Sunday, April 8, 2012

The self-publishing debate: multiple questions/multiple perspectives

The more we think about self-publishing, the more complex the debate seems – not because self-publishing is ‘wrong’, unethical, or criminal, but because it has too many ramifications leading to too many other questions. Besides, there’s an authors’ perspective and a publishers’ perspective. It isn't a new phenomenon (it's been around for fifty years or more), but now, with a sudden rise in self-publishing print and e-book platforms, the matter is being debated more. 

Let’s begin from the beginning:

What is self-publishing?

This question itself has three answers:

  1. When an author decides to publish his/her book him-/herself, investing his/her own money in the project, it’s self-publishing.
  2. When an author decides to publish his/her book with the help of a service provider (self-publishing platform), and pays them for their services (editorial/production/printing, etc), it’s self-publishing.
  3. When an author pays a publisher production costs/buys a certain no. of copies of the book to compensate for production costs, it’s self-publishing.
Is self-publishing the same thing as vanity publishing? Mere snobbishness on the part of authors?

For some people it is, regardless of what the service providers/‘vanity’ publishers might say in their defence, or claim that even paid projects go through a quality check/proper scanning before being accepted (and some are turned down in spite of the author’s willingness to pay).

So what’s wrong with that?

On the face of it, nothing at all.

  1. If you decide to publish your own book, investing your own money in it, there’s nothing wrong with it, though some people might question the quality/worth of the book since it hasn’t been worked upon by a seasoned editor at a proper publishing house.
  2. If you use a self-publishing platform and pay them for their services, there’s nothing wrong with it either except that, again, some people might question the quality/worth of the book for the same reasons mentioned above.
  3. In case three, it becomes more complex – from the ‘regular’ or ‘mainstream’ publishers’ point of view. Some publishers believe that it flies in the face of what publishing stands for -- i.e., there is an editorial selection process, tuned to a conscious building of a list by certain parameters/philosophy and an investment put behind those picks to the level of sales envisaged. And publishers either succeed or fail based on their selections.
When money enters the picture, quality assessment becomes ‘suspect’. Not just that, the role of the publisher becomes unclear since he/she isn’t offering the author anything beyond editorial/intellectual input, when they should be investing their own money in the project they claim to believe in, especially if it’s a work of fiction/narrative non-fiction.  

So, is it a mere cop-out on the part of a vanity publisher?


What if the editors providing self-publishing services are equally adept at the job? If the script has been brought up to a certain level, why not self-publish?

The answer would still be that if they really believe in the work, why shouldn’t they invest in it themselves and publish it – OR – hand them over to some publisher who would? What are they really offering the author except for ‘services’? If the script has been brought up to a certain level, why not give it to a regular publisher?

Except that, more often than not, regular publishers don't want to take another look at a script they've turned down once (though there may be exceptions here too). And most of the writers who do self-publish (barring a few who don’t wish to share the proceeds with the publisher) are those whose scripts were turned down by regular publishers the first time round, and nobody wanted to look at them a second time – even after rewrites/edits et al.

And, if they've been turned down by regular publishers once, should it be the end of the road for them once and for all?

Perhaps publishers should give a second chance to scripts they've turned down once -- esp. if they've been worked upon/rewritten and brought up to the level of professional writing.
    Some publishers did offer a self-publishing platform to certain kinds of books and certain kinds of corporate/institutions, etc, for coffee-table kind of books. BUT – they never offered any for fiction or narrative non-fiction projects.

    Why? Perhaps because fiction writing, esp. literary writing, is a completely different ball game. If a serious writer has the skills, and has something to say, he/she should be able to make the grade the first time round, provided it suits the publisher’s list. The project might require editing, even heavy editing, but would not require complete rewriting/overhauling. If it’s in good enough shape, it will be accepted.  

    Many indeed do welcome the self-publishing platform as a great option which eliminates the author’s need for a publisher altogether.

    But is that all it is? Or are we missing something important here?

    Views welcome. 


    1. Interesting observation.

      My take on this:

      Writing and publishing itself is like selling one's dreams. It's a product of one's imagination/creativity. Even if it is non-fiction, unless it is an interesting read, one would attribute it to nothing less than a newspaper article. So, we're back to square one - creativity.

      Now, dreaming is one thing. Trying to sell that to a third person; now that's tough. A publisher, especially some one who's been around for long, knows the tools to do that. An author, however passionate he or she is about their dreams, would be trying to sell (self-publish) the dream purely on the basis of their passion for their own work. Aside from that, they don't have much by way of backing up their strategy. Say, a pattern in which they see their work fitting in the market. A publisher knows that.

      But it's tricky. Every work of art, be it a painting, song, or in our case a manuscript is like giving an IQ test to toddlers. Everyone perceives creativity in individual ways. Some might like it, some might not. Likewise, even a publisher might (like you rightly mentioned) miss a 'master-piece' maybe because he didn't find it to be good enough. It might, to another pair of eyes.

      No creative product can be perceived in a certain manner by everybody. It's like this little shop of trinkets where buyers will buy different products. But never something that catches everybody's attention. If that happens, then good for the creator. He or she would've proven that their product has something for everybody. In real life, that's highly unlikely.

