Why I Look at Self e-Publishing as the End of the Line

Last August, I read an article in The Guardian stating that the decline of print books to ebooks was not near as high as the media (read: “Important Bloggers” and “Indignant Indie Authors”) indicated. That in fact, print book sales continued to be as strong as they had been. Have ebooks sales increased? Absolutely. Ebook sales continue to soar, but not necessarily at the complete expense of print books.

I remember reading that article and breathing out a sigh of satisfaction that it had actual data to back it up, whereas surrounding blogs I had been reading had only gut feelings, fad “facts”, and the rush of saying “Haha! In your face, publishers! Who needs you?” It was almost exhausting reading so many bloggers trying to convince everyone who looked to traditional publishing as being completely foolish and ignorant in the ways of publishing in general. It was a frenzy of instigating panic that THE PRINT BOOK WAS ON THE VERGE OF EXTINCTION.

Dinosaurs with a book

Dinosaur image from: http://scienceblogs.com/

Some of this came on the heels of Borders closing down, which too many people directly linked to the rise of the ereader, and while this certainly is a factor, there were many others, too. One of these was that Borders did not embrace the online presence like Barnes & Noble did – meaning, people were still buying print books, just not necessarily from the physical store. B&N did not fight the rise of ebook sales, but joined the market by competing with Amazon through creating its own ereader. In this way, they have demonstrated that they understand the future of publishing, which still includes print books.

Frankly, when I read blogs that exhort and extol self e-publishing, I generally suspect authors who are simply disgruntled writers who couldn’t “make the cut”. I don’t mean blogs that try to simply give the pros and cons or those where writers give their honest reasons for their own choices. I mean the ones that fit the “in your face, publishers and agents” profile I mentioned above. The ones who think self e-publishing is an author’s revenge on those who they think are unfairly road blocking them from their future royalty paychecks.

But what is this road blocking? Could it really be gatekeeping, instead?

When I have taught students how to properly evaluate web sources, we talk about all the many checkpoints of helping identify a source as credible. We discuss domains (.com vs .edu, for example), what kinds of external links/references are on the site, what other sites link back to it, and what facts are commonly shared with other, similar sites. We talk about how not all of these things are foolproof, but they are guideposts in an environment where anyone can publish anything for all the world to see. I then always bring up the topic of the value of print sources. Why? Because they are vetted. They have gone through an extensive review process to ensure accuracy (within context).

My experience with self-published novels has not been great. My experience with self e-published novels even worse. One of the biggest problems I have run into is editing. Editors miss some stuff in print books, sure. But I have been amazed at the amount of typos, misspellings, punctuation errors, and just overall grammatical mistakes that I have seen. Can a story line still be good and characters still be engaging when there are a plethora of editing errors? Well, yes… but how distracting, and a fantastic plot does not make poor writing or lack of adequate proofreading okay. I read a discussion in a set of reviews for an e-published book and someone wrote this:

Grammar and editing are a huge problem with the kindle. I have written and published an e-book on here and I’m sure there are mistakes in it, but as I have never trained as an editor, or english teacher, it’s unfortunately the way it will stay. Editors cost a small fortune.

What? What I’m getting from this comment is that sure, she didn’t pay for an editor (she’s right, it is quite spendy), but did she even have anyone else look it over? At this point in time, I have had a dozen different people read different drafts of my first novel. About eight of them gave me requested feedback on the story in general, about four also gave edits, and of those four, two of them have a writing background. I would never even dream of submitting my work to an agent – or publisher – without this editing. It’s credibility, folks. I just doubted the integrity of your plot and became overcritical of it because you could not take the time to painstakingly make sure your document was edited and proofread.

Is editing the only problem? No.

Fiction through traditional publishing has its own vetting process, and I value it. Obviously not everything that is self-published is of low quality and obviously not everything in print is great stuff. But with the agent and publishing house gatekeeping, we can increase the maturity of writing because even if I think there are some horrible books out there, rarely do I see one that is written like one of my talented 8th grade students. I have worked with very talented young writers. They have a great sense of character and story structure and a solid plot, but ultimately their writing is still young. There are plenty of books out there that I don’t like very well, but I can still recognize that they have gone through a lengthy writing process.

As I bounced these ideas about e-publishing in my head, I decided I needed to read one of the big ebook phenoms: Amanda Hocking. She is one of the first self e-publishing authors to have sold a million ebooks on Amazon. (Here’s one (of many) quick interview article where Hocking talks of this success.) That has to count for something, right? I chose her first book, My Blood Approves, because I figured this was her basic launch. The writing is decent, but I found myself thoroughly annoyed with most of the book because it was almost a replica of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight. Not surprisingly, it has hundreds of 5-star reviews because of this.

