A pessimist’s view on the option of self-publishing.

When faced with rejection, the aspiring author used to have two options: consign the unpublished novel to a dusty drawer somewhere, never to see the light of day again, or take a deep breath, dive in, and rewrite and reword, repeatedly, until the rejection became an acceptance.

An old fashioned printing press plate showing text and images.

Typeface - The Old Way (Bill Owen - click for full credit)

Now there is a new, but potentially very dangerous option. If no one wants to publish your novel, why not publish it yourself? At first glance, it seems like an attractive solution but, personally, I feel it is a quick, efficient way of shooting yourself in the foot.

I’m not categorically against self-publishing. No one can dispute that it has allowed authors much more freedom and, in the right circumstances, can be the ideal solution. For instance, you have a specific target audience, you are an established author and you want to move away from your current publisher, or perhaps your novel has been rejected for reasons other than quality, like market trends.

Unfortunately self-publishing – electronically or in print – bypasses the quality filter of a publisher and is thus open to abuse.

A friend of mine once showed me a shocking example of a novel she’d been given at a comic convention with a request for feedback. The dialogue in the book didn’t follow conventional mechanics; sometimes words were highlighted in bold or italics rather than enclosed in speech marks. Paragraphing seemed thrown in as an afterthought, with occasional whole pages as a single paragraph. It was littered with spelling and grammar errors. The plot was poorly structured and the characters one dimensional. All in all, it screamed “hack.” Given that the author had obviously invested a large amount of money into a print run of several hundred copies, my friend really didn’t know how to tell him that his book was not worth the paper it was printed on.

But, so long as you can sell a few copies, does it really matter if your book isn’t up to the exacting standards of a publisher?

To put it simply, yes it does. It directly affects you and your career as a writer and it has a knock on effect on other authors, readers and the industry in general.

Firstly, your book is now fated to remain mediocre. You languish in obscurity and the reader is deprived of something that, had self-publishing not been an option, would have been edited and transformed into something great.

Secondly, if you take the easy way out, you no longer benefit from what you might have learned in slaving over your manuscript until it passed inspection. Now you’re free to move on to produce another unimpressive piece of work.

Like I said; shooting yourself in the foot. And, it’s not just you who suffers.

Those novels, which would have been destined to sit in drawers, now sit on public display and readers must wade through them to get to those deserving of their attention. This reinforces a general public attitude that self-published works are, by definition, sub-standard.

Maybe you’re self-publishing for the right reasons and your book is well written and well edited. For every one of you, there are ten people using it as a short cut, because they can’t be bothered to do what they would need to do to get published by a more traditional route.

The option to self-publish takes away many of the incentives which drove author’s to achieve great things. Unfortunately, publishers are not necessarily helping the matter; more on that next time.

For a more optimistic look at self-publishing, check out this Guardian article “How self-publishing came of age” by Alison Flood

What are your thoughts? Do you think you can convince me that self-publishing is a legitimate route for authors entering the profession? In what circumstances do you think self-publishing is a viable option?