J.M. Reep

Self-Publishing and Responsibility

In Commentary on June 8, 2009 at 6:54 pm

If you’re reading this blog post, you probably already bring with you a set of assumptions and opinions regarding self-publishing. Perhaps you have a positive opinion of the practice, but chances are your opinion is a negative one. If your opinion is negative, I won’t try to change your mind in this single post, but I would like to address some of the sources of those negative assumptions, and if you are a self-publisher, I’d like to suggest some practical things you can do to try to avoid encountering those negative assumptions as you promote your writing.

Even though there were more self-published books published in the past year than traditionally published books, it’s the traditional publishing industry that still commands most of the attention. After all, they are the ones with the big marketing budgets. They are the ones with the distribution contacts with the big retail bookstore chains. They are the ones who get their books reviewed in major publications. And they are the ones who draw the biggest crowds at book expos and industry conferences. Self-publishers may have the advantage of being able to focus their marketing attention on just one or two books — their own — but their budgets are very limited and they don’t have access to the same distribution and marketing contacts as the big boys.

And since self-publishers are, in a sense, in competition with the traditional publishing industry (execs may dismiss self-published books as “cluttering up” the marketplace, but that “clutter” is also a direct threat to their business models), no one in the traditional publishing industry is going to stick up for self-published authors and represent our interests — we’re on our own. Or to put it another way: we are not only representatives for our own work and reputations, but we also must represent each other, too. Most of what ordinary readers know about self-published books and their authors comes from their personal contacts and first-hand experiences with us. Each encounter is important, no matter how slight or how brief it may be, and each encounter is an opportunity to make a strong positive impression. We want readers to walk away from their encounters with us with the impression that self-published authors are knowledgeable, professional, and worth a chance the next time the reader goes to buy a book. But if we’re not careful, a reader might walk away with exactly the opposite impression — and whether the reader takes away a positive or negative impression, you can be sure that it will last.

Or, when a reader opens a self-published book and finds a text improperly formatted or riddled with spelling and punctuation errors, there’s a good chance the reader will jump to the conclusion that all self-published books are that way. When a reader picks up a book and finds a cover that looks like it was designed in the space of about five minutes, the reader may well conclude that the inside of the book isn’t very good either. When a reader opens an ebook file and finds it sloppily formatted and impossible to read, that reader may close the file and swear never to try another self-published book again.

No, judgments like those aren’t fair, because there are self-published authors who put a lot of time and effort into their work, but such judgments do happen.

So I want to suggest to all self-published authors that you have a set of responsibilities to try to maintain. When you publish a piece of writing, you are not only putting forth your words and ideas, but you are also putting forth yourself as a representative — a spokesperson — for the larger self-published community. In this ambassadorial role, you have certain responsibilities that you must try to uphold.

[In presenting this list of responsibilities, let me clear: I’m not setting myself up as some paragon of virtue and ethics. I’m a human being, which I means I’m prone to make mistakes. I’ve made mistakes in the past, and I’m sure I’ll make them in the future. But to live and behave ethically means to engage in a struggle to make yourself a better person than you already are. Whether we are writers, or just human beings, self-improvement should always be our goal.]

1. If you are a self-published writer, you have a responsibility to produce the best work you can. No one expects you to write like James Joyce, and no one expects you to find and correct every single typo in a piece of writing (even the editors working for the big NY publishing corporations don’t find every little error before a work is published), but every time you publish something, whether it’s a blog post or novel, you should feel confident that you have put forth the best work you can. Take your time! Publishing through traditional channels takes so much longer than self-publishing, so self-publishers can afford to take an extra month or two to continue to revise and edit their work. So do it right, polish your work, and make sure the writing you publish is worth reading.

And it’s not just the content of the work, but the form it takes which should be the best it can be. If you are producing a physical copy of your writing, such as a book, it is incumbent upon you to to pay attention to how that book is formatted. Are the page numbers in the right order, are the margins consistent on every page? Is the font the same size and style on each page? These may seem like obvious details to many of us, but whenever just one self-published author doesn’t put forth the best work that he or she is capable of, it hurts us all.

2. If you are a self-published writer, you have a responsibility to conduct yourself as a professional. Don’t get all in a huff if a book review blogger chooses not to review your book. Even if the reviewer writes to you and puts down self-published works generally. Just stay polite and pursue another reviewer. There are hundreds, if not thousands of reviewers out there, and sooner or later you’ll find someone who is willing to give your well-written, carefully edited book a chance.

Also, be a troll. Don’t waste your time searching forums and blogs and websites trying to pick fights with people just because they happen to voice a negative attitude towards self-published works and authors. If you must offer an opinion, do it respectfully, politely, gracefully. If those people still aren’t convinced, move on. Ranting and screaming across the Internet not only makes you look like a lunatic, but it also harms reputation of every other self-published author out there, too.

3. Finally, if you are a self-published writer, you have a responsibility to read and support other self-published writers. There’s a lot of good stuff out there being produced by writers who have chosen to operate outside of the traditional publishing channels. It may take some effort to seek it out, but it’s there! And because it exists outside of traditional channels, there’s a good chance that you’ll find something truly new and unique, and not just the same old pulp that you can get in any bookstore.

If you are a self-published writer, when was the last time you read a work by another self-published writer? Have you ever read a work by another self-published writer? If not, why would you expect others to read your work when you won’t read theirs?

In a way, it’s karmic: everything we do and however we behave will be visited back upon us eventually. When you do something that harms your reputation, you are also hurting my reputation. And when I do something that harms my reputation, I am also hurting your reputation. Keep this in mind next time you prepare a novel for publication, or post a comment to someone else’s blog, or attend a book reading or book signing. Your responsible behavior goes a long way toward helping all self-publishers, including yourself.

Comments? What kind of behavior do you think is appropriate or inappropriate for self-publishers?


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