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Countering the Myth: Why Self-Publishing Works

By Henry Baum.

I’d like to add a counterpoint to the article, ‘The Great Underground Myth: Why Self-Publishing Doesn’t Work’. The motto of 3:AM might be “Whatever it is, we’re against it,” but I should think the site isn’t totally nihilistic or the site wouldn’t exist at all, and that piece seems to run counter to the underground spirit of this site, and independent publishing in general.

A little about where I’m coming from: My first novel came out with Soft Skull Press in the States and had a U.K. edition with Rebel Inc. press (The Golden Calf) and Hachette Litteratures in France. It recently came out in a second edition from Another Sky Press. After failing to find a publisher for a follow-up novel, I decided to self-publish North of Sunset with Lulu. With my latest novel, The American Book of the Dead, I didn’t even bother entering the system. I sent it out half-heartedly to my agent – not because I didn’t like the book, but because I didn’t want my literary fate to be controlled by the opinions of other people any longer. I wanted to be my own publisher.

I also have a story in 3:AM‘s own anthology published by Social Disease – a press that comes pretty close to self-publishing. Hell, 3:AM itself is close to self-publishing, which is why it was so puzzling to see a piece on the site that was so rabidly anti-independent. I’ve had a long road in publishing – many agents, different publishers. I did not jump into self-publishing first thing, but after years of frustration. As great as Rebel Inc. was, and as happy I am that I was a part of that press while it lasted, it actually contributed to my desire to self-publish. The press dissolved just as my book was being released, so it was lost in the shuffle. Add to that some seriously stupid rejections from agents and publishers and my new motto was to tune in and drop out. Since 2008 I’ve edited the site Self-Publishing Review. I also started a self-publishing book collective, Backword Books. In short, I’ve become a self-publishing proselytizer. I never wanted to have to slave so hard to get attention, but the traditional system is getting increasingly difficult and dispiriting. It’s also attractive to me that this new system offers so much freedom for writers – both artistically and professionally – so I want to help out the cause.

The Great Corporate Myth

Onto the article. Max Dunbar’s piece could well be titled, “Why this approach to self-publishing doesn’t work.” He begins by citing a woman who would decline a four book deal from Random House so she could remain independent. I am not one of these people – nor are most writers. You would have to be a complete lunatic to turn down a five figure advance so you can retain copyright, so prefacing an attack on self-publishing by citing the exception, not the rule, makes little sense. For me, if I was offered a Big Book Deal, I’d take it because on many levels self-publishing sucks. I said it – that it’s exceedingly difficult does not mean it’s not useful. With a traditional publisher you get traditional distribution. Until self-publishing can fill that gap, traditional publishing will have a leg up.

Yes, there are countless stories of people being ignored by their Big Publishers so that getting a book deal is no Holy Grail, but generally: it’s better to be in brick and mortar bookstores than not and generally: self-publishing doesn’t offer that.

But that’s not where Dunbar’s article goes askew. He seems to be coming from a position that self-publishing is declaring itself a replacement for traditional publishing – “a way to bring unknown talent to a mass audience while bypassing philistine commercial considerations, a growing, pulsing trend that will eventually displace corporate publishing altogether.” In fact, very few are claiming this. People claim that it’s a way to bypass an increasingly-infuriating system of gatekeeping, in which books are selected on dubious criteria, but replacing corporate publishing? No – at least not for the foreseeable future, until there’s an Espresso Book Machine in every corner deli, ebooks are more ubiquitous, and, as mentioned, someone figures out a way to get self-published books into storefront bookstores.

“Self publishing is routinely confused with vanity publishing and both are often referred to as ‘independent’ publishing – on a level with good genuine independents like Canongate, Salt, Tindal Street, Arcadia and Serpent’s Tail.”

Again, he seems to be basing his assumptions about self-publishing based on someone’s delusion. As I’ve mentioned, I published with Rebel Inc. – part of Canongate. I would never for a millisecond claim that my desktop publishing project is on par with Canongate, Serpent’s Tail, Soft Skull, Akashic, and others. It’s not a replacement, it’s an alternative.

He goes on to say that the self-publishing has been corrupted by the likes of YouWriteOn and AuthorHouse. And here we get to the crux of most anti-self-publishing talk that doesn’t make an ounce of sense. For some reason with self-publishing, the entire field of self-publishing gets blamed for the fuck-ups of someone else. So if AuthorHouse has too-expensive publishing packages that rip people off then…self-publishing doesn’t work. Or because someone across the ocean published a book that’s not worth reading then…all self-published books are bad.

Many, many self-published books are bad. There will never be doubt about this. There should also never be doubt that this doesn’t matter. Most bands you’ll see at your local club probably suck badly as well. Most blogs suck. But somehow it’s all of self-publishing that becomes the representative of those people who don’t know what they’re doing.

