Is self-publishing creating a hierarchical community for its authors?


Ben Dunne is an Irish entrepreneur and business tycoon and he has a slogan to encapsulate his business philosophy. It’s a philosophy and marketing approach I’m seeing more and more from self-published authors. The slogan used by Dunne across many of his business ventures was actually originally attributed to Jack Cohen, founder of Tesco, a large UK supermarket chain.

Stack ’em high, sell ’em cheap. ~ Jack Cohen, founder of Tesco

I can understand the business philosophy for many struggling retailers in the current climate. Buy large and get the discount you can and sell units at a lower price. I even get the idea of selling free for limited periods for self-published authors using services like Amazon Select. Independent booksellers simply can’t compete with the terms large retail chains can get and the challenge and convenience of online shopping.
It’s daunting for self-published authors because guys like me keep telling the serious and savvy authors that they must have a brand, and that one book often sells the next book—and the more books you have to offer your readers, then the better position you are in to promote your author brand. It often works really well if you are an author with several books already written (especially if some or all were traditionally published) and you are moving to self-publishing.  Great! Now you only have to take full control of your writing career and all the marketing you didn’t have to think as seriously about before. It is a tougher bridge to cross if you have not previously published before and you have not established an existing readership and author brand. It’s even tougher if your passion is to write for pleasure and for you. A dedication to selling books isn’t always the remit of every self-published author. I can appreciate there are many within the self-publishing community who might say, why bother then?
The trouble with self-publishing and The Rise of the Self-Publishing Experts, lurking almost at every community corner, is the way self-publishing authors are both presented and misrepresented in equal measure.
I’m worried for self-publishing—not because I don’t believe in it, but because I’m concerned where it is going, or more to the point, where some of the loudest and sometimes most influential voices are leading this whole community. I’ve felt this way for a year or two now; since the self-publishing side of the book industry now represents an increasing syphon of profit by printers, marketers, designers and retailers. Yes, even established role-players in the book industry like literary agents and big publishing houses have ventured down the same well-travelled road in the footsteps of author publishing services and vanity presses. Let me be clear that I’ve no beef with any freelance publishing professional earning a living by ably assisting self-published authors. I’ve no beef with any company providing publishing services (bespoke or packaged), as long as there is a focus on value for money, quality and transparency. I’ve also no beef with mainstream publishers launching self-publishing imprints, as long as those imprints are developed in-house—not imprints in name only and farmed out to external author publishing services.

Most people miss opportunity because it comes dressed in overalls and looks like hard work. ~ Thomas Edison

