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How I Got Over the “Stigma” of Self-Publishing

How I got over the stigma of self-publishing

Six Books by lusi on

Over the last few years there’s been an explosion in self-publishing, with the advent of not just the e-reader, but accessible technology that makes publishing an e-book easy, low- or no-cost, and potentially very lucrative. And it’s not just e-books, either. Gone are the days of vanity presses where an author who couldn’t get published the traditional way would have no other option but to pay thousands of dollars to buy a print run of their book and then be on their own for selling all of those copies boxed up out in the garage. Print-on-demand web sites like CreateSpace and Lulu have made print publishing as accessible as e-publishing.

And yet, perhaps because it is so accessible that literally anyone can do it, and despite the fact that more and more professional, traditionally published authors are turning to self-publishing as a means of taking charge of their careers, there’s still a sense of snobbery toward self-publishing that prevents a lot of aspiring authors from going that route. It’s this idea that being self-published isn’t really being published; it doesn’t really count without the blessing of an agent and a major New York publisher. And there’s this pervasive fear that self-publishing will be seen as “giving up” and you’ll be looked down on by your peers and by the writing and publishing industry as a whole, and you’ll give up your chances for good of being traditionally published. That fear pervades even as one self-published author after another is making headlines by getting major book deals from the major publishing companies because of their self-published books.

I know because I had to get over this fear and sense of snobbery myself, and I still see it all the time among my aspiring author friends. I would look at self-published authors who were doing well and think, “That’s great for them, but I won’t feel like a real author if I don’t get traditionally published.” Obviously, I’ve gotten past this line of thinking. So what changed?

For one thing, I watched my fellow indie author David Michael, who I know locally from NaNoWriMo meet-ups, as he began and grew his self-publishing career. His books looked professional, he was getting excellent reviews and making money, nobody appeared to be looking down on him for being self-published, and most importantly, he seemed like he was having a blast. I saw him transform from a wannabe author like me into a professional career novelist, and it was awesome.

That inspired me to give self-publishing a little more consideration, and I started doing the math. I could go the traditional route with my newest novel and send out agent queries. If I was lucky, I would hear back from one or two agents in three to six months who asked to read my novel. If I was really lucky, I’d hear back another six months after that from one of them wanting to represent my book. And if I was exceptionally blessed, I would hear back in another six months to a year that they’ve found a publisher for my book who wanted to pay me a $5,000 advance (yes, that’s the average size of advances for new authors these days; the giant, six- or seven-figure advances you hear about in the news make headlines because they’re so rare that it makes them newsworthy when they happen). And then I just have to sit back and wait another two years or so for the official release date!

But as an aside, let’s say you’re one of the very, very lucky ones who scores a $100,000 advance. Divide that over the year (or several) that you spent writing and polishing the book, the additional year or two (or three) that it took to find an agent and a publisher, and the additional two years it takes the publisher to actually publish the book… and congratulations! You’ve now made the equivalent salary of an underpaid schoolteacher.

So I could go that route, or I could try this self-publishing thing. I could cut out the middle-man and take my stories directly to the readers—something musicians and other types of artists and creatives are expected to do, with no stigma attached—and I could have them out there, getting read and building a fan-base and making money. Not a lot of money, especially in the beginning, but percentage-wise, a lot more than I’d be making per book than if I had an agent and publisher both taking their cuts. And I would only need to sell about 2,300 books at $2.99 to make the equivalent of that $5,000 beginner’s advance. And I wouldn’t have to worry about having a limited print run and a short window of time to sell enough books to earn out that advance before they all got remaindered and taken off of the shelves, because virtual store shelves never run out of space and virtually published books never go out of print.

Taking all of that into consideration, it seemed like kind of a no-brainer, and yet I was still hesitant. What gave me the final push was an epiphany I had one day when I was looking at a paperback that my husband had just gotten from Amazon. I was looking to see who had published it, and I realized that it was a self-published POD book from Xlibris. This wasn’t obvious at first glance, and I was impressed with the quality of the book. I asked my husband if he realized the book was self-published, and he said that he hadn’t realized it—nor did he care. That knowledge made absolutely no difference whatsoever to his desire to read that book, and it wouldn’t have made any difference in his decision to buy it.

