why not go that last mile and do the publishing too? All you need to do to publish on Smashwords is have a Word document with no fancy formats. Most serious writers have that anyway.

The only obstacle now for writers who want to find readers is prejudice of the kind demonstrated here.

Michael said...

Wait, wait, wait.

Once again, this argument is mixing up separate elements into one lump and calling it a debate.

Self publishing and epublishing are not synonymous terms. Publishers also use epublishing and will increasingly do so - in the US, epublishing has become 3% of the market. The 'tipping' point - the point at which publishers always said they would become interested in epublishing was 1%. So we are far beyond that.

Quite possibly the self publishers, because the have to be more nimble (and also because publishers are notoriously old fashioned) have got a better handle on the technology and on social network marketing in general.

This does not make them better writers.

Another myth is the myth of the 'perfect manuscript' that must be delivered to publishers. The book must be perfect in that the spelling, grammar and so on is expected to be impeccable and that the book has rich characters, a good narrative arc and so on.

But even so, editors (and increasingly agents) then do a lot more work on the book.

Sometimes an author becomes so famous and bestselling, that the editors don't touch their work any more and the prose is far worse for it. Compare Rowling's last book to Prisoner of Azkaban, for example, to see what happens when editors take their hands off.

The problem with self publishing isn't that people are being presumptuous - it's that they're being bad writers and confusing 'proofing' with 'editing'.

It's no surprise that established authors might do well with self publishing. Anyone who has been through a serious publishing process must have a very good idea of what it takes to make a book succeed.

There are some categories where self publishing might be an entirely appropriate choice - romance, fan fiction (simply impossible to get published) sci fi and other genres where readers are widepsread and voracious. Non fiction is another category.

But really, even if everything self published was a magical read, the lot of the self publisher is not one to be envied, because of that nasty problem of distribution.

Michael said...

Joseph - writers are not expected to do 'all the marketing'. An inhouse PR who can get a book on the desk of someone at The Guardian or The Times and get them to open the envelope because they recognise the name on it, has already done far more than some author valiantly trying to persuade their local bookshop to do a reading or book signing session.

Daniel Blythe said...

There will only be a sea change (Canute reference not intended) when big-name authors actively start *choosing* en masse to produce their books themselves rather than trusting their publishers to do so. One can point to a mere handful who have done so, often as an exercise (Timothy Mo rings a bell). But we are so far away from that situation that it is a self-publisher/self-publicist's fantasy.

There is simply no evidence of a "tide". More people may be producing self-published books, but to attempt to link that to any developments within conventional publishing is a false correlation. It could just be that people have more access to the technology.

I wrote five books between the ages of 17-22, and I believed these to be good enough to publish and for a reading public to enjoy. Professionals did not. I look back now at the dog-eared MSs in the attic - with the benefit of hindsight and of my 10 successfully-published books - and I can see that the professionals were right about these attempts at novels. *So* right. And I can see why, too. Painfully.

In too many cases people are simply putting online, and offering for download, their equivalents of my five juvenile, half-baked "attic novels".

Joseph said...

"... this argument is mixing up separate elements into one lump and calling it a debate."

But at least no-one's mentioned Nazi Germany and the holocaust. At least, not here.

"All physical books must go up the chimney stack. Such was the methodology of the SS who forced their prisoners to run naked races round and round the barracks yard in the Polish winter, a race that no one was meant to win."

So laments Alan Kaufman.

You can't have a debate about self-publishing without mentioning ebooks, the economics of which change everything.

Jane Smith said...

Joseph, I welcome your enthusiasm, I really do; I'm pleased that you care enough to make the effort to take part. But your arguments are flawed, as Dan and Michael have already pointed out: you're basing many of your assumptions on things that just aren't true.

A lot of the mistakes you make seem to be taken as fact among the self-publishing fraternity, along with the flawed logic which you've demonstrated so clearly here.

You'd be wise to spend some time learning how publishing really works, rather than by insisting you know what's wrong with it when I'm afraid you don't seem to understand it at all.


Dan Holloway said...

"It's [self publishing is] also, in most cases, a sign of a writer whose work has been rejected as unfit for publication. So the writer is often building all these arguments about self publishing on top of a deep hurt.

To which I add: YES, yes, and yes."

