Self Publishing and ePublishing

Note: I am away from the blog for a few days, teaching at the CCWC and taking a couple days vacation with my family. My blogs are now posting all by themselves, isn’t that exciting? Back “live” with you on Monday. Keep sending your comments!

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There were quite a few comments last week and yesterday on both sides of the self-publishing / ePublishing / POD issue. Many were upset that self-published authors go around claiming to be “published.” Others on the opposite side are incensed that agents and editors “discriminate” against self-published authors. As one commenter put it, “…the stuffy insistence that ePublishing and POD publishing is somehow not good enough. I have heard it until I am sick to death of hearing it. I find it snobbish, elitist and annoying… there are plenty of smaller companies out there who pay royalties and treat authors with professionalism and respect and the way the rest of the industry looks down its long and snide nose at them just makes me sick.”

Well, I did ask for rants.

Okay, here’s the deal. I believe self-publishing serves an important and legitimate purpose, and is the right way to go for some people. It’s a good and solid business, one that is definitely improving these days, and many people find success there. And since traditional publishing is so competitive, and it can be especially hard to place certain “niche” books with a traditional publisher, self-pub is a terrific option. I have nothing against it, and I applaud those who choose it as the right way for their own book. It just doesn’t happen to be the business I’m in.

Many of you were right in your complaint that agents and editors often won’t consider taking on a self-published book, but here’s the good news: We may consider taking on a self-published AUTHOR. The book has already been out there and publishers usually don’t want it. If the sales are low, it says “Nobody wanted it.” If the sales are high, it suggests that maybe the market has already been tapped and there’s no place left to sell the book. It’s a catch-22, so the book is less likely to get picked up, but the author is a different story. If you present a proposal worth saying “yes” to, then the answer will be yes regardless of whether you’ve self-published a book before.

As you know, in a few cases, a self-published book hits the big time with a big publisher, but that’s an exception. Recently I did in fact offer representation on a self-published book, because it had only been out a couple of months, had terrific word of mouth and phenomenal marketing, and seemed like it had huge potential. Several other agents wanted it too, and I didn’t end up representing it. This is to illustrate that when it makes good business sense, agents and publishers will jump on a self-published book. I do not “discriminate” any more than I always do as I evaluate incoming projects. I really don’t think I look down my long, snide nose. I simply try to make good business decisions.

ANYWAY, let’s get to the reasons we publishing types don’t look at self-published books as “equal” to those published by mainstream, commercial, widely-distributed, royalty-paying publishers. A couple of you have touched on part of it already, the fact that self-pubs rarely spend serious time or money on editorial excellence or professional design. In the past, most self-published books have been vastly inferior in quality—not necessarily in the quality of the idea but in the quality of the execution: the writing, editing, and design. (I realize things are changing as some ePubs are improving their editing and design. It’s about time!) Somebody commented on this blog recently that they see so many mistakes in CBA books, self-pubbed books aren’t any worse. That’s just not true. In the past, there has proven to be an enormous difference and most of us could spot a self-pubbed book a mile away.

But here’s the more important factor in why we don’t give self-pubbed books the same credence. A traditionally published author has successfully convinced dozens or even hundreds of publishing professionals that their book is a good one.

  • First you have to sell the agent.
  • The agent then needs to sell an editor at a publishing house.
  • That editor needs to sell the rest of the editorial team.
  • If they get on board, they have to sell it to the publishing committee—the publisher, the CFO, and the sales and marketing folks that will make the final decision on whether to publish your book. A very large and hard to impress group of people.
  • Now the sales team has to sell your book to bookstore buyers.

In other words, a traditionally published book has the endorsement of countless book professionals, people whose entire livelihood depends on finding good, saleable books. When you show me your mainstream-published book, I immediately know, without ever stopping to think about it, that many people whose judgment I trust have given your book their stamp of approval.

Meanwhile, most self-pubs have the endorsement of… no one. You pay your money and you get published. Nobody has to declare it worthy of someone’s time and money. Nobody has examined your platform or the quality and saleability of your idea. Unlike the editorial/design aspect of self-pubs, this element doesn’t seem to be changing very much, at least not yet.

