Self-Publishing: When to Do It, When Not to Do It, and More

Jeff VanderMeer • July 1st, 2009 @ 8:50 am • Writing Tips

Christina Baker Kline has posted a round-robin interview on self-publishing that took place on Facebook when Matthew Nadelhaft queried a few authors through Facebook’s email. Participants included Minister Faust, Stephen Dedman, Eugie Foster, Jennifer Stevenson, Michael Stackpole, and myself. Go check it out–lots of good stuff.

I self-published my first fiction collection, The Book of Frog, and also The Surgeon’s Tale & Other Tales (with Cat Rambo)–the context for each consistent with my views on self-publishing as it exists today. If you can’t get traction in the publishing world with a first collection despite having had stories in good publications, I think it’s okay to self-publish. If you’ve got books out from major publishers and you want to do a less commercial project, I think it’s okay to self-publish. That said, within five to ten years, self-publishing in general will probably lose its stigma altogether and we’ll have a situation closer to what you find in indie music.

Anyway, some of what I set forth in the conversations piece is also in my forthcoming Booklife: Strategies & Survival Tips for the 21st-Century Writer, like this bit:

It’s also good, in a time when “book” means a lot of different things, to boil down the book lifecycle to the following:

• Creation and perfection of content
• Acquisition of a platform (or format) for the content
• Creation and perfection of the “skin” (aesthetic) and context for the content
• Accessibility to the content
• Visibility for the content

19 Responses to “Self-Publishing: When to Do It, When Not to Do It, and More”

  1. Lee says:

    I self-publish because I’m not interested in getting traction in the publishing world – or anywhere, for that matter.

  2. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Oh, bullshit. If someone came to you with a publishing contract tomorrow, you’d take it.

  3. JMMcDermott says:

    I don’t necessarily disagree with the conclusion that self-publishing will lose its stigma in a few years. However, I do disagree with the comparison to music.

    The example you give about having stories in respectable publications is where I see the divergence.

    The current problem with self-publishing isn’t that it can’t be viable for established artists. I think the problem is that too much of the energy of self-publishing is expended on projects that have not been filtered in any form.

    The production process is different, as well. Sometimes music gains a lot of its character from its rough edges, and low-fi production values. Books, however, never benefit from a roughshod preponderance of copy-editing and printer errors.

    Authors, also, tend not to find venues for book promotion of “indie” titles as readily as a musician can find a bar or cafe or festival with an available stage. Musicians, generally, don’t just cut an album. They are often found performing live, at shows, where they are paid to promote their own album. Even successful midlist authors struggle to fill a reading room at Conventions, where one would think the audience is primed for such a thing.

    That said, I don’t necessarily disagree with the conclusion. I disagree with the comparison.

    I don’t think you can compare the road to success as a painter with the road to success as a musician with the road to success as a writer in any sort of specific way. A loose metaphor, at best, I can run with. But, the specific way these products are produced, presented to the public, and consumed by the public, are just too different to allow for a direct comparison.

    A better reason self-publishing will lose its stigma, to me, is that the quality of POD books has dramatically improved over the years, while the costs have gotten, generally, competitive. Even now, respectable independent presses use the technology to create critically-acclaimed, successful, small-scale titles. Writers with an existing audience can benefit from this technology, sure, and will be smart enough to figure out the details of when and why. The stigma will fade as more prominent authors do exactly that.

    To me, that’s where the stigma fades. When successful authors start self-publishing, now and then, and it enhances their careers, we will see no more stigma. For projects like you describe, non-commercial stuff and etc., this is already happening.

    Writers without an audience, however, will only dampen their careers by rushing to self-publication, and unfurling the waving banner of crappy prose and crappy copy that plagues us now. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

    Self-publishing may lose its stigma for established authors, and authors with a track record in major publications. It will probably never lose its stigma for everyone else, for whom it is their first “published” object in the world.

    Maybe the internet, and blogging, can morph into our nightclubs and dive bar stages of performance? Maybe then, the stigma might completely go.

    Until something like that, I don’t think we’re going to see a complete wash of stigma. We’ll only see a wash of stigma for established authors, with increasing of stigma as you travel down the spectrum from the very-established luminaries like J K Rowling to the reasons why self-publishing has a stigma now like Robert Stanek.

  4. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    I’m not looking to make a complete comparison, just to say (1) you can “self publish” as a band and there’s no stigma and (2) an indie band that releases a CD on their own label will still often bring in a producer (or editor), etc. I see self-publishing going the same way. Those who are smart will hire editors as part of the costs of self-publishing. But, of course, to compare music to books by mapping them metaphorically point by point doesn’t make any sense.

