Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Gold Rush of Self-Publishing?

This year, for the first time, the national conference of the Romance Writers of America featured a series of workshops devoted to the craft and logistics of self-publishing. Courtney Milan and other romance authors who had originally been published by traditional publishers spoke about the pleasures, both intellectual and financial, of controlling all aspects of a book's production after switching over to self-publishing. Authors such as Liliana Hart, who had experienced break-out success with nary a nod from a traditional publisher, described how they had built their careers, and their fan bases, from the ground up. Dorien Kelly and other long-time writers spoke about hybrid careers, and in particular about reaping new income by self-publishing backlist titles long ignored by their print publishers. Chairs were often at a premium at the Self-Publishing track workshops, published and potential authors alike eager to learn all they could about a publishing process that only two or three years ago, most would have turned away from with scorn, deeming it appropriate only for writers not good enough to make the cut with an agent or an editor at a big 6 publishing house.

The majority of speakers I heard tended to focus on self-publishing's benefits. Authors no longer need rely on middlemen to choose their cover designs, to promote their new titles, to communicate with booksellers and readers. Nor did they have to restrict their subject-matter, or self-censor, in order to please editors and marketing departments eager to make their books (i.e., their products) palatable to the widest readership possible. No more need to abide by the often arbitrary rules about what "the romance reader" likes or will tolerate, as if the millions of romance readers all share exactly the same tastes. No more accepting contracts heavily weighted in favor of publishers, or dealing with unscrupulous or unsavvy agents. No more being treated as if writers are the supplicants, publishers the ones doing them a favor by deigning to print their books. Most of the upsides of self-publishing, focused as they are on empowering (primarily female) writers, warm a feminist's heart.

Perhaps I am just by nature a contrarian, though, because I found myself suppressing the urge to caution writers about hopping too eagerly on the self-publishing bandwagon, to examine the process and its claims more critically, lest self-empowerment turn too quickly to self-delusion or disillusionment. Very few workshop leaders discussed the downsides of self-publishing. Milan noted that not everyone has the skills to self-publish, the organizational mind-set or the desire for control. Hart discussed the need to hold off on self-publishing until you have at least three to five books ready to launch, and told audience members to be prepared to offer something new (novel, novella, or short story) at least every month to sixty days, otherwise one's rankings on the all-important amazon.com sales charts would quickly sink. No one mentioned whether a book written and published in a month could match the quality of one over which a writer worked and polished for many months (or even, possibly a year!). Will self-publishing push readers even further into accepting quantity instead of quality?

The new closer relationship readers expect from authors—posting on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites not just about their books, but about their daily lives—is even more vital for the selfpublished author. With no publisher to rely on to get a book into stores, or into the hands of reviewers, self-published authors need to cultivate readers directly. As agent Steve Axelrod noted in an interview for the Popular Romance Project, such cultivation requires a completely different skill set than the one required for writing compelling prose.

The personal sharing social media demands may also give many writers pause. Do your children, your parents, your significant other really want the world at large to know about their hobbies, their likes and dislikes, their foibles? And how much time are you willing to spend cultivating those readers, as opposed to actually writing your stories?

Are you willing to be a "brand" rather than a writer? For I heard the word "brand" far more often than the word "book."

Money, as well as privacy, may be a stumbling block, especially for previously unpublished writers. The initial start-up costs required to produce a professional-quality book might seem small for authors already making a living from their writing, but how many writers will shell out several thousand dollars, hiring editors, copyeditors, cover designers, and promotional experts, only to find that their returns do not come close to recouping the initial expense?


I can't help but be reminded of the 1849 Gold Rush. So many men left everything behind to fly to California in the hopes of striking it rich. Yet the ones who benefitted the most were not the prospectors, but the ones providing services and equipment to them: the barkeeps and cooks, the storekeepers and laundry owners, the overall makers and the whoremasters. Will it be the freelance editors, book designers, file converters, and authors of books about self-publishing (271 at last count listed on amazon.com, 564 on Goodreads) who end up earning the most from the self-publishing boom? And will it be the female romance authors, rather than male prospectors, who are left with so little to show for their leap of faith into the unknown?