Now I know there are numerous “in betweens.” There are subsidy publishers and smaller royalty-paying publishers and many different ways of doing business. At some of those, there is a level of editing, and some have great cover design. Some even do some kind of screening and make decisions to publish certain books and not others. Make no mistake, it’s that screening process (“we will publish this, not that”) that defines the biggest difference between self-pub and traditional pub.

So the facts remain. In general and in the past, self-pubbed product has been generally inferior. And in general, self-pubbed books have not passed the rigorous and extremely challenging screening process a traditionally published book has gone through. We can hope that this keeps changing, so that self-pubbing becomes a more and more viable option for writers who want a high-quality product but don’t want to go the traditional route.

So, we are not trying to be snobbish or elitist, and I certainly hope we are not looking down our long, snide noses at those who self-publish. We simply try to make good decisions based on past experience. Hope this helps you understand my position on self-publishing.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Books & Such Literary Agency. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!

22 Comments

  1. huggznstuff on November 15, 2009 at 3:20 PM

    >To Nicole,
    I do not agree that the average reader does not pay attention to a well written book, for many years i have paid attention to or rather it caught my attention when i read the inccorect use of a word or sentence, if english is taken seriously, if the written word is taken seriously we do notice what is written.

    English is my second language, therefore I do notice, always have noticed the sloopy writing and wondered why the proof reader did not catch the errors,

    i think that the reader is underestimated with that thought process, and the reader should never be underestimated for a second, rather there should be a great deal of respect towards the reader and there is no room for sloppy english,

    to add to the self pub of ones book… a friend has decided to go that route and believes that if it is her book, if it is something she has written it will give her the million dollar sales. in this case it is clear that she has not received proper information and lacks the knowledge regarding self pub. Therefore, when the book is out by the end of the year will it fulfill the the financial expectations or be a huge letdown?
    time will tell.

    i very much enjoy the posts, thank you.



  2. Michael on February 9, 2009 at 5:27 PM

    >Hi (again).

    I understand that the implied endorsement of an agent and the staff at a traditional publisher is a powerful vote of confidence.

    However, the huge piles of one-buck remainders show that the professionals are not necessarily experts.

    Additionally, as a writer, I am much more impressed with the reaction of, and dollars spent by, readers.

    I’ve had books published by “real” publishers including Doubleday, and waited a long time for a little money. Last fall I formed my own publishing conmpany (www.SilverSandsBooks.com).

    The freedom, fun, speed and income make it extremely unlikely that I would ever again consider going through the multi-year torture of seeking an agent and a publisher.

    With self-publishing and POD, a book can be selling a week after the final version is approved by the writer.

    With self-publishing and POD, a writer can keep over $10 from the sale of a $19.95 book — a lot better than traditional royalties.



  3. Logos Pro on June 13, 2008 at 8:12 AM

    >Very interesting thread here. I just wanted to add that Lulu is a POD service that is free. I noticed some posts mentioned predatory companies charging writers and promising success. I published a novella through Lulu and I am happy with their service.



  4. Candy Abbott on June 10, 2008 at 7:19 AM

    >Rachelle, this blog and the feedback you’re getting is the BEST discussion I have seen yet regarding self-publishing. Here’s my story:

    In 1983, recently filled with the Holy Spirit and learning to hear God’s voice, I settled into my morning devotions. It was like any other day until a piercing thought rocked my world. “You will write a book, and it will bless many.” I could hardly bring myself to record the sentence in my journal. When I did, the call brought with it numerous questions. “Who, me? Write a book? What would I write about? Who would want to read it? Where would I start?” One by one, the answers came. “Write about your spiritual journey; write it like a letter to your friends and family; write your experiences as they happen. I will bring helpers alongside as you progress.” Only time would prove if this really came from God, but I believed, so I began writing. Soon, I had 300 pages which were rejected by kind publishers who wrote long letters with suggestions for improvement. Thus began my study of the craft of writing.

    Marlene Bagnull, founder of the Greater Philadelphia Christian Writers’ Conference, took me under her wing. Ten years from the initial call, unable to make headway with royalty publishers, I obtained a copy of Dan Poynter’s book, The Self-Publishing Manual, which guided me step-by-step. Equipped with the skills to do it myself, I contacted a local printer and soon had a book in my hand. My non-fiction book, Fruitbearer: What Can I Do For You, Lord? is now in its third printing.

