Tuesday, June 9, 2009


This cartoon is out of a recent issue of the New Yorker. It struck a chord with me since I had just returned from the local bookstore where self-published books by local authors are flourishing like kudzu. I find it strange that in this time when major publishing houses are closing, self-published works are packing the shelves. To me this is a mixed blessing. I am pleased to see some works that definitely deserve an audience, but I also see a tremendous number of bland, uninspired publications. Is it possible that the inferior works will color the public's attitude toward all "self-published works"??


  1. Gary,

    We’ve certainly heard some discussion on this thru various sources haven’t we? I thought this was worth some thought and peered into my crystal ball last night. It said the answer to your question is “yes and no”. Self-publishing is already doomed in the current form you mentioned- those racks of books staring out from the shelves at the local bookstore. Fortunately or unfortunately, self publishing has always been viewed askance by the general public as far as I know. Hence the term “vanity press” for the practice. One of my earliest memories concerning self publishing was of my father ridiculing people he knew who self published back in the 50’s. Therefore I grew up thinking that nothing self published was any good. Today I realize this is not true and that the issue is much more complicated. As you point out, self-publishing is a mixed blessing and the majority are often dreadful, though we know some wonderful writers who have chosen to self-publish. The main problems which doom the poor offerings are the absence of an editorial process and the failure of the writers to develop their craft before publishing. The excellent but unknown author faces lack of promotion and lack of credibility (fan base) to generate sales. However, the emergence of electronic publishing and other innovations appear to be opening new doors and changing the entire process of self publishing. Success will still be based on those four requirements I mentioned but it appears a revolution in self- publishing is underway, not just in literature but in music and visual arts as well. Artists are building fan bases and establishing credibility through the emergence of new electronic media folks like us can’t begin to predict even by peering into our crystal balls. Of course this is not entirely comforting is it? How long would “The Ten
    Commandments” have survived on a computer disk? Alas, when you get right down to it, we’ve invented nothing nearly as good for passing down our legacy as self publishing on stone tablets.

  2. Like you, I grew up feeling that vanity publications were embarrassing and trivial. I think that the majority of them were of little or no value. When I decided to publish my own plays because common sense told me that no publisher in this region would print/promote a collection of plays, it was a painful concession. That collection is gone now and I gave the majority of them away to people who were interested in producing them. I don't want to repeat the process because there was much involved that was demoralizing. Yet, the tide is changing and based on what I read on the blog, "Moby Lives," publishing will never be the same. There is already a publisher who will publish your work and give you 80% of the profits (Scribd) and things are looking better all the time.

  3. I went with a small independent press, which isn't self-publishing: a small press doesn't have the budget of a big press - however, they are treating me well.

    The problems with self-publishing are as you both describe. First, there is distribution - where will the books that are printed be housed? In the garage? basement? The author in most cases has to distribute their own books (unless they go POD)- ship them and ect, unless they can convince the bookstore to order them from whomever is the printer. Having a few books in the local bookstore is good if that's what your goals are - to be able to say "I published a book" and to sell a few copies to friends and family and maybe a few strangers. But if you want more, then you best be prepared to work your tootie off...and even then, it's an uphill battle.

    Even with traditional publishing - indie small like mine, and even in some instances the bigger guys, it is still difficult to get your books in bookstores, and once they are there, to get them noticed. The big promotional budgets do not go to unknown writers - so, there you go.

    But, writers getting too impatient and publishing their work before it should be published is a big problem and it gives self publishing a "bad name" -- the work isn't edited (although even traditionally published works can contain errors, just far fewer in many instances than selfpublished works if the author "edits" the work him/herself and isn't very good at it)...the work may not be completed even though the writer thinks it is completed. And in some cases, the work is just...well....gulp...not very good...however, these very same things can happen with traditional publishers. I've picked up Big Time Publisher books and thought "eyewww..." so there you go!

    I think publishing is taking a turn and where that turn will lead authors and readers and booksellers I am not sure, but things are a-changing.