As a reader and a reviewer, I also wonder who will serve as the gatekeepers if and when traditional publishers disappear? If my tastes do not match those of the "average" reader, will I be able to find other sources besides popularity charts to guide my way through the deluge of self-published works likely to flood the market in the coming months and years?

So, am I being too much of a Negative Nellie here? What do you think are the potential up-sides of self-publishing, for romance authors? For their readers? What pitfalls do you see?

Photo/Illustration credits:
Publisher cartoon: David Sipress, The New Yorker
Self-publishing time chart: Ryan Gielen, AppNewser


  1. I've read a couple of self published books. In my experience, the self published books, as you said, just weren't good enough to make the cut. I'm sure there are lots of good authors out there who haven't made it due to lack of contacts in the publishing industry or their subject matter not being in style at the moment, but the problem is separating them from the chaff.

    Maybe the solution would be lots of small publishing houses instead.

  2. For every self-pubbed book I like, there are 3-4 I don't finish. I've learned to look at the publisher information on Amazon and price point is an issue. I'll take a chance for $.99 or even $1.99. More than that, I want to see some reviews from trusted sources. It's a minefield for readers, too.

  3. You bring up a lot of good points about why caution is required before diving into self-publishing. I do not want to go that route only because I want savvy partners to help me. When I re-released Hometown Heroines: Stories of Bravery, Daring, and Adventure, I do through a digital first small press that came recommended to me by a trusted writer/friend/RWA chapter mate. I had to pay for the book cover and formatting, did my own editing (I'm a tech editor by day), but the publisher takes a percentage of net receipts so I get a royalty check as income is received from retailers. This is a hybrid approach, and it allows me to keep focused on writing, research, and social media, in that order. I don't think you're being negative. Rather, I think you're pointing out the realities of the decisions facing writers in this publishing environment.

  4. I'm planning on self-publishing (initially) for some of the reasons you mentioned but the biggest one is that my stories don't fit comfortably into any of the current conventional niches. That being said, I've created my own e-publishing company (that will eventually offer formatting services to other indie authors) but I'm trying to follow as many of the steps that a traditional publisher would as I can. I'm working with a cover artist as we speak but when my WIP is finished, it's going to an editor, perhaps 2 and then to a copy editor. I want my book to be the best product it can be and I know what I don't know. I've also read a lot of self-published books (I usually stick them out to the end) where the author just put it out there. My personal feeling is that if you're going to self-publish, you have a responsibility to yourself and your readers to produce the best book you can and with the plethora of free-lance (fill in the blank) there's really no excuse for shoddy work. I shall step down of the soapbox now.

  5. I was happy to see this post. Being new to writing I have had some people insist the best way for me to go is Self Publishing. However the more I come in contact with writers, the more I realize that even though they are getting "more" per book, they are only selling a dozen or so books. And they have to flood their Twitter and FaceBook pages with what I call commercials. I don't want to do that and don't have quite the following that some of these people have.
    And I have read some of these books also. I am a bit stingy when it comes to buying books and hate to spend more than .99 on something I am unfamiliar with. I know the big name publishers will have quality writing. One e-book I purchased had a dozen great reviews but when I read it I couldn't even get halfway through (and believe me I tried) because the writing was so dull and the storyline boring. So you can't trust all reviews. Self Publishing may be a great avenue for those who have already had success but is something a new author really needs to check out further and put much effort into.

  6. I have a couple of ideas for increasing the quality of self published works, which also double as marketing strategies:
    - Post free short stories and writing samples on a blog and ask for critiques. This way, you can improve your writing and slowly build up a fan base.
    - A kickstarter campaign which includes a sample chapter. If your writing is good enough, you'll be able to find backers to cover the cost of editing, marketing, art, etc.