All you need to know about self-publishing is this: it gives people an avenue to publish who might have had the door shut in their face otherwise. And if there’s even the possibility that a book is worth attention, then self-publishing has enduring value. It matters not at all that there are many bad self-published books. All that matters is that everyone has a voice and writers aren’t being shut out due to the horrid criteria that the book can’t make enough money.

But They Don’t Sell

Anti-self-publishing articles often reference the article from Jane Smith about iUniverse as if this is final proof that self-publishing doesn’t work. This makes about as much sense as adding all the book sales of all traditionally published books together and gauging if you should publish based on the resulting statistics. On average, most books don’t sell. But that’s not the main point – more importantly, it doesn’t matter if some guy writing and publishing his grandfather’s life story has only sold three copies. This has nothing to do with what another writer is trying to do with his own writing and so he shouldn’t be culpable for someone else’s sales.

It’s true: it’s incredibly hard to sell self-published books. It’s also incredibly hard to sell experimental fiction, poetry, or a CD containing an hour’s worth of TV static. Doesn’t matter – they should all have an outlet. And who is the final word about a book’s worth – an editor, a critic? This puts far too much power in the hands of a few.

The New Paradigm

What the article mostly confuses is the idea that the new paradigm is self-publishing replacing other modes of publishing. It won’t – any more than ebooks will replace printed books, or as someone said, escalators will replace stairs. Anyone with the arrogance to say otherwise is either not being honest or doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Editorial selection is still a good model, because you can pick up a book on Serpent’s Tail and be pretty certain it will be interesting. But it is not the only model. What matters most is that self-publishing is totally democratic. It opens the door for more kinds of writers to find readers. And in this increasingly-stupid world, where shit rises to the top, that is something to be celebrated. Siding with corporate publishing over that sense of freedom is more than a little depressing.

Where this article really goes awry is when it mentions the internet. Dunbar writes, “The whole user-generated content thing is a bit overblown, to put it mildly. The best read blogs, like Guido Fawkes, still can’t approach the readership of a printed national newspaper.” OK, then why does 3:AM Magazine exist? This seems to be saying: if you can’t reach the level of corporate media, why bother? Baffling. It’s not just against self-publishing, but the purpose of the entire internet. I don’t think it’s even necessary to rush into a defense of user-generated content, or independent-minded media like 3:AM.

Here is where I agree with him (to a degree): “For all its wide-eyed, slack-jawed futurism, self publishing is a return to the old model, where books were circulated around a wealthy elite, and to be a writer one either had to be rich or have a rich patron.”

It’s true, to be a fully effective self-publisher, it helps to have a lot of money for a publicist, review copies, advertisements, etc. In short, you need to have the kind of monetary muscle of a Big Publisher. But what’s great is that you don’t need to have a dime – with Lulu, for example, you can publish without paying a cent. Just like you don’t have to pay for Blogger, a Youtube account, or other new media – they’re all part of the new system of expression. This is progress.

He asks, “Isn’t it enough to get the buzz off physically writing and the satisfaction of having written something good?” No, it’s not. It’s important to be read. Here’s my story. After releasing North of Sunset, I connected with UK songwriter RW Hedges, who sent me his CD and we’ve corresponded ever since – one of the better relationships of my life and I’ve never met the guy. The whole project was justified by connecting with that one reader. Anyone who whittles down success or failure in publishing by the number of books you sell has a pretty dim view of self-expression and what it means to connect with other people. Things can happen when you put out a book, and you won’t know until you get your book out there.

Self-publishing isn’t perfect by a long shot. I’ll repeat – it’s hard to sell books. And I’ll acknowledge – it is a myth to think self-publishing is easy. Be certain though: it’s going to get easier, as there will be more outlets to promote a book and distribution improves. But the argument isn’t if it’s easy, or even if it’s legitimate, but if it’s useful – if writers can use it to their advantage, and they can. Whether it’s a stepping stone to a major book deal or a way to remain independent, it is an important and necessary part of publishing’s future. Do people put out books before they’re ready? Certainly. Should it be a first resort for writers? Probably not, depends on the writer. But it allows everyone to have a voice. Sure, some of those voices should never reach the page, but it’s a much worse prospect if they never have the chance.


Henry Baum is the author of the novels The Golden Calf, North of Sunset and The American Book of the Dead, recently released. He’s published work at Identity Theory, Scarecrow, Storyglossia, Dogmatika and others, as well as stories in anthologies put out by Another Sky Press and 3:AM, and a story in a single volume by Cloverfield Press. Visit theamericanbookofthedead.com where he’s posting a song for each chapter in his new novel. In addition to being a self-publishing advocate, he’s also into home recording. He lives in Los Angeles.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009.