Can Self-Publishing Authors Destroy Literature?

Two events happened June 17 to inspire this article. First, I read Michael Kozlowski’s post “Self-Published Authors Are Destroying Literature.” Second, I talked about publishing to a “Writer’s Free for All” group at my local library.

Mr. Kozlowski’s article implies there are two types of books on the market: large publishing house masterpieces, and self-published garbage. To take it a step farther, the authors of the self-published garbage pollute social media and online bookstores so much, a person can’t even wade through to find the masterpieces. I almost read this article without giving it a second thought. But as an author with a small publisher (Muse It Up), I became upset; not by his attack on self-publishing, but his ignorance of working with a small publisher. Remember, I’m signed to a publishing company (good, according to Mr. Kozlowski), but I have to help promote my book with tools such as social media (bad).

Mr. Kozlowski also complains self-publisher’s devalue the work of “legitimate published authors”:

“One thing indie authors have done is devalue the work of legitimate published authors. You know the type that write for a living, who have an editor and are considered accomplished, or at least well-read. The average indie title is $0.99 to $2.99, and the average publisher price is $7.99 – $12.99. Book buyers have been so conditioned to pay as little as possible that often they will not even consider a more expensive book.”

I could say so much about this one paragraph, but I think I’ll leave it at this: Why should I pay as much for an eBook as I’d pay for a paperback, regardless of the author?

Before I get into my publishing opinions, I’ll start by defining self-publishing and differentiating it from “traditional publishing.” A self-published book is produced by the author. He or she typically pays a company to print books, or produce an eBook. The author either self-edits, or hires an editor. When the book is complete, the author commences promoting the work every way possible. Any author, regardless of talent, who can afford to self-publish, can have his or her own book on the shelf, or eReader.

Traditional publishing differs in many ways. A publishing house, be it large or small, agrees to produce the book for the author. The publisher pays for an editor(s), pays to produce the book, and pays to promote the book. In this case, anyone can publish a book if he or she can find a publisher who thinks the work is good enough to invest the publishing house’s time and money on the project.

There are also hybrid situations where the author and publisher split the expenses, but I’m going to ignore that for simplicity. I’m also going to ignore authors who have always been with a publishing house, who, for their own reasons, decide to self-publish a book.

When I started writing I had not heard of self-publishing. While paging through a writer’s guide, I came across a publisher to whom I thought I could market my book. I ran the idea past an acquaintance of mine, who was a published author. She explained the publisher I had chosen was a self-publishing company. She went on to say I should avoid self-publishing as traditional publishers looked down upon prospective authors if their writing credits were from self-publishing. I don’t know if this was accurate at the time, but a large number of former self-published authors have moved to traditional publishing.

I decided self-publishing was not for me. As much as I wanted to see my book in print, part of my dream was for an editor to read my submission and see enough potential to commit the resources of the publisher to produce my book. Some people just want their book produced and they are willing to pay to have it. Some people have written several books this way, and they have no desire to have a book traditionally published. If this completes their dream they should go for it, but that’s not what I wanted.

Mr. Kozlowski also leads the reader to believe all self-published work is garbage, and all traditionally published work is good. I don’t think I should have to address this, but I will for the sake of completeness. This is asinine. Who hasn’t read a book by at least one established author that was terrible? If you haven’t here’s how to find one. Watch the bestseller rack. If you see an author there more than twice in the same calendar year, start with one of his or her books. It’s not guaranteed to work, but the chances are good. Likewise, if you read enough self-published authors, you’re bound to find a good one. Sorry, I don’t have any tricks for this, but you could start with reviews. If the book has positive reviews, and the reviews themselves are well written, it may be worth a shot. If the reviews appear to have been written by a kindergarten class, you may want to stay away.

I have not read every book; I just haven’t had the time. But I’m willing to bet there are more self-published pieces of garbage than traditionally published garbage. When I hear self-publishers say they got tired of being rejected by publishers so they decided to self-publish, I get very leery about reading their books. Maybe there is a reason, or reasons, the publisher’s wouldn’t accept them.

Having worked with several editors, I’m a firm believer of the power of an outsider’s eye to catch mistakes and see areas where the story can be tightened, expanded, or otherwise improved. And when I say an outsider, I mean a professional editor, not your mom. (Even if your mom is a professional editor, this may be an area to avoid close friends and family).

I do think self-publishing has a place. Books with a limited interest are perfect for self-publishing. Authors of family histories and small town histories would struggle to find a home at a publishing house, unless the family or town were already famous. But even limited interest books don’t necessitate self-publishing. Many states have small publishing house willing to produce a limited run of exactly that sort of book.

What I’m trying to say, and I hope I’m fair to self-publishers, is self-publishing cannot destroy literature. In fact, it could make literature better if an amazing story comes out of the blue–though I have a hard time believing a publishing house wouldn’t pick up a truly amazing story. If you’re a writer, decide what your dream in publishing is, and go for it. But don’t sell yourself short. You’ve already put in the hard work of researching, writing, re-writing, revising, now it’s time to put in more hard work and find the right publisher for it.

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13 responses to “Can Self-Publishing Authors Destroy Literature?

  1. Great post, Eric! I’ll admit, I have yet to read a traditionally published book that is as poorly written and/or edited as some of the self-published books I’ve read. But at the same time, I HAVE read bad traditionally-published books, and good self-published books. And I admire many self-published authors who have committed the time and resources to honing their craft and promoting their works. It’s not for me–I need both the support and, frankly, the affirmation of traditional publishing–but it’s nonsense to suggest, as Kozlowski apparently does, that there’s an absolute divide between the two worlds.

