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Reasons Not to Self-Publish in 2011-2012: A List

By posted at 6:01 am on November 29, 2011 174

In a previous essay, I interviewed four self-published authors I admire, and I examined some of the benefits of that career path. Midway through writing the piece, I realized I’d have to continue the discussion in a second essay in order to fully explore my feelings (complicated) on the topic (multifaceted). You see, Reader, I still don’t plan on self-publishing my first novel, though I don’t deny the positive aspects of that choice.

Below I’ve outlined a few reasons behind my decision, informed by our contemporary moment. I can’t predict the future, though I’m sure I’ll remain comfortable with my opinions for at least another thirteen months. It’s in a list format, the pet genre of the blogosphere. How else was I to keep my head from imploding?

1. I Guess I’m Not a Hater
People love to talk about how traditional publishing is dying, but is that actually true? According to The New York Times, the industry has seen a 5.8% increase in net revenue since 2008. E-books are “another bright spot” in the industry, and the revenue of adult fiction grew by 8.8% in three years. (Take that, Twilight!)

Of course, the industry has troubles. The slim profit margins of books; the problems of bookstore returns; the quandary of Borders closing and Amazon forever selling books as a loss-leader; how to make people actually pay for content, and so on. Furthermore, the gamble of the large advance strikes me as ridiculous — and reckless, considering that editors and marketing teams have no real clue which books will be hits and which ones won’t. (Still, what writer is going to kick half-a-million out of bed?) And there’s the always-chilling question: With mounting pressure to turn a profit, how do editors justify publishing an amazing book that might not speak to a large audience? Talented authors — new and mid-list — are bound to get lost in this system.

And yet. And yet. I read good books by large publishing houses all the time, books that take my breath away, make me laugh and cry and wonder at the brilliance of humanity. I trust publishers. They don’t always get it right, but more often than not, they do. As I said in the piece that started me off on this whole investigation: “I want a reputable publishing house standing behind my book; I want them to tell you it’s good so that I don’t have to.”

2. I Write Literary Fiction
coverBefore you get your talons out, let me clarify: I don’t consider literary fiction superior to other kinds of fiction, just different; to me, it’s simply another genre, subject-wise and/or marketing-wise. Many of the writers who have found success in self-publishing are writers of straightforward genre fiction. Amanda Hocking writes young adult fantasy, dwarfs and all. Valerie Forster, who published traditionally before setting out on her own, writes legal thrillers. Romance, too, often does just fine without a publisher. Aside from Anthropology of An American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann, I can’t think of another literary novel that enjoyed critical praise and healthy sales when self-published. That’s not to say that it can’t — and shouldn’t — happen, it’s only to point out that it’s a tougher road for writers of certain sorts of stories. Readers like me aren’t seeking out self-published books. Why not? That’s for another essay. (Please, can someone else write that one?) Until the likes of Jeffrey Eugenides and Alice Munro begin publishing their work via CreateSpace, I don’t see the landscape for literary fiction changing anytime soon.

3. I’d Prefer a Small Press to a Vanity Press
coverThe conversation about self-publishing too often ignores the role of independent publishing houses in this shifting reading landscape. Whether it be larger independents like Algonquin and Graywolf, or small gems like Featherproof and Two Dollar Radio, or university presses like Lookout Books, the imprint at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, which recently published Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision (nominated for this year’s National Book Award), independent presses offer diversity to readers, and provide yet another professional option for authors. These presses are run and curated by well-read, talented people, and they provide readers with the same services that a large press provides: namely, a vote of confidence in a writer the public might have never heard of. Smaller presses, too, enjoy a specificity of brand and identity that too often eludes a larger house.

In this terrific interview, publisher Fred Ramey of Unbridled Books puts it this way:

I believe that the iron grip that large publishers and their marketing partners have had on readers’ attention since the 1990s has slipped quite a bit with the arrival of online retailers and opinion-makers. Obviously patrons of online booksellers can see the breadth of reading options – “Others who bought this item also bought….” Patrons of independent bookstores know of those options, too, and depend on the recommendations of their booksellers. The few “designated” titles from the big house are still dominant, of course, even in independent stores. But if you are an author in one of those corporations whose book has not been “designated” your reality can become pretty stark.