    The good thing about self publishing becoming a viable alternative for authors and then gaining in better reputation is that it gives authors a chance to see their works in print - but I'd still exhaust all avenues of traditional publishing first - esp trying a small traditional press as I did.

    Now, will booksellers ever embrace self-pub'd books? That's probably a longer time coming. As it is, booksellers balk at small publishers if they haven't heard of them or of the authors! It takes work to get your book in their'd think indie booksellers would embrace indie publishers, but it's a "dawg eat dawg" world out there in publishing.

    With talk of printers right inside bookstores, the idea of "print while you wait" is even another alternative - who knows where this will go!

  4. I think Steve, Gary and Kathyrn has hit the nail on the head.
    It's damned if you do, damned if you don't.

    I will have a novel out in the next month or so published by a small but very east to work with company (Fireside Publishing). Am eager to compare with Pendium pub. (self publishing). Fireside is growing has a distributor and seems to be concerned about quality. (The only way they will publish your book is to win one of their contests).
    Will this result in more sales?? Stay tuned...will keep you posted.

    Ben F. Eller

  5. A great many people write and self-publish books who would probably be better off spending their time and money working in the garden. On the other hand, it's fun to publish your own book and I'm all for fun. If you take care and do a good job writing and editing you can even sell some of them, maybe enough to pay for the publishing. It would be interesting to see a list of the top 100 self-published books (by sales). I suspect most would be practical how-to-do it books, craft books and the like: Yet, "The Celestine Prophecy" did quite well as a self-publsihed venture.
    P.S. you can order my self-published book, "The Christmas Curmudgeon" at Amazon at a nice discount. Go for it. Buy ten and give them to friends for Christmas!

  6. Well, my only experience other than my self-published collection of plays was also with a small publisher. "Mason Jars in the Flood" was published by Parkway Publishing in Boone, N. C. and it consisted of one man, Rao Aluri. He read all submissions and selected works to be published. There was no promotion although Rao did arrange a few radio interviews and book signings. In the final analysis, I had to do it myself. I loaded my van with cartons of books and worked every book store in a l50 mile radius. It was hard work, but I struck a deal with Rao. I bought my own book from him for half-price and sold it for full-price. In other words, I made $10 for every book that I sold. I soon found out that $10 was a damned sight better than the 7.9% that I got from Rao's sales to book stores. I also quickly learned that you can sell a lot of books if you "create" an audience. What I mean by that is, I became an elderhostel instructor. Any time that I taught a class for five days, I was very likely to sell everybody in the class a copy of my book on the last day. The fact that I am a storyteller also worked to my advantage. If I told stories to the Deerfield Retirement Community,or if I was a guest speaker on Appalachian folklore/history/literature, I would sell some books. To tell you the truth, if you are willing to work at it, a small publisher may be the best deal around. My book never goes out of print because I won't let it. As long as I am telling stories, teaching or producing plays, I have a potential market for my book.

  7. Hi Gary,
    I've had a long history with self-publishing, using imprints like Amicae, Phoenix Hill, etc. This allowed me to get my work out, in part, while I was gathering rejects from poetry ms. competitions and presses. These were chapbooks, not the whole nine yards, so that meant I could use the poems in a larger ms. Self-publishing actually has a respectable history; whether it will remain so, I don't know, but surely a lot of stuff published by so-called respectable presses is pretty bland and mediocre, too. My interest now in the small, independent press is that it can produce books that look like real books, with aesthetic appeal. We are coming back to that, in the midst of the near complete takeover of our major publishers by CEO's. Like anything else, it's a mixed bag--self-publishing. I am glad I didn't rush to self-publish my first book, though I was sorely tempted after so many rejections. But I am glad I did self-publish some of my poetry in chapbooks. And I sold them. I think the art of bookmaking itself is something to celebrate, and if self-publishers help make us aware of that, so much the better. After feeling at the mercy of editors who told me, for example, that they were tired of reading first-person poems (!)and other such drivel, I enjoyed taking my poems back and putting together a small limited edition gathering and being able to hold it in my hands and say, "Here I am."

