Self-Publishing As “Principled” Cop-Out

by Mike Duran · 26 comments

I was not entirely surprised at how many comments THIS POST on Facebook generated. You see, some people — writers, to be exact — can get downright ticked when you insinuate that self-publishing MAY be an over-reaction to “the system.” In other words, SOME authors become so disgruntled with the traditional publishing system — the hoops, submission guidelines, courting agents and editors, demographic pandering, dealing with edits, pretty much just playing the game — that they choose to forgo the entire process and self-publish.

So self-publishing is like giving the finger to traditional publishers.

This isn’t the case with every self-published author. Obviously. I didn’t self-publish two books because I’m pissed at anyone. Still, I am surprised by the anger exhibited toward the publishing “establishment.”

In that particular post, it was the CBA. That’s the Christian Booksellers Association, but the term’s used generically for the mainstream Christian fiction industry. Now, I’ve done my fair share of criticizing Christian fiction, its publishers and its readers. Nevertheless,  sometimes our criticism of the publishing industry can be a smokescreen, and resorting to self-publishing, a cop-out. 

Sometimes.

Now, the main reason I sought out a traditional publisher for my first two books, and am seeking out a traditional publisher for my current ones, is simply this:

I think my books are good enough for someone else to foot the bill.

Sounds pretty arrogant, huh?

Some will suggest that, along with my arrogance, I’m also stupid. After all, the disparity of royalties between trad and self-publishing is quite significant. Not to mention the cut my agent gets. Either way, going the traditional publishing route is not without its costs.

Namely, compromise.

The Resurrection and The Telling were both contracted by a Christian publishing house. So I knew going in that parts of those stories would have to conform to CBA standards. I fought hard to keep some things in the novels, but had to relent. Am I a sell-out for doing so? Would I have been better off self-publishing those stories and doing them my way?

There’s a certain nobility in artists who rage against the machine. You know, those creatives who refuse to adapt their style to the market. They rail against the money-grubbing gatekeepers. They scoff at “the rules.” They chafe against industry decorum. They denounce the status quo. They disparage what is commonly accepted as popular art. They would rather die anonymous than be a patented sellout.

They are… principled.

I dunno. But sometimes being “principled” is really just

  • Pigheadedness
  • Inflexibility
  • Disdain
  • Institutional prejudice
  • Lack of professional savvy

Should standing on “principle” sometimes be applauded? Absolutely! There’s many artists who have resisted conformity and we are better off for it. But at what point does resisting conformity hurt you or your craft? At what point is circumventing “the system” just obstinacy and fear of rejection? I have benefited from interacting with writers and editors, having my work critiqued by professionals, and learning to collaborate. But for some, self-publishing can be a way to bypass such important processes.

As well as scapegoat the industry.

The hard truth is that sometimes it is not the industry’s fault that a writer remains unrecognized and unpublished. Sometimes rejections are NOT about your genre, the Christian market, or inflexible publishers — they are about your writing.

Will ALL good writing be recognized? Probably not. Does the traditional publishing system fail? Yes. Often. Will some books simply not fit in with ANY publishing house? Sure. Nevertheless, I cannot let that be an excuse to stop “learning the craft” and striving to tell a more compelling story. I cannot let my frustrations become a smokescreen, a rationalization to blame someone or something for my publication woes. I can’t let those things justify a “screw you” mentality that makes the chip on my shoulder an anvil. And, by all means, I can’t rush my book into self-publishing because I refuse to suffer rejections and yield to editorial critiques.

So is ALL self-publishing a “principled” cop-out? No. Is some? I think so.

Julie Presley April 22, 2013 at 8:05 AM

In my comment yesterday on FB, I didn’t say that I actually did query an agent, but it was through a mutual connection and referral. His advice was to self-publish due to the nature and content of my novel, as well as the changes/difficulties the publishing industry is facing these days.

But yes, I have bypassed the fear of rejection by continuing to pursue self-publishing, but I’m also very tuned in to what God is asking of me in this time and as I start to feel the pressure to pursue other avenues, I will do that. Right now, I’m still seeking and simply putting one foot in front of the other. The most important thing to me is getting the books out. However that happens, I know I will grow and that I will be rewarded on some level for my hard work and commitment to obedience.

I’m definitely not pissed at anyone. 🙂

Nikole Hahn April 22, 2013 at 8:14 AM

I agree. Not to mention, if you give a bad review to a lot (not all) self-pubs books, their cult following becomes infuriated. I’ve actually heard someone cop the attitude you described. She had an opportunity to get her book traditionally published. She fought every edit and canceled the contract. Then, she published the book the way she wanted to, bad sentence structure and all, in self-publishing. The attitude in the self-pub world is atrocious.

