AWP Nugget: The Bubbling Debate over Self-Publishing

BOSTON — The fireworks didn’t come during the panel session, which is a good thing, because every square inch of the floor was covered by attendees. Pyrotechnics in rooms violating fire codes never end well. But the figurative fireworks came that night, assisted with alcohol.

I refer here to the third rail of our modern literary world, self-publishing. Is it good or bad for writers, for readers, for the industry, for the culture? Back and forth, back and forth. I tweet articles and blog posts arguing one side, then the other, while I don’t own any real position other than that anyone should feel free to choose or not choose whatever options are available to them.

Accumulated snow on the distinctive windows of Boston's Hynes Convention Center. I was a hermetically sealed gerbil, traveling between the Westin hotel and the convention center via a series of pedestrian tubes.

Accumulated snow on the distinctive windows of Boston’s Hynes Convention Center. I was a hermetically sealed gerbil, traveling between the Westin hotel and the convention center via a series of pedestrian tubes.

Now back to the fireworks. At a noon panel that involved some substitutions because the snowstorm here kept some people from making it, a literary agent and an editor came down–hard–on self-publishing. They used the common arguments. The editor said yes, there is the occasional success story where a great book somehow missed the eye of everyone in the industry and then was discovered by readers when the author self-published. But he said that story was exceedingly rare. The agent concurred, saying that her impression of someone who self-published was somebody who was more focused on vanity than on doing what it took to get a manuscript publishable. The editor said self-published authors seem to think selling ninety books is great; he added you should be able to sell more than that by having people take pity on you.

The overall advice, in and of itself, might not have been so bad. But along with being delivered with a dismissive tone, it followed an insistence that the prospective author have a strong platform. And yes, understandably, some of the attendees did not know what a platform was, and probably didn’t like it when the agent said having “a million Twitter followers” would be one good platform element. It also came after a long discussion about how agents and editors don’t have time to read how good your prose is, so if you don’t lay out everything that might be of interest to them in the first five pages, they’re putting you aside.

Let me step in here and say I did not have an issue with the panelists. They were speaking the truth, at least the truth as it is today with the major publishing houses. But most AWP attendees are not pursuing the type of writing, I suspect, that is in the wheelhouse of what major houses are looking to publish. Not once did the panelists mention the growing number of independent presses, many of which can be found on the Bookfair floor. (But shame on you, Coffee House Press, for deciding to no longer publish memoir. I stopped by your booth because you were on my short list! Sorry, readers, for the digression.) And their one mention of self-publishing did not touch at all on the notion that the work in question might actually be quite good and would have an audience, but that audience wouldn’t be big enough for the major press.

Flash forward ten hours. It’s about 10 pm, and I’ve darted into the Marriott sports bar to wolf down a bacon cheeseburger (I somehow didn’t find the time Thursday to eat lunch or dinner) and watch the end of the Thunder-Knicks game. Three AWP attendees next to me at the bar are engaged in increasingly animated conversation. Finally, a voice breaks through over the bar’s din: “How dare they condemn self-published authors!” Some of the best conversations I’ve had in my life have been with strangers in bars, so I invited myself in.

Fueled by cosmopolitans for two of them and a pinot grigio for the third, the anger and frustration came out. That editor, one of them said, has a cushy desk job. What does he know about the labor of writing? And does that agent have a million Twitter followers? No. So if that’s so important for a writer, why should we listen to her as an agent?

Perhaps it’s because, as a journalist by training, I’m a good listener. Perhaps these women were just looking for a champion. But they all said they remembered me from the panel discussion–shocking, since there were hundreds in attendance–and thanked me for speaking truth to power. I had in fact asked a question, but it was about whether one should leave their agent if that agent doesn’t understand or appreciate the work the writer is doing and the market they are targeting. (The agent on the panel said yes, you must break up, and tell the agent it isn’t him, it’s you.) There was nothing in my question that had been a challenge. But the fury was still so strong in these Marriott bargoers that they had morphed me into David with a slingshot.