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    • I won’t say I’ll never self-publish, but yes, the affirmation of a publishing house saying they like my work is a HUGE piece of the pie for me. And if I do self-publish, it won’t be something I’ve tried and failed to market to a publisher…at least not without receiving major revisions.

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  2. Interesting piece, Eric.

    I’ve heard a lot of complaints from readers of late saying traditionally published books are being cranked out at such a fast pace that they are littered with errors. I discovered a host of grammatical errors and a HUGE logic error in a very popular, recently published traditional book. Then again…my family and friends tease me for being a “Grammar Freak.” So, there is that… LOL!

    I’m sure the traditional versus self-published debate will rage for quite some time because it’s changing the face of publishing.

    Personally, I’m glad we have options as writers. My old boss used to say, “It takes all kinds to make the world go round.” 🙂

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    • As a writer, it’s good your a “Grammar Freak.” I struggle a little with grammar. I have two grammar books I regularly consult while writing, and I’ve taught myself a lot since I started writing for publication, but I could have spent the time writing had I known it from the start.

      Regarding published books, readers aren’t stupid. In fact, I think it’d be easy to argue they’re the smarter members of society. If a book is poorly written, story or grammar, they won’t read another book by the same author. It doesn’t matter if the book is traditionally published or self-published. Big name authors* don’t have to worry as much; enough people will buy their books to keep food on the table–consider it a job perk. But for new authors, you better get it right, or get out of the way for someone else.

      *I don’t mean to imply big name authors don’t write well. Many do, and there’s a reason they can sell millions of copies during the pre-sale.

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  3. I was acting as a judge for a book contest and was shocked by the mistakes in a story. I had to check several times to confirm it was a traditional publishing house, a large one at that and that the copy I had wasn’t an arc. There are all sorts of success stories for self pubbers being picked up by traditional afterward; Eragon, Amanda Hocking – just to name two off the top of my head. Hugh Howry selling the movie rights to his self pubbed book. Traditionally published authors choosing to self pub so they can actually make money. Like Erin said, it is nice that we now have choices and are no longer limited to the archaic publishing system of only a few years ago.

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  4. Great post, Eric.

    I think it’s up to the author as to whether they want to go the traditional route (agent, big six publisher), small press route, or self-publishing. Before I signed with Muse, I tried the traditional route (with little interest) and was considering self-publishing.

    In the end, good books exists in each category.

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    • Thanks Mary. Yes, you can find a good book anywhere. I’m 1/3 of the way through a self-pub right now, and so far it’s great. I just finished a big release by one of my favorite top billed authors, and it was great as well. I’ve also enjoyed the two Muse books I’ve read.

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  5. Eric, I enjoyed this well written essay on self pub vs trad pub Instead of going thru the filtering process of editors at the big 6 publishing houses, we have the small presses and the self pubbing. Readers are the winners because we get to experience stories that the big 6 would have left in the slush pile. So authors and readers benefit from this more democratic way of publishing books. Best wishes on your career in writing!

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    • Thank you J. Q. Rose. I wanted to present the different types of publishing as objectively as I could, while still writing an opinion piece, not bogged down with facts (plenty of articles like that exist already). I also wanted to express why, for me, self-publishing would have seemed like I stopped short of my goal.

      Thank you for your well wishes!

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  6. I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I’m a fellow Muser–I think we shared a welcome email. The book with Muse was a curiosity–just to see if someone would publish. Writing is a hobby for me, so I wasn’t really pushed. That was my third (and favorite) series. The first series I wrote I’ve just self-published–I didn’t feel like going through the rigmarole of submitting it. At first I thought I could self-edit–not smart. So after paying for editing and a cover, I am getting great feedback.
    After those two experiences, I recently decided to self-publish the second series I wrote (I am sitting on a stock pile). I’m doing this because of the freedom involved. They are three-book series. I offer the first book for free, then reasonably price the other two. With this formula I see huge results in both sales and readership. Plus, as an hobby-author, and in awe anybody likes something I wrote, I give myself an out. If you like the first one, great, read on–you’ll get more of the same. If you don’t, no big deal. Thanks for stopping by.
    The thing with brick and mortar companies is that they profit hunt. Less costs but the same price for electronic books? Great, why not! A hot new trend is sweeping through? Quick, get me eight more books just like it–I don’t care if they are mediocre, hurry before the market runs dry! I find that I’m not finding the quality with the big 6 as I used to, both in the written word, and also with the actual story. Plus, they have a formula with a certain page requirement. Their authors have to color within the lines, which is both boring for the author, and for the reader. At least this reader.
    I think what Mr. Kozlowski is worried about is competition. He must be, right? If at least some of the self-published authors weren’t good, no one would bother reading them. The big guys don’t want their market deluded. Before, they could control the book biz with their financial backing–printing books is a costly affair. But with ebooks, well, things are starting to get a little loose, and the profits are being sucked in other directions. As a reader, I rely on word of mouth and reviews. I don’t read free books unless a friend tells me to. I don’t buy books off the shelve on a whim. With that said, I don’t care where or how it’s published, as long as it’s good. So it’s interesting then that I’ve been reading more books from epublishers and selfies. Just sayin’.
    (Sorry for the essay–I’m opinionated)

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    • Hello, KF Breene,

      Don’t worry about the essay. I had so much more I wanted to say, but I didn’t want the post to get so long no one would read it. That’s why we have comment sections…and future posts.

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  7. Pingback: My Thoughts on Alan Moore’s Advice About Publishing | Eric Price

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