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Is the Stigma of Self-Publishing Finally Gone?

3 July 2012

By  Ben Galley for Live Write Thrive:

It’s a sad truth, and one that is almost immediately apparent to most, that self-published works can be immediately dismissed due to their origins. From readers, to blogs, to bookshops, the word self-published is often greeted with a grimace and a groan. Some of you may not have experienced this yet, but I guarantee you will in time. But why is this reputation such a notorious one? And, more importantly, what can we do to escape it?

. . .

In a nutshell, one of the reasons for this stigma is the high volume of low quality, rushed self-published works available. The large majority of readers will be unforgiving of books with no proper editing or a cover made in Word. It’s painted a poor initial view of us. Notoriety results. A bad reputation is a hard one to shrug. For readers who may have simply tried a few indie books in the past and been consistently disappointed, they are unlikely to try again. The same goes for reviewers.

. . .

Combine this with the misconception that self-publishing is simply Vanity Publishing: a last resort to rejected authors, authors that therefore must not be very good at what they do, and we’ve got a community that thinks all self-published books are substandard. Who would want to buy a book by a rubbish author? This, combined with an already shaky reputation, has caused many readers, reviewers, press, and bookshops to close their doors. Many for good.

This is simply untrue. So what do we do about this? Do we campaign? Do we street march? Speak out? No, the simple answer is this: We attain quality.

. . .

Readers are now the curators of quality. People are quick to champion a good book, and many, despite those I spoke about in the first part of this post, don’t care where the book has come from. They just want a good read. Couple that with a crowd of intuitive rating, review, and comments sites such as Goodreads, or the ability to rate and review directly at retailers like Amazon, and we see readers being responsible for pushing quality to the top.

Our readers’ thoughts are now our quality stamp, and their thoughts rest solely on the quality of our books. Understanding that is key!

. . .

For those of us who spend time and money on quality, self-publishing is not a curse word, or a slur, or detrimental term. When I’m at a signing and somebody picks up my book and remarks on how good it looks or feels, and when they looked shocked as I say “self-published,” I get a smile. I’m passionate about telling people what I’ve done and why because I believe, reader by reader, I’m quashing the stigma. I see other authors doing exactly the same and it makes me very happy indeed!

As more of us raise the bar, we need to be vocal about who and what we are. That way more and more readers will change their minds. Reviewers will amend their policies. Slowly but surely, the tide will change for good.

Link to the rest at Live Write Thrive

Guest post by Bridget McKenna

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43 Comments to “Is the Stigma of Self-Publishing Finally Gone?”

  1. It’s not close to gone.

    In my experience at least, every single person who has learned that I am publishing a book has a phase transition when they realize it’s not one of these “online things.” “Oh, it’s REALLY being published by someone?” Even with my teen-aged kids, so it’s not a generational thing. They took Dad’s efforts suddenly a lot more seriously when a “real” publisher came on board (I was nearly self publishing at one point).

    For many, it’s not just historical, but there is the idea that someone “independent” of the author is interested in investing in the work, actually paying you for that. That seems like some sort of tangible “stamp of respectability” or some such.

    I do think things are changing, but serious respect for self-published authors comes only with third party validation: $$$$. Those who have sold a bunch and made money garner respect. Those that don’t still have to fight stigma, IMO.

    That’s been my overwhelming experience. If others have found something different, then we must exist in non-overlapping social circles. 😉

    • As an indie, Erec, I’ve experienced the same initial prejudice when asked who my publisher is. However, I find that telling them my sales figures changes their doubts to respect every time.

  2. The stigma is still out there though not as heavily as it once was. Among writers there’s a huge divide between traditionally published authors and those who have gone the self-published route. Among readers, not so much but it’s still there to some extent. Just read reviews for self-published books and see how many reviewers rave that the self-published book was free of typos.

    I think it will become more acceptable as big name authors make the transition. But there’s still a long way to go.

    • “Just read reviews for self-published books and see how many reviewers rave that the self-published book was free of typos.”

      I’m tempted to start posting reviews on the trade-published books I read raving that it’s free of typos. Given the number of typos I’ve noticed in such books in the last couple of years, I wouldn’t be posting many.

      • Hehe – I always mention typos in Trade Published books. Never did it before – but what’s sauce for the indie goose is sauce for the Trade Published gander.

        LOL

      • Yeah, I still find typos and poor grammar in traditionally published books. That idiocy isn’t limited to indie publishing.

      • I actually mentioned, in a recent review of a trad-published ebook, that there were some formatting glitches (carriage returns in the middle, or towards the end, of paragraphs) — but it was still readable.