    In 1998, the Lord nudged me to help other beginning writers. My husband caught the vision, and we established Fruitbearer Publishing to offer self-publishing services to “budding authors.” We now have a whole team of editors.

    In 2001, almost comfortable in my writing/publishing role, our grandson came with the first Harry Potter book. One-third of the way through, I had a fleeting thought. “Somebody needs to write a Christian book that’s just this much fun to read.” Immediately, three words: “You do it.” “But Lord,” I argued. “I don’t know how to write fiction. I don’t know how to write for kids. I don’t even like fantasy . . .” The Lord reminded me that I was already doing a whole lot of things I didn’t know how to do because I had been obedient. And so began another learning curve which resulted in Gavin Goodfellow: The Lure of Burnt Swamp, book one of The Burnt Swamp Trilogy, which I independently published after two years of near-success with an agent. I jumped through all the hoops for a major publisher whose purse-string holders decided after 18 months that they couldn’t make the numbers crunch and were unwilling to take a risk on an unknown author.

    Attempting the traditional route was not wasted, though, because I received a tremendous amount of free professional advice which strengthened the manuscript as well as my character and resolve. In the end, the managing editor offered to provide endorsements, my agent encouraged me to self-publish so the book could get into readers’ hands, and my husband kept saying, “This is not a bad thing, because you retain complete control.” Our first print run of 2,000 (not much according to industry standards but what we could afford) sold out in six months. Although our marketing strategy was to begin at arm’s reach and then expand regionally and nationally, our website (www.GavinGoodfellow.com) has already thrust us onto the international scene.

    Back in 1993, when I entered the self-publishing arena, royalty editors looked down their noses at the “poor child” who may someday get a “real publisher.” Today, because authors are recognizing the importance of investing in professionally edited content and well-designed covers, self-publishing is gaining respect in the marketplace and provides a much-needed platform. The bottom line is obedience, whether through traditional publishing, self-publishing, or sharing your manuscript with neighbors and friends. When God calls you to write, let it resonate within you until it becomes so loud that all other naysayers’ voices pale in comparison. Self-publishing is a viable option.



  5. Nicole on May 19, 2008 at 9:36 AM

    >I’ve had more than one successful royalty published author tell me, it’s more about perseverance than it is about talent. There are certain requirements at each publishing house. Finding the one to fit you is essential and a valid reason for needing an agent even though it’s difficult to secure one.
    Not every writer who gets published by a royalty publisher demonstrates “superior” talent just as not every writer who self-publishes exhibits poor writing skills.



  6. Kristin on May 19, 2008 at 12:06 AM

    >I see reasons for self-publishing: You’re a speaker with a selling outlet, you want to keep a family history in writing, you have a specific plan for a book.

    However, before I ever became a writer, I had been hit up by people trying to sell their self-published books. My dad has a friend who hits up all her friends when she has a new one hit the shelves.

    What people read is such a personal decision and that’s why publishers know how to market to the right audience. Making people feel pressured to buy and read your book is really a job for the publisher. As a writer, it’s my job to write — and I have a marketing background. I was a snob before I became a writer and I suppose I still am.

    Publishing is not a fast road, but most authors work their way up by writing poorly and getting better. That is why writers don’t respect self-publishing. We believe that if you worked hard enough, and got it right for the publisher, it would have been published.



  7. Timothy Fish on May 16, 2008 at 3:53 PM

    >Cost. Schedule. Quality. If you reduce one, the other two take a hit. In self-publishing, cost is reduced and the schedule is shortened. We often see the result of that in the quality that is produced. Most self-published books are terrible, but there are also some truly excellent books among them.

    I think most of the “book snobs” are authors looking for vindication. Authors hope having a published book proves that we are good writers, but if anyone can publish a book then where is the proof? I have self-published books and I have published books for other people. As a publisher, my logo is going to be on the spine of the book and I stand behind ever book, whether I wrote it or someone else. It bothers me when an author says, “I don’t count the books I self-published.” Once we say something, we can’t take it back.



