Why Self-Publishing Has Such a Bad Reputation

One of the biggest hurdles authors of “small market” books have to overcome is the dismal reputation of vanity presses and self-publishing. The literary standards are quite low. In fact, in some cases, they are non-existent-shell out the money and, voila, your book is in print!

The problem now, however, is that mainstream and trade presses won’t even look at books without the potential to sell significantly more than 10,000 copies (see here, here, and here) even though they can be financially viable projects with press runs of less than 1,000 copies and, under the right circumstances, even 500 copies. (In fact, it’s quite common for academic presses to profitably publsh books with press runs of 250 or less, but the price is really high.)

But, the truth is that lots of books coming out of subsidy and self-publishing houses are really bad. Not just in the literary sense. They violate fundamental rules of grammar and organization!

Irene Watson, the publisher and editor of Readerviews.com, one of her two on-line book review sites, has a nice summary of the problem in a post over at Blogging Authors (July 3, 2011):

And, I can’t help but wholeheartedly agree with Ms. Langer except the fact that I would say only 20% shouldn’t have published at all; that is, from what passes over my desk and often straight into the recycle bin.  Those don’t make the grade of being listed for review.  Many books aren’t even worth donating to the library or charity.  Yes…really, they are that bad. My percentage is probably less because Tattered Cover [Langer’s book store] gets more authors sending books in for consideration because the ultimate dream is to get the book into a bookstore.  Many authors don’t even know there is such a thing as a review, let alone how to find a reviewer. Yes…really.

 Norm Goldman from BookPleasures.com, when asked how many books he rejects upfront, claims that about 10% are not readable.  He also says “Personally, I chuck the book aside if after the first 50 pages the book is a disaster, and this includes books received as part of my Priority Review Service.”  I asked Ellen Feld of FeatheredQuill.com the same question and she said “Outright reject?  Not many, I’d say less than 5%.  However, about 40% of self-pub (slightly higher for subsidy – maybe 50/60% and guessing this is because the author assumes the subsidy is taking care of it) have some editorial problems that Joe Buying Public would find annoying.  We mention these problems in our reviews but don’t outright reject the book – the quality isn’t so bad as to demand rejection.”

The only way authors of books for small markets will be successful is if they produce high-quality products, professionally edited, and marketed aggressively. We don’t have the advantages of the “big boys” distribution networks; we have to reinvent the wheel. We need to also keep in mind that one of the obstacles we face is overcoming the terrible stuff coming out of the same presses we use for our high-quality work.

Author: SR Staley
SR Staley has one more than 11 literary awards for his fiction and nonfiction writing. He is on the full-time faculty of the College and Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University as well as a film critic and research fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California. His award-winning Pirate of Panther Bay series (syppublishing.com) has won awards in historical fiction, mainstream & literary fiction, young adult fiction, and reached the finals in women's fiction. His most recent book is "The Beatles and Economics: Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and the Making of a Cultural Revolution" due out in April 2020 (Routledge).