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Self-Publishing Stigma: Let’s End It!

My fellow indies, we have a problem.

Before I climb atop my trusty soap box to expound on my feelings about this problem, I need to make something really clear.

Like other indies, I’m not a fan of self-published authors who walk around with a chip on their shoulders, constantly bemoaning the “gatekeepers” and other fictitious publishing trolls who exist solely to crush authors’ dreams for sport.

Okay, I lied, Sharktopus is TOTALLY real and you should NEVER go in the ocean EVER.

Those characters don’t exist in real life, and using them as an excuse to not push on with our careers is as pointless as citing Sharktopus as a reason for not going into the ocean.

But real people do exist who are still clinging (foolishly and ignorantly) to the stereotypes and stigmas of self-publishing. As such, they are missing out on some great authors and novels, which in turn does a disservice to their clients and readers.

It’s about time they stopped.

Recently, while researching my marketing plans for the fall, I discovered a Southern Fiction review magazine seeking up-and-coming authors and books to review for their publication. Scanning over the submission requirements I was ticking them off one by one, growing more excited at the possibility of submitting my book for review, when I reached the final line on the page:

While we applaud the efforts of all writers, we do not consider self-published works for review.


It’s 2012. We’re going on our fourth straight year with more self-pub titles in the market than traditionally published titles. And while I completely acknowledge that not every indie book is a gem, trad publishing has put out more than a few floaters as well. *ahemfiftyshadesahem*

Last year I got the chance to see one of Southern Fiction’s living gods, Pat Conroy, at a speaking engagement in St. Augustine. He told the story of his first book, The Boo, and how he had to pay a local printer to publish the book because he couldn’t get the support of an agent or publisher in New York.

In other words, he self-published.

And you know what? He sold every copy and made back every cent he paid to print the book.

But this review magazine would have passed on reading it, without knowing anything about it other than the fact that it was self-published.

Two specific falsehoods make up this ignorant stance.

photo by CarbonNYC

1. Self-publishing is worse than having a small, local publisher.

The last book reviewed by this particular magazine was backed by a very small, regional publisher.

It had what most people would have pegged as a self-pub cover (read: ugly) and exactly one review on Amazon. It might have been a great book (it received a rave review from the publication), but why did it deserve consideration above that of any indie book?

The implication is that we should all use a regional publisher for our books instead of self-publishing, which means we would still have to do all of our own marketing efforts but share our cut with the publisher of record.

I can’t say that I’ve tried to get on with a small publisher, but I have to believe there is a relatively low barrier to entry. Maybe some indie books would get weeded out, but I think more than a few of us would be able to secure the backing of a small publisher if we really wanted to, but other than the slight change in perception, it would not be an advantage to our upstart businesses.

2. Indie authors don’t work hard to create a good product.

If the last two years with Duolit have taught me anything, it’s that successful indie authors work their butts off. Balancing jobs, families, and loads of other responsibilities, they still manage to be savvy business owners who generate and sell a quality product for profit.

Self-published authors who are truly committed to making a career of their work should not be treated any differently than any other entrepreneur.

If you opened a restaurant in your town, would the local paper refuse to review it because you were a single owner without the backing of a franchise name? Would they let you join the Chamber of Commerce? Would they treat you any differently because you were the soul source of money and elbow grease? Would they care if you didn’t have a financial backer?

It’s not about me or that publication – it’s so much bigger than that.

SO much bigger.

We all know what’s going on out there.

We know that some great authors are jump starting their careers in self-pub with creative ideas, great talent and hard work. We know that the industry is bending in our direction, especially as more authors realize that they have more control doing it themselves versus going with any publisher, big or small.

When will everyone else realize it?

Look, if an indie author submits a book for review and gets turned down because the target audience doesn’t match with the reviewer’s readers, or the book doesn’t have enough independent reader reviews to warrant media attention, or any other reason that might also result in the rejection of a traditionally published book, I can live with that.

But to completely disqualify every book created by an indie author is a mistake.

What can we do about it?

Don’t get me wrong – we will keep pushing on and we will find a way around those kind of roadblocks because that’s just how we indies roll. And we will do so with a smile on our faces, heads held high, because one person does not represent the industry just like one indie author does not represent for the rest of us.

Still, I would love to hear some ideas from you guys for how we can create a positive campaign encouraging reviewers, interviewers and retailers to at least consider work from self-published authors.

It’s not about the reviewers themselves, it’s about connecting with our readers. Their readers could be waiting for a book like one of ours to come along, so how can we get it to them?

I’m anxiously awaiting your responses!