I’m not going to pretend I learned anything more about the self-publishing debate here at AWP. I don’t know that there really is anything more to learn. Promoters of self-publishing have their success-story anecdotes, and editors like the one on the panel here dismiss them as exactly that, anecdotes. A major editor or agent may very well hold a self-publishing past against a writer, but that might just mean that editor or agent isn’t the right fit for that writer.

I am asked sometimes what path I might take. I will, within months, finish my travel memoir. I started working on it in the fall of 2010, blew it up completely when I started my MFA in the summer of 2011, and now, two years later, it’s almost done. The thought that it might never be published literally makes me want to cry, as if I had endured a 30-month pregnancy only to deliver a stillborn. So I understand the notion of self-publishing. I may have to look at that if I am unable to find a press, large or small, interested in publishing it.

But I also understand putting a manuscript in a drawer, to borrow from the agent, who said some self-published books should have experienced that fate instead. I wrote a novel about eight years ago that I never truly shopped around. Again in the fall of 2010–when I started work on the memoir–I dug out the novel and read through it. I liked it. I showed it to a freelance editor and she loved it. But, to be honest, when I read it, it is no longer “me.” I’ve grown a lot as a writer since I wrote that book. It’s not that I’d be embarrassed were it to be published, but it’s not really how I want to be known. So it stays in the drawer, even though it would only take me an hour to format it and “publish” it online for anyone to read. Perhaps I will shelve the memoir if I don’t find a publisher.

Of course the simple solution is to find an amenable publisher. First things first.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

33 Responses to “AWP Nugget: The Bubbling Debate over Self-Publishing”

  1. This gets even more complicated now that some of the big publishers are jumping on the self-published bandwagon.
    There has been a big controversy over the fact that Science Fiction Writers of America has determined that Random House’s digital imprint, Hydra, does not qualify as professionally published.

    The best things I have seen written on that come from Jon Scalzi.
    http://whatever.scalzi.com/2013/03/06/note-to-sff-writers-random-houses-hydra-imprint-has-appallingly-bad-contract-terms/
    http://whatever.scalzi.com/2013/03/06/a-contract-from-alibi/

    Remember the old Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times.” We certainly do.

    • Wow, Kate. I hadn’t heard of this. I was particularly appalled to see this is part of the contract: “The contract asks for primary and subsidiary rights for the term of copyright.” No author should ever surrender his or her copyright. I hope SFWA informs its members of this. I know RWA does, and EPIC (the group for e-pub and indie authors). The Author’s Guild is adamant on this point. Some academic publishers used to ask for that because they were used to doing it with academic papers, but they’re moving away from that now for the most part. Geez.

  2. I wish you the best of luck with your travel memoir, Patrick. I co-edited an anthology that went on submission with a very reputable agent a few years ago. It was a collection of essays from best-selling authors and internationally renowned activists from all over the world.

    It didn’t sell. I think our agent submitted to over fifty houses.

    It was a soul-crushing, 2+ year process that left me in shock. We (including our agent) really thought it would sell.

    My co-editor and I both have novels on submission now, but I think someday I’d like to self-publish our anthology. It’s the a perfect example of why it’s a good thing self-publishing is around– it serves a type of book that houses have otherwise deemed unmarketable.

    • Thank you for the encouragement and for sharing that anecdote. I can imagine that must have been devastating. And you hit on it, the publishers feared there would not be a “market.” But just like NFL scouts drafting college kids, publishing is not a science. And with money tight and book sales shrinking, more 50/50 propositions will end up not being published. So I’m ready for whatever comes, good or bad.

      If those essays are worth reading, and I’m sure they are, then they are worth self-publishing.

  3. I’ve also attended a conference where agents strongly dismissed self-publishing in the same way you describe above. I wonder, were they completely secure in their own realm of publishing, would they need to be so dismissive? What bothers me, though, is that they’re completely neglecting to consider and mention a whole group of writers who are, in fact, taking the time to professionally edit and design their subsequently self-published books. The condescension in the viewpoint that self-publishers are really just spoiled and vain children who can’t control themselves is one reason (of many) I’m seriously consider self-publishing.

