An Author in Progress

This is where you'll find me trying to mould myself into a respectable writer - it may take sometime...
You'll find anything from a piece of experimental creative writing, some thoughts on my novel developments, to even the occasional literature-based academic paper.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

A Critique of Self-Publishing: `Where do I stand?'

Since writing this critique there have no doubt been changes. I have not included the latest issues raised by Apple's legal battle for a share of digital books and would advise any person reading this critique to make sure of double-checking any information used before drawing defined conclusions or indeed making any decisions.

I would also wholeheartedly welcome any feedback or correction of any information I have conveyed, as the purpose of this critique was to assess for myself as a prospective author if it is a route suitable for me. I would really love to hear from those for whom the self-publishing process has been lucrative or for whom it has served their particular artistic purpose.

Critique of Self Publishing: 'Where do I stand?'

Self-publishing was at one time likened to vanity publishing and has been compared by ghostwriter, Andrew Croft to commissioning a one-off or bespoke piece of furniture: the author as 'simply commissioning a book as they might commission a family portrait or a piece of made to measure furniture'. (2004, Ghostwriting, The Writer's and Artist's Yearbook 2011, p149) However, POD (print on demand) and the internet, with the rise of the e-book and international, online marketplace providers, such as Amazons have changed this:

'Publishing is going through a sustained period of change and development. Audiences are demanding text, audio and video content all through one medium, and the spread of handheld devices is stimulating the development of new products and business models.'

Now authors who are unable to acquire representation by a publishing house are turning to using this route as a financially viable way around the traditional, and alternatively as a way in to, publishing houses whose books are closed to conventional submissions. This quote from the website entitled, Skillset goes on to propose the following about the relevance of careers in publishing (therefore suggesting it is a chosen route far aside from being an author):

'A range of skills are essential to working in publishing. There is a growing need for a better understanding of the impact on intellectual property rights and market developments. Skills like an ability to work flexibly and respond to change are highly sought after.'(Ibid)

I would propose that unless an immeasurable amount of time is available to constantly update and research all of the areas (from basic printing, formatting issues and visual aesthetics, to legal rights, distribution and dealing with finance and accounting) it would be a wasted energy to fool oneself into thinking this could be done successfully and alone. If you have a sound base in navigating around technology and are quick to update your knowledge of recent developments, then there may be some room for an element of achievement. But for the hours possibly spent and the software required to assist in this project you would have to consider why you have chosen to write the book and more than this, what the chief goal in its publication is. Unless you have an outreaching desire to examine the publishing process from A to Z it could be an energy drain and as such, counter productive for an author.

Having started to maintain a blog and Twitter site for myself, I have difficulty in seeing how it would be possible for an author to be able to do all of this and deal with a globally widening market that's boundaries go beyond the geographical, nor have I the finances to afford a solicitor to deal with any problems which may arise. Consider Dan Brown and JK Rowling's legal battles on intellectual ownership of the basis of their respective works.

If taking, for example, the Harry Potter series, now available in dozens of languages, not only would translation issues have to be dealt with, but also the legal ramifications of transatlantic business and trade rights, even the move into film and marketing. This is of course speculation on an author's work having Rowling's worldwide success, which even for her did not happen overnight. It still begs the question of how much one person, as an author, would desperately want to take on all the roles, given they have faith that their work is absolutely worth the effort, then surely there would be an agent or publisher keen to back this up. But with a market struggling in the internet boom and the recent years of financial hardship in the UK it is possible to see why some may look to another option, and more so, how the process can be enabled with varying gradients of assistance in the process.

The very presence of publishing platforms (who offer packages of services that range from the very basic to as much as guaranteeing space on marketplace shelves for a set period of time) is proof that the industry is tightening its belt. Authors are even using blogs as a way of platforming their own works without agent assistance, but I would be truly concerned about the validity of my moral rights as the owner of the literature. My knowledge of internet issues, malware and other digital copyright complications would be hampered by my lack of experience and I would be much more at ease to know someone would be responsible and therefore answerable for the loss of work, rights, and possible commercial gain.

Chapter 5 (pp79-81) of Getting Published: a guide for lecturers and researchers on 'Book Publishing' was relatively useful in answering the questions which need to be asked of the author, and whose answers seem to be concurrent in most of the sources researched for this critique: Should I go for the most prestigious? Opt for a better chance with a smaller, lesser known organization? Is there a hierarchy within the publishing world? What criteria should come first? If it's about maximizing the readership of my work I should I aim thus, for the publishing house with the best marketing, sales and promotion 'machine'? (Wellington, Jerry, 2003) As an author, would I want an agent who is more visible to me or to the publishing industry? I have a feeling the latter becomes more relevant once I have been accepted for representation, but confusingly, unless I know, how will I know? I would propose that unless a middle ground platform can be found in one of the sites now in circulation that can offset a share of the author's burdens, surely the real aim for the writer is to do exactly that; write.