I’m with Edison on this one, more than just meets the eye and I think it can be applied to publishing and self-publishing in more ways than one recently. The monumental changes in the publishing world over the past ten years—fuelled in part by modern print technology, digitalisation, distribution and delivery of published content on a global scale, and the daily use of web and social media networks—have presented far more opportunity than the challenge of hard work. If anything, the democratization and process of publishing has gotten a lot easier. The remaining challenges are finding the right opportunities and correctly understanding the roles author, publisher and reader play in this new world publishing order.
What has not changed for authors or publishers is delivering the best books they believe they can to the widest and most appreciative readership. Both parties—whether publishing books as a joint collaborative effort or a sole (self-publishing) effort—realise that not every published book is going to deliver a profit.  The only difference here is that the publisher’s expectation of profit and success may exceed the author’s expectations. Both are still controlled by their respective risk and financial investment in a book.
When I first began self-publishing in 1990, there was still a huge stigma and it was a great deal harder than it is today; desktop publishing was in its infancy and there was no print on demand. There was not much chance of getting into mainstream distribution channels and paid-publishing was nothing more than expensive vanity presses. Information was scarce on an emerging Internet and if you wanted support or advice you simply read a book from the library or asked at your local writers’ workshop. You learned a hell of a lot slower and made more mistakes, sometimes very expensive ones! Any kind of traditional marketing came at an astronomical cost and the bank manager was already chasing you for the money you borrowed for the initial print run. Marketing was pretty much restricted to hand selling within your community and visiting buyers in local bookshops.
So if it is easier and cheaper to self-publish today than it was back in 1990, and authors can reach an even wider audience with better distribution channels and social media marketing tools. So why am I worried about self-publishing and where it is going now?
Is it that I believe the quality of books (content and product) is going to suffer and there will be a backlash on self-published authors?
Nope. I’ve believed the quality of books has been steadily deteriorating long before the rise and popularity of self-publishing. I think a lack of quality and diversity in books has more to do with publishing economics, narrower mainstream markets, and in particular the populist culture for consuming media trends or what is sensational and easily digestible. In marketing terms, I call it The Sheeple Effect(people/sheep). Publishing is a far older medium than say TV/Radio/Internet and tends to align its business to be reactive rather than proactive in setting new tastes or trends. Just to add some balance to the explosion of self-published books to the market and the other side of the quality argument, novelist and screenwriter Chuck Wendig offers this piece; Why The Self-Publishing Shit Volcano Is A Problem.
Is it that I feel self-publishing will never be accepted widely with readers?
Nope. But no more than I think a reader looking for a book on sailing will bother with books on Mexican food. I already think self-publishing has been accepted by readers who even bother understanding what that means, and I’m seeing more authors penetrate into mainstream channels and mass readership just using self-publishing as a route to writing success. We are also seeing many more cases of hybrid authors moving to self-publishing from mainstream publishing but continuing to use both paths for different books or formats. For me, the acceptance of self-publishing is no longer at issue. It’s not perfect and standards still need to be raised, but diversity and choice for readers will ensure the floodgates remain open. Readers and consumers have the power to decide any industry’s fate.
So what’s bugging me about self-publishing now? Aren’t we experiencing a self-publishing boom with little to complain about?
There is an increasing hierarchy developing in the self-publishing community and it shows no sign of disappearing anytime soon. It’s the hierarchy of the true savvy self-publishers and those authors who choose an assisted self-publishing service. I’ve even witnessed the line in the sand drawn between authors who have their own publishing imprint name and block of ISBNs registered with Bowker/Nielsen, and the authors who choose to self-publish through some form of assisted service. What’s more, the loudest and sometimes most influential voices leading the whole community seem happy to see this two-tier hierarchical society continue. Much of it is directed by what I referred to above as The Rise of the Publishing Experts—a band of publishing professionals and bloggers happy to earn a day-to-day  living from selling advice and publishing services to all self-published authors, but publicly and strongly espousing one particular route over another. But more to the point—presenting and misrepresenting it as the right and only way to self-publish. At the heart of this dichotomy is that there exists an absolute right or wrong path to self-publishing—a similarly elitist attitude perpetrated for decades by those within established mainstream publishers against self-publishing, per se.
Hope, sorry! I’m not going down the road of rehashing arguments as to whether assisted service publishing is really self-publishing if the author doesn’t own the imprint or ISBN. We’ve done the argument to death here on TIPM over many years.
There is no one right or wrong way to self-publish; no one size fits all—no our way or the highway. Every author writes a different book, and equally, authors have different levels of expectations, measures of what success means, and very definitely different levels of creative, technical and marketing ability. What works for one may not work for another. While there are right and wrong things to do when self-publishing a book, especially if you want to produce a professional looking book; the process is still a learning curve which usually results in your subsequent books improving each time around. It isn’t a mathematical equation with set numbers and letters and only one answer.
One of the elements helping to encourage this two-tiered hierarchy is the utter falsehood that every writer who sets out to self-publish a book wants to become a professional author, and more to the point, wants to run a publishing business and all it entails. As a publishing professional dealing with many writers and authors every day, I can tell you now, the majority don’t necessarily aspire to be professional authors or run a business. And if you disagree with me, then frankly you’ve chosen to hang out and listen to a very small, select group of authors! Despite all the dreams and aspirations we have when we take up writing, most authors also hold down full time jobs with families and couldn’t be full time authors even if they wanted to be. Here is something I wrote on this same issue in November, 2012:

The most vulnerable writers using the Internet for information on publishing are the ones who have not asked themselves what they really want from their publishing experience and what their measure of success is. There are too many websites and experts out there happy to tell writers what the value and meaning of successful publishing is. Generally, those experts are selling their view on the publishing universe according to their paths and what proved right for them. It’s a bit like visiting a doctor with a chest infection and getting advice on Shingles. The advice might sound reassuring, and is another way to get you on the path to where you want to be, but, chances are, you are no better off after a few weeks. ~ The Rise of The Self-Publishing Experts, TIPM

I’ve never had two consultations that were the same. Every writer brings their experience, wishes, goals and dreams to the table. The challenge is always to make a writer’s journey–their journey. The knowledge and experience of other writers–no matter how successful and expert they are–can never come close to replicating your experience. ~ The Rise of The Self-Publishing Experts, TIPM

