The best time NOT to self-publish is…..(never)
There are so many op-eds these days on when or if to self-publish but more so, features on the inferiority of self-published works just by virtue of fact they are self-published. This premise is applied even if the self-publishing author has the budget, foresight and professionalism to engage all manner of expert editors, proof readers, formatters, designers and thoroughly research the distributing and promotion of his/her work, the resultant book will be very bad. Worse, it will be amateur in content and looks.
There’s also an assumption (somewhat fear, vs. empirically based) that without sufficient social media or platform, books (even great ones) won’t get noticed. I’ve seen a zillion writerly blogs with this headline: If you publish it who will find it/you? This suggests that Shakespeare (et al, Dan Brown, Elizabeth Gilbert, JD Salinger, James Patterson, Ayn Rand) without benefit of Twitter, Facebook and Instragram or a YouTube book trailer of Othello, would never have been discovered. This is to further suggest that we as authors, creators, publishers and readers actually believe form trumps content. That means greatness, is a deux et machninas/medium-is-the-message is a fail from the get-go and a Pulitzer would never percolate to a deserved level of consciousness and find a collective of readers who know a good thing (or alternatively, what they want) when they find it - however they find it. But trust me (and the author of 50 Shades of Grey), they do and will find it.
What astounds me in the vast acreage of articulated opinions on these issues is a few-fold.
For one thing, there’s a passion, even a nervous derision or tempered contempt or dismissiveness offered to self-published authors in most of the opinion pieces I’ve read. Although I am Canadian, it is a divide akin to Tea Party-ers and Democrats, i.e. it’s a visceral thing.
There’s the assumption that a self-published author is a never-published author or can’t-find-a-book-deal author or more to the point: self-published = poor quality. How long has that been patently untrue? It’s such an old trope that to suggest self-published means inferior only marks you as out of the loop. Moreover, the articles I’ve read also seem only to refer to fiction writers when there are many other types of authors. I am, in fact, a cookbook author, another genre of author now in the fray. Let me explain a bit about cookbook authors.
Cookbook authors are writers (we are not verbose home economic teachers – we are specialty writers with a second specialty in food. Some, as I am, are trained chefs in addition to being wordsmiths). Consequently our challenges are even more than regular writers. We battle the plethora of amateur recipe blogs and infinite numbers of free recipes (sometimes even our own when we encounter our own recipes on repository sites), the charisma of celebrity chefs on TV, blogs or YouTube phenoms. In addition, our books require expensive food photography and complicated book design, our recipes need extraordinary copy editing and we also need legions of volunteer recipe testers to make sure our recipes work. When it comes to food photography in our cookbooks, many a time my advance (in traditional publishing) was a quarter that of the food photography/photographer budget.
In short, if you think self-publishing the average black-and-white 300 page paranormal novel is difficult, try self-publishing a 300 full colour cookbook. No one (sane or otherwise) would chose to do this alone – not even Mrs. Jerry Seinfeld, Rachel Ray or the ex-Mrs. Billy Joel. Jamie Oliver and Ina Gartner (Stephen King or Joanna Rowlings) could well buy Random House ten times over (I imagine) and even they don’t self-publish. Why? Because even the well-heeled and well-connected use publishers for their cookbooks (or novels) because it’s hugely difficult – even with a team assisting you. Writing is lonely enough – who wants to be a self-publishing author? Unless of course, you had to…(Did I also mention that recipes are not copyrightable, stolen constantly and generally free online?).
So it’s not about money – because given self-publishing garners you 65% royalties or so versus 15% royalties in traditional publishing, if it was, wealthy authors would indeed, do it themselves. On the flip side, what is more prestigious (or used to be) is saying you’re a Random author or Scribner author – at least, when that meant something and had a fiscal bottom line.
But here’s my pain: overall there is a premise that if you self-publish you are either an inferior or unaware author or (and this one blows me away) having had a reasonable advance, you somehow chose to ‘go rogue’ and venture into self-publishing due to a misplaced vanity press adventure spirit or thought you could out earn on your own what a traditional publisher was offering you.
As a traditional and well-established cookbook author (nay, a Julia Child 1st Book Nominee) with track record and solid book sales, I don’t see myself represented in these discussions and yet I am part of a silent majority – the mid-list cookbook author. Furthermore, let it be said that I find it hard to believe that any traditional author, with great book numbers, a brand, a platform and a plan would consider self-publishing if in fact, the advances hadn’t shrunk dramatically. It’s not a whim choice; it’s a have-to choice. We love what we do and we’re not ready to call it quits. We have reason to believe we have something to offer a large amount of readers.