        I figure, yeah, saucy geese deserve saucy ganders. And take a gander at that formatting glitch! *snort* (But the book was still readable, and it was a lovely, fluffy Harlequin of just the sort I wanted at that moment.)

  3. I heartily agree that we must attain quality. I think this will gradually separate self-published authors into professionals and amateurs, instead of all self-pubs getting labeled as amateurs. The stigma will fade more and more, but newer, less experienced authors (like myself) will still come off looking less polished. As we fine-tune things, we’ll be recognized as more professional.

  4. I must agree with Abel. In my experience, the divide mainly exists between writers and others in the publishing industry. Readers will contact me and say, “I loved X! When is Y coming out?” Another writer will invariably comment, “I’m surprised how good X is.” Usually with the same expression an elderly lady who has just been flashed in a public establishment by a gentleman wearing a trench coat would exhibit.

  5. Tristan Gregory

    Personally, I wear the scarlet S proudly! Though I rarely bring it up, and endeavor to make my books indistinguishable from trade published books. My personal goal is for people to be surprised when they find out I’m self-published.

  6. I’m often surprised how many otherwise capable writers really lack the confidence to do it on their own, and really believe they need the publisher crutch. Probably shouldn’t be because we’ve been conditioned by a century or so of publishers holding the keys and telling us we can’t do it without them. As for the opinions of publishers, reviewers, bookstores and traditional ecosystem participants, their opinions aren’t very high on my list of things to worry about. Self published authors are busy creating new business models for ourselves while they’re just trying to stop the bleeding as their business models crumble around them. I’ve likely got more pity for them than anything else.

  7. I don’t know. What Erec said had a very familiar ring to it….

    But it was deja vu — not about self-publishing at all. When I was in grad school, I sold my first story to a professional publication with a huge audience. I got paid well, and in the 30 years since, they have paid me more in residuals for reprints than any of my professors had got for entire books.

    But the sale was to Highlights for Children.

    So when I got to the English Dept that day, I told everyone, I good a couple of “contrats!” and a “Wahoo!” and when I told my professor, he was excited “Really? Where?

    I told him.

    He stepped back like I’d slapped him and made a big show of turning his back on me.

    Okay, he was an unsually jerky (expletive deleted). Most of my professors would have said “Good for you with your cute little success. It’s so quaint.”

    The fact is publishing is full of insecure (expletive deleted)s and they need stigmas. They need a hierarchy. If there is nothing to pin a stigma on, they’ll find something.

    As for non-publishing people:

    I’ve never had a problem with my family supporting me, but my whole life in publishing, which is longer than I’ll say, people have suffered from never being good enough for family and friends who are ignorant of the field.

    Oh, I’ve got a good example — I don’t know the writer, but I do know the jerk. I was at an sf convention, and the Guests of Honor had a special reception breakfast. All through the convention, they had talked and talked about their struggles — not making a living, not getting distribution into bookstores, books canceled for bizarre reasons. They had a HUGE following of adoring fans (which allowed the to use self publishing to keep some series going long before self-publishing was acceptable )).

    Among the adoring fans was a woman who had attended all of these panels and things. She thought the GOHs were grand and everything they said was golden. But apparently didn’t listen to a word they said, because at that breakfast table, she did nothing but sneer loudly at a friend of hers who thought she was a writer just because she’d sold a book to some publisher somewhere.

    “I told her she’s no writer. I don’t see her book at Walmart! If she was really a writer, her book would be there.”

    Welcome to the New World of Publishing, just like the Old World of Publishing.

  8. I think the stigma still exists, but in a slightly different form. Self publishing used to be called “vanity press.” You couldn’t get someone to take your work seriously so you paid someone else to publish it for you.

    Now, with just-in-time printing; places like deviantArt or Conceptart.org where you can find your own artist; and eBook options; it is possible for self publishing to be a real attempt at money making without the big publishing houses.

    However, the market is enormous, particularly within eBooks, and the quality varies wildly. OTOH, they tend to be less expensive (particularly eBooks). So when I get a self-published book in my search results, I’m faced with a bit of a dilemma. Do I pay $3 or $4 and take a chance and maybe get something completely brain-dead? Or do I pay a bit more for an established author I already like? At least with one of the Big 6, I know its gone through an editing process. With some of the self-published or small press books I’ve read, it either had not been edited, or the editor was not qualified for the job.

    What I find helps is this:
    1. If a friend or online acquaintance I respect has read and endorsed the book.
    2. If the description is gripping *and meaningful*. Too many book blurbs are content-less, making them useless for deciding on a book.

    • Let me add – use the sample or Look Inside function! You can always tell within a page if the writing is at a level you can live with. 🙂

    • Do I pay $3 or $4 and take a chance and maybe get something completely brain-dead?

      Sample!

