Self-publishing Q&A for The Writer Magazine

Freelance writer Jocelyn Kelley got in touch with me recently to help with an article she’s writing on self-publishing for The Writer Magazine. Her questions brought up some interesting topics, so I thought I’d share my responses with you …

It is well known in the publishing industry that self-published titles do not get mainstream reviews. Do you find this to be true? Is this why you decided to give self-published titles some attention?

I imagine it’s true. I’ve never actually submitted one of my novels to a major review publication. However, if I did, I’ve a feeling I might be able to sneak through, because as a self-published author, I use my own publishing imprint. If, on the other hand, my book had the word iUniverse, AuthorHouse, or Lulu (all recognisable self-publishing author services) on the spine, it’s not hard to imagine reviewers putting the book to one side – permanently. Every reviewer has probably had a bad experience with self-published works and has learned to distrust them. I don’t blame them.

In my own book reviews blog (http://darrylslibrary.wordpress.com), I feature some self-published works. I’m not specifically out to give a helping hand to self-published authors. I just happen to have had some good experiences: authors such as David Kilpatrick, A.P. Fuchs, Philip Henry – skilled wordsmiths whose work is clearly a labour of love. But I’ve read a few stinkers, too. I recently decided to revise my submission guidelines due to a particularly bad novel. I accepted the author’s review request because I liked the theme of the novel and was attracted by its cover art. Big mistake! The book was horrible. I now ask authors to email me a chapter before I accept their book. I can usually tell whether a book will be good or bad in the first chapter. The book in question was so bad that I could tell after one paragraph! There were three problems with that single vitally important paragraph, and if an author can’t get that right, what hope does the rest of the story have?

The stigma on self-published titles is that they are not up to par with work published by mainstream publishers. What did you find when reading/reviewing self-published titles?

The stigma is entirely justified. As a self-published author myself, I could argue that I’ve read some terrible books pumped out by mainstream publishers, but that’s a cop out. I would take an educated guess that the amount of poor quality titles in the mainstream is dwarfed by the tidal wave of slop that self-publishing services churn out. My favourite analogy is American Idol. In the early episodes, we watch all the would-be superstars give their best shot in the preliminary auditions, under the gaze of Simon Cowell and co. And more often than not, we’re either cringing or laughing, as countless deluded souls who think they can sing pass briefly across our screens.

Well, surely it’s bound to be the same story in the sphere of writing. There have got to be countless would-be authors who have never taken the time to learn the craft, who simply assume they can write like a pro. The only difference between them and the American Idol rejects is that modern printing technology has allowed them to claim a place in actual publishing. I really don’t blame bookshops for not stocking self-published works. Can you imagine walking into a music store, looking for some new talent, and having to wade through CDs by every American Idol wannabe? Imagine buying something on the fly, taking it home and listening to it for the first time, then being totally gobsmacked because it’s somebody strumming three basic chords on a guitar while singing out of tune, all recorded on a puny computer microphone. Thank goodness this situation isn’t real. Likewise, thank goodness bookshop owners are savvy enough to protect the public from the literature equivalent. Maybe it sounds strange for a self-published author to be talking this way. Well, if I’m to make any kind of success at this game, I need to be a realist. The stigma is a necessary thing, and if there’s any blame, it should be landed squarely on the backs of the many authors who release their work to the public before it’s anywhere near ready.

On a more positive note, I’ve discovered some self-published authors whose work I’m very glad to have read. These are people who know how to constuct an entertaining plot, who have taken the time to learn a great deal of the nuts and bolts of the craft, who have poured over their finished manuscript for countless hours in an attempt to track down every typo, every grammatical misstep, every punctuation error. I have to admit, though, that I’ve never managed to get through one of these good books without spotting a few things that make each one fall just shy of a professional standard. Nevertheless, I’m very glad to have been able to read them.

What is the consensus among self-published writers that you have dealt with regarding reviews/media attention?

