Self-Publishing: a Double-edged Sword?

Over twenty years ago, a self-publishing company – BookSurge – was born in the US. Five years later the company was acquired by Amazon and came to trade as Create Space (now superseded by Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP)). According to Wikipedia, by the end of 2018 over 1.4 million titles from tens of thousands of authors were available on that platform alone, never mind the thousands more that flowed into the market via services such as Ingram Spark, Smashwords, Lulu and many others. I wonder how many books in Amazon’s catalogue – especially in the Kindle format – are currently tagged as ‘independently published’ (which is essentially Amazon’s phrase for self-published).

In parallel with this exponential expansion, on the 2020 Booker Prize shortlist (of six), four of the titles were produced by publishers either regarded as “Indie” themselves or are members of the Independent Alliance. Indies also dominated the 17-strong longlist.

An “Indie Publisher”? Take your pick:

  • “a publisher with annual sales below a certain level or below a certain number of titles published”
  • “publishers that are not part of large conglomerates”
  • in the US, “publishers with annual turnover of under $50 million, or those that publish on average 10 or fewer titles per year”
  • publishers who focus on “genre fiction, poetry or limited-edition books, magazines, or niche non-fiction markets”

Importantly, Indie publishers normally offer pretty much the full range of services as the industry behemoths.

So for an Indie Publisher – alternatively known as the “Small Press” – size and capability is the thing. Undoubtedly there will be a line of some kind where once a threshold is crossed – turnover, number of books, number of employees – being tagged as an Indie might look less ‘genuine’. For example, Faber & Faber is a core member of the Independent Alliance; how many writers would instinctively consider them an “Indie”? According to the Alliance’s website, others members include Atlantic Books, Portobello Books, Canongate, Icon Books, Profile Books, Short Books, Granta Books, Serpent’s Tail, Constable & Robinson, and David Ficking.

Considering both of these channels, the traditional route to publication – find an agent, find a publisher – has therefore ceased to be the only option for over two decades. Whilst it is still the ‘Gold Standard’ for an author, the spectrum now starts at DIY and runs all the way through to the majors. If there is a dividing line of some kind between an Indie and the Conglomerate (for want of a better phrase), what about the dividing line between self-publishers and Indies?

In my own case, I started out as a shameless self-publisher when I discovered KDP. In the distant past I had been through the painful experience of being rejected – quite rightly! – by traditional Agents, then suddenly I’d found a mechanism to get some of my more recent – and hopefully better – work into print. Not only was it an outlet pretty much in my control, but it actually spurred me on; I have never been as prolific as in the last few years. (Some might say that’s a bad thing..!!)

Having become familiar with the system and process (though not using KDP much any longer), in the last 12 months I have used those skills to collaborate with six people get their work into print, people who, like me, would most likely have struggled otherwise – not to mention the 70+ others included in two anthologies I’ve published. What does that make me now? Have I crossed that vague line between “Self” and “Indie”? I don’t think so. I probably have a toe in some kind of purgatory between the two…

But that’s an irrelevance. The key question for many revolves around the merits of self-publication. On the one hand you could argue that it’s a brilliant thing, freeing people to be able to evidence their writing with a tangible (or virtual) book. There’s no feeling like it! It also allows new talent to reach the market and, like other modern-day technology (Facebook, WordPress etc.) gives writers a voice. If in doing so these platforms encourage people to write more – and surely blogs, not publishing, is where that is most prevalent – then isn’t that a great thing?

What do they say: “Never mind the quality, feel the width”?

Here’s where the double-edged sword comes in. If traditional publishing through Penguin or Random House etc. represents the “gold standard”, then self-publishing is surely “bronze” at best. Indeed, there is no standard. Anyone can publish anything; publishing democratised. This must mean, however, that a disproportionate amount of self-published work is not of “a standard” – both in terms of format (layout, proofreading etc.) as well as content. It may also flood the market to such an extent that it can be difficult for a potential reader to see the wood for the trees; how do they know what’s good any more unless they stick to traditional and tried-and-tested publishers? But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all self-published books will be rubbish. Why shouldn’t something self-published be as good as a book from Vintage or MacMillan, or even – very rarely probably – better? In any event, self-publishing is also about pursuing “the dream”, about self-esteem, about fulfilment if not reward, fuelled by the belief that our stuff is good, better than the next person’s…

I suspect we may see the pendulum swing back towards traditional Agents and Publishers (Indie or otherwise) for that very reason. As a reader I don’t want to waste my hard-earned cash, and there are brands / ‘names’ I trust. As a writer, I want people to read my work because I actually think some of it is okay and because having a readership validates me and what I do – which surely points me towards Literary Agents and ‘proper’ publishers. That is part of the dream too.