  8. Anonymous on May 15, 2008 at 10:25 PM

    >Just for clarification’s sake – Rachelle is not connected with any editing services. Please don’t confuse her with agents who make “side money” by charging clients to edit their work. That’s considered a no-no in the agenting biz and Rachelle is nothing if not a model of agenting integrity.

    While she does recommend editing services (there is a link on the blog to some of these), she is not connected to them in any way except that she knows these editors to be reputable and talented.



  9. Anonymous on May 15, 2008 at 2:44 PM

    >“Book people love well-written books …” I totally agree. But the majority of readers are not “book people.” What I mean is, most readers know nothing about the craft of writing, so they can’t necessarily love a well written book.

    I know what your saying but I don’t completely agree with you.

    They might not know why they don’t like a certian book, but I’ve found that when people say the can’t get into one, it’s usually because of poor writing.Too much description, back story, etc…they just can’t diagnose it.



  10. Anonymous on May 15, 2008 at 11:00 AM

    >Richard Mabry (and Rachelle by extension) …
    Maybe whoops. I somehow got the impression that Rachelle was, of course, an independent, no-fee-charging literary agent, but also that she had a relationship with an outside editing service. If that’s not the case, then please disregard that portion of my post. I know that can be a touchy issue for agents, and I’m definitely not trying to raise any heckles on that front. I’m all for record straightening and whatnot.

    And Anon 8:18 … loving the loopholes! OK, OK, OK. You’re right. I would without hesitation sink an advance into marketing, mostly because I don’t view that money as “mine” as much as it is proceeds from publishing endeavors. I’m all in favor of investing returns for greater returns (key word being “returns”). As for all the other incidental expenses, I guess I’m in a weird position there as I’m already a professional writer and editor, so all that stuff is tax deductible and a necessary part of my business. I merely meant I wouldn’t pay for services related to the publication of a novel until someone else had coughed up some cash or a commitment to justify my investment.

    LurkerMonkey



  11. Ulysses on May 15, 2008 at 10:52 AM

    >Thanks for voicing my own impressions so eloquently.



  12. Tiffany Stuart on May 15, 2008 at 10:39 AM

    >I’m always learning on this blog. Both through your entries, Rachelle, and through the comments. Hoping to remain teachable and never become snobby.

    Rachelle, hope you have a blast in the mountains with your family and at the conference.



  13. Richard Mabry on May 15, 2008 at 10:29 AM

    >LurkerMonkey–
    You said “I know that Rachelle will disagree with me on this one — considering she’s attached to an editing service.” Do you know something we don’t? The last time I looked, Rachelle had discontinued her freelance editing (scrambling to complete her obligations) and was spending full-time as an agent. Something, incidentally, that all agents don’t do. Some are writers, some also edit, some even do a bit of entrepeneuring on the side. True, her services (or those of any agent) will cost you. So will the services of an independent editor or a publicist. Whether to spend that money is your decision. Just wanted to set the record straight.



  14. Nicole on May 15, 2008 at 9:41 AM

    >*”Book people love well-written books …” I totally agree. But the majority of readers are not “book people.” What I mean is, most readers know nothing about the craft of writing, so they can’t necessarily love a well written book. They love a great story. If you have penned a great story, it won’t matter to the average reader if it has passed the gammet of editors/pub board/marketing people, etc. or if it’s self-pubbed.*

    This is so true. Too many adverbs, passive verbs, showing not telling, means nothing to the “average reader”. While they might have a “cleaner” experience reading a book which offers few of these supposed writing faux pas, the story will drive them through a book faster than “great” writing.

    While some of the self-publishing outfits are “predatory”, the good ones offer an avenue for those who have a niche book, for those who for whatever reason want to have their work in print and haven’t broken into royalty publishing. And it is not cheap to self-publish an attractive book.

    To lump all self-published books into one category, however, is a bit closed-minded. Just like some people lump all “Christian” novels into one less than valuable definition, it speaks of a limited exposure to what’s out there and it erases the unique ways the Lord chooses to operate in the lives of individuals.



  15. Anonymous on May 15, 2008 at 9:31 AM

    >Rachelle, thanks for your reasoned and well thought out response to my rant. Yes, I was the one you quoted in your response and … I’m flattered you chose my rant to quote, but a little abashed at how fired up I got. *blush* I really am a friendly person and don’t normally rant like that. You caught me on a day when the chocolate supplies were low, and the frustrations were high.

