We tend to think of self publishing as a recent phenomenon, but if you were in Oxford in June 2014 you might have gone to this presentation on Self-publishing in 18th-century Paris and London. Naturally things were not exactly the same in those days. You might want to argue that it all looks rather like the subscription publishing I wrote about previously. The current explosion of self publishing results from the invention of the e-book, though of course lots of writers still get their books printed, either through services like Lulu, Blurb, or Amazon’s CreateSpace, or still in many cases by contracting with a regular printer. But digital is the big difference-maker, and many commentators keep weighing in on the “to do, or not to do” question as if it was important in some real way.
Why is it that the question “to self-publish or not?” stirs up such emotion? What does it matter to you that this person decides to publish their book by themselves, and that person goes to Simon & Schuster? You might as well try to get an emotion-choked debate going on the folly of choosing a publisher with fewer than 206 employees, or a publisher with more than two “r”s in their name, or a publisher more than half of whose employees have blond hair. Now if anyone wants passionately to be published by blonds and blondes only, they are perfectly free to go ahead and seek out a solution to their mania. I can’t see why anyone else has any need to complain. Some people will favor self publishing; others won’t. Some people find controlling the entire publishing and marketing process by themselves empowering and gratifying. To others it’s a bore. End of story — surely.
The current flurry of nonsense is provoked by Ros Barber who writes in The Guardian an utterly rational explanation of why a (serious) literary writer shouldn’t touch self-publishing with a barge pole. Ed Renehan at Medium reacts in an emotionally-charged manner to what he sees as the snobbery and elitism of Ms. Barber’s post. Mr Renehan maintains “In the end, the publishing imprint is not the brand. The author is the brand.” One could possibly agree with that I guess (though Penguin was certainly a strong brand for me in my youth), but it’s hard to work out what it has to do with choosing to publish on your own or to go with an established house. For those keen to follow up even more reactions to the piece, here’s a round-up from The Digital Reader. After all this spilt ink all we can really conclude is that we’d be surprised if Mr Renehan didn’t self-publish his next book with his own indie imprint New Street Communications, and similarly surprised if Ms Barber were to self-publish her fiction (though she does apparently self-publish non-fiction). This certainly makes a huge difference to the world!
In 2014 Eoin Purcell’s blog published a thoughtful piece entitled “Why traditional publishers should surrender to self publishing”. It’s all rational and responsible in tone, but it is based on the proposition that the “war between self publishing and publishing, [is] over and authors (who are the major self publishers and hence the foot-soldiers, commanders and field marshals of self publishing’s forces) have won it.” I can assure Mr Purcell that nobody in publishing has ever thought they were in such a war. If the slightest hint of battle had ever arisen, we would never have considered self publishers the enemy. We spent all our time finding books, getting out the books we were about to publish, trying to get people to buy them, and making sure the older ones remained available. We might feel some pique that this or that competing publisher had beaten us to this or that book signing, but self publishing wasn’t a perceived threat. (I do realize that this will only be regarded by the indie promoters as further evidence of the stupidity of traditional publishing. They aren’t however any more likely to be correct in all their assumptions than I am.) A more genuine threat than authors opting for self publishing is their failure to complete this manuscript, their failure to deliver that manuscript on time, or even the failure ever to start writing the manuscript. We acknowledge the existence of hundreds of other publishing houses and recognize that authors can always decide to publish elsewhere or even do it themselves. God knows there are enough books out there for all of us.
Mike Shatzkin naturally has sensible things to say about all this. When an author should self-publish. . . is a thorough and sensible survey of the whole issue. Digital Book World proves that marketing is the secret sauce: if you can and want to do it, self publish; if you don’t, don’t. For those addicted to compromise, a sort of half-way house, agent assisted publishing, is well described in this 2013 post by Melissa Foster on the Jane Friedman blog. A different sort of half-way house, the in and out kind, apparently called hybrid, is discussed by Porter Anderson at Thought Catalog.
Give it all a rest folks: there are lots of ways to publish, and one kind doesn’t have to kill off the others for them all to run merrily along.