Another Self-Publishing Rebuttal

Apologies all around for my lack of presence lately.  Been busy.  This is why I haven’t quite finished that next portion of the Mack Megaton story I promised, folks, and I can only say I’m sorry for that.  You’ll have to give me a little more time on that, but I have to concentrate on my paying gigs first.  A guy has to make a living.

Onto the post:

I hate writing about self-publishing.  I hate doing it because I’m not out to be a killjoy.  I’m not out to discourage anyone.  It sometimes feels like when I write about this topic that I’m the successful guy telling other people that they’re doing it wrong.  I don’t believe that.  I can’t tell you how to be a successful writer.  I can share the way I did it, but it’s not as if there’s one path to take.  Self-publishing might even be one of those paths.

My only problem with self-publishing and its advocates is that it is too often oversold.  It’s offered up like a glorious beacon, a smart way to beat the system, the only way to keep your integrity as an artist, etc., etc.  These promises sound too good to be true, and they are.  Now, don’t go quoting me, saying that A. Lee Martinez says self-publishing is stupid and self-indulgent.  It isn’t.  I have every confidence that it will continue to grow and become more viable as time passes.  But we’re still a ways off from that.

Self-publishing is, first and foremost, a business.  Let’s get that right out there.  And it is a business designed to sell a product.  The big difference is that in traditional publishing, the author is not one of the customers of that product, whereas in self-publishing, the first person being sold something is the writer.  As the saying goes, Buyer Beware.

Here is, more than anything, where my concern lies.  When you work with a traditional publisher, you are a collaborator.  It’s important to note that the writer is, generally, not an employee in this relationship.  My publisher gives me an advance.  It isn’t meant as a paycheck, but as a promise that they will invest time and money in their part of the equation.  I don’t work FOR the publisher.  I work WITH them.  By paying me some money up front, they’re showing their willingness to put their substantial resources toward the success of the book.

This is why advances exist.  This is why they’re important.  As a writer, if you think about the amount of time you’ve put into your novel, you’ve invested a lot in it already.  So when a publisher gives you an advance, they’re acknowledging their own forthcoming investment.  No advance means no acknowledgement, no promise.  While that doesn’t mean they won’t come through, it still comes down to a good faith gesture.

Yes, just by writing that check, a traditional publisher is committing themselves to your book.  While a first time writer (or even a third or fifth time writer) isn’t going to make a fortune, it still represents a vital investment.  No advance, no money, means no real commitment.  And without commitment on the publisher’s part, you’re mostly relying on their good graces.  This might pay off, but it’s important to realize this.

Let’s put this all aside and talk about one of the “truths” about traditional publishing that bothers me most.  There is this notion, more and more, that traditional publishing is stagnant, and that it is just too hard to break into.  Worse than that, there’s the oft spoken notion that “My book is just too good to be accepted by traditional publishers.”


Self-publishing is not this bastion of creative freedom.  It isn’t a realm of unfettered freedom.  And your book (if you are one of those above people) is not as brilliant and groundbreaking as you would like to think it is.  There is no conspiracy to keep you from getting published.  No one is flabbergasted by your incredible talent as they run shrieking to the secret council of editorial lords to warn them that you are changing the world of fiction / non-fiction in forbidden ways.

I resent the hell out of being told, as I have been on occasion, that I am a sell out because I write for a traditional publisher.  And I have no tolerance for self-satisfied chumps who stand around, feeling smug that they chose the self-publishing route.  It just ain’t true.

As a novelologist who has been around long enough to see the growth of the self-publishing business, I endeavor to keep an open mind about the subject, but I have seen the changes in the business because of it.  Most of them are not good.  I don’t give a damn if someone wants to self-publishing their book.  Odds are good that they were probably never going to be incredibly successful in the first place, and if it makes you feel better about yourself, earns you a few bucks, and gets your book into the hands of a few people, then what’s the harm?  To a significant portion of self-published writers, it’s about as much success as they can expect.

No, I’m not talking about talent.  Talent and success are not the same thing.  Never have been.  Never will be.

But too many aspiring writers are lured by false promises toward self-publishing.  While I’m not complaining (it’s less competition for me), I am going to say that, even not knowing you, you can do better.  And, yes, I am saying traditional publishing is better than self-publishing.  That might change, but it will be a while yet.  In terms of popularity, money, and exposure, self-publishing can’t compete.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.  Probably as much to themselves as to you.