    • You know, Jessica, implied in the words of the editor (more so than the agent) was that the manuscript likely wasn’t “ready” for publication. But I know self-published authors who hired a professional book editor, hired a professional dust-jacket author, and sought out top-level typography options. They took the time and effort, as you said. I do think part of the problem is that one could easily self-publish without taking all of those steps, and that pollutes the water for all self-published authors.

      I would say to anyone considering self-publishing that they 1) must do everything publishing houses used to do on the editorial side (because, let’s face it, publishers have scaled back editing and copyediting) and 2) have some publicity skills or hire a publicist. I’m confident you understand and would execute both of those. If so, then it works.

  4. Patrick, I read you post on my iPhone this morning just after I woke. Snappy reporting, especially when you jumped to the bar for drinks. Reading you story reminded me that people often forget that “the art committed life” follows you to the grave and sometimes beyond.

    The commerce of art (publishing, booking gigs, hawking your products after a show or speech, hustling workshops, getting enough followers to sell ads on your blog, or finding a publisher to commit $30,000 plus to your project) has little to do with one’s “art committed life” and everything to do with generating product/artifacts that satisfy a big enough need in a large enough group to justify parting with, in a book’s case, twenty-five bucks.

    I’ve lived an “art committed life” for years. Sometimes I’ve made money at it, other times not. When I’ve made money, I’ve always had my “dong business” hat on which often ruffles my artistic sensibilities. Which is more “art committed,” (1) writing a poem while lounging in the sun along the Seine in Paris or (2) getting up at 7AM and sending emails to clients outlining spec project for the summer of 2013?

    Both, of course, are part of an “art committed life.” Even so, sometimes I feel like when I’m making those damn phone calls, I’d be better off selling used cars. Would I recommend this life to anyone else? I don’t know. Would I live it again? I sure would.

    • James, this is a magnificent comment. Would you be open to crafting something along these lines as a guest post? Email me if you’re interested; I’d like this to get wider readership than in a comment box.

  5. I love that you dived into the bar debate; you’re braver than I. I practically cringe every time I hear writers bring up this subject, only because emotions seem so incredibly volatile, and emotions rarely make a good basis for a logical discussion. That being said, it is an important topic. Of course I, like most, don’t pretend to know the “answer” — especially since i suspect there isn’t just one “answer,” but many. I do know that I, too, have shelved novels that I am now very glad I shelved instead of publishing myself. But I also have novels that I still haven’t had published and think are worthy, which always stings a little, so I guess it all depends on where you’re standing, doesn’t it?

    • On some level I was forced into the conversation, because it was proving too distracting! (I missed the fourth quarter of the game, unfortunately.) But the session was still on my mind. And I really did just listen, and they just needed someone to listen to them.

      It does depend on where you are standing. But, as we grow as writers, doesn’t that place that we’re standing change?

  6. What a great piece. It made me laugh, wince, and want a cosmo. A vat.
    This has been a tumultuous, exciting, blood-on-the-walls (of bookstores, of executive and home offices) period in publishing. Who’s reading, who’s buying? Who knows? Nobody. And nobody will, definitively, for a long time. It’s damn painful. So is the desk drawer or cloud full of abandoned work. In the meantime, writers (and painters and composers and sculptors and anyone who keeps choosing to do “this” in spite of the odds against success that have always been there) will be dual-driven to write and to feed themselves, and to yearn toward the Hugh Howey experience. That said (and I have to admit to purposely not researching the names/bona fides of the editor and agent. Do.Not.Google.AWP. Agenda….), I wouldn’t characterize any editor or agent at this point as having a “cushy office job”–not certain there are any of those left. Truly, anyone who speaks to this can only speak to his or her experience or opinion; I can only buy the lottery ticket. Or not.

    • “Do.Not.Google.AWP. Agenda.” Love it! In re-reading the post, I see I left a couple of clues that would narrow the search, but I’m not encouraging you!

      It does in fact come down to your experience, or as Annie says above, where you are standing. And as someone with a background in the publishing industry (as a journalist) I would agree that no one in that industry feels secure, so “cushy office job” does not apply.

  7. Interesting article! I’ve actually found a lot of editors, and my agent, to be much more understanding about self-publishing than what you found the atmosphere to be at the conference.