Yet platform publishing is becoming more valued with the acknowledgement by houses such as Penguin Publishing Group, where traditional publishers have created their own platform companies to maintain a competitive edge. Industry players such as Penguin's AuthorHouse and HarperCollins platform site reveal how the market has evolved, suggesting that the process of self publishing can be lucrative towards a final destination as kind of CV for a published work.

'"Vanity publishers just acted as printers, they didn't even assign ISBN numbers. The old, dark side of vanity publishing has been superseded by reputable businesses." AuthorHouse also offers a "Borders Package", from 849 [pounds sterling], which ensures that three copies of the author's finished work have guaranteed shelf space in one of the chain's five participating stores for 10 weeks.'*1
(Wood, Felicity, April 10, 2009, Down from the ivory tower: has self-publishing come of age?self-publishing.)

These technological developments have possibly enabled new authors whose books have been lost in the hard slush pile to yet, find their way into having their work managed by large industry players by first putting the product out there for people to either approve or reject via platform peer review by other applicants. But there are limits by making this move. As noted during a search for publishers and agents for submission of synopsis' it is worth remembering that they do not always offer the same full benefits to those who come via the unconventional routes and who are not already on their books.*2

But it could also be argued that with professional new technology accessible at home, and with the know-how and right training (such as a course in editing/graphics/creative writing) a product could be brought almost entirely up to the point of printing at one keyboard with the right Word programmes:

'Publishing no longer has to happen in lengthy stages; the maker can 'come back' to their text instantaneously to cut, paste and generally fiddle (rather than waiting days or even weeks for proofs).'
(Fusco, Maria. Feb 2007, Publish and Be Damned. PublishBeDamned)

Alternatively there are authors, previously published, who have gone aside from the traditional in support of self publishing for the e-market, bypassing the print process entirely via e-publishing:

' small deal that had the publishing industry paying attention was J.A. Konrath's decision to do his next book, Shaken, with Amazon's publishing arm, AmazonEncore.... making [Konrath a] 70% return on the list price of his forthcoming e-book--$2.10 off a $2.99 Kindle edition... Konrath, a midlist crime novelist [who was] published by Hyperion in paperback for years, is an active self-promoter who's repeatedly spoken of the financial success he's had self-publishing his backlist [sic] as Kindle editions.
(Deahl, Rachel. May 24 2010, Agents weigh the growth of alternate publishing options)

As Deahl continues, the point of this for Konrath was the following:

'[In a 'big corporate publishing']environment in which overall print sales are falling week by week [Konrath] ... saw there was an opportunity to create low-priced content [to] bypass the system." While self-publishing has been around for years, this agent noted, "what's new here is the means."' (Deahl, Rachel)

The means, for Konrath, has meant self publishing has allowed him to offset falling sales, by switching to e publishing, reducing his overheads and maximizing his profit.

Indeed the rise in authors swapping to self publishing with the invention of ebooks and POD, has in some cases encouraged agents and publishers to sit up and get more involved. Again, the reiteration of publishing houses and agents moving into the middle sphere between full representation and the latter end of vanity publishing can give encouragement for new authors to have some hope in the possibility of being represented and offset the management workload after the initial event:

'AmazonEncore, [is] "somewhere in between the big houses and the lonely road of self-publishing." The company...offers e-book publication and distribution as well as POD, with a focus on the e-book frontlist. [It creates] "an enormous transition point" ... forcing agents to do more editing, going with outside PR, telling authors they need to take hold of their own marketing... will mean that more agencies, and others, will jump into the publishing fray.' (Deahl, Rachel, 2004)

It could be read from this that as represented authors are forced to do more of their own marketing they see a benefit in going solo. Another author who moved to self publishing, published in spite of his publishers advice, to receipt of unfortunately negative criticism:

'After becoming disillusioned with mainstream publishers, the three-times Booker shortlisted Timothy Mo created his own Paddleless Press imprint to bring out a novel called Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard (1995). [It] was more widely seen as a maladroit effort, littered with solecisms... reviewers pointed out that mainstream publishers might have saved the author [from himself].'
(Anon, Doing it yourself becomes respectable, Feb 14, 2003)

While this is the case for some known authors of hard copy books, for others having an established handle on a market via web media might make it a progressive choice for those whose beginnings are in the web based arena. The younger market, well versed and literate in traversing the internet, used to making decisions at the touch of a button, could be seen to be easily canvassed from this direction, removing the need for traditional advertising and marketing:

