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.