    I’m both traditionally published and I self-publish. I wouldn’t sign a contract that prohibited me from self-publishing because, frankly, it’s a great way to bring books to your readers much faster than most publishers can, and to make money every month to live on.

    That said, traditional publishers bring the advances, the editorial expertise, the marketing, etc. That’s all great stuff! And admittedly, when I first started self-publishing in 2011, I already had a platform I’d built from about 6 traditionally published books. But when I self-publish a book, I make damn sure it’s just as professional as any other book I wrote.

    You never know which of your books the reader will pick up first – and you want to make sure whichever book they choose, they’ll come away from it saying “I want to read another book by this author.” Most readers these days don’t care how the book came to market, as long as they enjoy it! So I’m not on either “side” – I say, do both! Why not?

    • Shoshanna, so glad you can add your perspective, as someone who has done both. I know people who have done what you did–traditionally publish, then self-publish. Sometimes it’s original work that they feel their existing publisher wouldn’t like the way they want it. Sometimes they just think they’re ready to fly on their own. And sometimes it is them putting back on the market their out-of-print backlist, for which they (thank goodness) control the rights. So yes, it shouldn’t be viewed as an either/or prospect.

  8. For some reason, people are in love with hierarchies and the ones on top like being there. They like being able to look down their noses at others, even if the reason is bs. I can’t get traditionally published authors to read my self-published book. They refuse to lower themselves. That’s okay. The book publishing industry is being turned on its head and the true judges, the readers, now have the final say.

    • You know, if I ever find myself on top of anything, I’m probably going to be ill-inclined to be knocked off of my perch! So I think we understand the reason.

      I found this interesting. “I can’t get traditionally published authors to read my self-published book. They refuse to lower themselves.” I’m sorry to hear about the first sentence, which I’ll take as fact. I would venture that the second sentence is your interpretation of said fact. I would also venture that you are, in most instances, probably correct. But it’s possible they’re not reading books by traditionally published authors who reach out to them either. Who knows.

      We’ve always had these hierarchies you refer to. “Literary” vs. “genre.” Hardcover vs. paperback original. Major house vs. indie press. Print book vs. ebook. So this is just the latest, it seems.

  9. The words vanity publishing have always made me cringe, but when I received a reply from a publisher, that though she loved my latest book, she didn’t think they could afford to publish it because it wouldn’t have a huge sale ( Random House), and then I read that two of my favourite biographers in London couldn’t get publishers interested in their work any more,
    I did a re-think on self publishing.

    I self published the book, and people who bought one copy came back for two more, three more, and several people bought six and seven more copies to give to their friends.
    It was very satisfying.. so satisfying that If I hadn’t sold any, I would still have been thrilled to see the manuscript as a book
    .
    I didn’t sell it in book shops as all my profit would have disappeared, but by word of mouth, a couple of radio interviews and various talks…
    Selling it myself has meant that though I haven’t sold huge amounts, I have actually made more money that I ever have when a publisher took my books and I received a miserable royalty even though far more books were sold.

    So financially I am better off for investing in self publishing.
    However, I can’t be bothered to continue to market it myself… there’s the rub!
    .
    But I have found that having a book, rather than a manuscript to send to a publisher seems to have helped… The first publisher I approached a few weeks ago gave me the usual publisher response.. hard times, small list etc.
    The second replied the same day, asking to see the book, and is , even as we speak- looking at it. I simply e-mailed a synopsis of the book, it’s blurb and cover, plus reviews from readers.

    So yes, there are pros and cons for self-publishing. And while second rate products that one would call vanity publishing are annoying to those of us who feel we are professionals,… who am I to say that someone who’s slaved over writing a book, however second rate I think it is, should not have the same satisfaction that I did?

    So as usual, there’s black white and grey areas on this issue !!!!

    • Valerie, thank you for sharing your story. Your current experience with the second publisher you’ve approached shows that the editor I heard who won’t look at self-published authors is just one perspective, from one publishing house. Good luck!

    • Corey Barenbrugge Reply March 13, 2013 at 2:57 pm

      Valerie, I like this thought: “I have found that having a book, rather than a manuscript to send to a publisher seems to have helped.”