    Of course, promoting yourself on social media and the blogosphere is a job in itself, so your mileage may vary :).

  7. Hm, I thought samples eliminated the problem of "taking a chance on an unknown self-pub"? Maybe not. It seems like only contemporary romances have really taken off on Amazon. :/

  8. I chose to self-publish because I had four novels already written and did not want to go through the lengthy process of trying to find a publisher and submit to their schedule and censorship. I had friends who had taken both routes and had a very realistic understanding of the pros and cons of both ways. Two of my friends have both been published in the past and opted, like Courtney Milan, to switch to self-publishing. One of them who has been writing for more than thirty years, re-released several of her previous works as eBooks.

    Before I took this step, I practiced my writing skills by participating in the Jane Austen Fan Fiction world. I tried multiple styles, serious historical romance, erotica, comedy and modern. I am not a fantasy or gothic lover so I skipped those genres despite both being quite popular in the JAFF world. As a literature major (Kate Millett was my literary criticism professor at Barnard), I find making Jane Austen’s characters werewolves, vampires or her female personas being held captive by evil counts in dungeons so very wrong. To me, her innovative style was the antithesis of the romantic sensibilities of her era. I preferred to attempt to emulate her character driven plots and witty ironic prose. Throughout all her novels, Austen’s comedy of manners illuminates her world; particularly the singular choice of marriage amidst the numbing pressures of an acquisitive society for women of her class.

    By the time I had four stories posted on multiple sites, I had created a fan base; learned a great deal about what I did that was liked and where I needed to improve; but most importantly I made friends who were taking the plunge into self-publishing.
    I am known for pushing the limits of what the JAFF community will tolerate. My realistic, unsentimental treatment of an Elizabeth Bennet, who is raped at fifteen (‘Goodly Creatures’), was either loved or hated depending on the myths readers believed about Jane Austen’s plots. Those who believe she wrote fluffy romance novels think I committed an abomination—despite my using actual plot elements from ‘Sense and Sensibility.’ With my erotica, I included a lesbian relationship that inflamed the ‘clean’ faction of the Austenesque world and resulted in a slew of 1 star reviews despite my warning that ‘Mr Darcy’s Cottage of Earthly Delights’ was sexually explicit—as if the name couldn’t clue them in! Still, I am very pleased with my sales. Both books are over 2,000 sold, and each novel I put out in the market creates interest for the previous one.

    Sadly, Random House did absolutely nothing to edit and improve ‘50 Shades of Grey.’ However, I am certain they found ways to market it that self-publishers would never be able to accomplish. Still, it started out as Twilight Fan Fiction. Though not exactly self-published, James had placed her trilogy in the market through a small press she created with another fan fiction writer and Random House noticed that it was selling well and jumped on her bandwagon. That seems the best of both worlds. Write something that you self-publish that a regular publisher thinks looks like a moneymaker for them.

  9. I love self-publishing, Jackie, I have to say! Love, love, love it. I turned down contracts from NY to self-publish the books I "tested" self-publishing on, and from an author's POV--just love doing it, so will be doing more. The absolute relinquishing of control to NY is a bit hard on authors like me, and that's what happens with NY publishing. No control, loss of rights, loss even of control of what the final text will look like (many contracts have a clause giving the house the right to edit/delete/even insert scenes at will). It does also make better business sense, these days, in a lot of cases. Not always, of course.

    There's a learning curve to self-publishing as with everything of course, and I DO understand your reservations. But I am a huge proponent of the self-publishing movement.

  10. This is a thoughtful post, and it brings to light the many drawbacks most people don't speak about. They are the very reasons I went traditional first. But after dipping my big toe into the indie-publishing world, I fell in head first. Like Laura Florand above, I love, love, love it. BTW, I went to Laura Florand's website, and I think I found a new favorite author. I'm starting The Chocolate Thief. OMG, the opening has me transfixed!

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