Self-publishing – why not?

When people think of becoming an author and publishing a novel, I think it’s fair to say that even now it’s considered as something you can apply to do and you may or may not be accepted. For the vast majority, it is unfortunately the latter. The well-trodden, traditional route to becoming a published author is to write a book, seek and find a literary agent and for them to secure a publisher on your behalf. The number of people who achieve this, versus the number of people who try and don’t, is tiny. There are literally millions of aspiring writers worldwide, look at the current phenomenon that is NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), the slightly kamikaze idea being to write a 50,000 word novel in a month, quantity, not quality, being important. I think it’s a great idea and gives those people who have ‘always meant to write a book’ a kick in the right direction towards doing so. I am passionately committed to encouraging writing of every description. Even if it never leaves the author’s desk it can still be a wholly enjoyable and often therapeutic thing to do. There are people out there with fascinating stories to tell. Sadly, it has become clear that the writing industry is viewing NaNoWriMo extremely sceptically, because a percentage of these currently-being-written manuscripts will inevitably land on the desk of some agent or editor who already has their hands full. Anyway, I digress. Most of these writers that I’m talking about, for one reason and another, will never become published. Breaking into this tightly protected industry is an incredibly hard thing to do. We’ve all heard the infamous stories of how often Stephen King and JK Rowling were turned down which people repeat ad infinitum in an effort to be encouraging to aspiring writers, but for me it has always had the opposite effect. Instead of reassurance, it just demonstrates that actually, the publishing industry is completely prejudiced against the unknown, no matter how good that unknown work is. And frankly, one view is why shouldn’t they be? Agents and publishers are ultimately looking to make money out of a book, not give a wannabe writer their chance of a lifetime. For an agent to accept a manuscript they have to be 100% behind the project, and believe that it can be a marketable, profitable book which will sell well. Added to which there are hundreds of fully-established novelists in every genre who regularly turn out work which sells extremely well, thanks in part to their recognisable name. Therefore, it is easy to see why agents and publishers may not be fully enthusiastic about welcoming new writers into the fold. However, as I know from experience, there are those who are more open-minded than others and who have one eye more or less continually open for new projects and new authors. Sense dictates that there WILL be undiscovered talent, though these days the bar is set extremely high. But I shall not be side-tracked, this is not a piece on how to become published, instead I’m looking at the other option, the option that is currently a sneered-at phrase among the publishing fraternity: SELF-PUBLISHING.

The self-publishing industry has seen a real explosion over the last few years. More people have become aware that it exists, websites like have helped promote it as a concept, and like any new venture, the more people that go forth into it, the more people want to follow them. The reason for this is all those hundreds of writers (and I’m talking purely UK-based here) who are not given the chance through traditional publishing, yet yearn to see their work in print. And furthermore bound into a recognisable format. And why not? Should they forget their aspirations and resign themselves to be failed novelists just because the person at the top of the writing chain hasn’t liked their style or content? I don’t see any reason why. If a person has invested the amount of time and energy it takes to write a book, then that potentially deserves some outlet.

What becomes vitally important here is to be realistic, and recognise that very few people will become household names because of their writing, and still yet fewer if they self-published. But if the aim is simply to write a book and have it published through some form or other, for it to be available as an actual book in other words, then turning to self-publishing becomes a viable option. The publishing industry has experienced something of a backlash from irritated writers due to its closed -ranks policy; and this can be seen in a number of ways. For example, the growth of websites such as and The latter was the brainchild of HarperCollins publishers, designed to discover new writing talent. Once a month they review the most popular submissions, with a view to publishing them. It’s a unique site and a relatively new idea, but furthermore it creates a holding bay for aspiring writers who have a place to focus their creative energies and have the knowledge that their work has a purpose. After all, the most successful novels will be placed into the direct attention of an editor at HarperCollins. It’s massively popular, but, ultimately, just another way of breaking into the same industry, it’s not a new way of becoming a successful author.

Self-publishing is a different method. This is where the author bears all of the costs associated with publishing purely to get their book printed and bound. There are a few companies who offer this service, there is no selection criteria applied, but it does cost thousands of pounds. So why this prejudice against it? That’s an easy question to answer: no selection criteria means that absolutely anything can be printed and published. No-one in a position of authority has actually made the decision that a book is worthy of publication. However ultimately, this doesn’t really matter because if it’s no good then the market will judge it as such and it won’t sell no matter how hard the author tries. It often comes down to an issue of vanity.