Independent presses can offer a real chance to a talented writer who might not fit the formulas of the big house. Yes, I know that each conglomerate has a few imprints and a good many editors dedicated to the best of books — to maintaining the course of American letters. Those are the prestigious imprints that aren’t always required to pretend the sales of a prior book predict the performance of the next book. (I’m often astounded at how willing the industry is to act as though it believes that. We all know it isn’t true.) But independent presses are all dedicated to finding and presenting the best of books, dedicated to the books in and of themselves and to the promise of the authors.

A year ago, I published my novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me with a tiny press called Flatmancrooked, and I consider it the highlight of my career so far. Not only did I get to work with a sharp and talented editor, Deena Drewis, and have my book designed by the press’s risk-taking founder Elijah Jenkins, I also had so much fun participating in the press’s LAUNCH program, where the limited first-edition went on pre-order for just a week. My book sold out in three days, and getting that first paycheck was exhilarating. My tiny book got me on a panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a few awesome readings, and it even found its way to two different editors at larger houses. It became my literary calling card. When readers received my book in the mail, it was signed and numbered by me. It also came with a condom.

Flatmancrooked, sadly, closed its doors earlier this year, but Drewis has continued the LAUNCH program with her new press, Nouvella. The success of Flatmancrooked showed me that small can mean flexible and daring in its editorial and marketing choices. Small presses try things that large, established houses are too huge, and possibly too chickenshit, to even consider. The fact that Flatmancrooked is now defunct showed me that a labor of love is still a labor (especially when its laborers have other full-time jobs to go to), and that instability is unavoidable in the small press (or the small, small, small press) game.

Some writers are forever wed to the small press landscape. Others, like Blake Butler, Amelia Gray, Benjamin Percy, and Emma Straub first published with smaller outfits and have since moved onto larger houses. Perhaps the small press world is becoming the real proving ground for literary writers.

4. Self-Publishing is Better for the Already-Published
Perhaps the smarter, and far more seductive, path is the one where the writer begins his career with a traditional publisher, and then, once he’s built a base of loyal readers, sets off on his own. The man who loves to talk smack about the publishing industry, J.A. Konrath, already had an audience from his traditionally-published books by the time he decided to take matters into his own hands. It’s much harder to create a readership out of nothing.

coverI’m interested to see how Neal Pollack’s latest novel, Jewball, does as a self-published book. Short story writer Tod Goldberg is also trying this approach with his new mini-collection, Where You Lived, self-published as an e-book. I don’t need an intermediary to tell me about these writers because their previously published books speak for them.

5. I Value the Publishing Community
I decided to ask the most famous writer I know, Peter Straub, if he’s ever considered leaving the world of big publishing and putting out a book all by his lonesome. After all, he’s a bestselling author and editor of more than 25 books (18 novels alone!), and he’s a horror writer beloved by genre geeks and snobby literary types alike. A few of his fans probably sport tattoos of his bespectacled face on their pecs. (Or: Peter Straub tramp stamps! Yes!) In an email response, Straub acknowledged how quickly the publishing world and our reading habits are changing, and he said he just might experiment with self-publishing short fiction in the coming years. He told me:

True self-publication means writers upload content themselves, and plenty already do it. I’m not quite sure how you then publicize the work in question, or get it reviewed, but that I am unsure about these elements is part of the reason I seek always, at least for the present, to have my work published in book form by an old-style trade publisher. The trade publisher, which has contracted for the right to do so, then brings the book out in e-form and as an audiobook, so I am not ignoring that audience.

What he went on to say gave me a special kind of hope:

Most of the editors I have worked with over the past thirty-five years have made crucial contributions to the books entrusted to them, and the copy-editors have always, in every case, done exactly the same. They have enriched the books that came into their hands. Can you have good, thoughtful, creative editing and precise, accurate, immaculate copy-editing if you self-publish? And if you can’t, what is being said about the status or role of selflessness before the final form of the fiction as accepted by the audience, I mean the willingness of the author to submerge his ego to produce the novel that is truest to itself?