I know this because I (an obscure, mildly successful traditionally published writer) am doing better than every self-published writer I’ve ever met in whatever metric you choose to measure.  The few really successful self-pub writers I know either were traditionally published before going the self-pub route OR work their butts off.

I could write about this all day, dance around the issue, but if someone is telling you self-publishing is a surefire way to success, they are wrong.  Self-publishing’s appeal is that it’s easier to break into than trad-pub.  But easier doesn’t mean better.  And if you really believe in yourself, in what you’re writing and the worth of what you have to say, you’re often selling yourself short going the self-pub route.

Everyone has to find their own path, and I will do my best to respect everyone’s choices.  Respect doesn’t mean I have to just keep quiet while promising writers are led astray.

I believe you can make it.  I believe it’s worth the effort.

I believe it’s nice to get paid something and have your book reach the widest possible audience.

(No, having your book on Amazon isn’t the same thing.  It’s certainly nice, but Amazon is a vast warehouse where standing out is next to impossible for all but a handful of books.)

I believe that self-pub is too often the false path, leading to all the superficial joys of publishing with so very few of the rewards.

And I believe I’ve said enough about this for now.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. Posted June 21, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been thinking for a long time on how to say exactly what you’ve put down here. A few of my friends have gone the self-publishing routes, and while I commend them for giving it a go, I think–just like you said–that they can do better. I’m traditionally published (or will be on Match 1st, 2013 through Medallion Press) and so I’ve seen both sides of the process with what I’ve experienced and the somewhat heartbreaking tales I’ve heard about CreateSpace.

    Thank you for writing this. It’s a bold statement I think needs to be said, and you made your point well and never put anyone down. Good stuff.

  2. gimlet
    Posted June 22, 2012 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    The idea that receiving an advance makes an author a collaborator is, well, patently false. That’s not what an advance is for—yes, it shows some kind of good faith from the publisher, but the it’s actually a simple transaction: a down payment on the RIGHT to publish. Thousands of book contracts are signed with no advance at all. An advance doesn’t, ipso facto, make an author a collaborator any more than a traditional publisher makes an author a bestseller. The premise is faulty, which leads to false conclusions: the author has say about how a publisher publishes a book and the publisher’s investment is somehow proof of that. The author doesn’t have any more say than what the contract allows regardless of the advance. In most cases, this means the author has no say. That is not collaboration.

    The publisher’s willingness to “invest” in your work has much more to do with their own success than the author’s. The author’s success is merely a side effect to that process. For instance, if a publisher figures out how to increase their profit margin, they don’t share that largesse with the author–the author gets solely what the contract says. In a real collaboration, increased profits are shared, not limited to one party.

    I agree that traditional publishing has its advantages. Collaboration isn’t really one of them and an advance isn’t proof of its existence.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted June 22, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      I can only say I disagree with you on most of your points here. Perhaps I have simply had very good experiences, but having worked with two major publishers, I have never felt like an employee. And in both cases, the success of the book has been my own success too. Furthermore, I don’t think publishers are out to screw the writer just because they adhere to the contract. The contract protects the writer as well as the publisher. I have never asked for more money than is due me, and I have always been given it. To ask for more would be greed on my part, not dishonesty from my publisher.

      Thanks for the comment, but this is exactly why I posted this. There is a lie, as far as I’m concerned, that publishers do not value writers or that they see them merely as something to exploit. While I’m sure that is true for many publishers, it simply isn’t true for all. My experience with traditional publishers, while having its ups and downs, has still been rewarding.

      Simply put, I disagree with your basic statement and feel it falsely creates the sense of antagonism between writer and publisher where none need exist. The publisher is not the enemy. They are not out to exploit you. While I’m sure it happens sometimes, it is not a default.

      Thank you for your comment, even if I do completely disagree with it.

  3. Nathan (Wilson)
    Posted July 2, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Good Article, thanks for the insight. I’m personally much more into the indie graphic novels, the kind started by webcomic authors, or a new comic writer trying to get into the field, and many of them seem to be self-published. I often contribute to them because I do love the self-publishing route. I love the fact that unknowns can get their creations seen and loved without having to submit their manuscripts to dozens of publishers and get turned down countless times before getting a deal.

    It did seem like a soulless corporate entity to me, and not worth the trouble. But your article has definitely helped me to think otherwise, at least a little.

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