The rise of self-publishing

January 29, 2009

Posted by Nick Sarno


This article on the rising popularity of self-publishing was posted yesterday in The New York Times and, for some reason, it just hasn’t been sitting right. I’ve been trying to figure out why, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.


First of all, I absolutely respect the self-publisher. Literature is not science, and being published by a major publishing house does not mean one’s work has been reviewed and accepted by peers. It means it was read by an agent’s intern (grad student), an agent (business person), an intern at a publishing house (grad student), and a reader at the publishing house, before being passed along to other business people. Which isn’t to say that these grad students and readers and business people are not intelligent people. It’s only to say that they are not literary critics, they’re not writers, and they probably know less about the craft of writing than many of the authors whose work they are reading. That’s because it isn’t their job to know writing. Their job is to know what sells. And sellable writing and good writing are two different things. 


Self-publishing means doing away with that whole system, and that takes a certain amount of guts. Some of the greatest modernist works were self-published: A Season in Hell was self-published, Leaves of Grass was self-published and, for god’s sake, Ulysses was self-published. If these authors did not believe in themselves and their abilities, the world would have missed out. 


I suppose the bad taste in my mouth has something to do with the idea of self-publishing as a business, rather than as a DIY experience. Writing is difficult, but there is some joy in it, too. And there is joy in making books, binding them yourself, making your own covers or working with friends who will make your covers for you. We’re humans: we find joy in making things. Unfortunately, the POD publishers seem to have taken all of that joy away. They have simply replaced one assembly line with another.


Much of what I’m feeling, however, arrives from the comments to the article. Of the 150 comments, I’d say at least 120 were posted by self-published authors. And many of those were posted simply to advertise their book. Very little discussion on art, or craft, or books in general. Just more self-promotion. I know it is a necessary evil, but it shouldn’t be the bottom line.


What I’d suggest is this: write a book. It doesn’t have to be literature–it could be a self-help book, or a cookbook, or a pet-care book. It could be anything: just work hard at it and make it good. Get a friend to edit it, or hire someone to edit it. Design your cover, or have a friend design your cover, or pay someone to design your cover. Then, instead of paying a vanity press to do the work for you, begin your own publishing house. Begin your own publishing house and be proud of it. Print your friend’s books too and do the work, and feel good about it. Try to sell your book, not just because you have it and because you can, but because you truly believe people will benefit by it. Try to sell your book, but don’t sell yourself. There is a difference.


One Response to “The rise of self-publishing”

  1. Roc Says:

    Well said – thanks for the inspiration and write on.

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