And speaking of the author trying, I met a very interesting chap last week in Waterstones. He was called Alan Gilliland and he’d written and illustrated a children’s book called “The Amazing Adventures of Curd the Lion in the Land at the Back of Beyond”. He had previously worked for 18 years for a national newspaper in their graphics department. Through conversation it became clear that he had marketed his book very effectively, selling £90,000 worth. In addition he’d had interest from the USA in turning it into a feature film. No small amount of success in other words. Well, I thought, of course that’s possible with a big publishing house and consequent marketing department behind you, plus he probably has hundreds of contacts from his media days which would be handy for review purposes; it’s no surprise really. After a brief conversation about the various merits of book-signing and gaining some valuable advice, I asked which publishers he was with. His response knocked me sideways, “No-one,” he said. “I’m with myself. Completely self-published.” I was so amazed that I couldn’t speak for a second (very unusual), but it was literally the last thing that I expected him to say. He had a well-rehearsed patter which he then gave me, telling me how beneficial it was to be in control of the whole operation, that it would never go out of print unless he chose, the books would never be pulped unless he chose – and perhaps most pertinently – the amount of money that he earns per book sold is far in excess of what most authors earn. All undoubtedly true. And what is more, he’d had no help in terms of reviews, simply because he was self-published. Even after working for 18 years in the media industry, he had not been given a helping hand of any sort. It doesn’t appear to have affected his success, I was extremely impressed and it opened up a side of self-publishing that I hadn’t realised existed. However, whilst his story is undoubtedly true and inspirational in part, I do wonder what difference it would have made to him to have had the support of a publishing house.  What this story does prove is that the success of a product, and in this case the book, depends on the marketing. Being with a mainstream publisher gives the author all the advice and expertise that they could wish for. It’s on tap. For a self-published author, they have no such access to free advice and support, which makes it an expensive business to achieve even a small amount of success. Not forgetting the substantial upfront costs to manufacture such an enormous number of books.

The conclusion that I’m going to draw is that although it’s a sad fact, it is probably still true that to achieve even a moderate amount of success, respect and recognition as a writer, you do need to tread the traditional route. Being a self-published author in the eyes of the publishing industry is worse than being an unpublished author. I suggest that the reason for this is that those people high up in the business want to make the decision that a book is worthy of publication; unless they or someone of their set standards has ratified it as such, then it does not merit a glance, much less any respect, regardless of the fact that it may actually be quite a good book. They appear to loathe the confidence/arrogance of the person who chooses to go ahead anyway. There are, and always will be, exceptions to this, but I don’t think the publishing world is ready to welcome self-published tomes with open arms just yet.

Interesting sites:

Tags: , , , , ,

3 Responses to “Self-publishing – why not?”

  1. Vicky says:

    But if this snobbery applies, surely it also applies to small publishing companies? A newspaper lit section is much more likely to review a book by HarperCollins or Random House that a small company. A book produced by a small company is likely to be looked down on by the big companies for all the same reasons as a small publisher will look down on self-published works.

    The only story of self publishing you have seems to be a real success! In the past almost everyone self published, especially if you were a woman and wanted to use your own name as it was a closed industry. Now, like everything, books are big business and multinationals rule. But that doesn't mean that by offering something different you immediately fail. It depends whether you want to be an author, or you want to have 'success and recognition' as a writer I suspect, and also your personal definition of success.

    • Sarah says:

      Hi Vicky, thank you for your comment.

      I appreciate that this is a contentious subject, which is precisely why I chose to write about it, plus the fact that I find it fascinating.

      In my opinion, the publishing industry is rife with snobbery, and any potential writer would be wise to recognise this. As you correctly pointed out it's important to be clear about what your aims and desired outcome are when deciding whether self-publishing is the right option or not. However for many people, there won't be another option. During my research for this blog I asked a number of fellow authors how they met their literary agents and almost without exception the answer was existing social connections. Suffixed by "and I was very lucky".

      The point I am making in this blog is whether we should accept the challenges of breaking into the traditional publishing arena, or whether it's time to try and shatter the prejudice against self-publishing. Ultimately I think the latter would fail because in my view an assessment and selection process is important, but as I mentioned in my blog if you have a strong manuscript and the energy, desire and funds to transform that into a saleable pile of books then success is possible. However we must also remember the thousands of print-on-demand books that exist and get no recognition whatsoever. It comes down to what the individual writer wishes to achieve.

  2. Marisa Birns says:

    You do pinpoint exactly what people in the publishing business warn about here in the USA. Self-publishing, lamentably, will not allow for success, respect, or recognition . . . yet.

    For fiction, anyway. Non-fiction work is a different story.