How Credible is Self-Publishing?

A self-published French novel has been shortlisted for a major literary prize, which is making me think twice about self-publishing.

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ne day soon I will have to make a decision. I’ve just completed the final draft of my novel, and I must decide what to do with it.

I’m currently at the agreeable stage where some of my friends and family are asking to see the book. In return, I say, can you give me as much criticism as you can muster? (All the time knowing they will more than likely keep me wrapped up in the cotton wool I’ve grown so accustomed to.)

But soon I will have to take the book beyond this halcyon circle.

Should I be lucky enough to be accepted up by a mainstream publisher, the sense of traversing the strange line between aspiring and professional writer will (I naively assume) be palpable. Yet I also realize that in winning a traditional literary contract, I will have to obey the commercial obligations that keep such contracts afloat.

Where the dilemma really pinches is in the question of losing control.

Do I want to be a successful, celebrated author? Yes. Do I want the success to be orchestrated and influenced by a large publishing house? I’m not sure I like that idea.

Self-publishing, on the other hand, appears to offer a far more congenial route.

Not only is there no gatekeeper to bar me from entry — which, let’s face it, is hugely appealing — but I can also keep control over my fate. I can choose how to publicize my work, which channels I expose myself on, and the direction of my career as it evolves… assuming it does.

Yet, a lingering doubt remains lodged in my brain and will not shift, no matter how many voices I read to the contrary: that self-publishing still lacks credibility.

When considering my next step, I’ve been interested in a story that is developing in the French literary scene, one that addresses this key question of self-publishing.

This summer, a self-published novel was among 17 titles to be shortlisted for one of France’s most prestigious literary prizes. Among critics, booksellers and writers in France, the prestige of self-publishing is under new scrutiny.

Marco Koskas’ Bande de Françaison is in contention for this year’s Prix Renaudot. The book was self-published on Amazon’s CreateSpace platform, thereby giving hope to all indie-publishers that going it alone is not necessarily a barrier literary integrity.

The French-Israeli author, who has enjoyed traditional publishing success with more than a dozen previous books, said that self-publishing was his best option after Bande de Françaison was declined by the mainstream French publishing industry.

Like many who get rebuffed by publishing houses — and choose to self-publish instead — Koskas insists that he “didn’t want to bow down to this decision.” As he told the Guardian newspaper, “Otherwise I might have gone into some sort of literary hiding.”

Part of the ferment around Marco Koskas’ story regards the megalith that is Amazon. For many high-street bookshops, literary prizes are a great way to bring readers into their spaces. For a major prize to list a book that is “technically and commercially almost impossible” for bookshops to put on their shelves, it is seen by some as counterproductive to the health and diversity of the bookselling market.

In France, Syndicat de la librairie française, which represents French booksellers, put out a statement describing Amazon as “a major player in the book market, it wants to become the market itself by eliminating its competitors, organising unfair competition, avoiding tax and replacing publishers, distributors and bookshops in one fell swoop”.

Since the self-publishing model allows any writer to make their book available to the marketplace, it bypasses many of the conventional stakeholders, all of whom take a slice of royalty pie. For this reason, author royalties tend to be far higher per-book-sold. According to one writer’s testimony, writer royalties on eBook sales through Amazon Kindle sales can be as high as 70%. On the Audible version the royalty sits at around the 50% mark. On CreateSpace, the royalty given is about 25%.

Compare these numbers to the typical 8–10% a writer might make on a traditionally published paperback, they alone may be enough for a writer to turn to self-publishing first and foremost.

Yet, two aspects of self-publishing will stop and make a writer — like me — think twice. The first is the problem of exposure: the ease with which self-publishing can be achieved inevitably leads to a superabundance of material fighting for a moment in the spotlight. Moreover, bricks-and-mortar bookstores remain unlikely to stock a self-published title.

This leads onto the second consideration, that of credibility.

One of the keystones that simply isn’t in place at the moment is the tie-in between self-publishing and mainstream cultural reporting. As publishing blogger Jane Friedman points out, “It’s very difficult to score traditional book reviews, traditional media coverage, or even hire a traditional publicist when you’re a self-published author.”

All this, it seems, can pigeonhole a writer into the self-publishing world. For someone like me, who prefers to read books in their physical form and who ultimately hopes to see their novel in the same three-dimensional format, I am seeking more diversity in how my book is bought and read.

All this is not to say that self-publishing cannot be self-sustaining all by itself. Plenty of authors make an attractive living through self-publishing, establishing themselves via channels separate from mainstream media. Yet, As Jane also points out, it can be very difficult to move from self-publishing into traditional publishing. “Once you self-publish a book, it will be exceedingly difficult to garner interest for that book from an agent or traditional publisher.” In a sense, these writers remain invisible to the wider market, even if they achieve reputation among their reading fans.

Which is why Marco Koskas’ story is so interesting.

The French-Israeli author is pragmatic about his decision to self-publish. “I know that booksellers cannot turn against all the publishers who rejected me — there are too many,” Koskas said. “But they’re turning against Amazon, who published me. That makes no sense. Amazon offers authors a much more flexible contract than publishers, and above all, Amazon has no literary opinion. That is important. They do not get involved with what I write. They don’t ask for money to print my book, and they are paid, like any matchmaker, when the product sells. What do I have to complain about?”

Do you have an opinion on self-publishing? I’d love to hear it.

Written by

Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings”

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