Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Self-publishing: a creative choice, or a last resort?

by Terry Tyler

Most writers, whilst penning their first novel, have fantasies about submitting to a major literary agent and being accepted by a traditional publishing house. This fantasy becomes reality for one in a million, if not fewer. I started writing long before Kindle; back in the days when I occasionally submitted novels to agents I gained some interest, but it amounted to 'yes, like the way you write, but can you change the content according to what is currently in vogue, so I can sell it to a publisher?'

I wrote nine novels in the 1990s, then started writing again in 2010. I submitted the first to an established agent, and received the same response. My book was from multiple-first-person points of view, which was not popular at the time. Then someone told me about self-publishing on Amazon, and I decided to go down that road, instead—which was when I discovered that some see self-publishing as a last resort on which to fall back after being turned down by agents, mainstream publishers, and even the smallest independent presses. It isn't. It is, in many cases, a creative choice, for the writer who doesn't want to follow grip lit thriller with grip lit thriller, or remove a whole character because she must conform to the romance formula as laid down by her publisher.

Yes, of course, self-published books on Amazon range from the brilliant to the efforts that inspire you to write emails asking for better quality control on the site. The desire to stand apart from the stigma of self-pub and 'be a published author' leads many to sign with the first independent who says 'yes', or, worse, with the rip-off vanity presses—in case you don't know, this is where they flatter you until you sign the contract, then hit you will a huge bill for editing, proofreading, etc. Often, they masquerade as trad pub. They will accept anything as long as you pay their exorbitant fees, and their editing and proofreading usually leaves much to be desired. I was recently asked to review a book published by a well-known vanity press. It had three errors in the blurb alone.

As far as independent publishers are concerned, they range from the very good, who will promote your book, present it professionally, seek out book bloggers and placement in bookshops, etc, to the bad, who don't recognise slack editing and will let books go out with too many errors in them (I've read independent press books with American English in an English historical, waffling narrative that should have been cut, etc), to the ugly, who just want a cut of your takings and will have your books 'edited' by someone who doesn't understand basic grammar. According to blog posts I've read, some writers who've chosen to go with an indie press find that they end up with all the restrictions of the traditionally published: losing royalties, and control of content, timing of publication, price, with none of the advantages (books in high street shops, paid Amazon advertising, sales, etc).

A few years back, a writer friend told me that he'd felt so excited when Kindle publishing was first introduced, but became disillusioned by the reality: wannabe best sellers bunging up any old rubbish on Amazon, thinking they were going to be the next EL James/GRR Martin. This has added to the bad name self-publishing has had since the days when vanity was the only option available, and not only with book bloggers and the reading public. The writers' hierarchy lives on: some who sign with small presses consider themselves superior to the self-published, and indeed make scathing remarks about them, not realising that the standard for acceptance by these companies may be more, shall we say, 'relaxed' than for literary agents/trad pub. Some writers do not even realise the difference between a traditional publisher and an independent publishing company (the latter of which can be set up by anyone), and believe themselves to be among the 'chosen few', and thus vastly superior to the self-pub.

When a writer says they self-publish 'by choice', it means they don't submit their books to publishers in the first place. It doesn't mean they've been rejected by lots of publishers but have come to terms with it. Acceptance by a major publishing house should not be seen as the only affirmation that your output is of merit; such large companies exist to make money, first and foremost, not to nurture the artist, so money invested has to be a safe bet. Saleability to the masses (and investment from large corporations) does not necessarily indicate creative brilliance; it's fair to say that creativity and making money do not go hand in hand.

But what about validation of your talent? Doesn't such acceptance give you that? Not necessarily. I've heard, straight from one horse's mouth, that being taken on by an agent doesn't necessarily mean that you're an amazing writer, just that you've produced a product that can be moulded to have mass appeal. If you want validation, wait to see if readers buy more than one of your books. Rejoice in your genuine reviews from book bloggers and the reading public.

Terry Tyler's latest, psychological thriller, novel
I've been described many times as a 'supporter of self-published authors', but I'm not. Some are dreadful. I'm a supporter of good writers, however they're published. I read a great deal; that some of my favourites are self-pub is neither here nor there. An equal amount are mainstream or small press. A book is a book; while we keep making the distinction, self-publishing will always be seen as the impoverished, embarrassing relation.

It took me a while to realise that I actively WANT to be self-published. A few readers and book bloggers have expressed surprise that I don't have a publisher, and one writer friend keeps very kindly suggesting publishers I could submit to, but I don't like the idea of anyone having control over what I produce. If you have the necessary basic talent and understand the importance of good editing and proofreading, if you realise you will have to do all your own promotion, and accept that creative freedom doesn't mean darting from sweet romance to horror, to cowboy comedy to Plantagenet history and back again, you can do well with self-publishing. Once you stop worrying about writing synopses and what-the-hell-agents-are-looking-for, or getting yet another rejection email, your writing life gets a lot easier—and you can spend your time producing novels, instead of query letters.

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Book Reviews


  1. Excellent article Terry. The only drawbacks I have found is the time and perhaps expertise you may not have to market your novel, never mind the expense. Also I once approached an independent bookseller in London about stocking my niche book which was in his shop's genre. As soon as he heard it was self-published on Amazon, he became very defensive about only stocking books from sources not connected to the likes of Amazon etc. However, I would self-publish again as a first resort.

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