Would this novel have ever been picked up by an agent? No. And it shouldn’t. At least not in its current version. The novel does eventually take on its own original take, but an agent or editor that did take this project on would have suggested extensive revisions for the first 2/3 of the story. (Okay, I’m being generous, an agent would likely not have even read that far, but since I did read the whole thing, I can grant that Hocking could have gotten away with selling this book in that manner. Also, since I am not one to want to bash an author, I’d like to point out that I have no idea about the quality of her later novels and in fact, some reviewers indicated that while they enjoyed her later work, this first one was, well, not so good. Now ending an over-long parenthetical statement.)

Bottom line for me is that at this point in time, I see print publishing as still providing a certain amount of quality control. Print books are still the ones that get the more thorough and informative reviews. Print books are still the ones I can get from the library and enjoy – or not enjoy with no risk. Ebooks are entering into the library fold, but as far as I know (which may be nothing, by all means correct me on this one if this is the case), they are still simply the ebook versions of traditionally published books. (Libraries are good vetters, too.) In time, it is possible that the demand for high quality will help shape and improve the self e-publishing arena, but for now, I don’t like the idea that simply anyone can e-publish his or her work. There is also something to be said for submitting a manuscript that will be judged by a professional “in the business”. Would those who consider self e-publishing right away submit their same manuscript to an agent? Would they feel that it was absolutely, positively ready for that? I wonder.

For those who do feel this and choose to self publish and self e-publish anyway, I respect them for taking the decision and the entire process behind it seriously. To that end, maybe it’s important that I put this all in context with my own decision:

If I feel this way about what I see in the e-publishing world, this means others would feel the same way about my novel if I chose that route. I want to go through the vetting process because if I make it through, that tells me a whole lot more about my writing and my story than anything else. If I don’t make it through, maybe that means I shouldn’t, that my writing or my story is not what it should be. I cannot say that I would never opt to self e-publish my work, but I also cannot deny that at this point in the game of digital books, to do so would feel like I didn’t muster up and that I had reached the end of the line.

Tell me of your experience with self-published ebooks. Maybe you’ve encountered some really great ones. If so, share the titles – I’d love for my opinion to change.

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9 Responses to Why I Look at Self e-Publishing as the End of the Line

  1. I am a frequent buyer of books- one of those people who should really spend a bit more time at the library and a bit less time at the bookstore, but I am what I am. I am also someone who LOVES her Kindle. These days, I’m much more likely to download a book than purchase a hard copy, BUT I’m only buying the digital version of a traditionally published book. And if I really love that novel? I run out and buy the hard copy, so that I can have it in my hands and on my bookshelf…and so that I can share it with my friends. I don’t see digital books and traditional books as either/or product. I enjoy (and spend money on!) both.

    Now, to your point about self-publishing. I have to say that I’ve never read a self-published e-book from start to finish. I can also say that I never plan to. Perhaps it’s prejudice, and perhaps I’m missing out…but I doubt it. I agree with you that the publishing process (and libraries!) serves as a gatekeeper. I am grateful for that gatekeeper. Self-publishing seems self-indulgent- sort of like that trend in schools where everyone makes the team. It’s as though people feel entitled to get what they want, whether or not they’ve earned it. I also feel like it could make authors lazy. “Oh my novel’s not good enough to publish? Well, I’ll show you.” It keeps people from doing the hard work of looking at why the novel can’t find a traditional publisher, then learning how to improve. I just…don’t like it.

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  2. Great post. I do, however, think e-books can be a great way for an author to “get discovered” if his/her book has a hard time getting into the hands of the right person in the publishing industry. Sort of like what YouTube and MySpace have done for musical artists. But like a record deal, it’s eventually getting picked up by a publishing company that can really count. And as someone who is both interested in a career in library science and writing novels, I’d like to think that print books will still be around far into the future. Even though I do own a Kindle.

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    • ProfeJMarie (Janet) says:

      This is a great comparison, and you make a good point with another reason for choosing self-publishing. Even if it wasn’t her original goal, it certainly worked for Amanda Hocking; she now has a major book deal with St. Martin’s Press. Another famous Amazon million-book name is John Locke (thriller writer, not the philosopher) – I believe he’s been offered the backing of a traditional publishing house, but he has declined, stating that he really likes having 100% control over his writing and distribution.

      Of course, this is still not the norm – and it really does depend upon what your goals are.

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  3. ProfeJMarie (Janet) says:

    I have a fond preference for print books, but certainly don’t have any issues with e-books. I’m definitely a digital age person. I’ll read books on my phone (I’m not yet at the point of spending the money on a Kindle or Nook) happily enough. The future definitely means an increase in ebooks. I’m good with this, but I also know that the disappearance of print books really is a long way off, too.

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  4. This post has me thinking about a similar situation in the sciences. We have tons of journals (think “gatekeepers”) but we’re starting to have a ton of social media outlets too. As a teacher, I learn more from the blogs because it’s an “in the trenches” perspective that I can use. The journal articles are the result of years of work, sometimes with an agenda, that gets distilled down to a few pages. You can have conversations with those authors if you meet them at conferences, but blogs have that conversation in mind at the very beginning. Is it a good analogy: science social media is to published science articles as self-e-publishing is to traditional publishing? Maybe, I guess I’m not sure.

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