Sticks & Stones: The Changing Politics of the Self-Publishing Stigma

The Stigma Against Self Publishing

Bookselling This Week just reported that brick and mortar booksellers are making it easier for self-published authors to garner coveted shelf space in their stores. With indies crossing into this and other territory usually staked out by the traditionally published, the battle between self-published and traditionally pubbed authors has heated up. Rumor has it, one big-name author even resorted to rallying fans, fuming about the deleterious effect eBooks have had on her income. Another traditionally published author went so far as to refer to self-publishing as “literary karaoke.”

The lines, it seems, have been drawn.

The “literary karaoke” slur notwithstanding, the stakes are less about the quality of indie books and more about the money indies are grabbing from their traditionally pubbed brethren. From the outcry, you’d think self-publishers were stealing and eating their babies—and, in a way, maybe they are.

While traditional publishers have seen an increase in overall profits, their mass-market and hardcover segments have been hard hit by burgeoning digital sales. According to the Association of American Publishers (AAP), in 2011 e-book sales rose 117%, generating revenue of $969.9 million, while sales in all trade print segments fell, with mass-market paperbacks plunging by nearly 36%.

As sales decline, industry leaders worry that some houses may focus on the more profitable hardback format, publishing paperback editions of only their highest grossing titles. For conventional authors, especially mid-listers, this would be a significant blow. As Rachel Deahl reports in Publisher’s Weekly: “ . . . the shift will kill the much-needed second bite books get at the marketing and publicity apple.”

If e-books are causing the ruckus, why focus all the ire on indies?

Fact is, most people buy a book for one reason: they want a good read. Assuming the book delivers, they don’t care who published it; many don’t even notice. With publishing cachet exerting less influence on purchasing decisions, price has become more of a factor. In a depressed economy, it’s only natural to look for a deal—and indie authors offer one. With greater flexibility and lower overhead, self-publishers can afford to sell their e-books for a fraction of the price charged by large publishers.

Now, in addition to declining paperback royalties, traditional authors face stiff competition from inexpensive self-published e-books. No wonder they’re angry.

Nevertheless, casting aspersions by aggressively promoting the indie stigma is unfair – and unwarranted. “The idea that all self-published books are sub-standard is erroneous,” says literary agent Jenny Bent, founder of The Bent Agency in Brooklyn, New York. Will Clarke, one of Bent’s clients, self-published his first two books, "Lord Vishnu’s Love Handles" and "The Worthy". After Simon & Schuster republished, Bent points out, “he got a full-page rave review for both of them in the New York Times Book Review.”

Self-Published Books ”Refreshing and New”

Naomi Blackburn, founder of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Book, a 400-member Goodreads book club, believes self-publishing has opened the door for new voices and given readers a far greater selection. Ranked #29 on the Goodreads list of top reviewers in the U.S. and #35 globally of all time, Blackburn reads nearly a book a day. She’s grown tired of traditional publishers “shoving dried-up authors down consumers’ throats and subjecting readers to substandard work, especially if they find a ‘cash cow.’” These days, Blackburn veers toward self-published books or works put out by smaller houses. “I usually find the works to be refreshing and new,” she says.

If bestseller lists are any indication, and surely they are, then millions of readers are following in Blackburn’s footsteps. Nowadays, indie titles regularly crack—even top —the NY Times and USA Today bestseller lists. John Locke, Barbara Freethy, Gemma Halliday, and Amanda Hocking have all broken into the million-plus sales club, and well over 100 indie authors have sold more than 50,000 books. No, gorilla-size sales figures do not guarantee the quality of an indie title, any more than huge numbers indicate the quality of a conventionally published book. The numbers do suggest that readers see value in indie books and they’re purchasing indie titles in droves.

Which is perhaps why some offenders have resorted to bullying, aggressively promoting an indie stigma that ceased to be unilaterally credible (if it ever was) around the time The Shack—an indie publication—sat for approximately 172 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list.

With millions of indie titles on shelves, some are bound to be lacking. Sometimes, says Jenn, a book editor and blogger, also known as “Picky Girl,” the lack of quality is immediately evident. “A cover that looks childish, out of date, or amateurish often speaks for the story it houses.” By publicly decrying the need to perfect their craft or bragging about writing and publishing quickly, Indie authors make themselves easy targets, says M.J. Rose, bestselling author and owner of “Self-publishing shouldn’t be an excuse to not do the hard work,” Rose adds.

True enough. But not all traditionally pubbed books are Pulitzer-worthy either. The difference is, when a traditional title garners negative reviews, only that book gets panned. No one cites examples of poorly written traditionally published books to support any conclusion about all traditional titles. Besides, lousy books are a non-factor anyway. Readers don’t talk about books they don’t like and retailers don’t put poor selling books in recommendation queues, so the books languish on the shelves.