      It made me think: With agents, editors, and publishers increasingly pressed for time and dollars, does it make sense to package a book yourself (self publish with all the bells and whistles a version you don’t sell but instead give away to agents, etc. that you’re completely open to changing, but is an example of what the book could look like) and then send out queries?

      There are probably many reasons why this approach might not work, including the expense, but it might.

      • We will have to see if this works! I was asked to wait for four weeks before they had time to read and assess…
        I certainly felt much more relaxed about doing this way…
        Maybe the other up side is that even if it doesn’t get published we still have a book to show for our efforts – not a dog-eared manuscript lying in a drawer!!!!

  10. Great post! Just found your blog.

    I won’t lie, I have some reservations about self-publishing and have for a long time. It brings to mind those advertisements from vanity presses where I feel like I have to “buy” my own success…I want my writing to speak for itself!

    However, a friend of mine is helping me warm up to self-publishing because I think I’m willing to spend the time to market my own books (when I feel they’ve been sufficiently edited, of course). When you said “a major editor or agent may very well hold a self-publishing past against a writer, but that might just mean that editor or agent isn’t the right fit for that writer,” I had to agree but also think that that’s what proves that maybe traditional publishers really ARE threatened by self-publishers. My friends and I want to hold self-published writers to a higher standard for that very reason.

    Anyway, thanks again for your post.

    • And thank you for this comment! I clicked through to your site, which is interesting. One disadvantage for a self-published author is limited access to book review options; I wish you luck with your project.

  11. Corey Barenbrugge Reply March 13, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    I read this post on Saturday and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I think I could write a book on it! Maybe even self-publish it.😉

    You’ve hit upon an extremely important subject that I think will very soon transform how we share our art. For many talented writers it has already.

    If you asked me a year ago if I would self publish I’d have said no. I was enamored by the idea of hitting it big like the famous writers I admire. But those chances are low and the old guard is fading. I also fervently defended paper, for which I’m still nostalgic and will support when it fits my needs or desires.

    But, I’m quickly coming to the conclusion that ignoring digital and independent/self publishing is done so at my own peril. Dynamics are shifting across many industries (which would be the crux of a book on the subject) and it’s becoming better business to explore the alternatives. Unfortunately, those alternatives often point to competitive disadvantage, especially for authors, to paper print, pushing bookstore sales, and signing with major publishers.

    It’s nice to support paper and bookstores and I hope both survive in some way (they can offer value in the 21st century, just not in the way they did during the 20th), but digital is reality and is still growing. If a writer can make more money self-publishing digital and still share their art seriously and attract a value-driven audience, then he/she should deeply consider the sound business decision.

    Ten years ago, the argument could be made that it was vain to self publish. It was prohibitively expensive and it was more valuable to have experienced players (with high commissions) guiding you through the process. But worrying about vanity in today’s publishing market is like heeding to your boss when he tells “your time is better spent when I tell you how to use it.” Instead we should worry about value and ensuring that if we do self publish, the result should be as professional as any book from Random House or Simon & Schuster.

    The only way the old guard survives is by figuring out how to offer value in the new economy. Other attempts to support fledgling industries are like bailing out sinking boats (or the banks). It’s a stopgap but it doesn’t thwart the advancing tide.

    • Corey, thank you for this thoughtful and reflective comment. Glad to know you’re still thinking about the post!

      I think there are several things in your comment that probably need to be parsed.

      Print vs. digital.

      Self-publishing vs. indie publishing vs. major house publishing.

      The problem is that you can pair either of the first two with any of the final three:

      Print self-published
      Print indie-published
      Print major-house-published
      Digital self-published
      Digital indie-published
      Digital major-house-published

      Of course some books can come out in more than one of those forms. The new novel Wool is both Digital self-published and Print major-house-published.

      I think in our minds we envision these two polar opposites:

      Print major-house-published vs. Digital self-published

      But it is of course more complex than that. It becomes even more complex when authors of multiple books targeting different audiences choose different paths for their various books.

      So I don’t have a verdict for you on your comment other than noting that your comment really is multiple comments, each worth addressing on its own.