And I would like to append "in most cases" but not all. I sent Songs for representation early in its life. The response I got was "great but uncommercial. Come back with your next book" I agree wholeheartedly with the latter half of that evaluation (for a publisher, not for me necessarily). I am not bitter in the slightest. My two suibsequent novels are equally uncommercial. One - The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes - taught me more about writing in 6 months than I've learned in my previous 37 years, and is utter garbage. The other, SKIN BOOK, is the best thing I've ever written, and - without being funny about it - the equal of most things in the latest Granta. I'm not even considering representation fot it. For a start, as a 2,800 word complete novel designed to exist in 3 formats, it's as useful to a publisher as mackerel and banana flavoured ice-cream. But mainly, I know exactly what to do with it. Given it will never make me enough money to give up my job, but is an invaluable part of my 5-year plan to become self-sufficient as a writer, I could be offered as much as £50,000 pounds as an advance and it still make no sense for me to say yes.

My next book, Life Drawn Freehand, is about as commercial as it gets - it's romantic women's fiction with a slight period feel. I have no intention of sending that out for representation either. I have no axe to grind with the publishing industry or anyone therein - I like pretty much everyone connected with it I've met and some people I would count as friends outside of my writing life. The publishing industry needs to get its act together, sure, but it can still do a lot of good things for a lot of authors - for me it's not a question of bitterness and hurt but of a shared passion for books, at the same time as feeling it irrelevant to my own plans (which isn't to say I find editors or designers or any other specific profession irrelevant) in its current form. I'm constantly heartened by companies like Salt and To Hell With Publishing, though.

Joseph, you mention Jane's other column. I submitted my book for review there some time ago. When it's finally reviewed I expect Jane to tear strips off it - but every mistake she points out will be a valuable lesson for making my next self-published book better.

@Michael - I am aware of the difference between the different kinds of editing, and am keen to have my ms edited in both ways before I consider it ready - I just want to choose my own editors.

@Joseph - because POD is essentially free, epublishing does NOT change things by democratising publishing - it's already democratised. What it DOES do is offer distribution without inventory. Only, hang on, Amazon already does that. The way we use epub at Year zero is by giving ebooks away for free and selling physical materials - that DOES seem an innovation - the ability to sample one's work at zero cost. Of course you still have to go out and persuade people to take your sample!

the communicatrix said...

Ha! I swooned over that one, too.

Although really, how could you not?

R.R.Jones said...

What a brilliant piece.
I very nearly fell for the YouWriteOn fiasco as well. So glad I read your Blog before doing it.
A friend of mine has her work on Authonomy... actually a few friends have, now I think about it. It's all so laughable really, his last comment about how we "wannabe" writers believe our dreams is so true.
I'm glad you were mentioned in such glowing terms there Jane, you deserve it.
All the best.

Sally Zigmond said...

First of all, there's one very important part of the equation that many of those people commenting here conveniently forgotten.


When trade publishers say that a book isn't commercial they mean that not as many people can be persuaded to pick it up, let alone buy it. Literary fiction, as I well know, is difficult to sell. Self-publishing doesn't make one's novel sell any more copies. So the only reason a writer would want to do this is because they're aggrieved.

Please note, I'm talking about novels here. There are many reasons why some non-fiction is better self-published.

And another thing: the big conglomerate publishers may well 'play safe', yes, (and why should they risk their money and the livelihood of their staff from top editors to the cleaners by being reckless?) but there are plenty of others who still use traditional methods and look for quality more than mega-bucks, because the stakes are not so high. Snowbooks, Salt Publishing, Tindall Street Press, Honno, Myrmidon, to name but a few.

I am a huge fan of independent publishers.

I also know personally several writers who have turned to self-publishing (although a lot of it isn't self-publishing in the proper sense.) They may say in public that they have done it to be more in control of their books and their money but in actual,fact it's because they've been dropped by their mainstream publishers and are feeling pretty pissed off. That, of course, is understandable. I would feel aggrieved, too. However, I am sure that if their erstwhile mainstream publisher hadn't 'dropped' them, they would happily have stayed with them. And if that publisher went down on their knees and said, 'come back' they would before the ink on the contract was dry.

Yes, times change but no-one can predict the future. It would be crazy to ditch a fully tried and tested way of producing and selling books just because digital makes everything so much easier. Let's not get carried away.

I'm not prepared to throw away all my books and replace them with anybody's e-reader just yet. I don't think I ever will. I'm not sure my sons will. Maybe their children will never know what a book is. But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater just yet.