So you've written a book, or you're writing one, or you're thinking about writing one. You're an artist. You're a visionary. Or you're at least very excited about the idea of creating something beautiful in writing and looking into getting it published. What do you do?
Ah, well, a lot of opportunistic companies out there are interested in you. Rather, they're interested in your money, and in exploiting your idealism and naïveté to make you think you need their services. Or that their services are a legitimate, authentic road to becoming a published writer. Guess what? They aren't.
I've written about The National Library of Poetry and how they try to rip off clueless poets by praising their poetry and then trying to sell them a book containing their poem (and others' poems collected the same way) for exorbitant prices. These publishing and editing services are the same. What do you know about publishing? Do you know what the traditional path is to publication? Do you know what self-publishing is?
Vanity and self-publishing services do not have any standards at all. NONE. You have not "gotten published" or "gotten a contract" if you hire a vanity publishing service like Publish America or Trafford. These companies often deliberately poison writers' minds against traditional publishing by claiming it's too difficult to break into the field; that the writer doesn't get to keep enough of the profits; that unreasonable compromises will be requested to make the material marketable. Conversely, they say, a completely equal and legitimate path into the world of published writing is to send your book to them and get started promoting your own stuff. Sounds great, huh?
Well, not really. See, what they don't tell you is that you have basically hired a fancy printer. You have "achieved" what you could achieve by having a local copy shop bind your novel, after which you will be entirely responsible for selling it. And did you know that bookstores don't carry or order self-published books, almost 100% of the time?
Gosh, they don't tell you that part at all. They don't tell you that this isn't a case of "get published with us and suddenly your masterpiece will be on bookstore shelves." They don't tell you that you'll be stuck peddling it yourself, or that many to most traditional publishers and literary agents will now consider the manuscript unpublishable (unless you've already found moderate success on your own). Oh no, they don't mention that many people in the biz tend to look at self-published authors as though they chose that option because they had no choice.
I will say that things are changing with digital publishing--and if you honestly just want to bypass all the quality control and distribution with professional marketing and prestige that goes with landing and deserving a traditional contract, you're welcome to forge ahead bravely into the world of social media promotion and trying to avoid looking like a spammer as you spread the word. Well connected authors can find success doing that! But most people are not marketers, so most people will not be successful at this (though usually the "successful" are only marginally successful). Furthermore, most people who want to be writers will have a good chunk of their time taken away from them in pursuit of getting sales and trying to promote themselves. Some people get carried away and embarrass the hell out of themselves, but that's neither here nor there.
First, there are a few good reasons to self-publish, in my opinion. Do you want a small run of personal material to give to a few family members and friends, like an original poetry collection or a family history? Self-publish. Do you have an extremely time-sensitive nonfiction book whose material needs to be produced immediately before the need for it passes? Self-publish. Do you have something extremely controversial and non-traditional, like your personal manifesto about a conspiracy theory which would never, ever be picked up by the mainstream? Self-publish. Do you have no delusions of widespread accessibility, and are you satisfied with the idea of marketing yourself on a small scale? Self-publish. Do you have marketing connections/knowhow or a built-in audience and simply love the challenge of selling? Self-publish. Do you love your content and absolutely can't bear to take any criticism, editing, or advice to heart and would rather have it your way than compromise at all? Self-publish.
But you absolutely must understand that self-publishing is rarely the first step to becoming a popular author. Every once in a while there is a very weird success story that makes people think it's what you're supposed to do first. Christopher Paolini was originally self-published and he became a bestselling author. If he can do it, why can't we? Well, because we can't arrange for his situation to happen to us; nothing he did through his own talent and drive was responsible for a famous and established published author accidentally wandering into the store where he was doing yet another of his tiny local book signings, after which this established author got impressed by a teenager who'd written a whole book all by his little self, bought a copy and made his stepson read it, and then recommended it to his own editor without reading it himself on the strength of his son's endorsement. Does this sound nutty? Does this sound like it can't really be how it happened for Chris Paolini? Well, that's because things like this almost never happen, and you can't arrange to be in the right place at the right time. Without that serendipitous "discovery," Paolini would have been just like every other person who jumps into self-publishing without exploring other avenues. He would have languished in obscurity. God knows I don't believe his writing would have made it on merit if he had tried to submit to publishing houses, considering what a train wreck his book series was even after years of working with professionals in the industry.