    All the same, I do thank you for your response and I was actually nodding several times reading what you had to say.

    I agree with you — in principle.

    I know that publishing is a business — oi is it a business! As a business, the bottom line is how to make money from a book.

    I just kinda wish that people wouldn’t tar all self pubbed authors with the same brush.

    A Noni Mouse



  16. Anonymous on May 15, 2008 at 9:18 AM

    >LurkerMonkey, you’re right that there can be a predatory aspect to self-publishing. Writers considering self-publishing need to do their research and understand what they’re getting into before sending a check (whether for $99 or $999). As with anything else in our free market society, if something seems too good to be true…it probably is.

    I suspect you’re right that Rachelle might disagree regarding the spending of our own money on writing-related activities. I don’t believe it’s necessary for all writers to use editorial services to refine their work (though some can certainly benefit from this), but even when we get a contract with a royalty publisher, there is wisdom in investing our own money (the advance, for example) to help with the marketing process. I know of one author who has spent more than her advance to (ahem) advance the cause of her novel and in her case it has paid great dividends.

    Plus, don’t we spend our own dimes in the process of writing to begin with? I mean, if nothing else – that whole “time is money” thing applies, right? Then there are the books on writing, the supplies (okay, this isn’t such a big expense in the modern age of computers), and most importantly, the coffee that fuels the words.

    I know I’m stretching your argument here…but my point is that while ideas are free, writing (especially writing with intent to publish) does have a cost.



  17. Marla Taviano on May 15, 2008 at 8:48 AM

    >I self-published a book with iUniverse in 2001. It cost me $99. Period. (well, and I had to buy my own books at 60% discount)

    I had a story to tell that was only interesting to a select number of people. It worked for me.

    I’ve since had three books published with a REAL publisher (Harvest House).

    When people ask me how many books I’ve written, I say three. I don’t think the first one counts. A self-published book isn’t a real book in my opinion.

    But that’s just my opinion.



  18. Anonymous on May 15, 2008 at 8:05 AM

    >I’ve been thinking about this since yesterday … and when I get honest with myself, here’s what irks me about self-publishing. I think there’s a predatory aspect to it on the part of the companies involved. The pitch is often, “You can take control of your publishing program! You can market your own books! You can make more money than with a traditional company! And look at Susie Bob Jones Smith — why, she just sold her self-pubbed book to XXXX New York publishing company for 27 BAZILLION DOLLARS!”

    Before I continue .. I know how markets operate. I know there’s nothing inherently wrong with offering a service to people (such as publishing a book) who have the money to spend on it, especially when the service is relatively cheap.

    But.

    There’s so much more than market forces involved when it’s something personal like writing. And I guess I feel bad when I consider all the people who work like monkeys to produce a book, can’t find an agent, decide to self-publish, find out self-publishing is actually more expensive than they thought, throw a launch party with their friends and family, print up mailers and bookmarks and mugs that they send anywhere and everywhere, hopefully list on Amazon, and then are ultimately met with painful disappointment when they sell only 46 copies and even their friends don’t read the book.

    So there it is for me. I know too many people who’ve actually traveled this road. Thus, my hard and fast rule on writing: I refuse, under any circumstances, to pay even a dime of my own money for writing related activities. I will not pay to publish, pay an agent to represent or read, or pay an editor to look at my work. I know that Rachelle will disagree with me on this one — considering she’s attached to an editing service — but that’s just my rule. Obviously, then, there is no room for any sort of self-publishing.

    LurkerMonkey



  19. Pam Halter on May 15, 2008 at 7:36 AM

    >Anonymous 11:51 said, “Book people love well-written books …” I totally agree. But the majority of readers are not “book people.” What I mean is, most readers know nothing about the craft of writing, so they can’t necessarily love a well written book. They love a great story. If you have penned a great story, it won’t matter to the average reader if it has passed the gammet of editors/pub board/marketing people, etc. or if it’s self-pubbed.

    It’s like having a yard sale or doing a craft show. You never know what people are looking for. It always surprises me what sells at either one.

    Thanks for a great topic, Rachelle! I wish I were in the Rockies with you all this week. Give my love to Marlene.