      Well, first, read the blurb: is the blurb competently written, or does it contain numerous typos?

      Then glance at the reviews; are the one-star reviews written by people who can articulate what they didn’t like (e.g., “Needs Moar Editorz!”), or are they just kinda “I didn’t like it was boring” [sic] complaints?

      Then sample/look inside!

      If the sample isn’t long enough, see if it’s on Smashwords with a longer sample. 😉 (I actually browsed around iTunes to see if the sample for a tradpub book was longer than on the Kindle app. It was! Then I decided if I was going to go to that much effort just for a few more pages, I should buy the book, so I went down the next day to the deadtrees bookstore… >_> )

      If you buy it and discover you hate it… well, if you got it from Kindle, you can probably return it for a refund. The author may make sad eyes at the computer screen, but they don’t know who you are, so they can’t make sad eyes at you.

  9. If it goes, so does the inspiration for so many blog posts.

    I think that the extreme judgement is now limited to the literati rather than the public. You only have to look at something like 50 Shades to see that people will forgive poor writing if they love the story.

    • people will forgive poor writing if they love the story

      That has always been true; but what has it got to do with self-publishing? You talk as if trade publishing was a guarantee of ‘good writing’ — by which, evidently, you mean a polished prose style, or you would not contrast it with a good story.

      In fact, all your assumed premises are ill-founded. Trade publishers print, and always have printed, mountains of books that are badly written on the prose level (and some that are unreadable on any level); readers prefer, and have always preferred, good story to ‘good’ style (if they cannot have both), and rightly so. Moreover, there is absolutely nothing that marks all self-published works as ‘poor writing’. 50 Shades itself is a trade-published book, yet you drag it in by the heels, irrelevantly, in what purports to be a discussion about self-publishing versus trade.

      Your comment is a thoroughgoing, though politely veiled, example of just the kind of snobbery that you seem to think is on the decline. I will grant that you have refrained from the ‘extreme judgement’.

      • Tom, I gotta stand up for PA here, for two reasons:

        One is that PA did not say that bad writing doesn’t exist in traditionally published work — only that 50 Shades proves that the end reader doesn’t care.

        The other … crap, I don’t have time. PA didn’t say what you think was said, but I would like to say it myself. You do find more junk among the self-published than in traditionally published lists — but it’s irrelevant. I’d like to explain why, however, when I get the chance.. See you next rock….

  10. I definitely think the stigma is disappearing, although we’re not there, yet. Self and indie-publishing has been making a lot of noise lately, and much of it is “good” noise, considering the number of indie publishers making a nice chunk of change from doing it themselves. I didn’t really feel any discrimination from DIY publishing; actually, more people were impressed and asked how they could do it, too. I think DIY publishing is finally finding its way. 🙂

  11. Improving the quality of self-published books won’t end the stigma. Here’s why. People who stigmatize self-published books are labeling those books based on tribal affiliation, not on based on the actual incidence of low quality books.

    The author of the original post is simply wrong about why the stigma exists. The stigma exists to define any one who eschews the traditional route to publishing as an outsider. There is no other reason for it. If you doubt that, just recast the paragraph above to talk about another group:

    In a nutshell, one of the reasons for this stigma is the large number of unemployed black men one sees loitering on the streets. The large majority of whites will be unforgiving of young men wearing hoodies and baggy pants. It’s painted a poor initial view of us. Notoriety results. A bad reputation is a hard one to shrug. For whites who may have simply seen these young men in the past and been consistently disappointed, they are unlikely to give us a fair shake. The same goes for the police.

    Unlike racial bias, this particular bias doesn’t really harm the stigmatized that much. Time to stop worrying about this and get on with writing good stories.

  12. I don’t think it’ll ever really be gone. Individual writers can shrug off the stigma with good books, but as a whole, it’ll always be looked down on. Right or wrong, people associate traditional publishing with quality and indie publishing with desperate.

    I plan to indie publish, but I also understand the obstacles in my way. Those “in the know” that are regular readers might not view it as poorly, but publishers usually will(it’s in their best economic interests to demean it), and the general public is largely ignorant of the current trends, so they’ll follow conventional wisdom. It’s going to take a majority of the most successful authors going indie before the perception will change.

  13. As long as there are badly behaving writers who upload junk and then recruit their friends/fans to post phony 5 star reviews and attack negative reviewers with sock puppets, there will be a stigma.

    Until filters are developed to distinguish the amateur from the professional, the professional self-publisher will have to answer the “ya, but” questions. It won’t affect his sales or rep, one supposes (and hopes), but we’re all in the same pot.

    It’s a fun time to be a self-published author, but I am constantly looking at what’s going on in the marketplace and saying, “that’s not me.”