Dave Jacobs April 22, 2013 at 8:23 AM

A very helpful, challenging perspective.

Cindy Sproles April 22, 2013 at 8:42 AM

Excellent article. Well said.

Carla Laureano April 22, 2013 at 8:46 AM

I’m glad you wrote this post, Mike. I was ranting on this topic this morning. I actually love the idea of self-publishing, in additional to my traditional contracts. I like the idea of being able to shape my career through the use of both. But I’m really glad that self-publishing was not “around” when I started.

I hear lots of writers complaining about how hard it is to break into the business, so they self published. After two years.

I’ve been writing novel-length fiction–mostly fantasy–for twenty years. I’ve been looking for an agent for twelve. Only this past year did I get both agent and book contracts. Plural. I’ve had a lot of people tell me I got lucky.

I find that offensive. I have busted my butt every year for twenty years to get better at my craft. I’ve queried, gotten rejected, queried some more, gotten close and gotten rejected. Once I got an agent, I got rejected some more. Until finally, the manuscript landed on the right desk at the right time, and I got the acceptance I was waiting for. What did they cite as a major reason for contracting it? “It was well written, and we know it won’t require major editing.”

That tells me my rejections had less to do with the industry and more to do with me. Simply put, until now, I just wasn’t good enough.

And if I had’ve had the temptation to go the self-pub route, I never would have been.

Kathleen Freeman April 22, 2013 at 11:00 AM

Exactly, Carla!

Mike Duran April 22, 2013 at 12:29 PM

Carla, this is such a good comment! Congratulations on your contracts and your perseverance.

Jill April 22, 2013 at 4:28 PM

Self-pubbing has been around for hundreds of years. I think, by self-pubbing, you mean e-pubbing.

Jessica Thomas April 22, 2013 at 8:46 AM

Methinks you might be dredging up controversy for controversy’s sake.

I don’t think it’s anything new that in self-publishing (which used to be called vanity publishing) there are those who choose that route because they lack patience, perserverance, and the ability to handle tough criticism. With a booming, over-saturated self-publishing market, you’re obviously going to see a lot of that–as well as much poorly crafted material–so I’m not sure why you, a traditionally published author, feel the need to to point it out, effectively adding insult to injury to those who have struggled for years playing by traditional publishing’s rules with no or limited success. (I’m playing devil’s advocate, by the way, for the sake of controversy.) My stuff is good enough for someone else to foot the bill (I’m arrogant enough to say it, too), but market conditions seem to be making it increasingly difficult to find an investor for products with little functional value, which is the category novels happen to fall under.

Mike Duran April 22, 2013 at 12:28 PM

Jessica, the person I am intending to “injure” (as in, adding insult to injury) in this post is not the person who has “struggled for years playing by traditional publishing’s rules with no or limited success,” but the person who gets a chip on their shoulder as a result. I simply think it’s healthier to not see the industry as the bad guy, but to work on things I CAN control. Like my writing.

Iola April 22, 2013 at 2:01 PM

Vanity publishing still exists, and is different from self-publishing.

In self-publishing, the author takes all the risk, retains all the rights and earns all the money (less what is paid for editing, cover design, distribution, marketing etc). The author/publisher has every incentive to sell the book, because that will directly impact their own pocket.

In vanity publishing, the author pays money, gives away the rights and may earn a royalty on some definition of profit, as determined by the publisher. The publisher has no incentive to sell the book, because they’ve already been paid for their services and further income might have to be shared with the author.

Both groups attract people who haven’t learned the craft of writing (although many have – both Mike and his agent have self-published books). Vanity publishing relies on those who haven’t learned the business of writing.

Jessica Thomas April 22, 2013 at 6:22 PM

I realize there’s a difference, but in the past if an author wanted to self-publish they pretty much had to go the vanity route.

C.L. Dyck April 22, 2013 at 9:15 AM

“I think my books are good enough for someone else to foot the bill.”

Yeah, on a pure craft level, content quirks and preferences aside, I also believe that’s a good litmus test of whether the writing’s ready for readers.

“…those creatives who refuse to adapt their style to the market. They rail against the money-grubbing gatekeepers. They scoff at “the rules.” They chafe against industry decorum. They denounce the status quo. They disparage what is commonly accepted as popular art.”

Respect for basic decorum is a bigger part of the conflict with the industry than it may seem. There’s a certain kind of writer that I dread even as a freelance editor, and I make a point of not cultivating them as clients. They want to hire an editor because they heard they should. They don’t want to work with a publishing house editor because they want “control,” but they also don’t want to pay for what they need because they don’t actually value it. Self-publishing isn’t a solution to their problems, it’s just transference.