Some of you know that I’m a Services Watchdog for The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), a non-profit association for self-publishing writers with the aim of promoting excellence and inclusiveness. That last word, inclusiveness, is just as important as excellence, because what is offered is access to a community of writers sharing their experience and advice, and a panel of experts supporting this community whatever way a member-writer chooses to self-publish.
If anything, the landscape of self-publishing is becoming more polarised between authors who self-publish as a small business, and those who publish for pleasure or dare I say, even fun—publishing photographic picture books of holidays and travels, poetry, localised history books, and personal memoires. The reality is that the top tier of savvy self-published authors are becoming more professional and successful (and that’s good for all self-publishing), just as the second tier of authors vastly outweigh the top tier in numbers alone.
Of course, I want every self-published author to aspire to the professionalism and success of those savvy authors, but that’s never going to happen, and it doesn’t mean what they are doing is all wrong for self-publishing as a whole.
I think sometimes we forget what self-publishing meant to most of us when we first set out on our writing and publishing journeys, particularly for those who chose to follow a traditional route of agent and publisher first, before making the decision to self-publish. I can of course appreciate that some self-published authors migrated from the traditional world of publishing with an existing fan-based readership and author brand firmly established. Self-publishing is all the stronger for migratory and hybrid authors, and just like the savvy and business-minded authors within the self-publishing community, our writers writing and publishing for pleasure or fun are no less a writing species.
After all, they are the core and passion of what self-publishing is all about.
I’m going to leave you with the wise words of poet and novelist, Dan Holloway, author of the excellent Self-Publish With Integrity—Define Success in Your Own Terms and then Achieve it. Unlike many books on self-publishing, Holloway’s book is not a how-to or technical manual on the process of self-publishing, rather it teaches you the principles at the root of writing and publishing with integrity, and these principles will enable you to maintain the passion for your writing throughout a long writing life—a writing life characterised by success as defined by the only person who truly matters: you. I read Holloway’s book over the recent holiday period and it struck a real chord with me.

But the segment of the self-publishing universe on which the media casts its myopic gaze is almost exclusively those high profile, high selling authors who have broken out into the mainstream consciousness. […] Many of the websites that support self-publishers, either by offering advice or by promoting their work, help to further this one dimensional discourse. Writers are taught how to sell books. Writers are praised for selling books. Writers are assumed to want to sell books. ~ Dan Holloway – Self-Publish With Integrity

Write the books that you want to write, the very best that you can write them, and build a community of loyal readers without doing anything you’re not happy doing.~ Dan Holloway – Self-Publish With Integrity

Mick Rooney – Publishing Consultant
If you found this review or article helpful, but you’re still looking for a suitable self-publishing provider to fit your needs as an author, then I’m sure I can help. As a publishing consultant and editor of this magazine, I’ve reviewed and examined in detail more than 150 providers throughout the world like the one above. As a self-published and traditionally published author of nine books, I understand your needs on the path to publication and beyond. So, before you spend hundreds or thousands, and a great deal of your time, why not book one of my personally tailored and affordable consultation sessions today? Click here for more details.

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  1. Michael N. Marcus said:

    For several years I expended lots of time and energy promoting what I called “real” or “independent” self-publishing, and criticizing the customers of self-publishing companies.

    Then I realized that not every author wants to form a business, hire editors and designers, buy ISBNs, register copyrights, seek reviews, send out press releases, set up a website and blog, etc. etc.

    Some people order meals a la carte. Some order complete dinners.

    Some people buy lumber, paint and hardware and build their own kitchen cabinets. Others pay to have cabinets made and installed.

    There are many paths to publication, and both excellence and crap can come from any of them.

  2. Helen Hollick said:

    I agree – but I also disagree. Authors who want to publish for fun, perhaps just to produce something for family and friends, then by all means thy should do so how they want, however, if an author expects to sell copies of his/her book – and hopes to aim at a level equal to mainstream books (i.e. get good reviews which will lead to good sales) then they have to produce a good item. If I’m going to spend £13.99 on a book I expect it to be printed and produced properly (and actually, that goes for mainstream as well as self-publish!) As Managing Editor for Indie Reviews for the Historical Novel Society I come across some fabulous Indie novels – and some not so fabulous ones. I’m not talking about the writing quality, I mean the production – text left-justified, double spaced paragraph breaks, comic sans font, tiny font (or enormous font) makes a book look and feel amateur, For long-lasting quality I shop in Marks & Spencer, for cheap stuff which isn’t meant to last I go to Poundland, If an Indie writer wntes to be taken seriously his/her books must be produced seriously. But equally, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of fun – it all depends, really on what level the author is aiming at doesn’t it?

