The Self-Publishing Conundrum

By Debbi Mack

When self-publishing began getting touted as a serious option for authors, a lot of buzz flew about its potential to cause a sea change in the publishing business.

That sea change may yet be in the offing, but at the moment, I can tell you this. As a mystery author, I know that self-published books will not be considered for one of the genre’s most coveted awards, the Edgar. If you don’t believe me, ask Charles Ardai, owner of Hard Case Crime, a press that publishes many authors, including Ardai himself, whose books are released under the name Richard Aleas. (His second book, SONGS OF INNOCENCE, which has been banned from Edgar consideration, is among this year’s nominees for a Shamus Award.) Nor will the Mystery Writers of America, who award the Edgar, recognize an author as a full member based on earnings from self-published work. (The Private Eye Writers of America, who give the Shamus Award, don’t have a similar policy—so far.)

Not only that, but it’s my understanding that self-published authors can no longer sit on panels at certain mystery conferences. I won’t name names, for fear of getting my facts wrong and spreading misinformation (and doesn’t the Web have enough of that already?), but some of the conferences that may have adopted this position are major events. And such conferences are among the ways that authors market their books. If you have no panel assignment, you have no signing. No signing and you have to ask yourself, “What am I doing here? I can tell people about my book, but if I’m not on a panel, who’s going to listen? If the booksellers don’t carry my book because I’m not on a panel, how will I sell it?” And so on and so on.

Because of this, the conventional wisdom among mystery authors is, “Whatever you do, don’t self-publish! It’s the kiss of death to your career.”

Yesterday and Today

It’s fascinating to compare today’s abhorrence of self-publishing with yesterday’s willingness to consider it an option.

You see, once upon a time, there was an author named K.J.A. Wishnia. Wishnia self-published his first mystery novel several years ago. And he marketed and promoted and marketed and promoted the book. And it got noticed. It was nominated for Anthony and Edgar awards—nominated, I might add, before it had been picked up by a publisher, so he was self-published at the time. Wishnia hadn’t known about the prohibition on awards for self-published books and the nominators weren’t aware that he was self-published. By the time they found out, Dutton/NAL had added the book to its line, so they let the nomination stand (though, as rumor has it, this ruffled a few feathers).

Now and then, self-published authors who are really good and really persist in marketing their book will have a publisher come along and ink a big deal with them. One might say this benefits everyone. I mean, the publisher gets a piece of the action and the author—well, the author is given the gravitas of having a “real” publisher. So it’s a win-win situation, right?

The Rodney Dangerfields of Publishing

But this “gift” reveals the crux of the self-publishing problem. No matter how good the writing, self-published authors are the Rodney Dangerfields of the business—they get no respect. And it’s safe to say that many in the traditional publishing world are going well out of their way to give them no respect.

Such people might argue that it’s because self-published books are usually much worse than traditionally published work, because of the lack of editorial gatekeeping and guidance. Well, that may be. And it could also be said that a lot of really crappy books get published by big houses despite all the editorial gatekeeping and what-not. Judging quality is a highly subjective process. Next argument, please.

Some may say it’s because all those scam self-publishing presses—the PublishAmericas and their ilk—give self-publishing a bad name. Well, okay. Of course, there are traditional publishers who fail to pay authors, breach their contracts and/or go bankrupt. One such publisher (who will remain nameless) was recognized as a legit press at one time (ironically) by the Mystery Writers of America. This is not an isolated case, either. Other publishers have gone under, leaving their authors hanging out to dry. It’s called “bad business” and it happens in traditional publishing. Do these instances give the publishing industry as a whole a bad name? No—nor should the bad apples in self-publishing give all of self-publishing a bad name. So that’s not the problem, either.

Surely it couldn’t be that Big Publishing sees self-publishing as a threat to its bottom line? After all, mid-list authors’ (i.e., the vast majority of authors’) earnings are supposedly a miniscule part of publishers’ reportedly slim profit margins.

So, why would anyone begrudge self-published authors the same perks as traditionally published authors—the same publicity, reviews, distribution and awards—letting them sink or swim on their own merit? (Surely, Wishnia’s book was just as nomination-worthy before the publisher acquired it as after.) Where’s the harm in leveling the playing field between self-published and traditionally published books? If self-published books suck, they won’t get nominations and good reviews, anyhow. They won’t get good word-of-mouth. If they’re good, they’ll get the kudos and (with enough promotion and distribution) the sales they deserve.

And, if self-published authors can achieve great success with their own marketing (the kind of marketing they’d have to do even with a big publisher, since they won’t get the same promotional support as their bestselling peers) and get paid more per book sale in the process—well, that could give authors much more incentive to go the self-publishing route. But how much does this really hurt the big publishers, who look to bestselling authors to make most of their money? Could it be that so many authors are on the mid-list (as I said, the vast majority) that if enough of them switched to self-publishing, it could actually make a dent in Big Publishing’s profits? I don’t know, but that possible explanation makes more sense to me than any of the others.