I do not recommend self-publishing for commercial fiction if you don't have your own network (or plan to develop one, and realistically have the skills to do that)--if you actually want people to see it. You may, with quite a lot of effort and some marketing skills, be able to drum up some modest interest for your self-published book, and if you're happy doing that and satisfied with bookstores not carrying or promoting your book, then to each their own. But if it surprises you that authors aren't automatically supposed to get copies MADE of their own books and try to sell them on the path to traditional publication, you may have already talked to the wrong people or gotten sucked into a misunderstanding. It is to these self-publishing and vanity publishing companies' advantage that publishing is sort of a maze to most people and it's difficult to figure out how to approach it.
I'll lay it out here: Most mainstream publishers refuse to deal with authors directly, and if they actually do accept unsolicited manuscripts from unknown authors, they go straight into the slush pile and are subjected to extremely long response times; waiting more than a year for a response is not unusual. This is because most of what they receive is crap, and they are businesses. You want them to be businesses, because if you land a publisher, you want their resources and knowhow to mostly be poured into promoting and distributing your book. They are highly selective because they want to make money, and they are the business side of things working on your behalf because they know what they're doing. Sifting through mounds of crap to possibly find a new author worth taking a chance on is not high on their list of things to do.
This is why most authors in the know try to get an agent. Agented manuscripts do get read by publishers, and agents know which publishers are looking for what and what the marketing trends are like. Agents are also very picky about what they represent, so aspiring authors must query them by letter (many accept e-queries now). If you introduce agents to your manuscript and they are interested, they request your material to sample, and may even sometimes read the whole book. If they like you, they sign you to the agency, then begin shopping your book. But agents work for free until they sell your book to a publisher (at which point they take a smallish cut of the profits), so they are extremely selective. All of this pickiness amongst agents and publishers means you have to be good. And you know what? THAT'S GOOD FOR YOU. Because that means if you get agent representation and/or a publishing contract, you probably deserved it.
There are so many scams out there to try to trick writers into thinking it'd be prudent to pay for some service. Now, editing services exist. And I recommend having your novel heavily edited, even if you have to pay for it. But if you see someone charging reading fees for agent reviews, offering to take your money to rep you to publishers, or praising your work (sometimes without seeing it!) and offering you vague statements about their "connections" which they will put to use for you for a small fee, run. The websites Preditors & Editors and The Absolute Write Water Cooler are excellent resources for writers trying to research the legitimacy of any professional in the writing industry. But here are some specific things you should know about these misleading services.
Sometimes self-publishing services will try to get your attention by openly claiming not to be self-publishing services. Sometimes they'll just call it something else, and assure you that they are legitimate. If they are legitimate, they don't have to say so. If they are saying so, it must be because they have been called into doubt.
Sometimes self-publishing services will attack large publishers or the traditional publishing industry, and claim that they actually have a "secret" that will make your book very popular if you sign with them. They don't tell you what it is, because it's a secret. Actually, it's a scam.
Self-publishing services have lots of testimonials from nobodies--many of whom are actual customers--but no lists of sales or numbers to back it up. If it's an "agent" trying to look legit, sometimes they will claim that they can't publicly divulge who their clients are. That's bullshit. Legitimate agents always have a list or partial list of their clients. They can show you their success.
Self-publishing services respond to queries with rather glowing praise and quick acceptances. They are looking to flatter you and make you think you were actually chosen for something. Well, you were. You were chosen because now you're going to open your wallet. (If you have had an experience with a "publisher" like this and you're still unconvinced, try approaching with a different name and a different idea that is sincerely worded but terrible. See if you don't receive an identical form letter.)
Self-publishing services often ask you to pay a fee for editing. Traditional publishers, after accepting you, have their own editing departments and they don't charge authors for their use. Traditional publishers are investing in the product and want to shine it up. Self-publishers are out to make money only from the author; they will not be helping to sell your book for you, though they may have a special (discounted!!!!) promotional author website you can have hosted on their site or a marketing package you can purchase (and implement on your own, of course).
Self-publishing services frequently give authors tips on how to promote themselves, and pretend that this is part of an author's job. I assure you that traditional publishers do not leave this entirely to the author, though they do like you to participate in campaigns. They know how to advertise.
