Why do we Stigmatize Self-Publishing?

Why do we Stigmatize Self-Publishing?

Why do we stigmatize writers who self-publish? Other kinds of artists  – painters, musicians and filmmakers – are respected for their efforts to sell their work on their own. Artists sell paintings out of their house and in local galleries. Musicians put out indie records and tour around local clubs and restaurants to promote their work. They have  local followings and fans. We do not refuse to go see a band because a big label has not signed it. We recognize and respect it either as an up-and-coming band learning their art and building a fan base, or a band with decent talent that we like to listen to that might never make it big. Indie filmmakers are totally respected by both those in the film industry and the public for having the guts, talent and perseverance to put their work out there.

Why then can writers not do the same? What about writing requires curation and gatekeeping in a way that other art does not?

There is a lot of terrible self-published work out there, but surely there are terrible paintings, garage bands and indie films. Yet we still respect these other artists for putting their work out there for the public to decide on what it likes. Even if they fail, we have the attitude that at least they tried and followed their dreams. It is okay for a band to make a living doing small gigs and weddings.


Self-published writers, however, are often rejected by the traditionally published world and the public unless they make it big. There is limited respect for selling a decent number of self-published  novels or appealing to a small fan base. Self-publish and your neighbours and friends (especially your writing friends) will whisper “she self-published” as if you were caught sending photos of your  privates to everyone in town. We in general refuse to treat writers like we treat other creators. This is changing of course, and many self-published writers indicate they have had a very positive reception and experience.

I think the stigma associated with self-publishing is wrong. Let’s look at some of the reasons why it should go away altogether.

1)   Many famous writers in history self-published. According to Melissa Donovan of Writing Forward, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, William Blake, Benjamin Franklin, Edgar Allan Poe, Gertrude Stein, Mark Twain, and L. Frank Baum all self-published before they were traditionally published. 

2)   Many great books were rejected multiple times. Books like Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Animal Farm and Lolita were all rejected over and over. While the authors of these three books persisted and eventually received publication, their repeated rejection indicates traditional publishers cannot always identify what will  resonate with the public. We expect writers to persist through rejections that would bring people in other professions to their knees. What if these writers had not persisted? How many great novels sit in  drawers because their authors did not send it out one more time to just that right publisher or agent who could see the merit in their work. The Help by Kathryn Stockett was rejected over 60 times. I went to a conference once and a writer who was an invited speaker indicated his first effort had been rejected 127 times. 127!!

3)   Many writers like the control and the financial returns  associated with self-publishing and do not want to be traditionally  published. The traditional view is that self-published writers are  those who have been rejected by every publisher under the sun because  their work basically sucks. However some writers now, such as Hugh  Howey, never considered a traditional publisher, while others, such as Polly Courtney, returned to self-publishing after being signed by a traditional publisher. There are many such examples of writers who like the control of self-publishing. When you self-publish, you get to select  your editor, choose your cover design and decide how you want to market  your book. When you traditionally publish, you do not. Self-published writers also receive a much higher share of the sale of their books – up to 70% of the cover price, compared to the 10% commonly associated with traditional publishing. It is simply no longer true to say that self-publishers are those who could not make it in the traditional publishing world.

4)   Some self-published books are good and sell well. The idea that all self-published work is crap is simply incorrect and self-published novels are selling. In 2012, according to CNN, Amazon indicated that 27 of the top 100 Kindle ebooks were self-published. Self-published books are regularly making the New York Times bestseller list and the number of self-published writers who have made it big is continuing to grow with names like Hugh Howey, John Locke  and Colleen Hoover. There are also many self-published writers who are not famous but who are making a living. Detractors will point out that  most self-published writers sell fewer than 100 books, but there is also  a high percentage of failures in traditional publishing, so it is not clear why this failure-to-sell stigma should attach itself to self-publishing.

5)   Traditional publishing can lead to a stigma too. Being selected by a traditional publisher is not the windfall that many  believe it is. It works out wonderfully for some writers, but they give up control over how their book is marketed and where it is  sold. Traditional publishers generally focus much of their effort on their best-sellers and established writers. New writers whose books do not sell well during the first six weeks can find their books pulled by booksellers and their chances of future publication diminished, which leads to a stigma of its own. The publishing world is simply not kind to writers who have only fair to middling success, or who have limited  success on their first time out. Stories abound of writers whose books were just not given a chance on the shelves and find their books wallowing in the warehouse while they struggle to find a publisher for  their second novel. Sometimes (often?) it takes more than six weeks for a   book to get noticed and become a success, or more than one book for a writer to become a success. In many other careers, we allow people to  grow and develop in their profession. For some reason, in writing, we often do not provide that opportunity.

6)   The whole stigma just does not make sense. Going back to the story about the man whose book was rejected 127 times. We laud a writer whose work was not good enough for 127 publishers or agents and invite him to a conference as a success story (and receive no actual  information regarding the number of books he has sold – just that he  ultimately was ‘approved’ by the industry), but we snub a writer whose  self-published work sells reasonably well. We admire indie films and bands and allow them to distribute their work through a variety of  traditional channels such as radio stations and movie theatres, but we mock self-publishing (calling it vanity publishing) and many bookstores still refuse to put self-published books on their shelves.

If you read any articles on the stigma of self-publishing (and there are lots), check the comment sections at the bottom. The level of  disagreement over self-publishing is significant, with some commenters staunchly defending the traditional publishing industry, decrying the  crap that is self-published and emphasizing the need for curation in  books, while others point out that they are making a decent living as a self-published writer and noting that perhaps it should be up to the  public to curate. I am still not clear why the debate rages in  self-published writing more than in other areas of art. Are there more self-published authors than there are garage bands, artisans and indie film-makers and, in particular, are there more bad self-published  authors? Maybe, but that still does not mean that they should be mocked so derisively. Those who are not good enough or don’t have some sort of appeal will simply fail to find an audience and will likely eventually channel their efforts into some other pursuit. Those who are good enough and find an audience, even if it is a small audience, deserve the  same respect that other artists receive.

I am not suggesting that the traditional publishing world sucks  (indeed, it routinely selects and publishes a multitude of brilliant books), or that writers should not consider the many potential benefits associated with traditional publishing. I just do not understand why traditional publishing and self-publishing cannot co-exist and why there has to be such a stigma associated with self-publishing. It is hard enough for writers of all types (traditional or self-published) to be successful and build a career that none of us (especially those of us who are writers) should look down our noses at those who try their hand at getting their work out there through other means – whether they succeed or fail.

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