The Curse of Self-Publishing

These days many authors see an easy way to get published. Hook up with Lulu or Publish America and you too can have your own book! And look, it even gets listed on! It must be legit!

Well, if all you care about is having your novel available for your friends and family to buy, that’s a fine way to go. But if you really want anyone else to consider you a real writer, avoid these things completely.

Here’s a true example: Last year I went to a writer’s conference. It was the first I had ever attended and was not sure what to expect, but knew I could learn something. The conference had a number of guests who had published novels and more than a hundred participants who were, like me, there to learn and receive critiques. Quite a few of these people, I discovered, had already published their own books. One fellow was very proud of his Publish America novel.

On Sunday, they set up a question and answer period where the published authors would sit in front and discuss whatever the participants wished. I was honored when the organizers came to me and asked me to join in. The people with the Lulu books and the Publish America books were ignored completely. Even though my novel is with a relatively minor publishing house, the editors and writers who organized the conference considered it worthy.

After all, unlike these self-published books, mine had gone through the process and had been accepted. It had then been edited by a professional editor and I had worked with them to make changes. It showed a level of professionalism that the others did not.

And that’s the image you want, after all. Your work could be great, but if you publish it yourself, the message professionals get is that it was so bad that no one would publish it and that you were forced to put it out yourself.

Of course there are exceptions, which the self-publishing industry will point out as they try to get your business. There’s always that one-in-a-million time when a self-published book grabs the attention of the public and does well. Then there are the other 999,999 books that didn’t. You want to play the odds?

There are times when self-publishing works just fine. The books I edit for my live action role-playing game, for instance, are all self-published. However, I didn’t use a vanity press, because I wanted it to look more professional than that. I set up my own publishing company, paid for a bunch of ISBN numbers I could assign my books, and had them listed in Books in Print. Amazon sends me orders every now and then and Double Dragon (my publisher for the novels) has been distributing the e-book versions of them. But those are non-fiction rule books geared to a small but significant audience. They’re not the kind of thing you’d necessarily find in your local book store. If you’re pushing a novel, that’s not the way to go.

So don’t give up. There are publishers out there who might just love your book, but you may have to take a very long time to find them. And if you get absolutely nothing but rejection letters, maybe your book needs some more work. Maybe it shouldn’t be published yet.

Even by you.

4 Responses

  1. It’s true that anyone who publishes their ‘novel’ with a PoD such as Lulu can expect no credibility for their work, and often zero sales. However, vanity publishing is a different thing, which invariably involves fees for editing, binding, presentation etc that end up costing thousands of pounds/dollars. Lulu only charges for the cost of a proof copy.

    Considering that over 100,000 books get published a year in the UK alone – by traditional publishers – the market is already crowded, and many of these books sell less than a hundred copies. So even most enthusiatic readers will be looking for a writer that they know well, or at least has good reviews. And the bad news doesn’t end there for the debut writer; they’re faced with the depressing statistic that 99.9% of first novels are rejected by agents alone! If like me you’re a science fiction writer, the propects are even grimmer. I won’t even mention my own experiences…


  2. >>…the self-publishing industry will point out as they try to get your business.<<

    Please don't dignify PublishAmerica etc. by calling their activity "self-publishing."

    You can call it vanity publishing, or assisted publishing, or publishing services or something else, but it is NOT self-publishing.

    Just as no one can eat lunch for you, no other person or company can self-publish for you.

    A "real" self-publisher establishes a business, hires editors and designers, purchases photography, owns ISBNS, obtains LCCNs and copyrights, chooses a printer, and promotes the books.

    That's very different from paying for the services of a vanity press.

    Michael N. Marcus
    author of Become a Real Self-Publisher,


  3. There isn’t any real reason that someone couldn’t have their work professionally edited before self-publishing and to assume that a self-published book had to have been bad is kind of over-generalising. That said, there are a lot of really, really bad books out there that have been self-publsihed. It is an interesting discussion. Thanks for sharing.


  4. Honestly, I don’t know what’s so difficult about getting legitimately published if your book is good these days. There are dozens of major presses and literally thousands (in the U.S. alone) of small presses. And at least with small presses you get paid, which is how it should work. Authors should get paid.

    Good post, by the way. I agree with you on almost every point.


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