Monday, February 24, 2014

The Cult of Self-Publishing

I’m not going rail against self-publishing, in and of itself.  If you honestly think it’s the best choice for your project, fine.  I’d urge you to do it well, but still: fine.  Enjoy!  If you want to put out a poorly-written bit of nonsense with a cover that looks like a World of Warcraft screenshot, hey: that’s your name on it, not mine.  It doesn’t hurt me.  And if you put out something outstanding that becomes the Next Big Thing: great!  It still doesn’t hurt me. 

But self-publishers themselves can be highly annoying, at least the ones who have made themselves into a cult as far as their faith in self-publishing.

From what I've seen, it really is a cult.  I see the advocates preaching articles of faith, telling others that their path is the one true way, reciting verses of dogma, and attacking non-believers.

And that's where I have a real issue with it.  Often they treat it like publishing is some zero-sum game, and that in order for them to get respect as self-publishers, they have to TEAR DOWN the traditional model.  It's not enough to do well on their own.  They have to prove that going the traditional route is the way of the dodo.

A lot of this is based on bad numbers, statistical analysis of only the successful end of the outliers, and a soupcon of good, old-fashioned bitterness.  Yes, bitterness.  Because much of the tearing down of the traditional publishers (or "legacy" publishers, as they like to say) is based on the idea that since they couldn't get through the gatekeepers (or, perhaps, didn't really try because they bought into the impossibility) it cannot be done.  It shouldn't be done, and all you're doing by trying is buying into the system.

I've even seen it going so far as telling people whose success came from their traditionally published book that they should have self-published, because it clearly would have done just as well, and they would have made more money or something. You know, you can make your own webshow on YouTube or Blip.TV, but you never see anyone tell someone who has a show on USA or HBO, "You should have put that on Blip.TV instead!"  Of course not. 

This all comes from wanting self-publishing to be taken seriously, and they feel that can only happen if the traditional industry is supplanted by their method, rather than supplemented.

It's really quite simple: if you want to be taken seriously, do great work.  Period.   The rest will take care of itself.


Amy Sterling Casil said...

Marshall, there are some serious gaps in the traditional and the "new" self-publishing systems.

Not all authors have the time, skills or ability to do all of the things necessary to successfully self-publish. By the same token, advances and publishing contracts in the traditional system need to be far more lucrative to match the financial rewards for successful self-publishing writers.

Thomas M. Wagner said...

I get review queries from self-publishers quite a bit, and most seem nice and sincere. I gather the "cultish" ones are more present at conventions. There is a similar attitude in the world of independent film that's been going for about 20 years now: pick your favorite director who beat insurmountable odds with a movie he made for pocket money (Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez); take it as axiomatic you're just as talented; treat your just-around-the-corner impending fame as deserved and a blow to "traditional" models of creative success as obsolete.

Though the entitled narcissists represent a minority among creative hopefuls, like that one obnoxious drunk who won't get the message that everyone wants him to leave the party, they tend to spoil the fun for the rest.

Unknown said...

"A lot of this is based on bad numbers, statistical analysis of only the successful end of the outliers, and a soupcon of good, old-fashioned bitterness."

Well, that depends. If someone is saying that self-publishing is a sure-fire road to instant success -- not that I've seen anyone saying that, but I haven't read everything out there, so I guess it's possible -- then yeah, that would require counting only the top outliers.

But if all someone is saying is that self-publishing is a better deal than signing with a publisher (especially one of the Big 5 and Counting Down), then no.

It's true that most self-published writers don't make a lot of money. But you need to compare that, not to people who actually have publishing contracts (that is also the high-end outlier), but to everyone who has submitted something at least to an agent. Most people who try to go the traditional route make literally NO money at all.

You will do better at any level of success if you self-publish. That's a fact. If you don't do well, it's likely you would not have found a publisher, and that means you're making a little money instead of none. If you do, then you still might not have found a publisher, in which case you're making a lot of money instead of none; or you might have, in which case you are keeping 70% of the revenue instead of 12.5%, and are probably selling more, too, and publishing more books per year.

So it doesn't take any delusions, and it certainly doesn't take "bitterness." The facts speak for themselves.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

Well, I'm not saying that either model is perfect, of course. But I did pursue traditional explicitly because it would do things that I would not be able to do "on my own"*, or wasn't interested in doing myself.

And, yeah, the cultish one are the loud, obnoxious ones. I certainly don't think everyone who self-publishes fits that description. But it does fit that "indy film" model from 20 years ago, where we were told that the whole studio system was going to go down and this was how movies were going to be made. Yeah, that's really followed through, hasn't it?

(Not to mention, most successful "indy" films all seem to have recognizable actors in them...)

