Like everyone still breathing, I have my prejudices. Years ago when I lived in New Jersey, I had a radio program on which I discussed books and writing. I don’t know why I agreed to do the show, except probably it was because I felt flattered that I was asked and I was weak enough to give in to flattery, and maybe I thought it would be kind of fun. In fact, I never really enjoyed it, to the point that eventually I found it a terrible burden—and it was only one hour a month. How pathetic is that? Obviously, radio is not my medium.
During the time I had the show, the station manager sent me an email from a writer who asked if he could come on the show to be interviewed about a book he had written. In the email the book was described, including the publisher and date. The name of the publisher was not simply listed, however, as it might have been if it were someone like W.W. Norton. Instead, the writer included a very brief addition, which I don’t recall exactly, but it was along the lines of “a standard publisher”.
As soon as I saw that, a red flag whipped up into the air. Why was I being told, in effect, that this was a normal publisher? Clearly, it must not be. So I got on the web, began searching, and soon found that this was some type of publisher for people who wanted to self publish. With my prejudice against self publishing, I said no to the writer, who could not have been too surprised. He figured I would think that way, which is why he tried to create the impression that his book was not self published.
But what is wrong with self publishing? In some ways, there is nothing wrong with it. There is certainly nothing dishonest about paying to create neat copies of your manuscript. Although there may be something dishonest about not admitting you did that. From a practical point of view, if you wish to get your book into people’s hands, self publishing comes with its own problems, as you must entirely move it and sell it yourself. With perhaps rare exceptions, the usual methods of distribution are ruled out, as distributors, bookstores, and libraries will not normally handle self-published books. But if you don’t mind figuring out how to sell it on your own, that may be fine, and with the internet, there are newer ways to try to do this.
As far as the book itself goes, is there really a difference between a self-published book and one put out by a standard publisher? In one sense, absolutely yes, there is a huge difference. When a publisher puts out a book, people other than the author have agreed that this is worth doing, and in the publisher’s case, they have even put their money where their mouth is. Before readers ever see the book, this kind of backing indicates that someone other than the author thinks it is worthwhile. We may place too much importance on that backing, but the symbolic message is there.
A self-published book, even a wonderful book that should be read, is in reality a fancy manuscript. It is, in some sense, similar to a stack of loose pages from the writer’s printer, except that the writer has paid to make the manuscript look nicer. Thus a self published book does not carry the symbolic message that someone who doesn’t even know the writer thinks the book is worth reading. That certainly does not make it a bad book, but it does make it a book that comes with a different perception.
But we are currently on a digital wave rising up to sweep us into the future, and what that literary ocean will look like, we don’t know. It will probably be very different. If I wanted, I could take the books I have now, that I struggle to find an agent for, say to hell with the money and put them directly on the web. Even if I did that, however, among the millions of websites out there, what would make anyone go to that website and read that book?
So for now I’m going to try the same route as Jonathan Swift and Herman Melville and Margaret Atwood.