I was twenty, a naïve college student, when I decided that my writing ought to have an audience. After all, I was a writer, or wanted to be one at the very least. So I did what most aspirational writers did – I submitted a few stories and poems to magazines and got stoic rejections back, one after the other. I wept and wallowed with a dramatic lack of self-worth only the early 20s can render.
Then one day I saw a friendly email from a poetry publisher. They liked my poetry and they would publish them in an anthology. All my friends and family could have a copy too, and for just $ 40 I could get 10 copies and possibly convince other friends to buy it as well.
Sounded dandy to me. This was my first introduction to the vanity press – basically the cheap-cigarette-smoking version of legitimate publishing. These publishers target desperate or wannabe writers and tell them that their stuff can get published. All they have to do is pay for their copies, and voilà! you are a published author.
I’m not going to be a wet towel and totally hate on self-publishing, but I am going to heavily critique a nation that has lost its appreciation for good writing and the suffering that goes with it. I am going to talk about a nation that has too many talking heads and people who think that what they have to say (never mind their lack of craft, hard work, or tragic personal reading habits) should be published.
Here is the truth. Well, at least my version of the truth. Three points about self-publishing you should consider as a reader, writer, or a well-wisher of the nation’s steady intellectual growth.
The vanity press is raging and disguised as a well-wisher
The self-publishing venture Partridge Publishing – whose parent company Author Solutions was owned for some time by Penguin Random House being sold to Najafi Companies – has a seductive question: “Are you an Indian writer?”. That’s the cue to start panting and salivating. Yes, yes, I am a writer, and goddamn it, I want to be published.
Partridge isn’t the only one in the game, of course. There are a number of others offering the same services. For a fee, they will set you up with you very own Man Friday to help you edit, get your book published, and create the most annoying FB posts to promote it as well. You too can be an author.
So what’s wrong with this? Well for starters, it invites anyone willing to shell out cash to get published. That means the number of books goes up, and those who can afford to, market their books up too.
This also means that traditional publishers (you know, where they actually like your work enough to publish it and give you the money?) are less likely to be heard in the noise, and some very decent writing gets lost in the arena of self-published books.
This does not mean all self-published books are terrible, but a lot of them are. I promise. The self-publishing market has been alive in the West for a long time. Check some of these bizarre publications of the past out. These poor authors just had to get their name out there, providing lots of fun for Amazon reviewers.
A few self-published works do exceptionally well, the operative word being “few”
The Guardian reports that ‘”the average amount earned by DIY authors last year was just $10,000 (£6,375) – and half made less than $500.” Of course the game-changers are people like EL James who bagged over $2.5 million in sales with her originally self-published 50 Shades series.
Sometimes an emotionally compelling story like Still Alice, by Lisa Genova, gets major fame. Not only was it a bestseller, but it also got made into a big budget Hollywood movie. There are some fantasy and genre fiction that becomes mini-cult favorites too, but, like other genre work (published by traditional publishers) they don’t make the mainstream.
If you haven’t heard of many other self-published books, now you know why. But they’re out there, in huge numbers.
As a self-published author, you’re a digital door-to-door salesman
After the initial high of getting a book published by paying for it, you are all on your own. Your writing, your story, and most of all your marketing are all your responsibility. Your book virtually becomes another Bangalore start-up – can you sell it to early adopters?
Either you didn’t want to go through the process of getting publishers to believe in your work enough to print and distribute it by themselves. Or you believe your work is truly good but it’s just too hard to get this kind of literature accepted by mainstream publishers.
Either way, there’s a very good chance your book will turn out poorly edited, with an unprofessional cover and mediocre production. And you will end up using all your social media time to get people to buy it, pretty please?
There is an option though. As primarily a short story writer, I personally know how hard it is to get a collection published as a first-time author. Even first novels have a much greater chance of being accepted by publishers. I waited for years, sent my stories to magazines and got rejections. It took almost a decade of trying before I got a small press in Singapore to believe enough in my collection to get it published.
I know I sound self-righteous, but I do see the value of holding out, honing your craft, and building an audience over the years. That is, if you really want to be a writer and aren’t looking for quick author stardom.
Thousands of books will be self- published this year. Most will sink into oblivion. This is not to say that traditional publishing provides the luxury of added success, many publishers are heartbroken by a good book that simply could not do well in the market.
If there is any point to take home from this, it is this and this alone: traditional publishing allows you to start a long journey, of understanding your own work in the context of the larger world. It builds patience and reason. It lets you understand the process of rejection and how that could possibly make you a better writer.
To write is a brave act, whether you self-publish or not. But to take your writing seriously, you must believe it has purpose and that it has a compelling story to tell. Good writing will get an audience.
Self-publishing offers a chance at this, but only a chance. And a shortcut can quickly lead you into a blind alley.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that Partridge Publishing is owned by Penguin Random House. Penguin Random House has sold Author Solutions, the parent company of Partridge Publishing, to Najafi Companies, USA.