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The Great Underground Myth: Why Self Publishing Doesn’t Work

By Max Dunbar.

Recall one evening in Canal Street I got into conversation with a writer who told me that she ‘chose to self publish, because then I can retain control of my copyright.’ What I loved about this statement was its implication of choice – that Random House could offer this woman a four-book deal and a six-figure advance which she would decline because ‘then I can retain control of my copyright.’

Felicity Wood of the Bookseller recently raved that: ‘For many authors self-publishing has become a fantastic marketing tool to garner attention from the industry’s big players. By proving that they are both ambitious and serious, and have sales figures to boot, self-publishing gives new authors even more ammunition; their work stops being just an unsolicited manuscript on a slushpile and becomes instead a ­viable product with its own CV.’ This year’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook doesn’t list magazines that publish short fiction and poetry but can find the space for a chapter called ‘Notes from a successful self-published author’ where a man named G.P. Taylor says: ‘Would I recommend authors to self-publish? Definitely.’ The head of AuthorHouseUK, perhaps this country’s dominant self publishing company, told her he was ‘very familiar with the mindset of traditional publishers, but self-publishers can’t be ignored. We’re here, we’ve arrived, and we are not going to go away.The Guardian‘s Alison Flood signed off her article about the difficulties of getting published with: ‘Bitterness about how the system works isn’t going to change that – although beating it might.’ Her link is to a rave CNN piece about self publishing.

Self publishing is increasingly seen as a brave new paradigm in fiction publishing, a democratic and egalatarian alternative to the elitist traditional industry, 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. None of these claims are based in anything like reality. Here’s why.

What is self publishing?

We don’t really know. 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. The most common answer to the question ‘How is self publishing different from vanity publishing?’ is a variation of ‘It just is’. The failure to agree on a definition is symptomatic of a wider problem.

The situation is complicated further by the fact that vanity publishers try to escape their deserved stigma by rebranding themselves as ‘self-publishers’, ‘co-operative publishers’, ‘subsidy publishers’, ‘print on demand [POD] publishers’ or other meaningless terms. Writers can pay one of these charlatans to produce their book in full expectation that they will retain the control over their book that a self-publisher (theoretically) enjoys; only to find that they have handed their copyright and first rights to a vanity publisher, and that their book will have the experience of all vanity published books (oblivion).

The best example of this scam is the YouWriteOn debacle of this year and last. YouWriteOn is a writers’ message board, or ‘community’, whose admins announced in the autumn of 2008 that they would publish 5,000 books, for nothing, by Christmas. This huge undertaking was never going to happen. Deadlines whooshed by and authors sent worried emails. For the Bookseller, Jane Smith reported that: ‘When their emails went unanswered they asked questions on YouWriteOn’s message board: I saw many of those questions disappear; then entire threads disappeared; and the week before Christmas the whole message board was closed down.’

Eventually 273 books were distributed online by writers who had paid a £40 ‘distribution fee’. The books appeared unedited, with no quality control, poor covers and a royalty rate that didn’t match that of the contract. Sales have mainly been to the authors and their intimates.

Both YouWriteOn and its partner, Legend Press, have received Arts Council England funding; and there has been some controversy as to whether ACE has been funding the YWO/Legend vanity arm as well as its other activities. Jane estimated that YWO and Legend have made around £40,000 directly from authors without having to make a single sale. You can see from the comments to her piece that many of these authors still believe that they are self published. Meanwhile Legend recently set up something called ‘New Generation Publishing’, a POD service that offers a ‘bridge between the traditional and the new world of publishing’. The site recommends that authors sign up for its optional ‘Distribution Service’ – available at a fee of £54.99.

How does self publishing work?

Let’s agree a working definition of a self-publisher as a writer who sets up a publishing company to publish his or her book. They will retain that vital and elusive control but will also have to do all the costly admin stuff that a real publisher would do for nothing. As well as printing books, publishers employ sales teams to persuade bookshop owners to stock their titles, and distribution teams to ensure that the books remain in stock. Their marketing departments will promote the book across a range of media and will place it in review sections. There is undoubtedly a great deal of admin and financial work that I haven’t mentioned.

Try to replicate this as a single individual and you’ll realise that the chance of a self published novel getting the recognition of its mainstream equivalent is laughable. What are the sales figures for self published books? Again, we don’t really know. But we can get an idea from looking at numbers from America. They are not good numbers. It’s estimated that 40% of POD books are sold directly to authors, and that the accounts in even the most generous estimate would, according to Jane, ‘still have a long way to go before they equalled the sales figures of the least successful books from a mainstream publisher.’

There are self published authors who have enjoyed real success. But in every case this success has been due to their being picked up by a mainstream publisher. G. P. Taylor’s Shadowmancer was picked up by Faber and Faber and is being filmed. He is part of a lucky minority: most self-published authors will not get past the stigma, or the loss of their novel’s first rights. Still, the lucky minority can make headlines and generate superficial optimism that ignores two crucial questions.