      Okay then!🙂

      • Thanks Patrick. Your thoughts really put into perspective just how complicated this subject is, especially compared to only a few years ago. I re-read my post and it really is several comments in one. There’s so much to cram in and I have a lot more thoughts on this subject. I don’t think there’s a single answer for any one author, or perhaps any one book! Wool is a good example of that. I’m confident that sorting all this out and bringing viable solutions to the market will be the work of some innovative publishers and agents over the next few years. Where there’s a vacuum, there’s always someone to fill it.

        • Corey Barenbrugge Reply March 14, 2013 at 10:40 pm

          “Anonymous” was me on my phone.🙂

          • One of the best pieces of advice I got from an agent a few years ago was to read/subscribe to Publishers Marketplace and Publishers Lunch. This was just as the industry was beginning to change (which felt like collapse); at the same time, the economy was in free-fall. There was such a feeling of OMG, OMG–hard to manage on some days. Now, I cannot say enough for these publications, which now cover “traditional,” print, digital, e-books, self-publishing (Hugh Howey!), indie and big box bookstores, industry setbacks and advances, contract wranglings, legal decisions for and against writers and publishers, etc. To me, the daily-news emails have become as vital a business expense as a paid professional editor, copy-editor, graphics artist or design expert would be. It’s like having a map—or a very reliable app—through uncharted waters. You can clearly see trends, who/what is being bought, which agents are doing the selling (or which writers have figured out how to go it alone), and who’s doing the buying. And they have archives! It’s worth trying it out even for a little while.
            Publishers Marketplace and Publishers Lunch Deluxe
            http://www.publishersmarketplace.com/

  12. Valerie wrote: “And while second rate products that one would call vanity publishing are annoying to those of us who feel we are professionals,… who am I to say that someone who’s slaved over writing a book, however second rate I think it is, should not have the same satisfaction that I did?”

    I love this comment, and I agree. As someone who is planning on self-publishing, I am striving to make my book as professional as I can. I’ve hired an editor and will hire a designer/artist for the cover when the time comes. While I do think that others who self publish should do the same, I also think it’s great that someone can publish his work however he chooses. Does this lower the standard of quality for all the books in the self-published pool? For many, myself included, it does. But it also makes things a little exciting, picking up an indie book and feeling like anything can happen. That people can push the boundaries in ways they might not be able to do had they gone through a traditional publisher (especially if they are new authors). I can’t say that this will always be a good thing, but it does, as I said, make things interesting.

    The article was a very interesting read, and I thank you, Patrick, for writing it (my first time posting here, by the way so, hello!) But it does sadden me to see the notion that those who choose to self-publish are only doing so because they couldn’t “cut it” in the industry. Some of us (yes, me) choose to do so without ever submitting our works to the traditional houses. The reasons? Too many to go into here. But this article does illustrate that there is still a stigma attached to those who self-publish as being substandard and that validation as an author is still only received at the hands of the big-time publishers. It is a stance that ignites the rebellious spark within me and makes “wanting to prove them wrong” another reason why self-publishing is (for now, at least) the right path for me.

    As Valerie said, there are a lot of grey areas in this debate. So much that I’m finding difficult to write a coherent post on the subject. The bottom line: options are good, and self-publishing is another option for people to get their stories out in the world. The only right way is the way that works for the individual in question.

    And because this topic has a tendency to get me up in arms, just sending a virtual hug to you and to everyone on either side of the fence (including the editor and agent in your article). At the end of the day, compassion and understanding are what matters, especially in the face of conflicting viewpoints.

    • Sara, thank you for this well-reasoned response, and just as importantly for sharing your own story and plans. One of the artists I interviewed on my cross-country U.S. road trip was a freelance book editor in Colorado who worked almost exclusively with authors looking to self-publish. Another artist I interviewed was an illustrator who designs book covers for, among others, self-published authors. There is in fact an entire economic ecosystem surrounding self-publishing, from the big boys (Amazon taking its cut) to folks like them. There are an increasing number of people just like you who are choosing to use the tools available to them to produce the art they want the way they want it. I agree with your bottom line: Options are good.

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  1. AWP Nugget: What You Missed at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference | The Artist's Road - March 11, 2013

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