Friday, 11 July 2008

Self-Publishing Success Stories

I was planning on discussing a few of the many myths which circulate about self-publishing success but last week David Isaak beat me very eloquently to the finish. Make sure you read the comments which follow his original post, as he adds more information there.

David discussed Grisham, Paolini, Clancy, Atwood and Joyce, but there are plenty more names which regularly crop up as supposed self-publishing successes, such as William Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain and G P Taylor.

Shakespeare? If we were working in roughly the same century as him then perhaps he'd be relevant to the discussion but as it is, he’s a very poor example. The whole business of publishing was different when Shakespeare was writing: the technology was different, books were different, bookshops were different, distribution was different, everything was different. And Shakespeare didn't even make his money from selling books: he earned his living through having his plays performed, and by writing pieces for his benefactors and patrons.

Virginia Woolf’s early novels were published by Duckworth: she and her husband then founded their own publishing company, The Hogarth Press, which successfully published other writers as well as Woolf.

As for Mark Twain, he got himself into such crippling debt by self-publishing his books that his only way out was to undertake speaking engagements, which he hated. If a writer as talented as he was cannot make a living by self-publishing, what makes anyone else think that they can?

Despite all the obstacles it can put in the way of success, self-publishing worked for G P Taylor when he wrote Shadowmancer, which went on to sell to a commercial publisher and enjoy stellar sales. Taylor now enthuses about self-publishing, and recommends it to fledgling writers. However, Taylor didn't even try to get a commercial deal: he went straight to self-publishing, selling his Harley on the way to fund the project. How much easier his journey might have been if he'd submitted the book to a publisher or agent or two at the start. Chances are he'd have been picked up there and then, had all his success AND kept his Harley.

When the success of a self-published book becomes a big news story, it does so simply because it is such a very rare thing. Such successes are not models for other self publishers to follow: they are the exception, not the norm, and so when they are used to encourage writers to venture into self-publishing, those writers are likely to be very disappointed, and to be separated from their money at an alarming rate.

(My thanks to author Vanessa Curtis, who has written extensively about Woolf, and to Shakespearian scholar Stanley W Wells, CBE, for their generous help with this piece: it is much appreciated, and despite their help, all errors are my own).


Anonymous said...

A very timely piece, Jane. I am so utterly sick of the misinformation POD outfits dish out.

There's also another similarity between all the authors you and David name and it sure ain't self-publishing. They are all writers of considerable talent. All different with different readerships but the very best in their genre.

That's something no POD firms, wannabe writers' message boards and websites ever discuss. I call it 'The Elephant in the Writers' Room' - the fact that 99% of those who claim they deserve to be published and there's a conspiracy against them can't write.

Anonymous said...

Before anyone else jumps on the 'burn the self-publisher' bandwagon, I think it's important to remember that not every person who wants to write a book does so for money, fame, an ego boost or popularity. Some people just want to have a go at it. For others, it's therapy. Just as for some it's something to leave to their children, or as in my case it was part of a research project.

In my case I was working as a journalist and was asked to write an article about the differences between maternity care fifty years ago to the present day. I had so many contributions that I decided to produce a book on the subject for student midwives and I (shock, horror) self-published it - not with a POD company but a professional book printer. I paid for 1000 copies, sold the lot and had to get another 2500 printed.

This led me into the world of book publishing and securing a five book deal with Hamlyn.

There are sharks in every industry. There are some good self-pub companies and many awful ones. Just as there are good agents/ publishers and ones you wouldn't want to introduce to your mother!

Just because someone decides to self-publish a book, doesn't mean that they are inferior to someone who publishes with a commercial publisher. They might well be doing it just for sheer the fun of it, not because they are 'wannabes'. At least they are having a go at something new.

The point about the successful s/p cases being in the news because they are so rare can also be attributed to the six figure deals that occassionally hit the press - they too are also rare as any professional writer will tell you.

Jane Smith said...

I don't think anyone's jumping on the bandwagon that you describe, Debs: Sally's comments are pretty spot-on as far as I can see, although I'll admit that I'm only looking at them from the viewpoint of someone who's worked in commercial publishing, one way or another, for more than twenty years.

I don't have any direct self-publishing experience: what I do have, though, is the experience of having read the work of many writers who failed to get themselves a commercial contract and went on to be self-published. Just about every single one of them could not write.

I'm not suggesting for a moment that you're one of them: your posts are articulate and coherent, for a start, which straight away puts you ahead of them.

It seems to me that most of the people who go with self-publishing do so because they don't realise that's not how publishing works; because they believe they can make the same sales through that route as through commercial publishing; because they believe in the Big Publishing Conspiracy which exists to prevent new writers from getting published; or because they're just not good enough writers to get published commercially.

I'm not aware of anyone at all who has researched both the commercial publishing and self-publishing options fully and then plumped for self-publishing, convinced that it's the better option--unless they've been rejected by the commercial publishers.

I've heard many, many writers who bitterly regret their decision to self-publish: I've yet to meet one who regrets their commercial contract, and wishes they'd put their book out themselves instead.

Something that is never pointed out by the people who cheer for self-publishing is that nearly all those self-publishing success stories end up with the writers being published commercially. As if that's what they were aiming for all the time.