  • Janice Lane Palko

    Great post. Love Pat Conroy. He’s one of those writers that when I’m reading his work, I often stop and think, “Wow, I wish I had written that!” Gives me great hope!



    • I coach authors how to get on TV and I can tell you there is no stigma there. TV producers want experts not authors. They don’t care who published your book, they want you to be an interesting expert on a topic their audience is interested in. Self-published authors can go to the bank after a TV appearance and not be concerned about any stigma. OK, thanks, Edward Smith.

    • Me, too Janice!! I was delighted to hear him speak because his regular voice matches his writing voice perfectly, now I can hear him narrating every book of his I read.

  • Thanks for this excellent analysis. The great thing about
    self-publishing is that anyone can do it. And the problem is that anyone can do
    it. There’s a lot of great work out there—and indie authors are clearly a
    hard-working bunch. But until everyone who self-publishes demands the highest
    standards from themselves, the stigma will remain.

    Among other things, the indie author needs a good book
    design and a professional editor. One book designer I know put it very well
    when he said that, sitting side by side on the shelf at Barnes and Noble, the
    self-published book should be indistinguishable from a book from a major
    publisher. That’s what I’m shooting for. I hope others agree.

    • Lol on the best and worst part of self-pub — that’s SO true. We absolutely do need to hold ourselves to a higher standard and you know Toni and I can’t preach enough about the importance of editors and great design! :-)

    • Glad we’re clear on that, Shannon. :) BTW this is one of my
      favorite blogs—you guys rule.

    • *blush* Thanks Steven! And thanks for the tweet on this too! YOU rock! :-)

  • I agree with Steven. I don’t think that self-publishing is as much of a stigma anymore though there are some people who will always make comments about it. When reviewers say they won’t accept self-published works, I think it’s more just a protection thing. Because there are so many self-published works out there, reviewers can get swamped and I’m sure they’re swamped already.

    • You and Steven are absolutely right, I’m not sure “stigma” was the best word for me to use. It’s more like a bias, I guess. I understand what you mean about the reviewers trying to prevent themselves from being overwhelmed with entries, but I think there might be better ways for them to thin out their entries than just eliminating all self-pub books. Having a specific genre of focus, requirements on length and previous media exposure, etc. might be better options for narrowing the field a bit.

  • YES! Finally, someone speaks up for indies! Most indies work so hard to get their book written, published, and marketed. It’s not fair at all that this stigma still exists. Especially if so many readers have clearly not had a problem with it. Look at the success of some of those books on Amazon.

    Also, indies have to start working before their book is even out. Building their platform and all. Then keep doing that after the book is out while writing the next book and the next and the next. With no help.

    I’m not sure what can be done to fix this since those people are making the contests and review magazines and websites. Technically, it’s their rules. I think the change is going to have to be caused by the readers since they’re the ones that keep those people in business. How can we get the readers to speak up? Not to mention be aware of the issue?

    • I think you might be on to something Yesenia — if readers want indie books, the reviewers and contest hosts who cater to them will change their ways. Maybe we need to think about a self-pub awareness campaign of some sort, targeting readers who might be hesitant to try and indie book. Keep the great ideas coming! :-)

  • Lori

    My idea/suggestion is this; after an indie author builds a website with three sample chapters available and several third party reviews (meaning not family and friends)–go local. Make your book physically available at an Indie bookstore or cafe etc. in your area and then contact newspapers and magazines to announce the location. Since neither Amazon or Barnes & Noble showcase unknown authors – it is important to have a presence beyond the internet. Blogs are great to spread the word–to be sure–but having a book at one’s fingertips to purchase and then have sitting on a desk or end table as a constant reminder is another great way to get the word out.

    • Lori I think this is a GREAT idea! Fans you connect with locally can be some of the best (a good start to your crazy dedicated fan base). I would recommend that authors should connect not only with small bookstores but gift shops, bed and breakfasts, and libraries. There are so many possibilities!

  • I’ve recently started contacting reviewers. I’ve probably looked at over 200, contacted over 60, and have another 50 or still to message. The guidelines have been varied, but I’ve come across quite a few (many of which look great) that say no self published authors.

    I have sympathy. I assume they have read self published books but probably been burned. Authors who don’t get it edited, rush it out, and basically give self publishing the tainted image it has.

    A publishing house gives the author a standard. Without this the reviewer is taking a chance. So I sympathise, but it doesn’t make it any less annoying (as someone spending money on editing, reading hour after hour on publishing, and generally working my butt off to make it the best I can)

    I feel self publishers need a standard creating. Something that shows people: this book has gone through the same turmoil as a published house book.