    • Why should that reflect on you? You don’t do those things. Conventionally published authors have done all that and worse and there is no stigma attached to them. I’m telling you, you aren’t being stigmatized because of those bad acts. Those are only the excuse. Don’t internalize the prejudice of others.

      • Bingo!

      • I agree – traditionally published authors have done this forn decades. This isn’t exclusive to indie folks, although maybe more noticeable since they don’t have as many reviews(at first).

      • William, I agree that it “shouldn’t,” and I assure you that I do not internalize it. I am simply reporting what I SEE.

        I witness repeatedly Amazon customers state that they are NOT BUYING self-published books any more because of their experiences with poor quality and/or badly behaving authors.

        • Pete,

          I’m not doubting what you say. I’m saying that what these customers are saying makes about as much sense as me saying that I don’t like lawyers, so I won’t buy any books written by lawyers. There is plenty of ammunition to fuel the bias of people who don’t like lawyers because they had a bad encounter with one. The vast majority of people who shop at Amazon or other online retailers won’t know and won’t care whether you are a lawyer or whether you are self-published. It’s just not worth your time to worry about this stuff.

    • Let’s turn the table to reviewers behaving badly, not just the authors. If you want an eye opener, head on over to the Amazon forums and read both strings: Authors Behaving Badly and then Reviewers Behaving Badly. The rise of vigilantly reviewers attacking self-published authors is something to note. No, the stigma is not gone, and if some reviewers/authors have their way, they’re going to make sure it stays by less than reputable means.

      Our only recourse as individual authors is to strive for quality and encourage others to do the same through networking. However, as far as some of the books being released by traditional houses, I’m beginning to wonder if the gatekeepers have lost their keys. Perhaps one day if it keeps up, the lines will blur, and they’ll end up shooting themselves in the foot by releasing “crap” to make a quick buck. You never know.

  14. I’ve only experienced any kind of stigma among writers and those working in the industry. I’ve never seen it from a reader.

    I know which group matters.

    • Roger Parkinson

      This is what I was going to say (good thing I read all the comments first). The industry is pretty much all about the readers and, my experience, the readers don’t care if a book was self-published or trad published. They care about the quality etc, not the source.
      If they don’t care about it then I sure don’t.
      I don’t think I have experienced stigma from other writers, but I don’t get out much,

  15. As e-publishing 10 years ago, so self-publishing now. I remember hearing, “When is it gonna be a real book?” so many times I wanted to take the file and jam it sideways up their nose. I’m just waiting to see what variation I hear once I take my first project direct.

  16. As a self-pubbed author, I’d like to see the stigma vanish as much as anyone. However, I won’t consider that a done deal until indie authors are given the same shot as traditional ones to be hired by creative writing programs at universities, invited to writing conferences and asked to speak on panels (about something other than “the wonders and perils of self-publishing”), and interviewed by the media at the media’s own initiative, not because the author has alerted the media to him or herself.

    That time is a ways off, folks.

    I live in a college town and know many of the creative writing teachers at the university here (taught there myself as a lecturer several years). There’s no way they look upon my three self-pubbed novels without their little noses wrinkling in disapproval. It’s scary to them for a number of reasons that you all know.

    Wish it were different. Waiting patiently for the day it definitively changes!

    • Sadly, I suspect there’s always going to be certain people who resent those who break out and don’t follow “the rules” or “pay your dues” or whatever cliche fits, even when those rules really only benefit those who created them. We still live in a world where too many of us have a need to be told what to do.

    • Last year Harper Collins ran a workshop via Authonomy on how to self-publish. Every single one of the speakers was from traditional publishing – no one at all with any experience or knowledge of self-publishing. Presumably they had takers at somewhere around £135 for the day.

      • Add to the list recognition from associations, such as Romance Writers of America. Until prejudicial attitudes change at those levels, the stigma will continue in certain genre. They continue to propagate among the masses of traditional authors in their organization that we aren’t worth recognizing as professional romance authors unless we follow the “higher road” to publication.

    • Rebecca;

      Unfortunately, even traditionally published writers don’t have a crack at creative writing programs. It’s not your publishing history that gets you those jobs, it’s your degree — you’ve got to have an MFA.

      Being published, of course, enhances your standing…. but only if you are not too successfully published. Also, genre or popular fiction doesn’t count. (Or even counts against you.)

  17. Camille – have you seen where James Freye is opening trolling MFA programs to purchase novels for about $200?

    I couldn’t believe he WELCOME to pitch his publishing company at these Ivy League schools.

    Makes the most ravenous agent contracts look good.

    http://thebitterscriptreader.blogspot.com/2011/02/james-frey-strikes-again-why-you.html

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