With the sudden proliferation of ebooks in the past decade, the doors have been opened wide to authors who wish to self-publish. Many who could never afford to have their book physically printed have been able to publish their books with minimal difficulty. Adding to the appeal of online self-publishing is the fact that most companies, such as Amazon and CreateSpace, offer the authors a much higher percentage of the royalties than traditional publishing companies.
There are, of course, success stories. The Martian started out as a series of posts on the author’s blog, which was later compiled into an ebook and released online. It was then picked up by a publishing company, and went on to inspire a big-budget movie that raked in over 500 million dollars in profits. Fifty Shades of Grey began life as Twilight fanfiction, until its writer changed the names, self-published it as an ebook, and was, again, later picked up by a mainstream company. While its reception was notably cooler (and, in my opinion, for good reason), it still pulled in a ridiculous amount of cash. The Inheritance Cycle began with Christopher Paolini’s parents creating their own publishing company to self-publish his book, before it was, yet again, picked up by a big-name mainstream publishing company. Its movie was, er, less lucrative, but nonetheless got made.
However, when it comes to my writing, I absolutely refuse to self-publish.
What I want to make absolutely clear at the outset is that this is not a simple case of garden-variety snobbery. I don’t consider myself above self-publishing, nor do I consider self-published works to be automatically bad. I may detest Fifty Shades of Grey, its sequels, and its movies with the burning intensity of an O-type blue supergiant, but I thoroughly enjoyed The Martian, both the book and the movie. Heck, did you guys know that The Joy of Cooking was originally self-published? My family and I make recipes out of that book all the time; it’s fantastic.
That said, there is a correlation between self-publishing and a noticeable lack of polishing. Self-published works often hit print without getting the attention of a professional editor. At best, the author gets beta readers and takes their suggestions to heart. At worst, the book is almost completely unedited, and tumbles forth into the world seething with errors.
In many cases, such books were largely unsalvageable even before you factored in the grammatical errors: hackneyed plots, aimless author tirades, etc. However, the examples of self-publishing that really make me sad are the ones that had potential. These are writers who have laid out an interesting plot with distinctive characters and a well-thought-out world, but lack the technical ability to bring it to life without a thousand grammatical errors along the way. With a bit of help from a professional editor and a good few rounds of rewriting, these books could be really good, and that’s what makes me sad.
Basically, this kind of book is the literary equivalent of a premature baby.
I actually happened upon one of these earlier this month. I had recently become acquainted with the YouTube channel Terrible Writing Advice, which I absolutely loved. I highly recommend it; the guy clearly knows his tropes, and it’s fun to watch him mercilessly mock overused characters, settings, and plot devices.
The guy who made the channel, J.P. Beaubien, self-published his book. Out of curiosity, I bought it. I had not been aware of the book’s self-published nature beforehand, but as soon as I opened up the Kindle edition and started reading, I could see it clearly as day.
Aeon Legion: Labyrinth is a book that I desperately want to love. It has interesting themes, a rather good plot, some nice Take Thats at overused tropes, female characters who are actually written as people rather than “x type female character,” and freaking Ancient Greece references everywhere. It hits all my soft spots dead-on! But it has not been sufficiently edited, and it shows.
I want to love this book, but I can’t, because every time I read it the grammatical errors jump out of the page and slap me in the face. One thing that particularly annoys me is Beaubien’s apparent aversion to hyphens, which results in such constructions as “clean shaven” rather than “clean-shaven,” and “pear shaped” rather than “pear-shaped.” I suppose this wouldn’t be such a problem for people who don’t have the same grammar hang-ups as I do, but the point here is that if this book had gone through the editing and rewriting process inherent in traditional publishing, these mistakes would not be there.
Ultimately, most of my reluctance to self-publish comes from the fact that I want my books to get all the professional polishing they need before releasing them to the reading public. I know that I’m a good writer. I’ve been told such by friends, family, teachers, and peers alike, and my history of high scores on tests of writing ability back all of them up. I scored 800 on the verbal and writing sections of the SAT, for Athena’s sake. But that does not give me license to let my book pass into the world unedited. If anything, it means that I should be even more cautious, because overconfidence can be truly fatal to one’s prospects for success.
Another reason I’d like to avoid self-publishing has to do with marketing. I am good at writing and coming up with ideas. I can spend hours in my room coming up with languages and sketching out minutely detailed maps of my fantasy nations. However, I am not good at marketing. My brief attempt at being a Let’s Player is proof enough of that; I never broke twenty subscribers. Publishing my book through a company would not only ensure that it gets professionally edited, but that it gets marketed by people who know what they’re doing. To me, that’s worth a chunk off the royalties.
If you’ve written a book and you want to self-publish it, I won’t stop you. I would, however, encourage you to think long and hard about whether it’s the best thing for your book. Sometimes, we really do need the company’s help.