    What this is I have no idea, but I think it will happen soon

    Matthew (Turndog Millionaire)

    • Standards are definitely a big part of the issue. You’re right, I’m sure some of the people who don’t accept indies have had bad experiences, but I hope they will not ruin their taste for all self-pub authors. I guess it wouldn’t be enough for authors just to self-report that they had indeed used an editor, professional designer, etc. because some people would inevitably fib about that. Too bad there’s not a consortium of sorts that could vet indie books and give them a stamp of approval, maybe that’s something to think about for the future. As always, thanks for your stellar insight Matthew!

  • Self publishing will remain a stigma as long as some self
    publishers continue to view it only as a negative path one takes when
    traditional publishers will not accept your work. My company, Positive Imaging,
    LLC, publishes the books I write and
    also those of writers who pay to have their books published. These are self
    publishers who simply don’t have the skills or the time to publish their books.
    Since I never ask, I don’t normally know if these writers have tried to have
    their books accepted by traditional publishers.

    Recently I published a book for
    a writer who had tried and failed to get published. He paid me to publish his
    book and while he was proud of it, his view of self publishing remains negative
    even though he is a self published author.

    I have explained how self publishing is growing and all the
    great books that are now self published. I’ve told him how, if he makes a real
    effort to market his book, his profit potential is much higher because
    traditional publishers seldom do much marketing for unknown writers. None of it
    helps. It seems that acceptance by a traditional (real) publisher is critical to
    him. As long as this thinking prevails, even among self publishers, the stigma will also.


    • This is an EXCELLENT point Bill. It has to start with our perception — self-pub can’t just be the option you settle for because you couldn’t get a traditional deal, it has to be the path you choose because you honestly feel it’s the best way to make a living as a writer (and for all the other wonderful reasons self-pub is a great means of having a writing career).

      I think in the case of your client, the only thing that might have gotten through to him would have been someone who did traditionally publish and chose to switch to self-publishing for all the advantages it provides authors. There are a few of those stories out there and I think we will see more and more of them. If those authors are vocal enough about the reasons they chose to self-publish when they had the option not to, people will finally start to understand that it is a choice, not a last resort.

  • KH

    Thanks for a great article. I agree that there is still some stigma out there that self-published books can’t possibly have the same level of quality. And that’s understandable when you look at some of the free and 99 cent titles full of typos and just plain bad writing. But I would argue that there are many more really good self-pubbed titles. In my quest to get reviews, I have come up against the ‘no self-published titles’ rule, but I just moved on. There are reviewers out there who are at least willing to consider a book based on your query alone. It’s just a matter of perserverence. My mantra since I started this journey has been “keep moving forward” and it has helped immeasurably with my outlook.

    • That’s the BEST mantra for an indie author! When you encounter an obstacle on one path, you just have to find another way to go, right? You’re right that we are often judged by the bad apples, but I hope the tide will start to turn on that and let the good apples set the tone or at least bring it back to an even slate. Thanks for your thoughts KH!

  • I think we need to just keep on, keepin’ on. We’re obviously making big enough waves in the industry that traditional publishers like Penguin are now buying self-publishing companies. To me, that speaks volumes. We have to just keep doing what we’re doing, holding ourselves to the highest of standards, and continue to inspire other indie authors to be THEIR very best as well.

    Another thing that I think is great is the fact that companies like Createspace now allow indie authors to purchase the rights to their own custom universal ISBN and print under their own imprint. I was so thrilled to start my own imprint, Passionista Publishing, to publish all my own work. We’re all entrepreneurs, so putting our work out there under our own business is huge. We need to embrace this dynamic little industry and continue to educate ourselves on all the wonderful tools out there for us!

    I love everything about this post!

    • Thanks Cara! I totally agree — Penguin’s purchase of Author Solutions said a lot about the direction the industry is headed, I guess I’m just impatient and want things to unfold a little faster! :-)

      That is really great that CreateSpace allows authors to add their own ISBNs and imprints, I didn’t know they offered that now. It does give authors a way to make things more of a business, give themselves a real well rounded brand. Awesome! We shall indeed keep on keepin’ on!