I’ve also seen trad pub writers take some nasty hits. That’s a valid concern too, and it’s a function of who’s the larger business animal in an essentially Darwinian ecosystem. But that’s not about content or censorship, that’s about business practices.

I’ve said before, the CBA is a very young industry. It’s not 150 years of New York publishing. It’s not 400 years since Gutenberg. It’s not even 40 years since Janette Oke’s first evangelical fiction book was published by Bethany House in 1978.

I am older than the existence of CBA fiction, and I’ve watched this market change and grow relatively fast in the 17 years I’ve been reading it. I happen to think that’s pretty cool and interesting, and something fun to be a part of.

Kat Heckenbach April 22, 2013 at 9:57 AM

I could make this comment so, so long, but I will try to keep it brief. I have harbored my own share of anger at the publishing system, but looking back I realize two main things:

One–When I first started shopping my first manuscript, it wasn’t ready, and frankly neither was I personally. After a lot of rejections, and much time spent working on my craft and building credits through short story writing, my manuscript got much closer to being ready (and so did I). But it really never hit fully ready until I actually found the small press (Splashdown Books) that was willing to take a chance on me, and the editors there got their claws into it.

Two–My query letter *sucked*. Actually, many versions of my query letter sucked. I went for a very long time without a single agent or publisher looking beyond that letter and I felt it was the fault of the system. How dare they judge my novel writing by my letter writing! It wasn’t fair! But when I gave up on trying to follow the query letter formulas and trying overly hard to sound professional and do it “right,” I finally started getting some nibbles from agents. (No real bites, mind you, because of point one, but still.)

Aside from all that, I’ve met a lot of self-pubbed authors. Some are angry and frustrated and giving the finger to the system (and I might add that in my personal experience those tend to be the worst writers). But many are ridiculously talented, writing 5-star books that make *me* want to shove them in the faces of traditional publishing houses and scream, “This is what you should be putting out, not that dribble I can’t even get halfway through!” Ah, but those authors are really professional and chose to self-pub because they had the willingness to get their work professionally edited, the skills to do all the techie stuff and the motivation to do the self-marketing (and they are not bitter).

(PS–you can see from my “dribble” comment that I’ve still got a little anger. Not so much because I didn’t get snatched up by a big agent or publisher, but because I keep reading–well, trying to read and giving up–new fiction by debut authors published by big houses that makes me want to stick my head in a dragon’s mouth.)

Katherine Coble April 22, 2013 at 5:49 PM

The best spec fic I read in 2012 came mostly (with the exception of Seraphina) from self-publishers or small houses. Oh wait. I take that back. It’s about 50%, since Baen isn’t necessarily a small house and that’s who puts out the Miles Vorkosigan series. Still and all, there is quality aplenty in all facets of the market right now.

Also, I’m a firm believer in God putting folks where they’re needed. That’s not always where our egos want us to be, but it’s always where the Spirit needs us. I’ve no doubt on this earth that having your Toch Island books at a small press has been accomplishing many of God’s aims in your life and the lives of others.

Kat Heckenbach April 22, 2013 at 6:08 PM

Thank you, Katherine :). And I’ve found some amazing small press authors this year, and I think one of the things God has done in my life through me being small press is open me up to finding other small press and self-pub authors to love.

D.M. Dutcher April 22, 2013 at 3:52 PM

Mike, that Facebook link doesn’t work.

Eh, no offense, but I’d believe this if we didn’t have a CBA culture that can’t even call its fantasy books fantasy. Did you notice that the Christy Awards don’t? They call them visionary, as if the mere word fantasy and sf, or speculative fiction is something to avoid. What do you do if you want to write serious SF or fantasy besides self-publish, go to Marcher Lord, or strip the Christianity from the book and do the secular market?

I mean, if we’re talking about playing the game and doing what we control, it’s makes more sense to just write to the market rather than care what we write. Better to chuck the SF out the door and get credits writing Love Inspired or Amish romance if you can, and maybe they’ll let you one day do a vanity SF book. Sorry, I’m a bit cynical here, but if we’re going to be honest, a lot of writers that I have read the histories of wrote whatever they could cross-genre to pay the bills, and art happened in spite of that.

Kat Heckenbach April 22, 2013 at 4:30 PM

I actually agree with a lot of what you say here (especially about the Christy), but I know quite a few *secular* authors who have self-published and the story is the same.

Actually, when I made my comment above I wasn’t even thinking Christian market, I was thinking authors I met at a secular sf/f/h convention. Two self-pubbers I met there really stand out to me: one is negative, bitchy, accusing, whiny, and completely lacking in talent–she self-pubbed because she was (rightly) rejected by everyone. The other is sweet, enthusiastic, personable, extroverted, and wickedly talented–she self-pubbed because she wanted artistic control but did everything very professionally.