After 25 years of great publishers, great cookbooks and what I thought was an upward spiralling career, I self-published my first cookbook, When Bakers Cook, two months ago. I did this not because I wanted to but because I had to. I love words, books and in my case, creating ambrosial baking I want to share with my readers. As publishing up-ended itself (blame transitions of the times, publishers being old school and late in their response to the new world of everything, the economy and….life itself) I realized (with skepticism, then denial, anger, sadness and then finally, pro-activeness), I had three choices (and early retirement or marrying rich weren't in the trio). I could quit and be a Wal-Mart greeter, I could take tiny (untenable) advances and supplement with freelance writing or I could dive into the Bermuda Triangle of self-publishing.
I’m a Taurus and we don’t quit so I chose Door #3 - self publish.
It took me three years (when I was otherwise wallowing in self-doubt and existential, mid-life angst about my value as a baking author) to simply research the self-publishing partners and players. I had no idea what formatting really meant and I had to cobble the budget to pay my editor, copy editor, indexer, proof-reader, photographer and publishing costs with Create Space and Kindle. Let it also be said that some of the talented staff I hired were recently let go from the prestigious traditional publishers. And let it also be said that we can no longer assume that having a traditional book deal insures a ‘team’ of editorial and sales help – things are lean everywhere. Speaking more directly to that, I recently was in Barnes and Noble and stumbled on a cookbook by a great colleague by a huge publisher renowned for their wonderful cookbooks and in this book was a 3-page addendum of text and recipe errors (my own self-published cookbook has but one error – and it’s a homonym). My point is: we can no longer assume ‘perfect’ and ‘quality’ is only the domain of traditional publishing.
Despite having a complete manuscript, self-publishing took me another 13 months to get my book out. When Bakers Cook launched on December 20th 2013; thanks to a galley physical copy I had to send to one editor, it was later named one of the Best Cookbooks of 2013 by the Washington Post. It continues to sell quite nicely, day in, day out. I am now working on my second self-published cookbook, due for this summer, as well as a book on tango and one on scent and probably I will indeed, publish my book of poetry. Why? Because ….I now can. And I am quietly and proudly building my own backlist. While I respect and miss my publishers (who I also feel bailed on their mid-list authors), I am no longer waiting for a publisher (or worse, the sales force or book buyer at Barnes and Noble) to determine I am the next hot trend or its derivative, or have enough platform to merit a book deal which is about the same as four freelance features for the Huffington Post or such. This is a new publishing world and what looks like something (like the best of illusions) often isn’t. Twitter followers don’t necessarily distill down into book sales and a good Google ranking doesn’t make me the next Julia Child. But how we hate to release an old romance – however bogus it really is.
In those 13 months (and horrific learning curve) of self-publishing, as my spirits and confidence rose, I noticed the put-down features on self-publishing. I couldn’t fathom it. I also tried many times to share my great adventure which it has been and continues to be. Few, if any colleagues, struggling themselves, wanted to hear. Overall, I’ve had a sense I’ve betrayed something or someone and crossed a line into a land I never wanted to visit, albeit as its sole resident and ironically, one who is beginning to thrive. That’s the part I still don’t get. I’m not unique as a mid-list author having to face things I hadn’t anticipated. I am not unique in forging a new path but why would authors, both those traditionally published and those eking by, be so disparaging to their fellow authors on the subject of self-publishing?
I never wanted to self-publish. I imagined a continuance of Random House, Harper Collins book deals for my growing baking author platform and more features in the leading newspapers and online venues. I envisioned more Christmas baskets from my publishers, publisher web staff to help me with my blog and website, publicists to set up my interviews and promotional spots. Instead, I am now River Heart Press (my own imprint) and I am boldly going where I went when I was 12 years old and was editor-publisher of my own street newspaper The Goldman Times. That little girl knew then what this grown woman/adult author is just learning all over again. Better to publish than to perish.