  • I launched Gunshot Glitter yesterday, HUGE day for me. *HUGE* and I knew this post was coming, as it was the one I was going to pen, lol – but you’ve summed it up beautifully! And I’ve already started to see the issue manifest and had a good ruck about this on the Gav Reads thread!
    I have bust a gut with my novel and it angers me hugely to have someone block my efforts because they’ve assumed they’re sub-standard. That to me is literary fascism, it’s discrimination on a mass scale. No different to someone telling me a job is gone because they’ve spotted I’m Asian.
    But I can see why it’s happened, SP writers need to pull their socks up. It’s true. I would personally, as a critic, set up SP submission guidelines to counter the issue. I would demand a well-written press release for the novel and a cover image shot. Not supplied – delete the submission. If they look shlocky, you are within your rights to ditch it. We have to reach a middle ground. If a SP writer cannot do what a orthodox writer can, they need to work harder. That should be a start at sorting the wheat from the chaff. Love your site! Sorry I’ve not been around much – blame Gunshot Glitter, but there you go, out there giving it my all! x x

    • Congrats on Gunshot Glitter!!! That’s awesome. Cheers to you on your big publication and no worries about not stopping by for a while — we’re always here whenever you need us :-)

      I love the term literary fascism, and it definitely applies here. Your idea to have strict submission guidelines is perfect. Just like lots of websites have specific guest post guidelines posted on their sites, these places could give a list of requirements for indies to even be considered. If your submission doesn’t meet those requirements up front, you’re getting tossed and the person isn’t even going to take the time to write you back.

      I don’t think it would add that much time to a reviewer’s schedule and it would open them up to finding some great new books. Great idea, Yasmin! Thanks for sharing :-)

  • AJ

    Everyone has a story, but that doesn’t mean everyone can write it well. As more writers get over the idea that their work doesn’t need the attention of a good editor and avail themselves of the services of the best editors they can find, the stigma of self-publishing will diminish. The problem with self-publishing is the authors who choose that route without a well-written book to publish.

    • That’s very true AJ. That seems to be a trend here, everyone agrees that indies MUST create a good, polished product. We need to take pride in our work and invest as much money as we do time. It’s worth it and WE are worth it!

  • About your first point: Yes! Absolutely anyone can call themselves a publisher, can attempt to publish your book. They may or may not actually have the skills to get it in front of more people than you can and they will take part of your profits.

    I am a small publisher and the authors I take on are ones who are absolutely not interested in learning to do the social marketing, the formatting, the uploading, etc. They look to me to do that and I’m very happy to. I love it!

    But if you know how to do that (or how to learn) and you enjoy it, you will very likely be able to reach nearly as many people as the publisher could and keep more of the profit. Depends on how hands-on you want to be, but the readers here I’m sure are hands-on and capable of doing anything a small publisher can do!

    • Thanks Ruth, that’s a great way to put it! We do need small publishers, they provide great services for authors who don’t have the time/know-how/desire to do the social media, design, etc. But whether they self-publish or use a small publisher, the quality of the product should be the same and should be looked at the same (provided that we indies hold ourselves to high standards!).

    • Definitely! It’s ridiculous to be more open to a book published by a tiny publisher than one put out by an individual who has worked hard.

  • What is self publishing anyways? I wanted my own ISBN numbers so I call myself a publisher and got my 100 ISBN’s just like that. Am I still self publishing or am I publishing through a small (read microscopic lol!) publisher that just happens to be me?!

    Things change all on their own sometimes (ask the board at Kodak!). If a book is good and it gets some half decent marketing I don’t think anyone cares where it comes from, at least I don’t. I bet half the public either don’t know or don’t care what self publishing is either.

    A good read is a good read. Exiting though isn’t it :-)

    • All great points Ian! There’s still a publisher of record, right? Who cares who that publisher is? How much does the average reader care about any publisher? I bet the vast majority of readers couldn’t even tell you who published Harry Potter, Twilight or Hunger Games. As long as indie authors keep working hard to put themselves out there, things will keep moving forward. Thanks :-)

  • i thuroughly agree. part of the problem is that there a lot of bad books out there, both indie and the 6 sisters. but one bad indie makes all indies looks bad, but a marketful of trads that stink leaves no taint on standard publishers. hello, dan brown. i have felt for a while that indies need standards. the problem is i just don’t know how it could be done. i’m having the same review issues and it makes me sad

    • I know, it’s not right that traditional publishing can turn out some bad apples without tainting the whole cart, but people still judge all indies by one spoiled fruit. We definitely need some standards but all of us also have to agree to adhere to them. Glad to know you’re in the same boat, but as Cara said above, we just have to keep on keepin’ on! :-) Thanks Neal.

  • *applauds*
    Excellent post (as usual), and I wholeheartedly agree.

    I think this will take a while until everybody gets it. Until then, lets keep putting out quality works, as that’s what counts in the end, and what’s certainly the only surefire way to convince the doubters and silence naysayers!

    • *bows* Thank you! :-) I think you’re right, this will probably resolve itself over time and the faster we all get on board with upping our own standards, the faster we will reach that point.