Suggested by The New Podler: A Self-Publishing Symposium

The New Podler is gathering opinions from a variety of authors regarding the current state of self-publishing. My hopelessly optimistic answers follow below. What are your thoughts?

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How does self-publishing differ from traditional publishing?

Self-publishing is either liberation or self-indulgence depending on how you go about it. There’s a dubious association with instant gratification. The core benefits: you retain all control over your material, you keep a bigger chunk of the profits, and, oftentimes, you’re able to forge a more personal relationship with your audience. The drawbacks (which, depending on your motivation, can also be benefits): you must be your own publisher, editing, formatting, creating effective packaging; you must be your own marketing team—you must be willing and able to spend a portion of your time as a door-to-door salesperson of sorts. It’s a lesson in patience and refinement, though not such an added burden considering that many traditional publishers these days require you to have a marketing plan anyway.

Regarding availability, the gap is narrowing between books sold off of a book shelf and those sold via a web site. Chain book stores are steadily closing, and while you still have Barnes & Noble, Borders, and the independents, these stores only have so much physical space. There are legions of capable, entertaining “mid-list” authors whose books are not often included between Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer. Selling through the Internet is a way to defeat the problem of limited shelf space. It also happens to be the most accessible method available to self-publishers.

Do self-published book review blogs help to raise the reader awareness of self-published books?

Absolutely. Legitimate, critical self-publishing review blogs (like good traditional-publishing review blogs) point out the blemishes as well as the dimples. For serious self-publishers, this is what you want if you have a good, solid book that doesn’t carry the reputation of being self-published because it can’t stand on its own, because it can’t find traditional publication. It should never be assumed that getting reviewed at a self-publishing review blog is easier than getting reviewed elsewhere.

How do you respond to the following statement: “Self-publishing is not a serious way to get one’s work into print now and never will be.”

I daresay a more accurate version of the above statement is: “Self-indulgence is not a serious way to get one’s work into print now and never will be.” If you’re not ready, if you’re rushed, then it will come across to reviewers and readers alike. With self-publishing, there’s no editor or agent acting as a stop-gap. What I’m finding as I go along is that it’s not so much the self-publishing model itself that needs to clean up its image as it is the ability of self-publishing authors to effectively promote their work. It’s all in how you do it.

Has the golden age of self-publishing already passed or is it yet to come?

Bigger and better things are yet to come. I’m convinced the traditional publishing industry had to stumble before a real awareness was raised regarding alternative book markets. The technology had to improve to a point where anyone with a computer and Internet connection could feasibly create and publish. Book stores, whether they’re selling print or digital copies, will continue to be country clubs for the elites, which is perfectly fine. Many authors are bestsellers for a reason: they’re very good at what they do. But they’re not the only kids on the block. Self-published books—good ones—will continue to fill the gaps. Eventually, when (and I do think it’s a matter of when and not if) e-books become the norm, everyone will be selling via digital download. The old notion that you find professional authors’ books on store shelves, and amateurs’ online will hold much less water.

What about the challenges posed to the self-published writer by having to promote and edit his or her own book?

This is something many traditional publishers are requiring of their authors due to tighter budgets. In the past, you could, to some extent, get away with merely sending in your manuscript and letting the publishing team handle the rest. You only needed to be on hand for signings or interviews. Now you need a marketing plan to go along with your synopsis and sample chapters. You need to convince your would-be publisher that you’re a hustler. You need an agent. And even then, a contract with a traditional publisher comes with no guarantees. Yes, depending on your contract, you’ll have access to physical store shelves, but you still have to work your butt off promoting yourself. You’re selling more books, but getting a smaller percentage of each sale. Not a bad thing. On the DIY side, you’re selling fewer books, but keeping more of the profits; you’re having to manage all your book sales yourself, whether through your web site or via consignment agreements with local book shop owners. All stereotypes aside, both traditional and self-publishing endeavors involve a lot of work. The latter is more easily attainable, whether as your sole method of publishing or as a hook to attract a mainstream publisher.

Why is it that a self-published author has yet to emerge into national recognition as a self-published author? (As opposed to being given a mainstream publishing contract after a self-published book attracts attention.)

I think a lot of it is the social stigma of someone coming up to you and saying, “My latest novel is great! You should read it!” People don’t like it when other people toot their own horn—but they don’t mind as much when you toot someone else’s horn. With self-publishing, this is something of a challenge. You have to promote yourself without sounding like a greasy car salesman, you have to get other people to blurb you and promote you. It can be exceedingly difficult, because you’re not working with a paid staff, you’re working with friends, other self-published authors, family members. They all have their own lives to worry about.

Also, at this point in time, traditional publishers still carry a lot of clout. A contract with Random House can do wonders for your literary presence. I’ve seen numerous instances where an author will start a series of books with a mainstream publisher, and then finish the series at a smaller press, or under his / her own imprint. Whatever politics are going on behind the scenes, an audience has gathered, and they’ll follow if the books are good. Bands do it all the time.

Has the experience of self-publishing changed the way you write? (If you have self-published.)

I started self-publishing because the small presses I’d been with closed up shop, and I felt my work up until that point was still relevant enough to warrant some kind of distribution. With new material I’ve found that I’ve become more daring. After all, I’m no longer having to adhere to a publisher’s tastes or guidelines. I’ve been able to stretch out a little, blending genres and styles. I’ve already had to go it alone, and so I’m not worried about falling from grace, so to speak. At the same time, though, I’ve had to make sure I don’t get too lax. Proofreaders are still important (before the publishing process!), honest opinions still matter, and it’s still my main goal each time around to write the best book I can.

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There you go. As I mentioned at the start, I’m optimistic when it comes to the DIY movement. What’s happening now in the publishing world is sort of like what was happening fifteen years ago during the rise of the commercial Internet. And MP3s a short while after. I mean, who texted back then? Who ditched their CD collection in favor of MP3s? Nowadays, everyone texts (and sexts), everyone listens to MP3s—and, I wager, in a few more years, (nearly) everyone will be reading e-books instead of paperbacks. We just need that iTunes-like revolution. Maybe it’s the Kindle or the nook or some other fancied contraption that makes it as easy to squeeze 10,000 books onto a hand-held reader as it is to fit your entire music collection onto a handy portable player. Maybe it’s the mass production of such devices that lowers prices and suddenly makes not having one a social embarrassment (like with the iPod). Maybe it’s the passing of new environmental laws that restrict paper production. Whatever. The day will come. Are you looking forward to it, or do you already have your “Physical, not digital!” protest sign ready?