    Jeff

  5. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Oh–and reading this more carefully, JM–I really think it’s impossible to predict what will happen and how, but I am not sure you’re right about self-publishing. I really don’t. The generation growing up now, which can create videos and podcasts online without anything other than an online tool that’s often free…they’re not going to see the distinction. There’s also a ton of published stuff from legit presses that is complete crap.

    I’m not defending self-publishing. I just think it’s a very complex issue and it’s going to have more than one answer over time.

    Jeff

  6. JMMcDermott says:

    [quote]I just think it’s a very complex issue and it’s going to have more than one answer over time.[/quote]

    We definitely agree on that.

  7. Chris Billett says:

    The concept of it developing to the point where freelance editors etc. take on a more professional role is an interesting one that I’d not considered, and would help to remove the stigma. I still maintain (and I don’t think we disagree on this) that the signal to noise ratio validates the stigma at the moment, and that until something happens to change that, it won’t go. I’m not sure why I think there is less crap independent music floating around than prose, and I’m not sure whether it’s correct to say or not, but it’s definitely the impression I get.

    Hey, Jeff, is there any chance of you plopping the subscribe to comments plugin in your WordPress installation? I don’t always come back regularly (no offense – I rarely go to any authors’ sites, even friends, and you get more visits from me than most!) and there’ve been a few threads that I have meant to come back to and have forgotten.

    Not to tell you how to run your site or anything :/

  8. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    The mighty Luis Rodrigues runs my site, and no other! :)

    http://feeds.feedburner.com/ecstaticdays-comments

    He’ll add it to the bottom of the pages.

  9. New writers and the lure of self-publishing « Natania Barron says:

    [...] direction but, chances are, will just end up causing erosion along the way… I agree with Jeff VanderMeer that, in a decade or so there’s a high liklihood that self-publishing will be more like indie [...]

  10. Ty says:

    And Amazon is making self-publishing quite easy through the its digital text platform for the Kindle. There’s been a lot of talk about this recently over at mystery/horror writer Joe Konrath’s blog:
    http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/

  11. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Yes, definitely easier. Still the issue of leverage.

  12. Lee says:

    ‘Oh, bullshit. If someone came to you with a publishing contract tomorrow, you’d take it.’

    Jeff, please don’t assume things about me that you couldn’t possibly know, including when I’m bullshitting. It’s true that I’d be happy to accept a publishing contract – but only under certain circumstances, one of which would have to include free internet and ebook accessibility. Nor am I prepared to do the sort of book tours/festival appearances/conferences which seem to be expected (not, of course, that anyone’s asking). Nor, for that matter, I am actively engaged in searching for an agent.

    I happen to be at a point in my life where the work, not its rewards, concerns me. I am not, however, criticising those who choose a different path. But at least grant me the courtesy of treating me as a colleague, not a deluded fool … or a liar!

  13. Lee says:

    Perhaps I should further clarify: I consider my primary form of publishing to be online, and only make a POD copy available as a reader service at cost. In the U.S. Amazon obliges me to charge a minimum price of $ 0,99 for a Kindle version of my novel, and I’ve accepted this to make it easier for American readers, though I always suggest they go first to Feedbooks, which offers excellent (and free) service. In a fortnight or so I’ll begin to serialising my new YA F/SF novel Corvus and plan to do more or less the same. And this time round the podcasts will be read by a professional British actor, who happens to support my ethos.

  14. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Lee: See–you would take a publishing contract. I’m not debating that you have a clear plan for how you want to conduct yourself and how you want your work to appear, and that it may differ from the majority of other writers. That’s your right and your business. I’m just saying your initial comment was knee-jerk and not entirely honest. And I don’t mean that in a combative way. I was just calling you on something I thought wasn’t true. Your further responses are much more interesting and more honest.

    Cheers,

    Jeff

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    [...] Self-Publishing: When to Do It, When Not to Do It, and More [...]

  16. Lee says:

    But, Jeff, I was indeed honest in my first comment: I am not interested in getting traction in the publishing world (or anywhere) is what I said, and entirely what I meant. Otherwise, I’d be busy drafting queries and submitting mss. Frankly, my view is that anyone who wants to earn money from my work will have to query me.

    Nor do I mean to be combative, but I have absolutely no need to be dishonest. That’s in fact one of the reasons I publish as I do: to safeguard my independence. No sales to lose, no editors to convince, no games to play, no one to satisfy except myself.

  17. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    As I said, I just mean that it’s more complicated than your first statement indicated. The fact you’d be open to someone approaching you about it just proves that. You seem to think that means I’m impugning your integrity. That’s not the case.

    Yes, you’re entirely safe that way, Lee. You don’t ever have to really put yourself on the line. Very brave.

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