    • danholloway said:

      (sorry, this is Dan – author of the book mentioned above – the comment box seems to want me to be anonymous, we’ll see!)
      I think the sense in which I disagree is that I don’t think we can reduce it to a simple either/or – either sell books or be an enthusiastic amateur. There are many more motives for writing, and each of those motives has a way of writing and publishing that is most appropriate to it, and we simply can’t transfer. Even breaking down wanting to sell – it depends entirely on the expectations of one’s audience. I would never dream of submitting a book for review to a group such as the Historical Novel Society unless it met exactly the standards you mention – and I would never dream of suggesting to others that they should follow standards suitable to some other group. If, on the other hand, I were submitting to NME or Punk Planet, say, I would do what their readers expect, and I would never dream of telling would-be submitters that they should follow the standards of, say, the Historical Novel Society. It is not that one set of readers has got it more or less right and that a writer gets it right as they meet those expectations – rather it is the case that each writer needs to know what they want from their book, what their would-be readers want, and then they should be measured solely as they meet those very individual criteria.

  3. Mick Rooney said:

    Absolutely, Helen. I agree. But my point is that we shouldn’t denigrate or separate ourselves from the vast amount of self-published authors doing it for fun or pleasure. Years and years ago when we were nippers, self-publishing wasn’t an avenue for a serious commercial book project or long writing career. Technology and savvy marketing sense from the modern breed of authors took advantage of the democracy of self-publishing as it is now. We shouldn’t forget that our self-publishing ancestors of years ago laid the foundation for what we do now.

    I kind of think of self-publishing now as those sleepy towns on the outskirts of English cities, left to their own world for many years. Now, suddenly the developers have arrived with trucks and tractors and ‘new ways’ of re-inventing those towns. Some will accept the modernisation and appreciate it – that it does make their lives better – but others will see it as ‘oh so now we have to do things this way and put up with all the ‘new’ noise and excitement, when we were actually happy doing things as we did. It’s a balance and respect for what has gone before.

  4. Peter St John said:

    When writing is fun, it doesn’t mean that art, care and craftsmanship can be neglected. Even publicity and marketing can be fun; but not if you are desperately seeking recognition and/or money. I write for fun. It feels good to be able to take a relaxed stance towards the issues you raise. Even so, I thank you for raising them.

  5. JoTopsyBooks said:

    Mick – great article. I agree with Peter. I too write for fun, but I also want to share my books with others so they have fun reading them. Hopefully I can make some money in the process so that I can continue to have fun writing books! No matter if the books is self-published or through a traditional publisher it has to be a quality product. When you go traditional, someone else is supposed to ensure that for you. As self-published authors, we also want to be seen as professionals. We owe it to ourselves and others to create high-quality books! J:oanne

  6. Mick Rooney said:

    Totally agree, Joanne. I’m in no way suggesting that authors who publish for fun and pleasure should not be professional about the creations and productions of their books. :-)

  7. Rebecca Tope said:

    Pleased to adopt the label of ‘hybrid’. I have over 20 novels published in the mainstream crime genre, and am now trying my hand at a self-published historical e-novel. I hope some of my readership will give it a try, but the distribution looks to be a major uphill struggle, given the blizzard of competing works out there
    . I have had my own imprint for over 20 years, reissuing Victorian titles, so feel as if it’s a relatively small step to launching my own fiction for the first time. I’m hoping I have most of the boxes ticked, and essentially this is an experiment, rather than an investment.
    Quality matters enormously, I believe. And there is a huge mass of low quality stuff out there. This simply lowers the overall value of writing in general, leads to reduced expectations and makes everyone think they have the ability to create a ‘real book’ – when they don’t! Of course, there have always been badly-written books, many very successful, but now there are just so many of them.
    But I’m giving it a go anyway.

  8. Codex Regius said:

    There is another benefit to Indie publishing about which I have not read anything here: It is virtually the only option for foreign authors to enter the market. My portfolio includes some English-language books which are selling quite well, but no English publisher or agent would consider touching them since they are not from native authors. Thus, self-publishing and the world-wide online distribution help us to reach an international audience from which we would be excluded otherwise.