Mark Terry

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Should You Self-Publish?

November 29, 2006
There's been a little mini-furor over some posts made by Keith Snyder on Lee Goldberg's blog about vanity presses and self-publishing, and it carried over to Eric Mayer's blog, where I posted a lengthy response about this subject, which I am going to post here and add to, to whit:

I was fairly amused by Keith's post as I am about Lee Goldberg's posts on the same subject, because both of them take fairly hard, one-sided opinions on the subject. (And I'm easily amused).

When I've given talks about publishing and am asked about POD like iUniverse, etc., my response has always been, "It depends on what you're trying to accomplish and what you expect to get out of it." If you want to have your book published, ie., in book form, available on, a couple copies on your shelf and some copies to sell to family and friends, then by all means, go for it. This is a very reasonable way to go and it's not that expensive. If your intention is to have a career as a writer, specifically novelist, and you're thinking:

1. I'll self-publish and I'll be one of those people who sell really well and get picked up by a major publisher, or,

2. This will help build a track record so I can attract an agent or bigger publisher, Then, I tell these people, you're deluding yourself.

As for #1, you're more likely to get struck by a meteor. Yes, occasionally a writer who publishes by iUniverse builds up a decent readership and some big NY publisher picks up their books. But it's very, very rare and the reason you hear about it is because it's very, very rare and because the POD publishers WANT you to believe this might happen to you.

As for #2, editors and agents don't give a damn. I published something via iUniverse (Catfish Guru) and although my reason for doing so was a bit different than those who "just want to get published," it's not been useful information for acquiring editors or agents, who recognize that the ability to complete a manuscript and pay someone to publish it is not a reflection of competence or salability, but a reflection of an ability to use a word processing program and own a credit card.

I also want to point out one story here and that is the young man who wrote Eragon, I believe his name is Christopher Paolini. Yes, that book was self-published, and yes, he did acquire a major publisher, he did become a bestselling author and he will shortly have a major film released based on the first novel. So, is that a reason to go ahead and self-publish? Let me sort out a few facts here that might explain where Christopher was an exception and how he was also struck by lightning.

1. Christopher's parents are publishers. They did the publishing, so they knew how to do it and as a result, this didn't really cost him much of anything.

2. The book was only being handled in local bookstores, probably bookstores who handled books already published by his parents' publishing company and through his quite exhaustive marketing efforts. He used to do school visits and dress up as characters from the books and hand-sell.

3. He was struck by lightning. Bestselling author Carl Hiaasen was vacationing in the area and picked up a copy of the book, read it, liked it, noted it was basically self-published, took it to his publisher (Knopf) and said, "You should read this. It's fantastic."

4. The editor apparently agreed.

Now, can that happen to you? Geeze, I don't know. Don't hold your breath. There's often a knock against the quality of self-published novels, which may or may not be true. Like everything, most are mediocre, some are pretty awful and a few are probably pretty damned good. A basic bell-shaped curve, in other words.

But to stay on the Paolini story for a moment, in an article in Writers' Digest, Paolini commented that his editor at Knopf made him cut 400 pages!!! from his novel before they viewed it as publishable. So clearly, although there was apparently something good in there, it needed a fair amount of work to be publishable. And although I can't guarantee this, I have to wonder if, with that excess 400 pages, if Paolini had tried to attract an agent or editor in the traditional, query letter extravaganza, if he would have been successful, or if agent after agent would have said, "It's fairly entertaining, but way too long to be marketable."

Another thing I say when this subject comes up is this:

A publisher is someone with money who publishes books. Period.

There is no certification, school or credentials required to call yourself a publisher and start publishing. Somewhere along the line Bantam, Random House and Putnam were basically started by somebody with money who wanted to publish books.

It always reminds me of a line from Ross Thomas's "Voodoo, Ltd." when he describes the multi-billionaire newspaper heir who moved to Los Angeles and said, "I'm a movie producer," and everybody said, "You have money like that? Yes, you are a movie producer."

If Bill Gates decides to stop throwing money at Africa and decides for some unbelievably foolish reason he wants to start a major publishing company, guess what? He can and who's to tell him no?

But the reality of the situation is that in the U.S. and in most countries, the publishing industry at its highest level is a series of multi-national conglomerates that have a track record of publishing a certain quality of books and have the money to do so profitably and the distribution channels to make it work. The task for the majority of novelists is to figure out exactly what type of quality and product that is and keep knocking at the doors of those various companies until somebody lets you in.

Self-publishing is an attempt to make an end-run around that business model and although it may or may not work on a small business/entrepreneurial level, and may or may not work on a creative level, it does not necessarily mean you are a novelist to the same degree.