Here’s my take-away. If you want to publish – whether you’re rife with talent or no one has dared tell you you’re not – do it. If you are traditionally publishing and even established but have another genre of book your current publisher won’t consider – do it. If you are incredibly talented, passionate and have wonderful book numbers and fate or the times have left you without a chair in the musical chairs of book deals – do it. If you’re a reader who’s hungry for new, for good or great, don’t overlook the unknown, ‘selfie’ scribes out there. They are writing for you. There are no ‘sides’ in all this – there is no either/or approach. There are pros and cons to it all but overall, between no book or an ‘ok’ self-published book (in content and production) and a potential Pulitzer prize winner (or thwarted or unattempted dream) languishing in your drawer or a Word file – I will take the mediocre (or not) self-published book. I suggest you do too.
Oh and by the way, addressing the EIR (Elephant in the Room, aka Jeff Bezos, Amazon and company), when editors, agents and publishers I’ve worked with for years forgot to call or email me back on so many occasions, one email, eight hours later, garnered a call from the Jeff Bezos executive team to see how they might expedite my self-published cookbook when I encountered a snag. So the Big 6 (now, Big 5) might walk and talk like the sauve and handsome gentlemen publishers they are, the EIR is the one who was most attentive and offered the most respectful TLC. I got Cadillac service on the self-publishing journey for my $248 publishing ‘package’.
And to my colleagues who try so hard to dismantle my efforts to stay afloat and bring my words and recipes to my readers, I say – jump into the pool. The water’s warm, there’s plenty of room.
This article was written by Marcy Goldman. Marcy is the host of www.betterbaking.com, now celebrating it’s 17th year online, an independent baking site that also has been successful monetized since 2004. A cookbook author of several titles, she recently published When Bakers Cook, rescued her bestselling, but briefly-out-of-print A Passion for Baking. This spring, look for her first book of poetry, Love and Ordinary Things and this fall she will launch The Baker’s Four Seasons. All her books are doing very well, in print and as ebooks. She avoids most social media, focuses on creating content and is the most happy she’s ever been.
Great article, Marcy, and couldn't agree with you more in that indie publishing has saved the industry. I've had a modestly successful career as a screenwriter & director, but as the film business changed, dramatically, 6 years ago, I knew it was time to return to my roots and write novels. My first sucked. My second sucked less. My third, the one I'm publishing, is the turning point and my fourth will be my best. All of this is to say that in following this new path, I submitted to one agent, smiled when I received the rejection email which is now on the wall in my office, and opened my own small imprint, http://www.usindiebooks.com/ I've just signed one author, Patrick H Moore who runs the very popular, http://www.allthingscrimeblog.com/ am about to sign another, and am accepting new submissions.
However, as I foray into now also being a publisher, I will add this; of the numerous submissions I've received, unfortunately, around 80% of them were just not up to snuff. Yes, indiepub has leveled the playing field, but it's also now very crowded. As I'm no stranger to fragile egos, living in Hollywood, interestingly, most authors can't take constructive criticism, no matter how gentle the hand. This, along with the plethora of books that should never have been published, continues the unfortunate stigma that we all battle. Yes, cream rises, but one has to be very savvy as to how we clear the flotsam to achieve that. At the end of the day, you're absolutely correct in that it's a brave new world and the only thing holding one back is fear. Just please, for those about to, work with a great editor, and polish it numerous times before you Amazon it.
Posted by: Max Myers | April 12, 2014 at 04:49 PM
Self-publishing is a great option, but rather than seeing the decision of how to publish as either-or, most authors would be better served by realizing that there are a spectrum of options ranging from traditional publishing on one end to do-it-yourself (DIY) publishing on the other. As with any major investment or purchase, consider as many legitimate options as possible and select the best one. However, just as somebody accepting bids on a major project such as having a house built would not wait around for months for the most established builder to get around to submitting their bid, aspiring authors should set appropriate deadlines for getting an agent and then for the agent to secure offers from traditional publishers. At the same time, the author should be learning about the other options (DIY, publishing service companies, hybrid publishers, etc.) and even making connections and obtaining the financial data for those options.
Different options may make sense for different projects.
If the book's category is one that generates most of its sales through local stores, then the ability to place copies in local stores should be weighted more heavily in the decision. Traditional publishers and distributors (wholesalers with sales teams that actively sell to stores) are the primary options if a book needs national sales into the thousands of local book retailers. Hybrid options (including WestBow Press which I manage) are developing to provide publishing and sales services, but we focus on limited categories at this time.
Posted by: Pete Nikolai | April 24, 2014 at 08:13 AM