Oh, I’m sure we would all love to see our books featured on Oprah. Who wouldn’t? But I think we’re happy enough to send our books out to various bloggers and genre publications. We rely mostly on our personal websites to promote our books. If we obtain a few glowing reviews, we can consolidate them on our sites. We have to live without the big reviews, but one thing that’s important in the smaller reviews is whether the reviewer can be tied to the author’s personal life. For instance, I have several really positive reviews of my novel Chion in these blogs: The Podler, Critical Mick, Podlings, and None May Say. None of these sites has any vested interest in blowing my trumpet. Potential readers who visit my site can trust them. On the flipside, it’s easy for any self-published author to tell his buddies to go onto Amazon and leave a five-star review. I don’t hold a lot of value in those.

Self-published author Scott Sigler turned out to be something of a marketing genius, whether intentionally or otherwise. Several years ago, he revived the old audiobook format by featuring his novel online in MP3 format, split up into episodes which were released weekly. It was completely free. Over time, he did this with three novels, gaining countless fans. And when he finally released a paperback of one of the books, he craftily asked all his fans to buy it from Amazon at a specific time on a specific date. He rocketed to the forefront of the charts and got noticed by a major publisher. He now has a three-book deal! Smart guy. Wish I’d had the brains to bring about a situation like that that for myself.

The biggest publicity I’ve had was a forty-five-minute interview on WritingShow.com. The host informed me that the interview was downloaded 1,000 times in the first week. At my end, that translated to two sales of my novel. That gives some idea of how hard it is to sell books. Without major publicity, none of us is going to be quitting our day-jobs. But then again, that was never the point. Well, occasionally, somebody crawls out of the woodwook with the delusion that he’s going to take the publishing world by storm. But for myself, I’m just having fun. On a small scale, I’m living out my dream of writing fiction and seeing it enjoyed by the public. Even though I’m only selling one or two books a week, it’s a worthwhile pursuit.

What is your overall feel of the self-publishing industry? Do you feel that it is a reputable form of publishing that is receiving negative attention in the media?

It’s reputable in some forms. Some of these self-publishing companies have come under fire for giving the false impression that they are closer to a mainstream publisher than they actually are. A phrase like “Availability to bookstores” doesn’t really mean that your book will be stocked anywhere. It merely means that a member of the public can walk into a bookstore and place an order for your book. An honest self-publishing company will state what it actually is: an author service – a means for an author to get his book in print and for that author to then sell his book on his own steam.

Most of the negative publicity that self-publishing has received has been justified. Authors needs to be clued up on the scams that operate; they need to be made aware of the difficulties and pitfalls of the enterprise. It’s also fair that the public be made aware of the general poor standards of self-published work. It’s up to the authors to use their own ingenuity to work around the stigma, rather than griping about it. I work around it by using a try-before-you-buy approach to marketing. Casual surfers who find my website can download a free ebook of my novel or listen to a recorded excerpt in MP3. I would never dream of encouraging them to part with their cash for a paperback without first convincing them that I can write well and tell a good story.

Someone may dismiss self-publishing in its entirety, simply on the grounds that no editorial process has gone into the publishing of it. This is slightly hypocritical, because such a system is not in place for other forms of art, such as independent music and film; it’s simply a matter of those with enough money can do it. If I give a digital copy of my fiction away for free, it should be allowed to stand or fall entirely on its own merit in the eyes of the public.

The sea of poor quality self-published fiction doesn’t really bother me, because it’s essentially harmless. A bad book can’t get good reviews, therefore the author won’t be able to market it successfully, therefore it won’t sell. And a book that won’t sell is no threat to the reading public. Any author who writes a bad book puts himself in his own catch-22. Good self-published fiction, on the other hand, is very hard to sell, but stands a chance in the hands of an author with a good head for marketing.

Obviously I love self-publishing, because it has allowed me to see my fiction in print. I’ve been doing this since 2001 and have sold around 1,300 books in total. Small potatoes. Professionals may feel that what I’m doing is laughable, but that’s only true if you insist on comparing me to professional authors, whose bread and butter is their words. I reiterate: getting famous and making big bucks was never the point. It was more about creating art, having an audience for that art, and maybe making a little cash on the side. Getting published in the mainstream will always be something to aspire to. Whether it happens or not, I’m enjoying what I’m doing.

When a reader is considering buying my novel, I don’t think it’s very important to him whether it’s self-published or not. He’s had a chance to sample it online, and I think his only consideration is to what degree he enjoyed it.

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