'More commonly known as the blogger Klazart on the gaming website... Bhala used his 8,000 loyal subscribers to push his novel Lesser Sins to the top of Authonomy's charts. Bhala posted a tutorial video on YouTube instructing his fans on how to vote for his novel and his digital self-marketing efforts have helped him get into the website's top five.'
(Wood, Felicity, April 10, 2009 Self-publishing Successes)

This form of voting can be notable for it's rise in utilisation, if the many authors self-promoting via such things as Twitter is taken into account. With the rise of such things as the Publish and Be Damned self-publishing fair mentioned in Fusco's article below, it becomes evident that this route is becoming far more mainstream than it may have at one time:

'A good place to.. measure... such current trends was the Publish and Be Damned self-publishing fair held in London last year. In its third year, the fair was a showcase and marketplace for predominantly UK-based self-publishers of all shapes and sizes.'

I believe in some ways it would be easier and possibly more forgiveable to make mistakes as a first time author, learn from them and hopefully move onto better things and more viable opportunities by way of the notion of a first novel as a CV. But for someone already established the move can either make or spectacularly break them, depending on the strength of their following. For the person experienced and easily adaptable to manoeuvring in an electronic arena, there is still the issue of legal and foreign representation. For others, the willingness to market themselves with little experience of whatever the result might be, work once in print, is not easily retractable and leaves the author open to future criticism.

There is certainly no argument that whatever the standpoint, there is much more flexible scope for the mode of production now than ever before, and that by having a choice, opens up a dialogue to see the validity of the self-publishing process. An author has more freedom to be realistic about picking and choosing how much or how little of their own representation they are willing to do or pay someone else to do for them. For the very driven, self marketer there is no doubt that the self-publishing process offers a valid route into circulation.


*1 Since the writing of this critique, the unfortunate situation with Borders has had a ripple effect on such things. AuthorHouse is offering alternative modes of marketing via some of the major online providers of digital books, but as a lover of hard copies, my personal choice, if there was one, would be to go with a company that can offer shelf space.

*2 Indeed a thing to note about slush piles is the works, genres and markets a publisher is already meeting their quota for. Anyone who has enquired about a reputable publishing house's editorial guidelines may well find that while they handle a specific theme it does not necessarily mean (however amazing your manuscript is) that they will want to have multiples of one theme. If you were an author under contract, would you be happy for your publisher to take on other works that may challenge the desirability of your own novel?

Full text: 2749 words

Critique of Self Publishing 'Where do I stand?' Copyright © Sandra Murphy,
25/01/2011. All rights reserved.

This work was produced as part of undergraduate studies at Southampton Solent University, UK

Bibliography and further reading:

A&C Black (2010) The Writers and Artists Yearbook (2011) A&C Black: London

Al-Ubaydli, Mohammad. Publishing: the publishing process. (careers).
Student BMJ 11 (Nov 2003): 412(2). Academic OneFile.Gale.
[accessed 4/11/2010]

Anon, Doing it yourself becomes respectable. (Opinion)." The Bookseller (Feb 14, 2003): 20(1). Academic OneFile.Gale. Southampton Solent University.
[accessed 4 Nov. 2010]

Berinstein, Paula. Self-publishing and the book trade, Part 2: distribution, Searcher 15.4 (April 2007): 14(4). Academic OneFile.Gale.
[accessed 4/11/2010]

Bigsby, Christopher (2000) Writers In Conversation, Volume One,
EAS Publishing: Norwich.

Bigsby, Christopher (2001) Writers In Conversation, Volume Two,
EAS Publishing: Norwich.

Deahl, Rachel. Agents weigh the growth of alternate publishing options. Publishers Weekly 257.21 (May 24, 2010): 7(2). Academic OneFile. Gale. [accessed 4/11/2010 ]

Fusco, Maria. Publish and Be Damned. PublishBeDamned Art Monthly 303
(Feb 2007): 34(1). Academic OneFile. Gale. Southampton Solent University.
[accessed 4/11/2010]

Murray, Victoria Christopher. Flying solo: after success with big publishing houses, some authors see advantages in self-publishing. Black Issues Book Review 7.5(Sept-Oct 2005):(1). Academic OneFile. Gale. Southampton Solent University. [accessed 4/11/2010]

Skillset: The sector skills council for creative media, Online:[accessed 5/11/2010]

The Publishers Association (online)
[accessed 5/11/2010]

Wellington, Jerry (2003), Getting Published: a guide for lecturers and researchers. Routledge Study Guides, London: RoutledgeFalmer

Wood, Felicity. Self-publishing successes. The Bookseller 5377 (April 10, 2009): 24(1). Academic OneFile. Gale. Southampton Solent University.
[accessed 4 Nov. 2010]

Wood, Felicity. "Down from the ivory tower: has self-publishing come of age? Self- publishing." The Bookseller 5377 (April 10, 2009): 23(2). Academic OneFile. Gale. [accessed 4/11/2010]


  1. What a great article. There is so much to think about. From all the research I've done and reading your article, it seems that the most success is found for authors who have established themselves in print first. People trust that more.