One: why do self published writers only get recognition when they are picked up by the mainstream? And two: if self publishing is such a great new paradigm, why do self published authors sign up to corporate publishers as soon as they are given the opportunity?

‘The internet will make everything all right’

Jane Smith is a writer who runs an excellent blog called How Publishing Really Works. It is a valuable resource for writers who know nothing about publishing, which is most of us. She began the blog after a friend of hers was ripped off by a vanity publisher and never wrote anything again. Smith resolved to warn other potential victims of the creeps and bullshit artists that prey on novice writers. Naturally, she began writing about self publishing.

Our old friend G.P. Taylor writes that ‘The writer has now, thanks to the advent of the internet and email, a publishing house at their fingertips.’ This line nicely illustrates the delusions people have about the internet. Jane Smith is a lonely Cassandra in a sea of frothing bullshit. Writers’ message boards are full of people who believe that the internet is a tool allowing them to sell their work to an audience of millions without much effort on their part. Acres of webspace are filled with fantasies of the print novel being replaced by downloadable books read from screen and ‘bricks-and-mortar’ booksellers dying out.

In fact, 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. In social company you can mention the names of the most feared and influential online writers without getting a reaction. Reading things published online is simply not as pleasant as a physical book or newspaper – notice how your eyes feel fucked after a long session at the VDU.

Contra the web utopians, the internet is not a universal thing. Salford’s independent newspaper estimated that two thirds of the city’s population is not online. Granted Salford is a poor area, but we can extrapolate. Walk into any public library and you will see rows of unemployed people at the computer banks, using their alloted one hour per day to type up CVs and look on commercial job sites for work.

The author Stacia Kane understood that the internet doesn’t guarantee equality:

I know people who can’t afford books totally have the money for laptops and ereaders and the internet. So in seeking to democratize literature, what you are actually doing is STEALING IT from those less fortunate than you.

And this brings us on to the reasons why self publishing not only doesn’t work but probably shouldn’t work.

Conclusion: Forward to the Eighteenth Century

In addition to her publishing blog, Jane Smith runs a review site in which she reviews self published books by the standards of a mainstream editor. Take a look. People say that most mainstream novels are bad, but the poor quality is generally to do with issues like pretension, cliche, lack of character development, clumsy narrative build and clunky prose. With self publishing, we are dealing with very basic aspects of syntax, punctuation, grammar, spelling, formatting, coherence, continuity of characters’ names – the kind of thing people learn in secondary school. The vast majority of self-publishing is not simply bad, it’s what Richard Tull in The Information calls ‘anti-literature’ that ‘just hadn’t made it out of some more primitive form: diary, dreamjournal, dialectic.’

And this is not surprising, for the criteria of self-publishing is not quality of work, but the authors’ ability to pay. Despite all its shortcomings mainstream publishers still pay to publish books by talented writers. And for all its multiplicity of names the model of self publishing is still that of the writer paying someone who will produce their book, regardless of quality. Selling and marketing a self published book takes time, and time costs money. 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.

Self publishing does have its uses. I love the idea of someone producing a book of their kids’ favourite bedtime stories, or a collection of love poems for your wife or girlfriend on Valentine’s Day. But self publishing has suffered a function creep, or function bloat: it has been stretched far beyond its limited capabilities. It is also being taken too seriously. Many writers, me included, left HarperCollins’s Authonomy ms display site in disgust after rumours that the admins were turning it into a digital POD farm. My prediction is that self publishing will seep further into the mainstream – it appeals to corporate types out to make fast profit, for all kinds of reasons.

Ray Bradbury said that the secret of being a good writer was in knowing when to reject success and when to accept rejection. It has been the most ignored piece of advice in literary history. More and more people are getting into self publishing. Why? Part of it is the lazy perception of the talentless, that proper publication depends on ‘who you know’; although most successful writers are still picked off the slushpiles. If you’re talented and unpublished it’s easier to believe this is conspiracy rather than the staggering ratio of ms submitted to agency staff.

Part of it is the gradual lowering of expectations. I’m saddened by the number of writers and poets I have met who go into self publishing as a first resort, not the last. They’ve been led to believe that mainstream publishing is a tight and closed world that does not engage with outsiders. (And, to be fair, a lot of corporate publishing is like that, and corporate publishers say and do loads of stupid things.)

Still, what is it about us writers? Talented doodlers do not post their works to the Tate, office jokers don’t turn up at the Royal Albert Hall offering an hour’s standup and good pub team footballers do not expect to lead England onto the field. Why do we have this clamour for attention and recognition? Isn’t it enough to get the buzz off physically writing and the satisfaction of having written something good?

J D Salinger is rumoured to put his finished novels in a sealed box, unread by anyone except himself. It seems sad but it’s a better outcome for him that any writer will have if they go into self publishing: which is vanity publishing in a hired suit, and is to actual publishing what alternative medicine is to medicine.


Max Dunbar
was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, November 28th, 2009.