This — this! — I get. Even though my first novel was rejected by traditional publishers, one assistant editor’s notes on it — notes that were thorough, thoughtful, challenging, and compassionate — were enough to show me that these professionals are valuable to the process of book-making. I know you can hire experienced editors and copy-editors, but how is that role affected when the person paying is the writer himself? What if the hired editor told you not to publish? Would that even happen?

6. The E-Reading Conundrum; or, I don’t want to be Amazon’s Bitch
Many self-published authors have gone totally electronic, eschewing print versions of their work altogether. I can’t see myself taking that route, however, because I don’t own an e-reader, and I don’t have plans to buy one (not yet, anyway… I read a lot in the bath, etc., etc.). It seems odd that I wouldn’t be able to buy my own book — I mean, shouldn’t I be my own ideal reader? I also prefer to shop at independent bookstores, and in fact, I pay full price for my books all the time. The thought of Amazon being the only place to purchase my novel shivers my timbers. I don’t mind if someone else chooses to read my work electronically, just as I don’t mind if Amazon is one of the places to purchase my work; I’m simply wary of Amazon monopolizing the reading landscape. Self-publishing has certainly offered an alternative path for writers, but it’s naive to believe that a self-published author is “fighting the system” if that self-published book is produced and made available by a single monolithic corporation. In effect, they’ve rejected “The Big 6” for “The Big 1.”

7. Is it Best for Readers?
In September, when my brother-in-law learned that my book still hadn’t sold, he said, “Please don’t self-publish!” He was actually wincing. If I did self-publish, he said, he’d buy it because we were family, but otherwise, he’d happily ignore my novel in search of something he’d read about on The Millions, or heard about on NPR, or had a friend recommend. There are simply too many books out there as it is.

Our conversation reminded me of Laura Miller’s humorous and perspicacious essay, “When Anyone Can be a Published Author,” in which she reminds us that the people who celebrate self-publishing often overlook what it means for book buyers and readers. She writes:

Readers themselves rarely complain that there isn’t enough of a selection on Amazon or in their local superstore; they’re more likely to ask for help in narrowing down their choices. So for anyone who has, however briefly, played that reviled gatekeeper role, a darker question arises: What happens once the self-publishing revolution really gets going, when all of those previously rejected manuscripts hit the marketplace, en masse, in print and e-book form, swelling the ranks of 99-cent Kindle and iBook offerings by the millions? Is the public prepared to meet the slush pile?

As a member of the reading public, I am not prepared, or willing, to wade through all that unfiltered literature. As a writer, I must put my head back to the grindstone and write a book that more than a handful of readers can fall in love with.

8. I’m Busy. Writing.
Today I wrote two pages of my new novel while my mother took my five-month-old son to the mall. I get twelve hours of childcare a week, and six of those are dedicated to preparing for my classes and running a private writing school. The other six hours I devote to my new novel. The old one, the one that traditional editors didn’t go nuts for, is in the drawer. Some might say I’ve given up; I say, I’m just getting warmed up. I’m still writing, aren’t I? My career isn’t one book, but many. And like every other writer out there, I decide what road I want to travel.


Image credit: purplesmog/Flickr

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174 Responses to “Reasons Not to Self-Publish in 2011-2012: A List”

  1. Julie Ramson
    at 11:43 am on December 30, 2011

    I note this article with interest having put 5 books on Amazon (and to a lesser degree Nook) in the last year. To date, I have sold over 5000 books. I have one stand alone novel, Lifelines, and four murder mysteries that are a series. I am very grateful they have sold so well.

    I couldn’t get an agent. I tried. Over and over and over. I agree that an editor’s or publisher’s comments would have been (and still be) very helpful – but for those of us that the traditional publishers won’t give the time of day to – so what? I suspect that most didn’t even read the queries I labored over so diligently before submitting.

    Agents and publishers are picky and I do understand why. It’s a very competative market and expensive to take on a new author but the system leaves many of us unknown authors out in the cold. Most of the agents were very nice when responding to my query but there were also some who either didn’t respond at all or who were actually rude in their responses. I understand their need to be selective – I don’t understand their arrogance.