Conflicted? You might say that. I suspect it’s a growing club…

One thought on “Self-Publishing: a Double-edged Sword?

  1. In regards to poetry, I think to can be condensed down to 4 main areas (though clearly they will overlap/intersect: Experts; Genre; Quality; Value.

    Experts – ‘authorities’ are in retreat. News and facts are ‘up for grabs’ – two-thirds of Americans get their news from Facebook. Some of it may be fine, but most channels are unattributed and unverifiable. Everything’s become relative/subjective – choose your own ‘echo chamber to agree with. The pandemic has made us understand anew we do, I think, need expert authorities. Most poetry authorities ply their trade in universities. This can produce homogenous, ‘Writing School’ sort of writing at times, that has been ‘workshopped’ into a kind of ‘consensus’ poetry. But it also discovers and produces some exciting new material and ‘voices.’ It’s clearly heirarchical though, in that those sitting in the evaluation chair are PhDs in the field, and know and respect the ‘canon’. But if they criticise your work, you at least know they understand the ‘tradition’ and context. So who do you trust – the expert or the person with strong convictions who differs?

    Genre: it depends what you’re setting out to do, for me. If you just want to jot down recollections in a travelogue, or your time as an Italian prisoner-of-war in WW2, and leave it as a ‘legacy’ or ‘testament’ for the kids or grandkids in a more formal. neater way that, to me seems great. If, however, you think you have the next Crime & Punishment or Remembrance of Times Past, or even ‘just’ ‘Sons & Lovers,’ on your hands, then to be affirmed of hitting those right heights and notes, you need to allow wider scrutiny of it, through mainstream publishers, critics and fellow writers, or it may be disappointing to you, even embarrassing (if your self-belief outweighs your judgements.) These ‘experts’ may get it wrong still, as we know the literary landscape is full of record rejections for some works we now regard as ‘classics.’ But these do tend to be = albeit important – exceptions.

    Quality – changing self-publishing to indie publishing is a little bit of a sleight of hand, if indie just means a one-person outfit and an uncritical friend, then what weight should be given to it? There are undiscovered gems always, and self-published poets, who have used the experience to show they have an audience and therefore a ‘market’ and can sell their books are, on occasion, picked up by more mainstream presses and even more infrequently do ‘well’ thereafter. So as a marketing exercise, it may have value, if it gets the poet a ‘step on.’

    Which brings me to ;Value’. You discuss having touchstones you respect and trust. In a world of communication ‘noise.’ We all need some sort of sifting and filtering process. Few have the time (and money) to buy, let alone read, all that is recommended to them each day – each hour, even. In poetry, unless you get them ‘free’ to review, a collection costs around £10-12. Few poets can afford to buy much more than one a week, at best – even this is £50 a month. (most poets do not have secure, well-paid academic posts, in my experience.) So we have to decide on ‘value’ – do I take a tip from a well-regarded poet (even if I’m not 100% positive about their own work, but know they read and critique widely, with some sense of ‘what’s out there’), or do I go with the unsolicited email, blog post or a flyer I get pushed in my hand at an event? With limited funds and time, whom do I chose? I think self-publishing still has some way to go in many people’s ‘value’ from what used to be called ‘vanity’ publishing, where you paid a press to print your work, with limited editorial oversight (if any) by effectively agreeing to buying 200 copies (or wahtever) of your book at half price, in advance, to re-sell at full price (if you could) at events/readings. The ‘worth; of this has to be at least, disputable. One thing about rejection is, it does sift the hobbyist-deluded from the 100% totally committed, as all that rejection means people ‘give up,’ worn down by a repeated ‘No.’ Of course, sadly for most of us, we vacillate between these two extremes on the spectrum. Hope springs eternal?


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