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

Brian-- the point is that is NOT a fact. And I'll point out even the success stories are accompanied with said author taking a deal with a Big 5 publisher. And why? Because they can do things that self-publishing can't. Not to mention that 70% figure only represents e-book sales, the self-publisher gets no bookstore penetration, no hard-copy versions. I've seen several traditionally published authors point out that if they got 70% of just their e-book revenue, as opposed to 25% plus their hard-copy revenue, they would have made less money. (And it's 25% on my contract, as opposed to 12.5%.) So, again "you will do better" is based on faulty logic. (Let alone that I will probably sell more than 3 times as many e-books through my publisher than I would have self-publishing, so... I'd rather have 25% of 3X over 70% of X.)

David Friedman said...

Marshall v. Brian

Both of you make assertions, neither provides data. There was a piece up online not long ago based on the work of someone who had data mined Amazon. The conclusion was that, for eBooks, one did better self-publishing, along the lines that Brian suggests. Unfortunately I didn't bookmark the piece, but perhaps someone else here did.

I don't think it discussed POD self publishing of hardcopies, but I may be mistaken. One obvious possibility, which I may go with for the third edition of my first book, is to license the right to publish the hard copy to a professional publisher and self publish the eBook.

Robert L. Slater said...

Ryan. I hope I'm not one of the annoying ones. As someone who paid their dues {632 submissions [short and long fiction]} trying the traditional route, who would PROBABLY take a print only traditional contract, I know there are plusses on both sides. "the 'cultish' ones are more present at conventions" AND wasting their time spewing vitriol on the internet instead of having conversations and trying to get more transparency from all sides.

I look forward to continuing this conversation and invite you to read about my path and my reasons.

You said it all here: "It's really quite simple: if you want to be taken seriously, do great work. Period. The rest will take care of itself."


Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

David-- I didn't link to that piece, but that is exactly what I'm talking about in terms of bad statistics. Namely, it only takes top selling ebooks as its sample for self-publishing. This is, in terms of creating a statistical sample, like using lottery winners to determine the odds of winning the lottery.

But more to my point: I'm not saying self-publishing is bad. I take issue, though, with being told that my choice of traditional publishing is bad, and I would be doing better by self-publishing.

The only real stat is, yes, 70% is more than 25%, but it fails to note that it's comparing 70% of X to 25% of Y (or more correctly, .25Y + Z). Maybe .7X would be bigger than .25Y+Z, maybe not. But I think the presumption that the "X" of a self-published book and the "Y" of a book published through a major house would be the same is highly faulty logic.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

Rob-- I think there's a HUGE difference between "I chose self-publishing as the best choice for me because of Reason A and Reason B and so forth" over "Self-publishing is the better choice and you would do better by doing it." The former is about making a personal choice. The latter is about imposing it on others.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely. "Imposing your view on others..." Never okay unless they are your minor children or employees! ;-)

I hope to be one of those folks that can help people make educated choices if ask for my advice!

Don Bisdorf said...

If you're talking about the Hugh Howey piece at, I'd be interested to hear why you believe the statistics presented are flawed. You stated in your comment that the charts are only presenting data about successful e-books, and that this invalidates the results. However, it seems to me that the charts are comparing the results of successful indie published e-books to the results of successful e-books from the big 5. It's not just examining lottery winners to calculate the odds of winning the lottery. It's comparing lottery winners from two different sources (indie publishing and traditional publishing) to determine which source is providing a better overall outcome.

And there are several charts that aren't limited to the big winners. There's a bar chart showing the numbers of authors at all success levels, from $1 million a year down to less than $10K a year. This chart in particular fairly explicitly shows the results of indie publishing at all levels of success.

I agree that self-publishing isn't a magic bullet, and isn't the One True Way, and hasn't made traditional publishing obsolete. But I think there's clearly enough data to show that self-publishing is a valid option, and can provide good results in the right circumstances.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

"But I think there's clearly enough data to show that self-publishing is a valid option, and can provide good results in the right circumstances."

And I've never argued otherwise.

One point that should be examined in self- vs. traditional is the fact that e-book sales are only a portion of total sales in the traditional marketplace. I've seen more than one traditionally published author say in response to Mr. Howey's piece that their royalties on print + e-book far outstrip what e-book alone at 70% would have been.

The problem with the statistics is it cherry-picks winners to demonstrate why self-publishing is the winning choice, rather simply than a choice you can win with. That's a critical distinction.

The people who are cultish in their proselytizing of self-publishing have been pointing to that report as proof of Self-Publishing as the One True Way, and Traditional being dead. When it demonstrates nothing of the sort.