The first two books I had a hand in were self-published. I edited two small anthologies, What on Earth (1992) and Electroplasm (1993), which contained stories and poems from the writers’ group I belonged to in Dunedin – one of the writing groups to which there’s a dedication in the front of Transported. Dan McCarthy designed and printed them, and we sold a decent number of copies of each – you can find them in some New Zealand libraries, and I still have a few copies of Electroplasm if anyone would like one.
My next three books, Boat People (poetry), Extreme Weather Events (short stories) and All Blacks’ Kitchen Gardens (poetry), were published by Wellington small press publisher HeadworX – I say “small”, but HeadworX publishes at least four books per year. My fantasy novel Anarya’s Secret was published by RedBrick, a New Zealand games publisher, who publish the hardback and softback editions of their books via Lulu.com, which is a big self-publishing firm. And my short story collection Transported was published earlier this year by Vintage, an imprint of Random House New Zealand, a large New Zealand publisher.
So I’ve had experience with self-publishing, small press publishing, and large press publishing. The latter two haven’t changed a lot since the early 1990s, but self-publishing certainly has. It used to be all about getting down and dirty and producing the book yourself, then selling it off to friends, family, and through the occasional bookshop that was willing to take a few copies on a sale-or-return basis.
Now there are companies that specialise in helping authors to self-publish, including the New Zealand-based BookHabit (which specialises in e-books) and PublishMe. PublishMe puts the pitch of the new self-publishers concisely:
The world of publishing is changing fast. Everyone is feeling it, from the authors through to the book stores. The age of Internet publishing has arrived and is redefining how written information is shared. Whilst such change is creating frustration and uncertainty it is also creating opportunities that have never been available so clearly before. One of these is the rise in the power of the author to become his or her own publisher.
That is the fundamental advantage that self-publishing offers to authors: there’s no gatekeeper standing in the way. If you want your book to be published, it can be, without having to jump through the hurdles of acceptance by a traditional publishing company. And you no longer have to do all the scut work yourself: for a fee or a percentage, the self-publishing company will do it for you. They will even put you in touch with freelance editors, proofreaders and so forth. These roles are vital to ensure the quality of a book, but it’s no longer only traditional publishing companies that can provide them (though, in my experience, publishing companies’ editors do an excellent job).
Yet there is still one major hurdle to be surmounted, and I am not sure that self-publishing has cracked it. If you want people to buy your books (and some people are happy to offer them for free or a donation), then they have to be able to find out about them, and find them.
Traditional publishers have built up a sizeable infrastructure devoted to precisely this – a system involving advance review copies, promotional material, national and/or international distribution networks, and representatives who promote your book to bookshops. Despite claims that Amazon has revolutionised book publishing (note: article will open after an ad, which can be skipped), the traditional publishing industry makes a strong case that their approach still results in a better income for writers.
I have no ideological objection to self-publishing. But I am yet to be convinced that, except in rare “breakout” cases, it can reliably offer as much in the way of distribution, publicity, sales, and income for the writer as traditional publishing can.
Nevertheless, self-publishing has come a long way towards closing the gap on traditional publishing since the 1990s. In five or ten years’ time, the current arguments against self-publishing may no longer apply.
What do you think?