I'm up at 3:50 in the morning; I hope I go back to sleep soon. But in the meantime, I'll write this blog post because I 1.) need to do better about blogging and 2.) two different people (one being fellow writer & friend BJ Thornton) asked me this question, although phrased differently: What is the role of self-publishing for the 21st-century writer. Okay, clearly neither question was so succinct as that, but that's my synopsis of their two queries. However, my answer is fairly succinct: a godsend. I say that because no longer are writers at the mercies of agents (even though I have a great one) or publishers (even though I'm affiliated with an awesome one), but DIY publishing is actually a great way for the writer to truly learn about the publishing process, something I don't think strictly traditionally published authors learn until deep in their careers, if at all.
Because you publish your books yourself, you understand and appreciate the costs it requires to put a book together--the editor, the proofreader, the cover art, the formatting, how to price the book, which format(s) to release the book, how to distribute the book, where to distribute the book, how to market the book. You are responsible for it all, either yourself exclusively or finding reliable people to provide the services. Little known fact is the majority of publishers hire freelance editors and proofreaders outside of the "editor" responsible for your project in the house. In that sense, "editor" is actually synonymous for "project manager" than anything else. This isn't a bad thing, because every book should have a champion, and that's what the editor is for the larger publishing houses. For electronic houses, "editor" more often used in its traditional definition than not, but that person is still the author's champion. When you self-published, the author is the book's champion and the editor is as-defined usually. Unfortunately, most self-published authors cannot afford the going rate of the average editor (3-5 cents/word) so they skimp on that level or do it themselves. I do my own editing, for one, and even with my professional experience as an editor/proofreader, it's always good to have an extra pair (or two) of eyes to look over one's work. Shoddy editing/proofreading is a convenient excuse for the industry not to take self-published authors seriously or think they have something worthwile to say (never mind I see many mistakes in traditionally published material...)
Which brings me to the "stigma" of self-publishing. Obviously, I think it's unfair; though not because I'm a self-published author myself. There's the general belief (although I think it's starting to change) that self-published authors are the authors who "can't hack it" in traditional publishing; they are the second/third/fourth tier of talent, relegated to self-publishing purgatory in favor of the ones with true talent. To that, I obviously say, "ha". First and foremost, publishing is a business; publishers will pass up truly well-crafted writing if they don't think there's a big enough market for it. the keywords here, then , are "money" and "big market". That's why many books on the shelves aren't War and Peace or Tale of Two Cities anymore. There's a reason why many books on the shelf are either "genre" or "commercial" fiction. If an author writes this fantastic story, but an agent/editor/publisher doesn't think it'll move thousands (if it's a big publisher) or high hundreds (if it's an small/e-publisher), then it's not going to publish it--no matter how well constructed and written the story is. Of course, there is the basic "nontalented" writer who is obvious to spot, but it's those great talent-small market authors who get caught in the quagmire of the slush pile. Most of the rejections I've gotten have had less to do with my writing talent (in fact, most give me kudos on that) but rather they cannot "see" the market for my work (that is a blog post for another day). Even I approached self-publishing more as a way to give me a boost into the traditional publishing world, even 'dismissing' the fact I was a "true" author because I'd self-published my book.
Almost four years later, I wish someone would tell me I wasn't a genuine author because I had the temerity to not wait for a publisher to tell me I was good enough. But it wasn't until I spoke to a colleague of mine (who'd had much success finding agents but less so finding publishing houses) that she wanted to know about the self-publishing track. I showed her my books, and she seemed pleasantly surprised by the quality, almost shocked. My spine straightened so much and I told her of course it's quality; I don' t know why one would think most authors would willingly put their names on crap. Of course, some do to make that quick (very overpriced) buck; but for those who are serious, we do our homework on the business. And as for myself, so many doors have opened for me because I opened the first one on my own terms, and I like my own terms. I know have more ammo and knowledge when I do talk to the more traditional authors. I'm not blinded and dazzled by the author contract--I can now ask "What can you do for me?" instead of lapping up what the publishers say I can do for them. There's a freedom in not needing the publisher, because you will be a stronger negotiator. You'll know what you're worth in terms of advances, royalties, which rights you need to retain for yourself, how long the publishers should be able to retain the rights to your blood, sweat, and tears. Publishers are genuinely just providing distribution channels--that's it. Unless you're a household name, you're not going to get those publicity and marketing blitzes you see for the JK Rowlings and the Nora Robertses and the Nicholas Sparkses. Unfortunately, many authors are lucky to get to midlist in their publishing houses, and I've spoken to so many traditionally published authors who want more information on DIY publishing because they have stories the publishers aren't interested in releasing but their fans are clamoring to read. The bottom line for the publisher, again, is money, not necessarily the readers. Self-publishing does give the author flexibility as to what his or her bottom line will be.
Self-publishing, to me, is another avenue the author can pursue to reach the most people he or she can. There are advantages and disadvantages to all publishing avenues; but as for me, I don't think there's a reason to bar oneself from any of them, and I'm personally glad I decided to give self-publishing a try.