Nor is it true, as detractors claim, that it’s impossible to separate the chaff from the grain. Jennifer, the blogger at Books, Personally, finds the best indie reads through her Twitter network and blog. Like Jennifer, readers can use their social networks to find fab indie titles. They can also peruse reviews on reader sites like Goodreads, ask their friends for recommendations, or rely on reviews posted by a favorite book blogger. For the most popular current titles, readers can check the IndieReaderList Where Indies Count,” a list of the top 10 best-selling indie books, updated weekly.

Today’s Indie Authors Choose to Self-Publish

No question, traditional publishers play an important role in the publishing world. Still, for better or worse, the days when they were the sole gatekeepers are behind us. Today, rejection by traditional houses says little about a book. “Some wonderful books [are rejected] for various reasons—nothing to do with quality,” says Jenny Bent. A publisher may reject a book because it doesn’t fit into a clear category. A traditional house may also turn down a book if it doesn’t have an obvious audience or if the author has too small a platform or a poor sales track with previous books.

In the old days, determined authors turned to self-publishing—or vanity presses, as they were called—as a last resort. Serious authors, concerned about being black- balled, dared not self-publish. As a result, talented authors like John Kennedy Toole, whose posthumously published masterpiece, "A Confederacy of Dunces," won a Pulitzer Prize (1981), went to their grave believing their work did not measure up.

Today, many talented authors choose the self-publishing route and they do it for a variety of reasons. Jackie Collins recently shocked the literary world with her announcement that she planned to self-publish a new, rewritten version of her novel "The Bitch". “Times are changing,” Collins said of her decision, “and technology is changing, so I wanted to experiment with this growing trend of self-publishing.”

Industry superstars like New York Times bestselling authors Barbara Freethy and C.J. Lyons use self-publishing platforms to market their out-of-print backlists. Other authors are drawn to self-publishing because of its flexibility, the ability to publish within their own timeframe, for instance—perhaps to leverage topical interest or mark an anniversary. Others authors self-publish out of a desire for artistic control.

Self-publishing can also be a practical way to build an audience. Today, publishers expect authors to have a solid platform. By self-publishing, emerging authors can build the fan base necessary to attract a traditional publisher for their next work. Other authors, long-timers as well as newbies, feel they can make more money on their own. At $2.99 a pop, authors earn nearly $2.00 on every eBook sale. Even at 99¢, with average royalties of 33¢ to 60¢, earnings on a hot-selling book can quickly out-pace the meager advance offered to all but the superstars by a traditional house.

These days—insult-hurling aside—traditional and indie authors are more alike than different. Mindful of their increased scrutiny, self-publishers take full advantage of the myriad professional services available to authors. Indies hire experienced editors to copyedit and proofread. For their cover and interior designs, some work with the same graphic artists who design for the traditional houses. Professionals are available and widely used to covert documents to digital and paperback formats, and POD printing has gotten so good that, to the typical untrained eye, print-on-demand books are virtually indistinguishable from books printed on an offset press.

Literary agent and publishing consultant Joelle Delbourgo, founder and president of Joelle Delbourgo Associates, Inc., formerly a senior publishing executive at Random House and HarperCollins, says some self-publishers go a step further and work with a professional publishing partner, a strategy she recommends. A publishing pro with a track record of success can bring an author to the next level, Delbourgo says.

For a few years, Bethanne Patrick, a publicist and media consultant also known as “The Book Maven,” creator of the global reading community Friday Reads, was skeptical of self-publishing. Through her work in social media, Patrick has read more indie titles and gotten to know writers who’ve chosen to self-publish. More and more indie authors, she’s noticed, seek the advice of freelance editors, publicists, and marketing consultants—and she’s intrigued.

As well-educated and experienced writers—emerging authors who’ve honed their craft as well as established and traditionally published authors—increasingly opt to go the indie route, the bar is rising. As with indie musicians and filmmakers, indie authors bring new life to an evolving industry. Today, readers have access to a wealth of funny, poignant, brilliant voices of talented new authors from around the globe—voices that, just a few years ago, might have been silenced by the old guard.

The opportunity to self-publish—to publish their books their own way—has given both emerging and established authors more freedom than ever before. So, yes, now that readers choose which books to purchase and support, dollars may shift and some traditional authors may be forced to give up a slice of the pie. Change is never easy; inevitably, there are bumps and bruises along the way. But, like or not, indie publishing is here to stay. And the publishing world will be all the richer for it.

Terri Giuliano Long is a contributing writer for IndieReader and Her Circle eZine. She has written news and features for numerous publications, including the Boston Globe and the Huffington Post. She lives with her family on the East Coast and teaches at Boston College. Her debut novel, "In Leah’s Wake," began as her master’s thesis. For more information, please visit her website. Or connect on Facebook, Twitter or Blog.

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