      To each his own. The world of publishing will always be a double-edged sword. You may give it names such as vanity publishing or self-publishing, or just plain pubishing, but the fact remains that when you want to sell your work, you're expecting money in return. And when money comes to the picture, it's no longer a work of art.

      It's a product. It's business. And that comes with its own baggage. A writer must be ready to take it.

      For a good writer, what matters is whether someone liked his or her work. That's gratification enough. The rest (money, fame etc) is just a bonus.

      Like I said - to each his/her own. :)

    2. It's not as complex as it seems. As Nike says, "Just do it." If you are passionate about something, have the flair and time for writing, and feel that some people may like to read your book, just go ahead and write it. I have had publishers publishing my books and have followed the self-publishing route as well. Personally I prefer the latter option because it gives me the freedom to design and produce the kind of book I want, unless some publisher is prepared to pay me a fair amount for my work. Of course there is the question of funding one's self-published book, of recovering that cost and making some money out of it. As with any other venture there is a calculated risk here. I was able to get a major book of mine sponsored too, which is not an easy proposition. This adds an element of adventure. On the other hand, if one keeps waiting for publishers, a lot of good books would not get published. There are too few publishers and too many manuscripts, and sometimes the not-so-good ones get picked and some decent ones rejected.

    3. Thanks to both of you for your comments. :)

    4. My take Divya is: Publishers need to get off their high horse because, like in the US, Publishing industry is going to see the rise of self-publishing more and more. (Read: The point is, all publishers have a tendency to pick authors who are already known. Hence the unknown will resort to this, so that their work sees the light of day.

      BUT, having said that, I thank you for this piece, as at least it asks us to look before we leap to publishing our own stuff.

    5. The problem, Julia, is usually perception. Self-published books are still seen as 'rejects' (which may not actually be the case).

      Suppose an author sends out a manuscript to multiple publishers at the same time (say the first draft), and they turn it down. Now, the author will work upon it again, maybe take professional help and polish it well. But those publishers will not give it a second look, so he self-publishes it. Even though it may be the twentieth draft, and a polished one at that, more often than not, it would still be considered as a 'rejected script' and not 'good enough' in spite of all the work that's gone into it. That's a huge disadvantage.

      Of course, there's the argument that he/she could send it to other publishers -- maybe smaller and even unheard-of ones (even in other cities). The point is that it doesn't help much because they don't enjoy the same facilities the known ones do: newspaper space, shelf space, visibility, branding, etc (esp. serious/literary titles).

      And the same is true of scripts that are self-published the first time round, without having gone to any publisher at all.

      The industry is very clear that self-publishing is a separate model, maybe a valid one, but will never be the same as regular publishing. So there's a glass ceiling right there.

    6. Divya,
      Thanks for an elaborate response. But, I guess, in today's Digital Space, it is only marketing which makes the difference and so, the package can reach the audience it is addressing, purely but TG details only. The rest is, content, whiech is a huge thing, I agree, but the same old fuddy duddy route through distribution channels may still be the most used, but not the only. On LinkedIn, at a marginal cost, you can reach book lovers, you can do that on FB too with button ads. Thinks have changed. One just hires an Editor for a publishing industry background and just goes ahead!

    7. In theory, yes. :)

      Facts are different. Unless one can get good distribution, nothing else works. The known publishers have established channels, though they struggle in spite of that. Small, independent publishers, of course, do. Self-published authors have very limited access.

      People on FB/linkedin and other networking sites are already suffering from an info/ marketing/ promotions fatigue. Nobody could be less bothered unless it's a well-known author or a much-awaited book. Or it might work for the commercial genre (let's say the campus novel) because it has a very different readership. It's much tougher if your target readership is the literary crowd/serious reader.

      Flipkart, etc, may be a good option, but again not everybody's keen to buy online. It's fine if your target audience is already aware of the title and willing to book/buy it online. Most people still walk into bookshops and buy books.

      1. i agree with divya

        even i was offered the same for my book from a mumbai based publishing house. they accepted my book and asked for an investment of Rs. 1 lac for 1000 copies in the first lot. in return 25% royality. Just because it sounded more like a 'self-publish' to me, i rejected the offer.

        i feel in 'self-publish' they would do it for your sake. You pay them, them will work. While if a book is traditionally published the publisher works with his own choice and by heart then.

        Why should an author become a publisher? Bot are different jobs. Author should only focus on writing. Why shall he get into the skin of a publisher with the tag of 'self-publish'. if the book is good, story is good..., it would definitely find a traditional publisher one or the other day. Just to see your work in the form of a book, at any cost, cannot be the goal of a writer. A writer is something more than that. When we write we don't start brooding whether this work will get published or not. We write because we love it. And if it is worth others' love it will find its way on its own.

    8. well i have a different opinion ...see you need a platform for wider readers ..only a good publisher can afford to make you read across the country i have seen very good books dying unread

      follow gurudev tagore what he said at the time of noble prize speech

      even i experienced that first book what i self published at the instance of my family friends , mentors kaifi azmi naushad ali sardar nida fazli javed akhtar shabana gulzar that it was quite difficult to read to my readers but now with reputed publishers with me ..i am there with many offers to write for them ...because my works sells .....the idea is to tell swim in ocean not in a pond