Before I start, this is an opinion piece and my opinion is there is no one perfect road to publishing. Publishing is simply a tool, the process of production and delivery of books to readers in this this case. The only rule to remember about publishing is ‘money should flow to the author’. If an author puts out a book through any form of publishing and it costs them more than the return they receive from it, they need to look again.
Lately I find myself grinding my teeth in irritation whenever I read "Self-Publishing is the Future" or variations as a blog post titles, followed by reasons why every author must self-publish or go the way of dinosaurs. Some from Self-Publishers who've done pretty well out of Trade Publishing btw, either starting from it and gaining a platform before SP, or selling to it when they can’t continue to meet demand via self-publishing. The truth is there is no one way is the best way, and no one knows what the future holds.
Self-publishing isn't new, it's been around as long as books have. Heck, E-publishing isn’t even new, trade publishing has been doing it since the eighties. Many of the avenues are new(ish). Some not altogether benefitting authors for those who would have you believe all self-publishing=good whereas all trade=evil. Vanity presses(assisted self-publishing where the author pays and there is no selection process, everything including editing is optional) are making plenty of money from inexperienced and golden words authors, churning out genuinely terrible books that should never have seen the light of day.
Examples of Golden Words Authors are those special snowflakes who think themselves far better writers than they are in reality and won’t touch trade because of all the evils. Or, believe trade publishers turned down their fabulous works because they didn’t understand it would change readers’ lives and were simply too dumb to grasp the writer’s genius in creating a 900 page work with no paragraphs or spell check used. Nothing to do with trade publishing being a business and in the business of investing in work they believe will see a return. (Sarcasm for those who don’t understand my dry Irish humour.)
Trade publishers do get it wrong sometimes and turn down work that goes on to be successfully published elsewhere, either by trade of self-publishing. No one is perfect and the gate-keepers of trade publishing are human.
There are no absolutes and no guarantees in any form of publishing.
I don't dispute self-publishing, when done well, is a great way of publishing for those who are happy to be their own publisher. I see some people who are highly motivated and successful at it, and doing a wonderful job with fantastic books. Nor do I dispute trade publishing puts out some less than stellar books or that many authors have to rely mostly on their own promotions efforts. However, it’s important to remember many isn’t all. All self-publishers are responsible for their own promotion and marketing.
Some people doing a crappy job at self-publishing, turning out utter rubbish with generally substandard stories and packaging. It has forced down the price and the value of books to a pittance in some cases. I personally feel forcing down the price of the finished book undervalues a process which in some cases can take years. As a reader, I don't enjoy trawling through mountains of terrible, terrible(in every sense) SP books to find the good ones because some new writers are convinced sticking a cover on any ole rubbish is an easy path to riches. Or paying for something and later reading the author say they didn't bother with editing because readers don't care(which has happened to me).
I’m not going to go deeply into advances from established trade publishers. The pros and cons and levels have been done to death elsewhere. Just to say, where there is an advance, that’s money in the bank and for some that’s more important than pie in the sky potential of royalties that may never come. That’s okay if that’s the choice the author makes. Any choice is okay, including paying 1-20,000 to a vanity press or in SP expenses, as long as the author has researched their options and is happy about gambling that one euro, pound or dollar to twenty grand. Pouring money in where there is no return isn’t good business. The higher the investment in a book, the less likely the investor is to make a profit or even break even. This is how publishers work. They invest the money, they take the gamble instead of the author. They are using their experience to make the best gambles.
For me, the argument of larger percentages of royalties for self-publishing isn’t enough to swing me to it. Not when I look at the bigger picture. Publishing is a financial gamble regardless of how a book is published. The author either pays upfront via SP or through royalties via TP.
Sure there is control but control comes with responsibility. Self-publishing well doesn’t necessarily come cheap and the SP author is responsible for everything, both in terms of finance and time. They can involve professional editing(development, line editing, proof reading, as well as choosing good editors), formatting, cover art, ISBN, legal, marketing(actually placing the product before readers either via vendors, libraries, or brick book store shelves if a SP author is really determined and fortunate, distribution, postage,accounting, and promotion including costs of review copies to the reviewers who are happy to review SP books. An established publisher will always have a longer reach to readers than a first time self-published author when it comes to promotion. I’m also not convinced royalties will remain high for self-published authors via places like Amazon in the long run.
There are plenty of writers still making a living from trade published books. Many aren't, but many more aren't making a living from their SP either. SP isn’t the golden goose. Cream doesn’t always rise to the top and some fantastic books are lost. At the end of the day, it’s still easier for a great book to be lost in self-publishing than with an established trade publisher behind it, pushing to make good on an advance they paid out.
Information is key. No one should ever enter publishing of any sort without researching all angles extensively. The choices are there, so make use of them, either to go a certain route, decide against it, or decide on doing a bit of everything.
Ideally I want to see all avenues remain available to writers and readers. I see the best of both worlds as when an author can decide what’s best for themselves and their work on a case by case basis without feeling criticized for making informed decisions. Also, where readers aren’t restricted in their choice of methods of access to books, and the range of books because bookshops die out or a single vendor controls distribution.
However, personally I won't be self-publishing again. I know without doubt I’m a writer not a publisher and I don’t enjoy the business end. I have basic formatting and graphic skills so I made a point to educate myself on what else is involved in self-publishing and learned it isn’t for me. Some people love dealing with everything I mentioned above for self-publishing, more power to them because it’s a lot of work and deserves respect for doing it well. It’s not a matter of writing a story, formatting and slapping a cover on, then sitting back and colleting 70%.
I have no interest in being my own publisher or gambling. I feel recognition in the knowledge a publisher is prepared to invest in me. That’s not to say I don’t believe in my work. I love my work, I personally think it’s fabulous and there are moments where I briefly succumb to golden words and can't understand why my books aren’t sitting at the top of the NYT bestsellers list with production companies fighting over movie rights. Those moments pass and I’m more logical about the whole thing again. I know it’s impossible to please everyone and so I’m happy for someone else to make the financial gamble. In the long run, I’m also happy to forgo complete control and responsibility in exchange for the time it affords me to write because that’s where my passion is.
Publishing is in flux, but then publishing has always been in flux. It’s constantly changing so fast that’s it’s impossible to say definitively what the future holds. Trade publishing and self publishing have been around for a very, very long time and I hope neither is going to disappear for the foreseeable future. Trade publishing will change and adapt and so will self-publishing.
The only thing we know for sure is writers will continue to write and readers will continue to consume the written word.