That said, yes, again, I agree, the Christian spec-fic void is very real and choices are limited, and this is a genuine frustration.

D.M. Dutcher April 22, 2013 at 4:52 PM

Well, normal spec fic has more venues to at least try. I was going to say I could also believe this if we had just 25 spec fic books published in the big CBA a year and maybe one magazine about it as well as the small presses. It’s kind of hard to do the rejection game when the amount of that genre published is so low. But with more published, not only is there more hope to get published, we have more examples of what they want and hopefully a wider genre. It might be an argument we need less writers and more publishers, which I’m not going to get into.

Katherine Coble April 22, 2013 at 5:52 PM

Oh! That’s what “visionary” meant! I had no idea. I was like “what is this category? I’ve been in publishing for years and have no idea.”

Whenever I think Visionary I usually think of businessmen investing money in inner-city youth projects. Those are the kinds of things that get called “visionary”.

It looks a little stupid that they can’t call the spec fic what EVERYONE IN THE PUBLISHING BUSINESS CALLS IT. Way to strive to not be taken seriously.

Also, it’s more than a bit stupid that _Christy_, the book so highly thought of that the most prestigious award in Christian Fiction is named after it, is not available in e-book.

Jill April 22, 2013 at 4:33 PM

Why are you back to bashing self-publishers? Not that long ago, somebody (sorry I don’t remember who) posted an article on facebook about why punching down doesn’t work. Mocking people who are lower than you always leaves a bitter taste. The mocking may be warranted, but it still doesn’t sit well. I know you were attempting balance in this post, and I’m still left with that bitter taste.

Katherine Coble April 22, 2013 at 5:44 PM

I didn’t understand the purpose of the Facebook comment and I don’t understand the purpose of this post. It’s like walking into a convention room at a writers’ conference and shouting “Some percentage of you really suck!!!”

It’s not constructive criticism that helps anyone because it’s not directed at any one person. It’s not industry criticism that helps the industry because it’s directed at the provider (writers) instead of the customer (publishers).

It just honestly seems like you wanted to stir the pot and this got a reaction so you went with it.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of people self-publishing (I see many of them here in these comments) who are walking out on a limb. They’ve got work they’ve invested their lives in, worked hard to produce and are frankly, nervous about getting a reaction and getting sales.

All this can do is undermine the confidence of brothers and sisters who need confidence badly at this stage of the game.

I know it isn’t fun but I still prefer to approach writers of subpar books directly via reviews, email, or both. That way they get honest and constructive feedback and I’m not wounding innocent bystanders with flying shrapnel.

Mark Carver April 23, 2013 at 8:15 AM

After I finished writing my first book, I self-published it on Amazon, Smashwords, etc. while I continued shopping it around to publishers and agents. I know a lot of publishers don’t like that but I figured if the story was good enough, they would like it regardless. I got a lot of rejections but a few offers also came my way, and when I signed the contract, I removed it from any of the self-publishing outlets where I had made it available and let the publisher handle distribution.

I don’t know if this was a smart or foolhardy move, but one benefit was that it stirred up some buzz before the traditional-published version came out, and I got some reviews that carried over to the newer edition.

Richard Cain April 23, 2013 at 5:34 PM

Interesting discussion and views. I see both sides. For me, self-pub was pragmatic. I have a job, bills from putting two girls through college, and I simply don’t have time to pursue traditional publishing, acquiring an agent, etc. I wish I did. That would be preferable to the self-pub experience I had. I wrote a book. It came out of me. It was from God. I wanted to get it out before I die (I am 55). It’s not perfect, but athletes don’t wait to compete until they are certain they will get on the Olympic team. They get out there. There is sweat, pain , and loss, but they learn with each competition. I for one hate the elitist idea that the product must be absolutely perfect before it is out there. It’s not my “craft” … it’s my story , and sometimes I stumble over the words in telling it to my children because of the tears that come. That is the human condition. So get your stuff out there any way you can and move on. God bless you in your efforts, wherever you find yourself in this process. This used to be done around a campfire before there were any written words. No rules, just stories told by one person to others. What an idea.

Lyn Perry April 23, 2013 at 6:29 PM

I dunno. Seems the motivation can be the same regardless of the strategy – validation. The difference is that trad-pubbers seek it via one person (an agent or editor) and self-pubbers seek validation from the masses. Personally, I’d hate to depend on the opinion of one so-called expert when I can toss my story into the new slush pile (Kindle store) and find readers directly. But heh, vive la différence!

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