Self-Publishing Stigma: Because Revolutions Take Time

It was, as most in publishing felt, a last-ditch effort to see your work in print. But anyone who has actually worked it, meaning gotten a good book out, taking the time to find the exact right cover and then putting their heart and soul into marketing knows that there's nothing vain about this process.
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Sometimes great ideas and trends start with a wave so big, they are hard to ignore. For others they begin almost unnoticed and go by for years, virtually undetected until suddenly they are not only part of our lives, but part of our culture. Back in 1999 I saw an article, a tiny piece in The New York Times about a company called Fat Brain out of Campbell, California. The article talked about their digital publishing, at the time referred to as Print-on-Demand, printing books as they are needed. I was just noodling with the idea of starting my own company back then, an idea which didn't fully come into being until 2000. But the article intrigued me. If books could be printed one at a time, instead of in lots of several thousand, what could this do for publishing?

At some point, Fat Brain was folded into and so, the revolution was born. It was still a whisper at the time, not many were really talking about it but I remember watching with rabid anticipation. A publishing company at that level, doing for authors what they in years past had to do on their own, could really change the industry. And change it did. Problem was, it wasn't always great. Sadly, much of what was being published (at least in the very early days) was not really reader-worthy. Also, at the time, it seemed that the stigma was almost a death sentence to most of these books. There were a few, however, who understood the game and knew how to navigate the minefield of self-publishing. Those authors we now revere and celebrate, as it should be.

I remember once someone compared self-publishing to indie films; at the time I was at a trade show surrounded by legions of New York editors, one or two of whom snickered at that comment. Self-publishing was not to be respected, it was to be mocked. It was, as most in publishing felt, a last-ditch effort to see your work in print. Hence the term "vanity publishing" was born. But anyone who has actually worked it, meaning gotten a good book out, taking the time to find the exact right cover and then putting their heart and soul into marketing knows that there's nothing vain about this process.

Over the years, as publishing evolved, so did the self-publishing market. Authors got better, took the time to educate themselves, books became more sophisticated and success stories started emerging. For those of us who have been in the self-publishing trenches for years, these success stories are not a new thing; neither are the stories of authors, once turned down by traditional publishing, who gain some really exceptional success when they take the self-publishing route. Such was the case back in 2005 when we had the pleasure of working with a book called Cookin' for Love by Sharon Boorstin. Sharon, previously published by a traditional house, was turned down for Cookin' because the lead characters were too old (ah-hem, they were only 50). So, Sharon went to iUniverse where the then-head of this publishing house, Susan Driscoll, who came from traditional publishing, was savvy enough to see what a talent Sharon was and put some muscle behind this book. Cookin' did great things for Sharon, even grabbing a feature story in MORE Magazine which was unheard of then. A self-published book in a national magazine? Perish the thought.

Success, in various forms, has always been a part of this industry but the reality was that there was so much to slough through, it was often hard to tell the good from the bad. I spoke with Ms. Driscoll on many occasions and she often said, "Only 1 percent of what's published with us is really worth a review or a second look." Certainly, that's what happens when you put a lot of books through a channel. Not all of it is vetted, not all of it is readable. And I don't think that because self-publishing is suddenly "acceptable" that that statistic has changed; in fact, I'm fairly certain that it's higher, thanks to the flood of eBooks that are hitting the market as well as the many national media stories touting the success of a handful of authors making millions and making it seem like it's the norm, rather than the exception.

More recently we have Hugh Howey, who is breaking through all barriers. His agent, Kristin Nelson, was at Digital Book World recently and said, "This was a whole new deal." On his own, Howey was making $50,000 a month on his books. Clearly this wasn't a case where a publisher was going to come in and do something this guy wasn't already doing.

Still, the traditional publishing industry likes to say how they are "surprised" when good books come out of this market. I'd like to say that I'm surprised it's taken them this long to notice. Case in point, a few years back I attended a publishing round-up in New York. It was an interview with the head of a large publishing house. I asked this person if their team paid any attention to the then burgeoning eBook market and watched any of the lists. The response was, "No, I mean why would we?" So, I say again, no one who has actually spent time in this industry is surprised that good titles emerge here. What's surprising to us is that it took the traditional publishers so long to notice.

Now there's a lot of talk of the "hybrid" author, the writer who has a traditional publisher but also self-publishes mostly because of speed to market and creative control.

What has all of this taught us? Well, a lesson most of us (hopefully) learned when we were young: don't judge. Though there again, many of us do. I'm guilty of this as well. If I see a self-published book with a shoddy cover, I probably won't bother to open it. And though a lot of people like to tout the secrets of success in self-publishing there really are no secrets and in the end, it comes down to just two things:

Put out a good product, then do a lot of pretty obvious stuff to promote it.

Oh, and as much as we think your three-year-old is darling his or her finger painting should not be on your book cover. While the revolution is here and it's transforming publishing, the truth is the stakes are even higher. Yes, Hugh Howey is making a fortune publishing his books, but he did all the right stuff. He published great books that had great covers and he published a lot of content, because readers are hungry and if you don't feed them, someone else will.

The revolution of self-publishing is like any hard-fought battle. Any movie maker who once languished in obscurity and is now one of the most known voices in cinema didn't just arrive at the Oscar's ready to accept his award. He worked at it day after day after day. Taking the gigs or assignments he perhaps never thought he would and sucking up to people he never thought they'd have to suck up to. Which brings me to my next point. If you're going to be part of this amazing revolution remember that letting your ego drive your decisions can be the biggest and most deadliest thing you'll ever do. We once had an author who hated a reviewer's perspective on his book and pitched a fit demanding that we contact the reviewer and insist she rewrite the review. Needless to say, we didn't and it wasn't the first time we fired a client.

Being a part of a revolution is an amazing experience, and my hat off to everyone who's been in the trenches, as we have, who over the years helped mold and shape this amazing industry. To those who fought tirelessly against the stigma and to the people who helped teach the authors right from wrong when it comes to publishing a book. New York has caught on, we knew that eventually they'd see that those of us in the indie world aren't all that bad. Yes, there are still some crazies out there. Did I ever mention the time I got a call from someone who said aliens landed in his back yard and wanted him to tell their story. (Fox Mulder, is that you?) But most of the indie folks are just out there to tell a story, their story, someone else's story. They're trying to engage, inspire and enlighten and we love them for that, and now that New York is dipping their toe into this arena we see all the publishers opening their doors to self-publishing. Some because they genuinely believe in the revolution and others because they know there's money to be made. I can't fault them for that. Just remember, behind every book is an author with his or her own hopes and dreams.

In the end, it's really just about options. In the future, I see a publishing world much different than the one we see today. One where the author is lauded for going it alone, where going with the big guns isn't the general goal, though it's always an option. Going it alone, like signing with that private record label, not held by one of the big guys, is the creative dream of any artist. I also see a world where more and more readers are taking a stand and supporting the titles they love. They're reviewing more books and realizing that their voices can make a difference. Love a book, tell the world, thought the book could be better? That's okay, too. Bottom line is in the end, while some are doing this for fame and fortune, most of us are in this to entertain and educate. We want a happy reader, that's all, and if there are legions of happy readers even better.

Welcome to the revolution. If you're just showing up to the battle we welcome you, if you've been here for a while we're grateful that you're still here and for those of you still uncertain, still thinking that you'll wait it out and see if you can get a big name interested I wish you all the best. Just remember, while patience is a virtue there's nothing in the world like seeing your work in print, your words on a page bound and ready to find readers. And ask yourself: are you waiting because you really want a big name behind your book? Or are you waiting because you're not sure your book is good enough? There's only one way to find out.

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