    I consider it like picking people for a basketball team at the local gym. Most people will take the guy who played in college first, if they know nothing at all about anyone there except their credentials. Some might pick the tall dude, but most will know that he would get blown out of the waters by the guy who has played for a long time. Sure, there are street smart players who can probably beat some of the best players in the game, but who wants to gamble based on the smack they talk?

    Publishing seems pretty similar. Wouldn't you rather keep working on your material until it is good enough to find an agent or a real publisher? I mean, if we are to be successful and consider ourselves a real author, it would seem most intuitive to be published traditionally at first.

    I look back at my writing from a year ago, when I first finished my book, and know that it was nowhere near ready. But I thought it was back then. Now, my writing is so much better that I am glad I never published my work. Where will I stand in another year? Will I like my writing now?

    I figure we will make it when we are ready. When our work is so good that people just can't put it down, and our story sells itself, then we will make it. If we can sell our book to anyone, then we can sell it to an agent or a publisher.

    Sure, some people find great success. But there are so many horrible writers out there. This is not something to scare people or belittle them; it is simple truth.

    Have you seen a slush pile? I'll tell you now, about 1 in 50 writers have a short story that you can sit through, from start to finish. Maybe 1 in 200 are worth paying for. Put those same 200 people into a market, all with their own book, and have people pick up books based on a blurb that was edited by all their friends. They will think they have a great book in their hands, only to find a badly written story in their hands 199 times out of 200.

    Does that mean people can't get better? Surely not! With practice, reading, humility and editing, we can all become great authors. But many people have to learn to walk before they sprint. But people are impatient.

    Eventually, the slush piles will reduce and there will only be a few trusted ebook carriers. There will always be vanity books, but many will fall by the wayside while most customers stop buying horrible books.

    Does that mean they are all horrible, or that it isn't a good proving ground? By no means. I'm only saying that we will make it when we are ready. But that is just my opinion.

    Please excuse the typos :P Great article.

    Draven Ames

  2. Great article Sandra. I just think that the whole realm is in flux and yet to settle down. What is certainly true is that there are almost an infinite entry levels to suit the author's individual approach to the task of publishing, marketing and distribution. I think the point about mid-list writers now having minimal financial backing from cash-strapped publishing houses and so having to market themselves, does give impetus to all writers to go their own way. Yes the distribution is not as complete as with a book released through a publishers, but at this stage we don't even know if bookshops will survive into the future, so that may not be an issue. I just think the author has to come to their own conclusions as to what they judge will be best suited to their abilities and temperament.

    I do think it a shame that what gets lost in all this is the content. All the talk is about distribution systems (e-books, audio-vid content), about promotion (where the Seth Godins of this world do well and someone like Jeff Noon does less well). Nobody knew what Don Delillo or Hubert Selby actually looked like, because they were able to just let the words of their novels speak for themselves. Well that simply isn;t possible in this market hustle world and I think something is lost thereby.

    I both agree and disagree with Draven. There will be a lot of awful books put out in the market as entry is democratised, but the innovators and the genuine talents will rise to the top in time. The Klazart thing on Authonomy caused a huge amount of bad blood, since he was telling people how to vote without them having to read his book. Gaming the system is about popularity contests and turns literature into an online Britain's Got Talent, which again is potentially far more of a knife to the heart of a once great art form, as it's about the author's networks not the content of their books.

    What the revolution in printing does is open up a long tail. My work would never make it via an agent or publishers, because they can't see the return in it. It's niche I suppose, though I believe if it catches a wave it ought to break out beyond that. There is a wider question of paying writers, of writers being able to write full-time, of the value we place on all our artists, but this may not be the forum for that.

    Thanks again for a great post.

    Marc Nash

  3. Thanks Draven and Marc for making some hugely valid points. Martin Amis's agent Mr. Wylie of the Wylie Agency tried to make statements about the nature of long term literary legacies versus mass market popularity through Odyssey Books via Amazon(have written an essay on this too). It's a case of, what do we see publishing as being - part of the art form, or a practical necessity? All modes of people use a train and the platform, but for very different reasons. Not the best analogy.

    I still think, even when our work may be hugely attractive to a publishing house, wether literary or mass market - and of course the two things are only similar becuase at the moment they are formatted in books, with print and sold in bookshops (which I really hope don't die forever)- if their books are full, they're full and that's pretty much that. Sad, but seems unfortunately the way it is for all of us.

  4. This is fantastic and well-researched--thanks for such an interesting article!