    Amazon is the best forum I have found for my books and I have gotten very good e mails and comments from readers, most of whom I don’t know. I appreciate their time in e mailing me and I really appreciate their purchase of my books.

    I am a huge fan of self publishing because for me it provided a forum for my books. Yes, you wade through a lot you may not like but there are gems out there as well.

    For those of us who aren’t Grisham, Connor or Steve Barry, let’s hear it for the e book forums who let us publish!

  2. A cynic’s conversion to self-publishing, or how I learned to stop worrying and love my novel | Chris Kridler | Sky Diary Productions
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    […] Hi there! In the interest of saving time, let’s skip the bullsh*t and get down to brass tacks. It has come to my attention that someone named Edan Lepucki has written an article with a list of reasons not to self-publish in 2011-2012. […]

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  10. Marion
    at 10:54 am on September 8, 2012

    Your reasons are good ones, but there is a flaw in the logic. You are making the assumption that writers have the luxury of deciding between traditional publishing and self-publishing.

    You describe small presses as though they are always an option, but most established small presses can only handle a few titles a year and are unlikely to take on unagented or unproven writers. Agents are still being overwhelmed by material and won’t take on what they don’t think they can sell. In a tight market even independent publishing houses may not take on writers who need nurturing and whose first book might not get back the advance. Even when a writer does all the right things as you have including building publishing credits in small magazines and journals, it may not be enough.

    Publishing decisions aren’t made because of a book’s quality. They are made based on guesses about marketability, and most publishers won’t take a chance on anything they don’t think will sell enough to make a profit. That doesn’t mean it won’t sell, just that it may not sell enough to cover all the costs involved in publication.

    You’re building a career. I get that. You’re getting published in small magazines and hoping to get the cred to get the contract, but if you’re writing literary fiction and not working on a series with a plucky female detective, that may not be good enough.

    What it comes down to is this: After working on your novel for years, after writing and rewriting and getting critical feedback from those respect, what happens when you can’t find an agent for it, or the agent you have explains to you that it just won’t sell? What happens after the tenth small press editor says no, not because he doesn’t think it’s brilliant, but because they can only publish two titles that year and are going with more established authors? Do you accept the verdict, put it away, and move on to your next project or do you go it alone, knowing it may only sell a few thousand copies, and do little to win you professional respect? Which choice shows more of a belief in your own worth and commitment to your vision?

  11. The Death of Literary Fiction? - IndieReader :: the first and only source for news, professional reviews and opinion on the exploding independent books scene
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  13. Terry Perrel
    at 1:33 pm on November 5, 2012

    Does any literary writer set out to publish e-books? I doubt it. I certainly never meant to do so, but since my first agent, Harriet Wasserman, closed up shop due to health reasons and my second agent, Jack Scovil is dead, I’m reconsidering. In both cases all the info regarding my manuscripts was lost/disappeared. As I result I’ve lost valuable time in an industry that’s swallowing itself.

    So now I’m considering self-publishing two novels as e-books. And why not? In today’s publishing world, you have to do you own marketing. I can easily spend another hour uploading each manuscript so I don’t have to share my royalties with any company but a distributor.

    Meanwhile,dear writer, please consider this advice. Find yourself a young, healthy agent.

  14. Do
    at 12:40 am on December 15, 2012

    Excellent article.

    Self-publishing will only make sure than authors that are not best-selling already will never get noticed in the noise. We, readers, assumed that we could expect a minimum quality from the books we found in a bookstore. Now, the only safe choice is the writers have already read. More sales for Stephen King and good new talent wasted.

    And no, we don’t have time to sample through the junk. It’s not practical. We expect someone with experience to do that for us to some degree. Editors are not perfect but they are better than nothing. Imaging examining oranges one by one to find some that don’t stink.

    I also respect reviews from press reviewers and disregard the reviews of self-published books on Amazon. As I have seen, far too many self-published writers will review books written by their friends, and many will hire reviewers, even buyers. A very successful self published writer even admitted it publicly. It’s a well known method, you will find in on the kindle forums and people discuss it openly all the time. They even consider it fair play. Things like that have always happened in the industry, but this is way out of line. It’s a pain to see writers, creators of art, behave like crooks that want to fool their readers.

