An Introduction to Self Publishing (Part 1 of a Series)

Ernest Disapproval
7th October 1939: EXCLUSIVE American writer Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961) works at his typewriter while sitting outdoors, Idaho. Hemingway disapproved of this photograph saying, ‘I don’t work like this.’ (Photo by Lloyd Arnold/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

So you want to write a book, eh? Great! Now prepare to wrestle with this choice: to self publish, or not?

Most writers, whether they are professionals, amateurs, or just hobbyists, are probably somewhat familiar with the concept of self publishing. It’s pretty self explanatory, right? You, the writer, are taking on the responsibility of not only writing a manuscript, but editing it, designing it, marketing it, and praying that it succeeds. You are also shouldering all of the financial responsibility. If the book succeeds you reap all of the rewards, but if it fails then it all comes back to you.

Until mainstream e-readers showed up, self publishing meant going to a vanity publisher and giving them hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to turn your manuscript into an actual book. This also meant you designing the cover and editing the manuscript, or hiring people to do that for you; ergo, more money. There are some vanity publishers that aren’t…terrible, but others are pretty sleazy. Check out Preditors and Editors 
which details whether a publisher is trustworthy, or not.

In the late 2000s, e-readers went from being a fringe gadget to being sold alongside computers and iPods. The appearance of tablets and apps furthered the evolution of reading, making e-books more popular and more accessible. At this point Amazon entered the self publishing business with Kindle Direct Publishing for e-books, and CreateSpace for print-on-demand copies (meaning a copy is printed when someone buys one rather than in bulk). Kobo, Nook, Smashwords, and IngramSpark also began offering self publishing services. Some of these services cost money, while others are free to use. You might think, “Wait, aren’t the services that cost money no better than vanity publishers?” It’s a complicated question, and one worth asking. Yes, you are paying these providers to format and distribute your book, but at the same time they aren’t making you promises either. Let me put it this way: with Amazon’s services it’s all free, but you have to do everything. Smashwords charges you a nominal fee for some of the more technical aspects, but they also distribute your work to online marketplaces without making any outlandish promises.

kindle e reader.jpg

Self publishing experienced a boom in the early 2010s, and you have people like Hugh Howey, Andy Weir, EL James, and Amanda Hocking become bestselling indie authors. If you don’t recognize the names of the authors then maybe you’ll recognize titles like The Martian, or Fifty Shades of Grey, or Wool. These might be special cases, but it’s proof of concept. New writers looked to the internet as a land of opportunity. No arbitrary barriers, the ability to connect with readers and other writers, and a chance to have monetary success without giving most of the earnings to a publisher and agent. On paper it sounds like a great plan until put into action. It can work, but it requires determination and discipline. You don’t just write the manuscript, run spell check and grammar check, throw a cover together and upload the package onto a program, you have to promote the book, network with people, and brace for the disappointing reality that your book might only make $500 in its lifetime. Still, self publishing offered a new avenue for writers, and also a new selection of books for readers. So whether the major publishers want to admit it, self publishing became competition.

They welcomed the competition and changed their practices to help writers and readers alike.

Nah, not really.

The system is still pretty closed, difficult to break into, and writers are getting treated to lower advances and lower royalties. The traditional publishers blame this on entertainment competition, but it seems more like the result of greed than a collapsing market. You would think writers would flock to Amazon/Kobo/Nook/Smashwords etc. because it seems like a better option, right? Well, not quite. Self publishing hasn’t dethroned the major publishers, but it’s shown a spotlight on the disparities in the system and that the old system is outdated. One of the running debates in the reading/writing world is: which is better, self publishing or traditional publishing? Over the next couple posts I’ll make a case for self publishing, a case for traditional publishing, and finally make a judgment call for readers and writers. Not like my word is law or anything, just another opinion.

So read on! And feel free to leave a comment either here or on my Twitter (@ahahnjones)

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