One factor, maybe the most important one, in deciding whether to seek a publisher or to self-publish is what you want out of writing. (For a discussion of types of publishers, see last week’s post.) If your goal is to make a living writing, how much money each method is likely to generate might matter most. But even if that is your goal, prestige or recognition is almost always part of the motivation.
Most of us who write, especially if we’re over forty, dreamed when we started out about book signings, being interviewed on Oprah or C-SPAN, or winning awards. It’s a great feeling to publish a book and be recognized for it or simply be able to see it on a bookshelf. So let’s start with talking about prestige and recognition. Don’t worry, I’ll get to money next week.
Prestige and Mahogany Desks
John Gardner once said, in his book On Becoming A Novelist, that there’s nothing less prestigious than being an unpublished novelist. Today he might substitute “self-published” or “independently-published.” While publishing your own work is becoming more accepted, if you opt to do so, you’ll still need to be prepared for the people—whether or not they’ve ever written a word of fiction—who will look down their noses at you.
Others simply won’t see you as a “real” writer. A colleague once told me how much she’d liked The Awakening, which she’d borrowed from a friend. When my second book in the series came out, she couldn’t make it to the book release party, but she asked me to bring a copy to her office. When I handed it to her, she said, “I don’t have to pay for this, do I?” Had I been published by Random House, my guess is she wouldn’t have asked that.
This view that a traditionally-published novel has more value or that it’s more impressive to be a traditionally-published author is known in the indie world as the Mahogany Desk Syndrome. Many see it as nothing more than a form of snobbishness. It also reflects the fact that when a company unrelated to you chooses to publish your work, it shows the world that someone other than you is willing to put money, time, and effort behind your writing.
I understand those who feel that way, but I personally am more impressed by people who stand behind their own work. When I left a large law firm to start my own practice, people congratulated me on being an entrepreneur and having great confidence. I view publishing my own work the same way.
Awards and Best Seller Lists
Many literary awards, including some for genre fiction, are open only to novels published by traditional publishers. For instance, self-published books are not eligible for the Edgar Award, which recognizes mysteries. The Man Booker award, a literary fiction prize, also is not open to self-published books. This is starting to change, however. The Deep, a self-published novel by Michaelbrent Collings, was nominated for a Bram Stoker award in 2015. And in researching this article, I learned that self-published books, so long as they are available in print, can be nominated for Pulitzer Prizes.
Many awards exist that are specifically-targeted to indie/self-published authors. (A few are listed in this Publishers Weekly article. ) Being able to say your book is award-winning is a plus, but there is definitely a Buyer Beware factor, as some indie awards have hefty entry fees.
As to Best Seller lists, both the USA Today and New York Times best seller lists are open to both traditionally and independently published works. In addition, Amazon continuously lists the Top 100 books overall and in numerous categories regardless of publisher. The Top 100 lists update hourly. Getting your book into the Top 20 of any category helps sales because it means people see your book. Being in the Top 100 of all the books is a huge sales boost. As far as prestige, though, because the lists update hourly and it takes fewer sales to qualify, they don’t have the cache of the USA Today or New York Times list.
One novelist I met at a conference, who was also a former attorney, said in-person events were the main plus of having had his novel published by a small publisher. While he didn’t have much of a marketing budget, his publicist got him onto panels of traditionally-published authors at fan and reader conferences.
Most speaking opportunities I’ve seen that are open to indie authors are limited to conferences specifically directed at writers interested in self-publishing, not at readers. Likewise, when I joined other self-published authors at a local book expo, the traditional publishers were on the first floor and the indie authors were relegated to the twelfth. There were no signs posted telling attendees that there were more books on the twelfth floor, so there was almost no foot traffic.
There are exceptions, of course. The Martian started as self-published, and I’m certain Andy Weir is welcome to speak anywhere he likes.
What Readers Think
Most readers don’t care how a book is published. Few people check the publisher when they buy a book on-line or in the bookstore. They look at the cover, the summary, and the first page or so. Also, the more books you publish, the less people scoff. Those indie authors who hit the USA Today or New York Times best seller lists also add a stamp of approval to their books and careers.
At the same time, if a book is free or 99 cents–both strategies indie authors employ to boost visibility and sales of other books in their catalogues–or the cover looks unprofessional, a reader may hesitate. A book from almost any traditional publisher has been edited and proofread by professionals, which is not true of all self-published books, so readers may have had a bad experience and be skeptical of indie publishing. I’m convinced that’s why one 5-star review of The Awakening after I started offering it free said, “I actually liked this book,” as if the reader were quite surprised. A professional cover and well written and edited book summaries and sample chapters will usually override any reader concern about your work, though.
In short, my view is that if what matters most to you is prestige and being recognized by peers as an author, some type of publisher, be it small, medium, or Big 5, is at least somewhat more likely to provide that. All the same, if you prefer to self-publish, fear not. The world is changing quickly, many awards are open to indie authors, and many people no longer make a distinction between one type of publishing and another. In fact, I predict that in another five years, how you publish will make no difference at all.
Best wishes for a productive and not-too-stressful week.
L. M. Lilly
P.S. Please share your views in the comments, as a reader or writer, of indie versus traditional publishing.