What You Need to Know Before You Judge Self-Publishing Authors

Sophie Playle

Not so long ago, there weren’t many resources available that would enable an author to self-publish their writing. As the technology emerged, so did a stigma.

It was thought that you only self-published if your book wasn’t good enough to be picked up by a publishing house.

Unfortunately, many of the books that were being self-published were of … let’s say, not-so-great quality. After all, the do-it-yourself route can be hard when you don’t have the budget of a publishing house or the skills of a multitude of specialists (like editors and designers) to draw upon.

These days, the decision to self-publish is made by hundreds of thousands of authors – and the stigma isn’t what it used to be.

Big name authors sometimes decide to go down the self-publishing route, and there have been so many self-publishing success stories. A book should be judged on its own merit – not on its method of publication.

What is Self-Publishing?

Self-publishing (also known as indie publishing) is the publication of any book (or other media) by the author of the work, without the involvement of an established third-party publisher.

It is not the same as vanity publishing, which is where a company acts as a publishing house that publishes books at the author’s expense.

Self-publishing can include the use of print-on-demand (POD) technology and electronic publishing. In recent years, self-publishing has become a more and more popular method due to the development of technology and channels available to the everyday person.

Publishing Advances with Technology

Technology is the biggest catalyst in the publishing world – it always has been and always will be! The internet has never been more powerful. Bookshops are crumbling beneath Amazon’s monopoly of the book industry. People are more likely to buy discounted books online than spend time travelling to and then searching through bookshops for the same book at a higher price.

The rise of social media has created an immense jump in word-of-mouth marketing. As soon as we hear about a good book online, we’re only a few clicks away from buying it for ourselves.

Then you’ve got the invention of the eReader. In May 2011, Amazon announced that ebooks outsold paper books for the first time. It’s quicker and (relatively) easier to publish an ebook over a print book, so the increase in people consuming books this way has helped bolster the self-publishing industry.

How Publishing Houses Came About

The last time publishing had such a shake-up was probably with the invention of the printing press. Before publishing houses existed, books were printed and sold by the vendor. Before the 1960s, the book publishing industry was predominantly owned by independent companies whose only business was books.

Growing profits made them attractive to larger corporations, and eventually these big corporations also started buying out independent bookshops. With the immense growth of a few major companies, the smaller companies vanished, and the big companies gained control over the publishing industry.

While corporate profits increased (good news for the shareholders) the type and scope of books decreased.

Instead of risking the publication of new titles by unknown authors, publishing corporations tend to stick with known authors and past success formulas.

This, of course, made it difficult for new authors with new ideas to enter the marketplace … until now. There are now more resources than ever that help authors publish their own books.

Self-Publishing Isn’t New!

Self-publishing has been around a lot longer than you might think. At first, before large corporations took control of the publishing process, those who owned or had access to printing presses became their own publishers.

Self-publishing was also a means for self-expression without censorship.

(Power to the people!)

  • In 1644, John Milton published Areopagitica, in which he notes that writers can sidestep the censorship of the church and government by publishing their own books.
  • In 1843, Charles Dickens feuded with his publisher over low royalties and went on to publish A Christmas Carol by his own means.
  • In 1917, Virginia Woolf and her husband set up their own publishing house in their home.
  • Even The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, was originally self-published in 1918. (Though I don’t rate this book very highly.)

There is a very long list of famous and successful writers who self-published.

Power and Control in Publishing

But as the publishing world changes, the power shifts. Publishing houses churn out millions of professionally developed books, and bookshops liaise exclusively with publishers. Both the publishing houses and the bookshops develop the book market as a precise science, giving readers easy access to quality products to make the biggest profit.

This model remained unchanged for a long time, and has become ingrained in society’s mind as the normal and correct way the publishing industry should be set up. Publishers become the trusted experts of the industry, and readers are happy to put their faith in them without a second thought.

However, when you are a passive consumer and are not immersed in the world of the publishing industry, it is easy to forget that the publisher’s main goal is not to bring you wonderful books, but to make money.

Publishing is always first and foremost a business. When publishers hold the power over what’s published and independent bookshops are swallowed by retail giants, we get a small network of superpowers that hold all the control. And generally the public still accepts this as the norm, as how it should be.

Why Self-Publishing Has a Bad Name

In theory, the rise of self-publishing (made possible by the development of technology) is a good thing. However, inevitably a large proportion of self-published work is of a much lower quality than the traditionally published work we’re used to. This is a problem.

Self-published books don’t go through the same channels of quality assurance, they’re not produced in line with market trends, and they usually don’t have much money spent on their promotion. This is how self-publishing gets a bad name: poor-quality books are produced that no one is interested in reading and that no one hears about in the first place.

But with a good product (a story people want to read, presented in a professional way) and tactful marketing, a self-published novel can be a success.

For the author, self-publishing brings the freedom of expression and a level of control that would otherwise be stunted by a publisher. For the reader, it expands the market.

Diversity in the Arts is a Strength

Some may say that filling the market with sub-par material is more damaging to the reader’s experience – but I’ve never found myself drowning in a sea of crappy self-published material, unable to find the good stuff, have you? We search for books that we want to find or hear about books we might like through trusted recommendations.

If a book isn’t written or published well, it will sink and will not be visible. But if the book is good, it has a chance to rise to the top. If there are more books in the market, it simply means there’s a wider variety of books that may make it onto a reader’s radar.

So before you judge a self-published author, remember this:

Self-publishing expands the consumer choice that publishing superpowers can suppress.

The publishing industry has a diverse history. Its future is unpredictable. Technology is the catalyst for its change, but the power for that change is in the hands of the reader.

To me, that’s pretty exciting.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more: liminalpages.com

Sign up to Liminal Letters

Insights into the world of fiction, from the desk of an editor

Editorial considerations, creative revelations and the occasional existential lamentation – sharing my experiences and personal recommendations exclusively with you.