Self-publishing services and non-legitimate agenting services frequently have terrible spelling and grammar on their sites and poorly managed digital presences.
Scam agencies and publishers will sometimes actually tell authors that their manuscripts will be accepted as long as they have the manuscript professionally edited first. By this specific editor. Who works for them. If you refuse to agree to the edit, which you must pay for, you're declined.
It's not just publishers and agents who are posing as legitimate companies to get your money. One day on 43Things.com (a "goals" website where I had "publish a book" listed as one of my goals), I was contacted by a stranger about how she could help me because she's been helping emerging writers get published for years, and how I should look at her profile for more information. Of course, my first thought was "b.s." Sure, people wandering around 43Things LOOKING for people who want to publish could be doing so out of the goodness of their hearts, but jadedness required me to say, "They're selling something."
Nevertheless, I looked at her profile, which contained an e-mail address and website. I responded to her note with this:
I appreciate the offer, but it seems more like you're geared toward helping people who either haven't written their book yet or don't know how to approach publishing. Maybe I'm wrong about that but there isn't much on your profile to show me what kind of help you're talking about. Forgive me if that vagueness makes me skeptical.
If you can be more specific about the sort of help you're offering, I can be more specific about whether I think you can help me!
If you can be more specific about the sort of help you're offering, I can be more specific about whether I think you can help me!
Deciding to go a step further, I checked out their website. It appeared to be offering the services of a small group of people who claims to be able to help you prepare your manuscript for submission to publishers and agents. Okay. And of course you have to dig a little bit to find the part about the money, and pretty much all they say is stuff like "Our rates are low" followed by more stuff about how every writer needs a second pair of eyes to read stuff no matter how great they are.
They had a long mission statement pretty much trying to convince you that no writer can prepare a perfect manuscript on their own, and that with the market as competitive as it is today you can't expect a manuscript with errors to get past the first round of cuts. This I understand, and I actually agree that most writers who think they're ready to submit ARE NOT. (I've edited a lot of stuff where the authors say they want me to give it a once-over before they start shopping it, and in my opinion it's at first draft level!)
But I'm not one of those people, and I've had friends--both lovers of literature and people who are writers themselves--read my stuff, giving me opinions from their points of view, and I didn't have to pay them. And I know that not everyone has someone like that or has people whose advice can be trusted, but then we come to that.
"You need a perfect manuscript," blah blah. Okay, yeah, what if that idea sold me? Do I want to put my manuscript in the hands of people whose website has these errors, then?
And as mentioned, a lot of the site sounded like its author struggles with words, like this one: "Having written and edited over 500,000 pages so far, and responsible for the publication of many of our clients, we are equipped to help you get there too." Or this one: "All of the markets are studied on a daily basis so that we can pass on to you the most up to date information for your success."
Not to mention that their site was hosted with some netfirms service that puts ads in a banner on the top, and all of their pages said "New Page 1" on the window bar, and some of the links didn't go anywhere. Beware terrible websites on suspicious servers. These are supposedly the people who are representing you. If they know what they're doing, they know how to look good.
I'm sure glad there are people out there who will give me such expert advise to get my work published so I can be successful so I can have great success, you know?
Some examples of self-published writers I've seen behaving badly:
Bottom line: If you self-publish, you have no evidence that your book was deemed quality by people who are in the business of finding quality, and that is why self-published books have such a poor reputation. It doesn't mean a self-published book can't be good, but most people think their writing is excellent and most people are terrible at being objective and most people are not experts. If you wish to take publishing into your own hands, you're going to be navigating a world that is not going to be very kind to you and may already be prejudiced against you because of the form of publishing you've chosen. But if you encounter a service that is trying to convince you that you must pay for services like theirs before you can get published, run. Run far, far away.
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Comments from others:
Sorry this comment goes on for so long, I was reading this essay and that story popped up in my mind. I don't want to rip on self-publishing - like you point out, it can be a great way to get books out to a small audience (and that's what I've done for my club's LGBTQ+ journal). It would just be nice if people realized that self-publishing isn't usually going to get them very far, even though traditional publishing has its own issues (especially with what's considered "marketable" often sidelining marginalized authors), or if people would stop treating it like self-publishing makes them a Serious and Important Author. But then I wouldn't have had a friend say "death spell that only kills the ass" in a voice chat and make me laugh so hard I started crying, so who's to say.