The Conundrum

In any event, what does the prospective author do? Undergo the seemingly endless, agonizing process of finding an agent and/or traditional press to handle one’s work (and be thought either talentless or luckless for failing to do so) or self-publish (and remove all doubt)?

It is indeed a puzzle. And the ultimate irony is that achieving great success in self-publishing generally leads an author from having complete control over the work, along with a greater return on book sales, to handing control and a share of the wealth over to a publisher—by way of a contract created entirely by publishers’ attorneys, in which the author agrees to give up as many rights as the publisher can lay its hands on and that will be worded entirely in the publisher’s interests—and finally bestow upon the author the coveted gravitas he or she has so long sought.

Debbi Mack is a freelance writer/researcher, who has published a short story and one mystery novel, IDENTITY CRISIS, currently out-of-print, but which she seeks to resurrect through self-publishing. She has two writing related blogs: Writing for Hire, about the business of writing, and The Book Grrl,, which features book reviews and news. Her Web site is at



  1. I just wanted to add this excerpt from Dan Poynter's and Danny O. Snow's book U-Publish:

    "Professionals in the publishing industry tend to look down on self-published books, citing frequent writing errors, amateurish layouts and cover designs, or other problems that are rarely seen in books from major publishers. Frankly, this attitude is sometimes justified by books from vanity presses -- BUT there is absolutely no reason why a self-published book can’t meet professional standards. To illustrate, below are just a handful of books that were originally self-published:

    # What Color is Your Parachute? by Richard Nelson Bolles: originally published by the author, it has enjoyed more than 22 editions, 5 million copies and 288 weeks on the bestseller lists. Now the “evergreen” title of respected publisher Ten Speed Press.

    # In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters: more than 25,000 copies were sold directly to consumers in its first year. Then it was sold to Warner, which sold 10 million more.

    # Real Peace by Richard M. Nixon.

    # The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield: his manuscript made the rounds of the mainstream houses, and then he decided to publish it himself. He started by selling copies out of the trunk of his Honda -- more than 100,000 of them. He subsequently sold out to Warner for $800,000. The #1 bestseller in 1996, it has now sold at least 5 million copies, probably more.

    # The One-Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson: sold more than 20,000 copies locally before they sold out to Morrow. It has sold more than 12 million copies since 1982 and been translated in 25 languages.

    # A Time to Kill by John Grisham.

    # The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer: this classic was self-published in 1931 as a project of the First Unitarian Women’s Alliance in St. Louis. Today Scribner sells more than 100,000 copies each year.

    Other well-known self-publishers include: William Blake, Stephen Crane, e.e. cummings, Deepak Chopra, Benjamin Franklin, Zane Grey, James Joyce, Rudyard Kipling, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Paine, Edgar Allen Poe, Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg, George Bernard Shaw, Upton Sinclair, Gertrude Stein, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and Virginia Woolf… to name just a few.

    So don’t tell us that a self-published book can't meet (or beat) the standards of conventional publishers. If you have the passion to write about a subject you love, the time and skills to prepare a quality book for publication, the confidence to take some financial risk, and most of all the determination to promote and market it proactively, you can self-publish successfully."

  2. What can we say for someone who made submissions to long lists of agents, and never had a serious reply? I am going through the list at, in my genre, for agents seeking new clients and who accept email queries. I am just under half-way through, but suppose I get all the way through, and try some others, and STILL can't get an agent to take it to a real publisher? Let's say, as a work of non-fiction, that it also contains useful and ground-breaking information. If, after having made a earnest attempt at finding a publisher, I self-publish, should I still be castigated? I would have thought all you literary types would support freedom of the presses; but with label consolidation and ever-rising political correctness (try questioning the government's version of 9/11 as a politician), I would have thought you would think self-publishing is a vital check on anti-democratic, anti-pluralistic monopolies or cartels in the publishing houses.

  3. One of the main reasons I am considering self-publishing my book is the long wait for traditional publishers to respond to a submission and their rule about not accepting simultaneous submissions. Who wants to tie up their project for years waiting up to six months for each publisher to finally send a rejection letter? That is the main problem I see with traditional publishing.
    I have to agree that many self published works are rife with grammatical and spelling errors. It's a shame more self published authors are so lax about editing and proofreading. But I think the final judgment will be made by the readers. A good book should sell regardless of its publisher. And a bad book shouldn't sell in spite of its publisher. I recently read one by a famous author traditionally published that had weak dialogue, an amateurish plot, and substandard characterization. I felt cheated because it WAS from a big name publisher. If a traditional publisher can't do a better job, then why shouldn't self-published authors have a chance?