To self-publish, or not to self-publish? That is the question.

Publishing options for authors of fiction have changed. It is no longer essential to have an agent and a publisher, because various companies such as Amazon and Smashwords are facilitating authors in their quest to publish a book. However, agents and publishers exist to turn our novels into commercial products and, without them, can this be achieved?

If you have a finished novel, it’s very easy to self-publish. A whole book can be formatted and uploaded to the Internet, priced and ready for purchase, in less than a day. It is then available in digital format for anyone to buy. It is slightly more difficult to print-on-demand hard copies, but still achievable.
So, we now have two possible routes to publication. The ‘traditional route’ via an agent and publisher, and straight to the Internet via self-publishing. Leaving aside the complex matters of how much money can be made from publishing a book, something interesting has emerged.
Many authors who formerly pursued the write-submit-rejection-write submit-rejection route with agents have decided to self-publish. This has prompted a chorus of negative questions about whether self-publishing is:

  • really being published (validity)
  • a valid and efficient way to make money out of your writing (professionalism)

This has been countered by positive reports of:

  • getting work that would otherwise remained unseen to a readership and getting paid for it (professionalism) 
  • validating oneself as an author (validity)

It seems that there is a mismatch of opinion between those who feel that the only valid route to being published is through the traditional route, and those who have found a loving home for their work somewhere else.
Isn’t there a place for both of these models, from the point of view of authors? A pet dislike of mine is the phrase ‘aspiring writer’, and I think that the advent of self-publishing has diffused the idea that the only people who are successful at writing are those who are validated by having a book on the shelf of a major bookshop. However, there is no denying that, for some, this the only option that would allow them to feel truly like an author. Success here is measured by engagement with the publishing industry, and peer review as well as commercial sales.

The write-submit-rejection process is a heart-wrenching affair, where you may eventually realise that the piece of work that you have spent years honing is not going to be published, and that you must start again. Self-publishing has provided a home for these pieces of much-loved work that would otherwise be resident on a memory stick for the rest of time. Success is measured by getting the work out to readers and keeping it ‘alive’.

So, the crux of the matter is: who validates the author? Is it ‘other people’ in the shape of the publishing industry, or ‘other people’ in the shape of readers?

There are other issues mooted, such as quality in terms of editing and proofreading, but perhaps self-publishing isn’t trying to be a high quality consumer product, it’s more a way to escape the pressurising round of evaluation in the form of peer critiques? And a way to let go, or hold on to, whichever suits the author best, of a much loved project that would otherwise not see the light of day. This doesn’t make it less valid than traditionally published work; worth is the pride the author feels in their work.

I don’t have an answer to the question of whether to self-publish or not; a good question to ask alongside this is what your expectations around the term ‘author’ are? What, or who, are you writing for?