That’s when I realized that the self-publishing stigma is limited mainly to aspiring writers and to those whose livelihoods are threatened by the rise of self-published books—and even among that latter group, the stigma is waning as they begin to mine self-published authors for talent in order to stay afloat. Among the vast majority of the reading and book-buying public—the people who turn books into best-sellers—the stigma doesn’t exist. They simply don’t care where a book comes from, as long as it’s a good read. Oh, sure, there are the literary snobs who turn their noses up at self-published books, but these are generally the same people who also turn their noses up at genre and commercial fiction, and they are in the vast minority. The average citizen reader couldn’t give a rat’s poop whether the book they hold in their hands came from Simon and Schuster or from CreateSpace.

And that is when I realized that the stigma shouldn’t exist for me, either, and I decided to become a self-published author; and in terms of personal gratification and career satisfaction, it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.



  1. Lissa Clouser

    THANK YOU for writing this. I don’t look at self-published authors any different than I do traditionally published, nor do I think a book is any better or worse because it came from one category and not the other, but I give myself a very different critique (as we are so apt to do to ourselves). I’m still trying to overcome the “I won’t be a real author if…” stigma as I’m researching options to make the decision whether I want to publish my poetry anthologies myself or try to go through a small press. I’m still at least a year out from being ready to publish, so I have time to mull it over, but I’m really starting to lean toward self-publishing. It’s interesting the stigmas we put on things and how difficult it can be to overcome. But this post from you just gave me a big push to considering self-publishing even more seriously. Thank you for the insight!

    • Jean

      Oh, I’m so glad it helped. I confess, you were part of the audience I had in mind when I wrote it. Of course, there are many roads to publishing these days, and all of them are valid, and no one way is right for everybody. I just hate to see young writers get locked into thinking that the traditional route is the ONLY route that’s valid.

  2. Rebekah Loper

    I’m glad that you’ve found a system that is working well for you! For me, I almost think that self-publishing is a lot more work than traditional publishing, because you either have to train yourself to be really good at editing your own stuff, and you have to know the ins and outs of how to format, etc.

    For me, being as un-experienced as I am (not that I’m a bad writer, there’s just a lot that I don’t know yet), I don’t want to be winging it completely on my own. I have always dreamed of being traditionally published, and while it’s nice to know that there is a back-up if I don’t ever make it that far, I don’t feel that I know enough about editing and marketing to do all of that on my own. I want someone else to do it for me, without it having to come directly out of my own pocket before I make a profit.

    • Jean

      Thanks, Rebekah. Like I said to Lissa, there are many roads to getting published, and no one road is right for everybody. You have to forge your own path and do what’s right for you and your career. I just hate to see the fear that’s prevalent among so many young writers that self-publishing might ruin their careers. The days when having a self-published book might close doors instead of opening them are long gone, and I don’t think they’re coming back.

  3. Michelle

    Very nice post! We actually heard a lot about how the industry is evolving at the OCW conference last year, and how the popularity of ebooks and ereaders are helping to change the game.

    My issue with self-publishing, initially, stemmed from some experiences I had back in high school/college. Books I read that were self-published or published by small presses weren’t of the same quality as books published by traditional publishers. The paper felt different, the typesetting would be off, the covers didn’t look as good, and there would be far more typos and grammatical errors.

    However, with the rise of ebooks, half of those problems (the paper and the formatting) no longer apply. Plus, ereaders allow you to shop for anything anywhere. That’s one of the reasons I really, really love my Kindle — I’ve gotten a chance to read a larger variety of authors that I wouldn’t be able to find at Barnes & Noble.

    For myself, if I go the self-pub route, it will only be when I can afford a professional editor to look over the story and help me make the book as good as it can be. That’s just a personal thing; I detest the thought of putting something out there for purchase that isn’t as absolutely spotless as I can make it.

    I would like to hear more about your adventures with self-publishing. What makes it so fulfilling for you, personally? Would you ever want to go the traditional route with a future book? What are the pros and cons that you’ve seen? Do you have any advice for writers who might be considering it?

    • Jean

      Thanks for commenting, Michelle. You’ve raised a lot of good questions, and if you don’t mind, I’ll answer them in a series of blog posts. You’ve given me a lot of food for thought.

      I initially shared your main issue with self-publishing, and I used to turn my nose up at the very idea of self-publishing because, to me, self-published was synonymous with sub-par quality and desperation. But times have changed, and my attitude finally caught up to the sea-change that’s been happening in the industry over the last year or so.

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