Put it this way: there's major league baseball and there is minor league baseball. Then there's your town's intramural league and then there's your company's softball team. Does anybody who plays for the company's softball team really think they could play baseball at the same level as a A, AA or AAA minor league player, let alone a major league player? Maybe on some rare occasion there's somebody out there who's really, really talented and can go all the way. And that's just like publishing.

There are also plenty of AAA minor league players who could make it in the major leagues, but just haven't had that lucky break that will get them there.

Mark Terry


Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

When I ran I used to do some of the same stuff professional runners did. I once ran against Boston marathon winner Steve Rodgers. Well, not really. I was on the same course as he was on the same day. I guess I might've seen his back amongst the crowd before the gun went off. I ran because I enjoyed the process. It never occurred to me I was competitive or at the same level as someone like Rodgers. But, again, I did run the same course. I was playing the same game.

A terrible drawback of using a vanity press is that the writer who does so rarely even gets to play the writing game. What's the point of writing if you have no readers? How many books does the typical vanity press title sell? Hardly any. Vanity press writers are writing for themselves. They would be better off putting their work into electronic form, giving it away, and trying to convince a few people to read it, which is hard enough.

To me the point of writing is to communicate with an audience not to get a cover put on the words.

If someone thinks they can sell some copies, or wants a nicely bound book for family and friends, then why not use lulu? Like the iUniverse option you used it is free. And not really a bad idea. If our books went out of print it would be nice to still have them available in case someone occassionally wanted one.

1:33 PM  
Anonymous spyscribbler said...

I have no problem with the self-publishing craze. People need to find their own path, and if it's a hobby or a love, then that's okay.

What drives me crazy, though, is the seemingly endless rhetoric by those who say it is the best way to begin a career writing.

Weirdly enough, the ones who spout that over and over, don't have a career in writing.

It bothers me when newbie authors believe them and the iUniverse rhetoric, over the advice published authors give out. It makes me sad.

1:58 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

I think it's very, VERY important that people understand that iUniverse and others have a fairly simple business model:

publish a small number of books for a large number of people.

By this I mean, they don't expect each title to sell more than 100 copies or so, but they expect 100,000 or so "authors" to buy into this. YOU MUST REALIZE THIS. THEY DON'T EXPECT YOU TO SELL MORE THAN 100 COPIES OR SO. THAT'S THEIR BUSINESS MODEL.

This is a different business model than big publishing and even a different business model from small presses, whose business models might best be called:

Publish a large number of books for relatively few authors. (Or in the case of small presses, a small to medium number of books for a relatively few authors).

There are a LOT of scams out in the publishing world, and my personal experiences with a couple of them might be worthy of a blog entry some day if I could get them all sorted out.

Overall, I'm fairly happy to allow people their own delusions. If you think having a book published by iUniverse or someone similar makes you an author, fine. What is the cut-off anyway? How many copies do you have to sell before you become a quote-unquote "real" author?

Is it by definition just having someone else pay to have your book published? So if you mom writes the check, are you a "real" author?

This gets into a really complex philosophical area, and I think I covered my thoughts on it well enough by saying that it's mostly having to do with what you're trying to accomplish.

2:43 PM  
Anonymous Dominic said...

Hi Mark,

I currently represent Mark Levine and I read your blog posts on self-publishing and thought you might be interested in a book he's just released. It's called The Fine Print of Self Publishing and it basically lays out the nine essential qualities to look for when considering a self-publishing company. Through his extensive research and personal expertise gained from his experience as a corporate, entertainment and intellectual property attorney, he also analyzes and critiques the contracts and services of the top 48 self-publishing companies. He wrote it to help authors decipher the legalese and fine print of self-publishing contracts.

Levine also wrote The Fine Print of Self-Publishing to help simplify the confusing and potentially treacherous worlds of self-publishing. The idea for the book arose from his legal experience representing several writers who were led astray by dishonest self-publishing companies.

If you are interested in The Fine Print of Self-Publishing, please let me know and I'll send you a press kit and a copy of the book.


Phenix & Phenix Literary Publicists

3:29 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

I've heard of the book, but no thanks, not interested.

Mark Terry

5:02 PM  
Anonymous spyscribbler said...

The "real" author debate! I think that lies within the author alone. I know plenty of unpublished writers that I would call real writers, and add "kick-ass" to that description.

I joke that I'm not "real"ly published, because I can't hold it in my hands, and because it's not a RWA-recognized publisher. I can make a living at it, though.

I don't really care if I'm "real" in others' eyes or not. In fact, I think I've made my own definition NY-published, if only because it suits my goals.

That's just me, though. I have a very high opinion of amateur authors, and most are "real" enough for me.

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