  8. Thank you, Kay. That is extremely helpful. I am interested in the possibility of publishing blog pieces with a small press. That seems to be a logical step to me. I think that embodies essays, short stories, poetry and even drama.

  9. I think poetry and essay does very well with self-published books - that and the non fiction as Gary, I think, talked about. Fiction on the other hand is an entirely different matter - hard enough to sell your fiction with traditionally published presses, much less if you self-publish.

    I think selfpublished FICTION is frowned upon much more frowningly than poetry, essay, or the "craft, etc" non fiction book...frowned on by peers, frowned on by the literary gods in the sky...and as for the "general public" - frankly, most readers do not pay attention to who publishes a book - I never did until I began writing my own and thinking about publishing...but, again, there is that "distribution and marketing" thing -- and Gary - you had to work to market your own book with the small press, well, so do authors with even Big Time publishers...I met an author at Osondu BS who was pub'd with Random House and he was schlopping it everywhere on his own dime....he didn't seem happy, since with his first book out years before, they did most of his promoting...not so now.

  10. Here's the thing that appeals to me about self-publishing at this stage of my life. I've so many different types of writing I've done--poems, of course, prose poems, short essays, short fiction, beginnings of a novel, even something that approaches a dramatic dialogue. It's fascinating to think of how to pull all of this together somehow into a book that shows, at least a little, how a writer works, how the imagination moves in and out of "genre"---and I know that a larger press would not be interested in this. LSU has already said they are not interested in a ms. of poetry interwoven with short fiction, all set in the mountains. This is something I may very well try to self-publish.

  11. Kay,
    If you decide to pursue this concept in some kind of anthology that would involve other writers, (like me, for instance!), please let me know. I can think of a half-dozen folks who have material that could be "integrated" with poetry. I am working on a dramatic monologue right now, "Mother Jones," that might work ... and I sense something in the wings that whispers names like "Byron Herbert Reece" and "Don West."

  12. Everyone is right that self-publishing is a dual-edged sword/opportunity. Self-publishing provides the opportunity to publish works which the "established" publishers avoid. The establishment avoids change and the risk of a new author or a new genre. However, self-publishing is tarnished by the "vanity" press label and also the lack of standards. I'm a professional editor and I know no one can adequately review their own work. The author knows what they are trying to say, and if the message isn't clear, they may still think it is. Standards need to be developed, and marketing plans need to be developed so that you don't have a mass of books in your garage or cellar growing mold. Electronic publishing will provide new opportunities, but unless standards exist, excellent literature will be consumed by trash. I have to establish a Google account. I don't want to be anonymous so am including my name in my post--Charleen Bertolini

  13. Thank you, Charleen, and welcome. Well, oddly enough, after reading all of these comments, I feel optimistic about the future of publishing/writing.

  14. Yup, changes are coming and the publishing world will need to adjust to that - as will booksellers...!

  15. I am going through this quandry right now. I self published my first book and because of that, lost the opportunity to have my 2nd novel purchased by a small publisher. They liked my 2nd book, but wouldn't take it on because of the "self published" first book. Broke my heart, let me tell you. I will look up Scribd and Fireside Publishing. Gary, I have to apologize to you - I am changing my feeble mind about blogging. These comments have been so helpful. Mea culpa, friend, you were right. Blogging is a good thing!


  16. I am still bewildered and uncertain about blogging and its potential to improve/influence writing and publishing, but I do think something is going on that is positive. Since I started writing articles for my blog, I have sold three of them to a newspaper publisher. Maybe this is the beginning of something wonderful.

  17. Well, as I said, I can now see the worth of blogging - it's got me reading "The Mabinogion Tetralogy" and I'm loving it. So, I agree - it's the start of something wonderful.