I do wonder, Debs (and I'm not being snarky here: I really am interested), why you chose to self-publish your first book; and why, as your self-publishing experience was so successful, you then chose to follow the commercial route with Hamlyn. I'd appreciate it if you'd fill us all in because I admit, I haven't taken that route and could be missing something major. And I hate it when that happens.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I even implied that I wanted to 'burn the self-publisher', debs. I don't. I want to prevent people from being bamboozled by the misinformation dubious outfits put on their websites.

All the writers mentioned are novelists - apart from Shakespeare, but then there were no such things as novels when he was treading the boards.

There is a great deal of difference between fiction and non-fiction when it comes to self-publishing. A great deal of non-fiction, such as local history, local guides, something about a local building, person or institution couldn't be published any other way because their contents, by their very nature, have a limited appeal but are no less worth publishing for that.

My comments were aimed, as Jane rightly surmised, at fiction writers. As an editor and reviewer I have read many self-published novels and sadly the standard is not high. To be honest, it is more often than not poor; not just the standard of writing, but the typesetting, cover and look and feel of the book.

I was puzzled by your comment, "remember that not every person who wants to write a book does so for money, fame, an ego boost or popularity." I write for none of those reasons and would be sorely disillusioned if that was what I was expecting. I write because I love telling stories and there's no point in telling stories if no-one reads or hears them.

Finally, debs, can I ask you a question? I'm genuinely perplexed. Why did you go to all the trouble and expense to self-publish when your book is clearly well-written and of sufficient general interest to be picked up by a commercial publisher? Why didn't you go for commercial publishing initially?

Anonymous said...

May I ask the titles of your first 2 novels,Jane. and who published them ? Might be looking in the wrong place but can;t find details on your site. Are you intending to go the same route with what you are working on now?

Anonymous said...

Hello again, all.
OK, I'll try to answer all the questions that have come up about this: Yes, I agree, there are many, many, self-publishers who have written and published crap books. I've got a bookshelf of them that people have sent me to review at one time or another! But, there are also some very good books out there that have been self-published and for varying reasons, such as a niche market.

This was the only reason why I published my first book myself. I had a good subject, BUT it was for a niche market. I had contacts at BBC Radio 2 who marketed and promoted it for me from start to finish, so I knew that it would sell. No commercial publisher would take it on because it was such a nice market - maternity care over the past fifty years is not everyone's cuppa. That was the only reason I self-published it.

As I said before, I trained as a journalist and never had any intention of getting into book publishing. However, having inherited my grandmother's and my father's passion for the paranormal and having studied and written many articles about modern witchcraft, I had the idea for a modern spell book for young women.

Obviously, being in the media and knowing the market, I also knew that there was the need for a new commercial book on this subject, which is why I approached Hamlyn with it and didn't self-publish. Also because it was highly illustrated, it would have cost me a fortune to publish myself. This book led to the next four being commissioned.

Yes, Jane, a lot of people who self-publish (the majority, in fact) do so without knowing anything about the industry and get their fingers burned, but not everyone.

I applaud anyone who can sit down and actually write a book because I know how hard it can be. How they go about getting it published is up to them. They will either learn their craft, secure an agent and a good publishing deal, or they might do their home-work, work out a marketing plan, self-publish and make a good profit. OR, they might just want to have their name in print or be something they do before they die. It's a personal choice.

It's a shame when people do get stitched up into bogus contracts etc. but, hey, that happens in all walks of life. I just don't think that every person who has ever self-published should be tarred with the same brush because everyone is different and has different reasons for writing and publishing.

Nicola Slade said...

It's a tricky one, Jane. I have a friend whose first novel has sold out and her ('proper') publisher isn't interested in a reprint, in spite of a proven demand. She is going down the self-publishing route but has a ready market and an already professionally edited book.

That's very different from the two or three self-published novels I've read, and appraised. Invariably the lack of a good editor hits you in the face and this is something any author embarking on this course needs to address. It's impossible to edit your own work successfully, or at least it is where fiction is concerned.

I agree with Debs, however, that POD can be terrific if you just want to write your life story for your family. Or if you have a specialist subject that has no broad appeal. But fiction is a minefield and I'm not sure POD is a good idea for most new authors.


Jane Smith said...

Debs wrote, "I applaud anyone who can sit down and actually write a book because I know how hard it can be. How they go about getting it published is up to them."

I agree with you that it can be hard to write a book--it takes a lot of determination. What I can't agree with you on, though, is that second sentence. If I have the opportunity to advise, then I can't stand back and watch people throw their work away with vanity- and self-publishing when it's not the best/only route for them.

As I've stated elsewhere, by self-publishing you're automatically turning yourself into a sales person instead of a writer. That's fine if it's what you want to do, but if you want to write, then why not concentrate on that?

As Nicky has pointed out, sometimes self-publishing is the best possible route. But in most cases it's not, and those are the ones that I want to help.

As for Sally: she really is right. All too often self-publishing is used because the writing just isn't good enough to be published, and the dreadfulness of lots of self-published books reflects badly on the good ones. Now, what is to be done about those?

Helen DeWitt said...

Edward Tufte has self-published four books on information design through his company The Graphics Press; they're very beautiful and have sold 1.6 million copies.