The Ongoing Stigma Of Self Publishing

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Anyone who has had a dream of being a writer professionally since they were a kid knows the age-old ideal: write a manuscript, get an agent, have a publisher pick it up, get paid, do book signings, see your book on a shelf, and become a millionaire.

That idea in 2018 is about as likely as winning the MegaMillions jackpot.

While there do still exist a few writers who “hit it big” with a publishing deal (an ever-shrinking number), it’s not a realistic goal in the truest sense. You should still try if that is your goal, but the world of publishing has changed, mainly because the world at large has changed.

Recently, I attended a Meet Up here in Maryland of other writers who gathered around and worked on their craft. It was my first time, and being the only “indie” in the group, I engaged in a few conversations. Those conversations turned into a sharing of information about all the tools available like Scrivener, Reedsy, and BookFunnel, as well as names of highly successful indie authors like Mark Dawson, Bella Forrest, Michael Anderle, Shayne Silvers, and many more. Many of these fellow writers — most of whom were still under the impression that there was only one way to be a published writer professionally — had no idea these tools existed or any of these writers were so wildly successful. Using KindleSpy I showed that many of them were as successful, if not more, in sales as other authors they had heard of like Sarah J. Maas or Jim Butcher, but of course no one eclipsed the giants of the industry like King, Patterson, Roberts, or Child. I could see the wheels turning in a few heads that their true goal — being able to write for a living — was not a one-way street, but had many paths to get to that destination.

Then, there were those who scoffed at the whole idea.

At this point, I should probably bring up that I had no intention on getting into this discussion. We were there to write, but as humans, we also talk shop. I asked many of those who were there what their goal was as a writer. One person said it was to see his book on a shelf. Another said it was to win awards. Other answers ranged from being famous authors to seeing their book on the New York Times Bestseller List.

I immediately thought back to something I heard on Joanna Penn’s podcast some months ago about how this mindset is the real Vanity Publishing of today. It truly is, by the definition of the word “vanity”. The goals were to see a book on a self, win an award, gain the praise and adulation of others, and few were concerned with writing for a living.

Two ladies in particular, who were older women, spun off into a diatribe about “real” writers, questioned whether “the books are any good”, and a variety of other condescending remarks. They were polite about it, but still dismissive. I pointed to the number of 4 and 5 star reviews for many of the authors mentioned earlier, and one of the women remarked “there are many popular books that aren’t very good”.

That statement carried a heavy stench of arrogance.

I listened, while she turned her back to me because she didn’t want to hear what I was saying, as she went on with the other lady about the subject. She also claimed Stephen King  (who was once an indie himself) wasn’t a very good writer. My counter argument was if tens of thousands of people find enjoyment and give high praise to the books any author is writing that person is a good writer. The ultimate point of writing is storytelling. She thought otherwise. To her, the point of “real writing” was impressing literary types with how you turn a phrase (what I tend to call “Literary Masturbation“).

While I understand her view, it is a highly arrogant one. It’s also a view that has nearly scuttled the entire book industry for decades. They dismissed the horror revival of the 70s and 80s, the romance genre as a whole, the initial surge of paperbacks, the rise of ebooks, and now the success of indie authors/self publishers, all because it doesn’t fit their lofty idea of what writing is supposed to be about.

That kind of thinking excludes many people. In fact, I suspect it has much to do with why — until Harry Potter — reading was on a drastic decline in the 80s and 90s. My generation, Generation X, didn’t have a Harry Potter or Twilight or Hunger Games or Divergent to read. We were stuck with the books of the prior generation and a handful of less-than-wildly popular titles for young adults and teens during that time period. Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that when this lady spoke of the books and authors she liked, nearly all of them were from another era.

I don’t shy from confrontation, and this conversation wasn’t hostile in any manner, but I did have to correct many things she was saying. She clearly only had knowledge of her corner of the writing world, which is insulated and stuck in another generation. Despite the enormous number of books sales that are attributed to indies (reported at anywhere from 25% to 35% of the TOTAL book market), despite the successes of famous indies like Hocking, Weir, and Croft, despite the traditional industry mainly being buoyed up by enormous sales of the “big dog” authors while the mid-list author population has dwindled almost to nothing, despite the fact there are thousands of indie authors who clear $100k in annual revenue from their books sales, there will always be people in the industry, like this woman, who will live in denial that the world is changing.

In fact, it’s already changed.

The other lady then argued against that very change. Even though the world has become digital, she was still obsessed with having a “team of people” behind an author and books on shelves. Again, I argued, what for? I’ve sold books in fifteen countries at this point, something that was impossible fifteen years ago when you would need a team of people to do that. That isn’t the case anymore. You also don’t need to go to a record shop to buy music or Blockbuster Video to rent movies. Digital hasn’t replaced physical books, nor should it. What it has done is allowed for many more books to be available … books that may not be appealing to the “high literature” crowd, but books that appeal to a wide variety of people.

The idea that reading should be exclusive only to a certain type of people is counterproductive, arrogant, and dangerous.

Having a team of people who take a percentage of my book sales is not appealing to me when I don’t need it. Seeing my book on a bookshelf at Barnes and Noble — when it’s highly uncertain whether Barnes and Noble will even be around in five years as brick-and-mortar stores — is for my own ego, not for writing. Winning awards from people who enjoy their exclusive groups is not a goal of mine. Those are not the reasons I wanted to write when I was a kid. I wanted to tell stories, have people enjoy them, and make a living doing so. Who is the “real” writer? The one who does it for praise or the one who does it because it’s what they want to do for a living?

I left the MeetUp feeling that I had encouraged a few people to look beyond what they had been told was “the way” their entire lives. Maybe some will see that there’s a whole new world out there. The two ladies who were wrapped up in their own smug view of the writing world (again, turning their backs to the rest of us for most of the conversation) will continue to be in that world. And that is fine. That group is slowly dying off. They can continue to be, in their minds, failed writers who will only consider themselves successful IF an exclusive group of gatekeepers deem them worthy. The rest of us who embrace the new world, and the world that’s coming, will enjoy the opportunities out there, and many will have great success, as this new era of reading and writing is still in its infancy.

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