  20. Anonymous on May 15, 2008 at 12:51 AM

    >Well said, Rachelle. This is a fascinating discussion. Here are far too many words further wrestling with this topic.

    It seems reasonable to point to the low success rate of the majority of novels (and non-fiction books, too) as evidence that royalty publishers are failing miserably at their jobs, but only if we can also make the assumption that were they to publish different books (I hesitate to call them “better”, but feel free to use that word if you prefer) they could immediately improve that success rate. This, of course, is the ongoing business of book publishing – attempting to make good decisions about what people want to read, then acquiring and publishing those books.

    In an effort to reduce the number of “duds”, some publishers trim their lists and chase the easier-said-than-done process of being more selective. This was touched upon earlier in the post (and comments) about Thomas Nelson’s recent changes. Other houses may choose to “flood” the market with lots of titles in hopes that one or two will hit a wave of reader interest and sell a ton of copies.

    However you slice it, book publishing an ongoing experiment (and sometimes a bit of a crapshoot). Publishers (and their team of acquisitions editors who work closely with the agents representing the writers) want to sell books, that much is true.

    You’ve all heard stories of publishing houses that passed on books like the Left Behind series. Why didn’t those who passed see the potential? What did all those other editors and sales managers and marketing experts miss? Who knows? I think these sorts of stories underline the difficulty of identifying what will appeal to the reading public.

    Let’s not spend too much time arguing the merits of the Left Behind series here. Whether or not you consider them great books, they did hit a nerve with readers. But if you insist on complaining about the dearth of great literary success stories in the CBA (or ABA), I’ll probably join in that chorus. But I’ll do so with the understanding that great writing does not always equal great sales.

    Book people love well-written books and many of the folks in publishing houses are true book people (especially editors, but not exclusively editors). This often leads to job frustration, because wise business sense dictates that the decision to publish a book ought to be based on the presumption that the book will earn money. Let’s assume for a moment that market research has shown literary titles aren’t selling whereas less well-written titles (choose your genre) are selling well. What’s a publisher to do? Sometimes, they publish the literary books anyway (something that is only made possible by the receipts from blockbusters or other success stories). Here’s where it all gets messy – if those great literary books prove the research true and don’t sell after all, then well-written books are essentially contributing to the low success rate we’re complaining about above.

    So where does self-publishing fit?

    Nicole is correct (see comments in previous post) that the quality of product and presentation offered by self-publishing companies can sometimes rival that offered by royalty publishers. I’m thrilled about that because this will give the good writers who otherwise can’t (or choose not to) find a home with a royalty publisher a competitive opportunity to ply their trade and potentially find readers for their words. I think it’s important to note, however, that this approach to publishing also gives the really bad writers a place to ply their trade. All it takes is a pencil and paper (or a room full of typewriters and monkeys) to write a book, and some money to publish it.

    As I see it, until readers have better access to self-published works (this is improving slowly) and then learn how to differentiate between the good self-published books and the bad (which is not as simple as trusting a logo on the spine), self-publishing will be more of a playground for writers (good and bad) than a significant alternative source for readers in search of a good book.



  21. Nicole on May 14, 2008 at 10:41 PM

    >Valid decision. Well explained, Rachelle.

    Only point of “contention” for me is in spite of the many groups who must be impressed for a book to be commercially published, the fact remains that according to publishing statistics, few of them are considered “successful”.

    So who’s accountable for the low success rate of the majority of novels? It seems to me like there’s a factor here no one wants to address. The elephant in the room says maybe the overall process isn’t working as well as it should.



  22. Beryl Singleton Bissell on May 14, 2008 at 10:32 PM

    >What an excellent article Rachelle. You have taken on a difficult and often touchy subject . . . Most of the authors I connect with have “been published.” I do, however, have a brilliant friend — Catherine Watson who for 20 years was the former travel editor for the Minneapolis Star Tribune who has self published two exquisite books (wonderful writing, amazing stories, beautiful type, design and cover) and is making more money than she would have going through a recognized publisher.



I love words.

I love books and publishing and talking incessantly about them.

I love authors and all the intricacies of managing a writing life.

I sell. I negotiate. I coach. I brainstorm.

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