Suspend Your Disbelief

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Self-publishing: A fad, or the next American Idol?

We’re delighted to present another blog post by our able editorial intern, Nicole Aber. Enjoy!

Idol 2010

With the proliferation of self-published books, especially in e-book format, the New York Times recently took a look at the pros and cons of the controversial route of getting one’s book to market. And since the practice of self-publishing has become so widespread, even the author of the article, Alina Tugend, found herself re-evaluating a publishing form she once found inferior:

I’m a snob. Oh, I don’t particularly care what kind of car you drive or if you wear the latest designer fashions, but until recently I turned up my nose at authors who published their own books.

It smacked of self-indulgence and vanity (as in that old term “vanity press”). But as one friend and then another chose to pay to publish their own books — people I admire and respect — and as the author Amanda Hocking became the superstar example of successful self-publishing, I realized I had been too hasty.

The phenomenon was worth a second look.

Tugend details various choices writers have for self-publishing their books from sites like iUniverse, AuthorHouse and Xlibris, including the medium of publication and self-publishing companies’ services. Depending on the cost, these companies will provide copy editing, for example, or various marketing platforms for the books.

Although the self-publishing industry appears to be growing rapidly, I wonder if it is becoming just another trend. Are more writers just jumping on the self-publishing bandwagon, especially since an increasing number of people are reading books electronically? I also wonder who the majority of these self-published authors are—are they people who have been pursuing writing for years and decided to self-publish as a last resort? Or are they people who haven’t written extensively before but are giving it a shot as a second career?

I took a closer look at Tugend’s main example in her NYT article: Susan G. Bell, who wrote the novel When the Getting Was Good, struggled to find a publisher, and decided to take the plunge on her own. Bell, whose writing represents a career change from a J.P. Morgan Securities executive, has seen some success in relation to many self-published authors:

Ms. Bell has sold about 700 books through the first quarter of this year, and that is better than most: industry experts say the average self-published book sells fewer — often far fewer — than 150 copies.

While Bell may not be the next John Locke — a self-published author with one million e-books sold and a recent publishing deal with Simon & Schuster — just yet, it’s certainly a start. So based on Bell, self-publishing can be a successful option.

Yet it seems to me from these numbers, as well as the fact that that Bell went back to school for her MFA after her career in finance, that she is more of the exception than the rule among self-published authors. She has writing talent: turning to Amazon’s customer reviews for some insight on Bell’s debut novel—about a female trader working on Wall Street in the 1980s—I found that all seventeen reviews were positive, if not glowing. Many people who reviewed the novel on the site wrote how they flew through the book and praised the novel’s complex characters. One reviewer even wrote that Bell is “one of [her] new favorite authors.”

But although success stories like Bell’s exist, not everyone who self-publishes has talent, and not everyone who self-publishes a novel is a former finance director with an MFA. COO of Hillcrest Media Group Mark Levine, who also wrote The Fine Print of Self-Publishing, summed it up nicely at the end of the aforementioned New York Times article when he compared self-publishing to “American Idol”:

“A lot of people have been told that they have talent, but they really don’t. Everyone has a story to tell, but everyone doesn’t have a story to publish.”

While I do think it’s important that writers like Bell–with both talent and a story to publish–now have options to put their work out there and achieve some success, I agree with Levine that not everyone can be Kelly Clarkson. So, I continue to wonder whether self-publishing is just a fad, or, if in the coming years, readers will continue to see more and more people ignoring Simon Cowell’s advice.

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