29 July 2003

Now The Observer has gotten into the whole "become successful through self-publishing" urban legend business. Time for some debunking.

Myth 1: Since prominent authors including Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf engaged in self-publishing, self-publishing is a valid and reasonable means to develop a publishing career. This kind of logic is just as valid as noting that Isaiah Thomas came to organized basketball through Chicago street ball, then asserting that anyone who wants to become a professional basketball player needs to move to Chicago and start playing street ball. A large number of authors assertedly used self-publishing at some point or another. Careful examination of that list, however, shows that almost invariably their circumstances are not comparable to those of an author seeking to break into publishing today. For example, one of the reasons that Virgina Woolf "self-published" was that her work bordered on the then-current definition of obscenity in England, which acted as a significant barrier to publication. If American Psycho can find a publisher today—and by no means do I compare Ellis's drivel to Woolf's prose—that particular barrier must have fallen. Similarly, most of the so-called "self-publishing success stories" come from one of three circumstances that the starry-eyed unpublished author probably does not fit.

   First, many of the commonly cited success stories precede the development of the modern publishing system in following World War II, or at least the mid-1920s. Woolf's self-publishing did; so did Twain's; so did seven others on the "common list" of thirty or so.

   Second, most of the other commonly cited success stories are in specialty areas of publishing that are neither relevant to the "average" unpublished manuscript nor comparable to less-specialized publishing mechanics. This includes course- and seminar-adjunct materials, such as In Search of Excellence; "inspirational" works, especially but not exclusively Christian-based and found primarily in Christian bookstores; and "fad" books, including the notorious guide to Beanie Babies and cookbooks.

   Third, the commonly cited success stories are almost all the work of authors with extensive writing experience and publishing credentials that predate successful self-publication, or are compilations of materials drawn from such sources. Chicken Soup for the ____ Soul is an excellent example of the latter, while Twain and Peters are excellent examples of the former.

   The correct inquiry is this one: If the book that an unpublished author wants to self-publish is one that, but for lack of a publishing contract, one might find in a general bookstore, is self-publishing that book statistically more likely to create a publishing career for the author than is writing another book? Although there is no hard data available, the anecdotal data indicates that it is not, and in fact is less so.

Myth 2: Proper marketing alone is enough to create a self-publishing success. If this was correct, it would apply equally to commercial publishing. The hard data in my possession indicates a correlation coefficient of less than 0.20 between marketing expenditures and sales decile in the twelve months following publication. Since most successful self-published books are specialty works, comparable data is difficult to obtain. The dearth of successful self-published authors who later reject offers of commercial publishing contracts is instructive.

Myth 3: Print-on-demand (POD) is a new publishing model that breaks the barriers established by the commercial publishing industry. <SARCASM> Yeah, and the Saturday Night Special broke the barriers established by the handgun manufacturing industry. </SARCASM> POD is a printing technology, not a business model. No matter how the books are printed, one must still get them into the hands of potential buyers. That means one of two things: getting them into stores, meaning that one must use the existing distribution system (fully returnable books with long discounts), or direct sales, meaning who knows what. POD can be a useful printing choice for books that the author knows will not have a large audience, such as family histories. With rare exceptions, however, making money had better not be the primary objective.

   POD can certainly adjust price points, and can make it more possible for authors with little upfront cash to begin self-publishing. One can hardly complain excessively about the quality of POD books compared to the poor quality of too many commercially published books; however, POD books can be spotted easily by anyone familiar with printing technology or even just an observant reader. At least for the moment, POD has a questionable reputation. That reputation does not matter for low-print-run specialty books; but, since doing that print run is not for economic reasons, the attack on commercial publishing implied by the most strident advocates of POD is essentially meaningless.

Myth 4: My book is too dangerous for commercial publishing, so self-publishing is the only alternative. Except for books advocating illegal activity (as Paladin Press found out to its chagrin), this really does not hold up much anymore. Further, this statement is usually made by people who either have never submitted their books to commercial publishers or who have only ever written one book, and cannot stand criticism of their only child. Although a distressingly high proportion of the books published are garbage or worse, that proportion pales next to the slush pile. I have been a slush reader in several areas of publishing; better than 90% of the unsolicited submissions to a commercial publisher can be rejected as inappropriate or worse without reading past the first page, and at least 75% of the remainder rightly will not make it past the first three chapters. Too often, "unpublishable crap" gets translated into "too dangerous" in the mind of the inexperienced author. There very well may be a handful of counterexamples out there; statistically, they prove nothing.