  15. Jocelyn Seagrave
    at 10:40 am on December 18, 2012

    Edan, I heard you read in Los Angeles, and I really appreciate both your writing and your thoughts on self-publishing. You’ve thought through your personal stance so well that I actually feel like you’ve done the work of explaining my own reasoning to my husband for me. Thank you :)

    I’m both annoyed and amused at some of the comments by self-published writers that say you’re in it for the validation. I didn’t read that anywhere in your post. Sounds like they’re feeling defensive.

  16. Chris Ward
    at 9:36 pm on January 7, 2013

    Writers who refuse to accept self-publishing as a option are only going to shoot themselves in the foot in the long term. More and more previously trad published writers are turning to self-publishing, not just for the vastly superior profit margins it offers but also the control you have. And when trad publishers usually farm out editing, copy-editing, proofreading and cover design to external companies then why not just do it yourself?

    I read this interesting article yesterday

    about how much money EL James DIDN’T make as a result of signing up with Random House. While it’s far harder to get noticed without a marketing department behind you the results if you ARE noticed can be significant. Good on Hugh Howey for keeping ebook rights, hopefully it’ll become a standard. The trads know they’re missing out, and they’re just clambering for a piece of the pie in an age when they have less relevance than ever before.

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  18. Andy Kuiper
    at 2:26 pm on April 15, 2013

    re: “…Amazon monopolizing the reading landscape”.
    This is a very relevant concern and folks may not be paying attention to it; thanks for pointing it out Edan :-)

  19. Dan Carter
    at 3:10 am on November 8, 2013

    When you look behind the stories, the authors were driven to self-publishing due to being scammed by small fly-by-night publishers or blocked by the majors, but have used their success to sign with publishers. Other authors have not left the fold, and have reasons why self-publishing is inadequate

  20. L.D.Sewell
    at 9:03 am on November 8, 2013

    Interesting information. I dont believe that any one way is the only right way for all authors. For those who choose the traditional route – if they can find a publisher to publish their work, it may be the best way for them. For others, myself included, the very idea that someone else will be given sole power to decide the fate of a particular book is intolerable. Independence and complete freedom to publish our own work as we see fit is more important than almost anything else to us.

  21. Gautam Naryanan
    at 12:57 am on January 15, 2014

    Edan, I heard you read in Los Angeles, and I really appreciate both your writing and your thoughts on self-publishing. You’ve thought through your personal stance so well that I actually feel like you’ve done the work of explaining my own reasoning to my husband for me. Thank you

  22. Telling Writers No | Ally E Machate
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  23. Michael Burns
    at 9:28 pm on January 3, 2016

    This article and many of the comments that follow confirm my own suspicions. I’ve worked as a bookseller, proofreader, editor and am currently writing my first novel. I’ve long suspected that too many of the self-published crowd laud the virtues of the option through the delusion that they are the next big thing and a dozen agents and big box publishers were simply too arrogant to admit it–dismissing entirely that the more likely reason was that they simply were not good enough. On the flip-side, making any money while you’re honing your craft is better than making nothing. But this too has a downside in that you may never establish a true following beginning as you will from a place of inferior work. The best self-published works I’ve read still pale in comparison to the handful of authors I read between covers. What is clearly missing is the expert collaboration that brings tangible books to the stores. The moniker Vanity Press has not been misplaced.

    If money is the only reason a writer writes, then maybe this is the market for them. If however the goal is something greater, then I say traditional publishing is the only way.

  24. Sean H
    at 8:44 pm on April 15, 2016

    Lepucki is a weird success story, one I remain skeptical of even while I admire her well-collated advice here. She’s on the mark with almost all of it. That said, “I write literary fiction” is an infinitely questionable statement. Lepucki is very much dabbling in genre and her prose isn’t consistently all that artful; at best she’s “literary with a lowercase “l”,” not really literature in, say, the Joyce/Faulkner/Nabokov/Woolf/Flaubert regard.

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