authors, self publishing, writing

A missing point in the current debate about the value of self-publishing

A few weeks ago, one of our strategic partners, Harlequin, the world’s leading publisher of serial romance announced the launch of a self-publishing imprint. Long recognized as an innovator in book and digital publishing, Harlequin has been chastised for this move by organizations such as the Romance Writers Association (RWA), The Mystery Writers Association and The Science Fiction Writers Association.

While a number of parties have offered their opinion on this matter, it seems a key issue has been missing from the dialogue.  That is, from the outset, the launch of this brand has always been about providing more opportunity and choice for both authors and readers.

What’s surprising is the reaction from these aforementioned organizations seems to indicate  they want to limit, not increase the opportunity for authors to get published and have books available for sale. They want to restrict, not increase the choice readers have to discover new authors and books.  Given that most of these groups have a stated mission to assist authors and writers, I find their reaction to Harlequin’s announcement confusing.

Now I know critics will argue that a self-published book isn’t really a book and an author who pays to get published is not really an author, but do those claims hold up any longer? 

When readers are looking for a book, they don’t search an on-line bookstore using the criteria, “How large an advance did the author get to write the book?” The book is either interesting to them or it’s not. They either enjoy the book or they don’t. They either tell their friends about it or they won’t.  It’s that simple.

Readers are smart. They won’t buy bad books no matter who publishes them; and they won’t ignore a good book because it is self-published. Readers in a free market will make the right decision. So by giving more authors the opportunity to get published, you give readers more choice to find content that pleases them.

As for the issue of paying to get published–for the last decade, film makers and musicians have been investing in their own work so they can retain greater control and have a larger share of the profit.

Why should authors not have the same opportunity? Self-publishing simply gives authors another option to publish their manuscripts.  This is just another choice, not the destruction of an industry as some seem to claim.  That’s why it’s so puzzling that organizations with a stated mission to promote writing and books would oppose giving authors more opportunities to achieve their goal and readers greater freedom to choose.

But maybe it’s not as surprising as it seems. If you survey publishing history, there have always been individuals who went outside the established boundaries for how content was created and distributed at the time.  Writers like Galileo, Luther, Voltaire and Patrick Henry did not seek the approval of the publishing elite of their day. They were passionate about what they wrote, so they found a way to publish and distribute it. They were greatly criticized for not having it sanctioned by the authorities of the day.  But, as you know, it didn’t matter. The readers decided. They liked what they read. It inspired them.  It moved them. It touched them. And looking back through the lens of history, we can see the commitment of these authors had a profound impact on culture even though they endured harsh criticism. 

Now, I am not saying a romance novel will have that same effect on history as Galileo’s work did, but if we restrict the opportunity to publish, we limit the ability for authors to impact the lives of other people through writing.

And that doesn’t seem like a position organizations advocating writers and authors should advocate.

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2 thoughts on “A missing point in the current debate about the value of self-publishing

  1. As the author of thirty books and one who continues to publish regularly in the traditional publishing world, I feel qualified to comment on this topic. I chose to self-publish a book a few years ago simply because it made more sense to do so. I needed the book quickly (by self-publishing I got it in thirty days!), wanted to maintain control (I have been able to make content changes since the original publication), and because my primary source for sales on this particular book is selling it at conferences where I speak/teach I wanted to earn more money per book than I would traditionally (I average $3–$6 per sale on this self-published book). Do I have to do most of my own marketing for this self-published book? Absolutely. But I do that for my traditionally published books as well. Since making the decision to self-publish this particular book several years ago, I can look back and say that not only do I not have any regrets at having done so, I would do so again in a heartbeat.

  2. Change. It’s all about internalizing and managing that fearful word, “change,” in our lives.

    I’ve published traditionally and now also consider author-controlled publishing part of my repertoire. One does not need to exclude the other. We’re talking tools, choices; not a way of life, after all!

    I’m reminded (careful: anyone under 40 may not understand the following) of that evolutionary period in computing. If you were a student, for example, you would go to the central computing Mainframe Room, that looked a lot like Darth Vadar’s headquarters, and you would wait patiently at midnight for your designated 20 minute time and hope that the tightly-gripped punch cards you held weren’t dropped by the operator. This was not good but we didn’t have anything else to compare it with so we accepted it. Yet, in the 1980′s suddenly here and there someone had a Micro-computer and then more people and guess what, Darth Vadar’s headquarters had to re-examine its mission and value to us, the customers of its services. I think author-controlled publishing can be considered in this light as positive change, not oppression!

    If you’re serious about your writing and publishing craft, then you will want to grow and consider change. Be smart, choose wisely (and in my experience AuthorHouse was a wise choice) and work for yourself as hard as you would work for traditional publishers, IF you were sufficiently able to walk through their doors.

    Remember the mantra: “we ARE all self-employed…” Well, it’s certainly true in publishing. Take a chance on yourself, your own control, and I doubt that you will regret it!

    Jennifer Bohrnstedt
    Historian and Author

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