June 1, 2020

The One Universal Truth About Self-Publishing is a Lie

By Paul Goat Allen

Before becoming a book reviewer, I managed bookstores in New York for almost a decade. This was back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s—before the rise of e-commerce and e-books—and even back then, the companies I worked for (Coles and Waldenbooks) sold a fair share of self-published titles. (Although getting those titles distributed throughout the stores on a regional level was a lesson in perseverance—but that’s for another blog.) Most were shelved in “local interest” but I do remember self-published titles scattered throughout the stores I managed—in children’s, poetry, fiction, self-help, etc.

Back then, if anyone said “self-published” it was almost always followed by a smirk or eye roll. Nudge, nudge. Self-published. Pfft. It was like an unspoken rule, a universal truth that all potential book buyers understood: if it was self-published, the quality of that release was going to be markedly lower than comparable titles that were traditionally published.

But after spending the last few decades reviewing thousands of books—both traditionally published and self-published—for companies like PW, Kirkus, and The Chicago Tribune, I now understand how untrue that stigma was: and continues to be.

The fact of the matter is that, yes, some self-published releases are absolutely terrible. Virtually unreadable. But so too are some traditionally published novels. And while the levels of terrible can certainly descend much deeper in self-published titles—in large part because of the lack of competent editing and proofreading—bad is still bad.

The fact that some random gatekeeper along the way—an agent or editor or slush pile reader—either accepted or rejected a novel ultimately does not translate to that book’s quality. It could—and frequently does—mean that the gatekeeper was simply looking for something different.

Today’s traditional publishing landscape is much tighter than a few decades ago. Gone are many of the small presses that cater to readers who gravitate towards more innovative, experimental, controversial, or niche reads.

I’m certainly not knocking traditional publishing. Some of the best books I’ve ever read have been traditionally published. But looking back on countless titles I’ve reviewed over the last few years, some of the strongest, most memorable, profoundly moving, and creatively courageous releases have been self-published.

I’ve listed just a few, in no particular order:

American Neolithic by Terence Hawkins
This powerful work of speculative fiction—set in a near-future America where the existence of a Neanderthal threatens a government that has devolved into a “trailer park theocracy” and tyrannizes its own people with Homeland Security forces that resemble the Gestapo of Nazi Germany—is equal parts political satire, legal thriller, and cautionary tale.

High Lonesome Sound by Jaye Wells
A departure of sorts for Wells (who is best known for her Sabina Kane paranormal fantasy series), this Southern Gothic masterpiece is set in Appalachia and follows a horror writer looking to revive his career by renting a cabin in a remote place called Moon Hollow.

The Nothing Within by Andy Giesler
Giesler’s debut novel is a post-apocalyptic epic set in northeastern Ohio’s Amish country. It seamlessly blends elements of science fiction, dystopian fiction, horror, and mystery, with a healthy dose of social commentary thrown in for good measure.

Masters’ Mysterium by R.R. Reynolds
This extraordinary work of paranormal fantasy revolves largely around the morally bankrupt owner of a museum of oddities who attempts to reinvigorate his flagging business by capturing the Hodag, a legendary creature believed to inhabit the woodlands of northern Wisconsin

The Phantom of Witch’s Tree by Mark Lunde
An unapologetically raunchy Western with subtle fantasy elements, Mark Lunde’s stellar debut novel is set in 1912—the last days of the Wild West—and follows one man’s redemptive journey from wastrel to legend

The Most Important Thing by Virginia Nelson
A powerfully moving novel about a woman who reluctantly returns to her childhood home to care for her estranged mother, who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. An intimate story of one woman’s redemptive journey.

The Nosferatu Conspiracy: Book One: The Sleepwalker by Brian James Gage
The first installment of Gage’s Nosferatu Conspiracy saga is a deliciously dark blend of occult fantasy, alternate history, and apocalyptic fiction that will have readers furiously turning pages until the end.

Some readers may not realize this, but many bestselling titles have initially been self-published. We all know about Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James, Andy Weir’s The Martian, and Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey poetry collection, but did you know that numerous historically significant titles—across all categories—were initially self-published?

Here is a short list:

  • A Time to Kill by John Grisham (1989)
  • Eragon by Christopher Paolini (2002)
  • Your Erroneous Zones by Wayne Dyer (1976)
  • What Color Is Your Parachute? by Richard N. Bolles (1970)
  • A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843)
  • The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer (1931)
  • Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1901)
  • Switched by Amanda Hocking (2010)
  • The Shack by William P. Young (2007)
  • To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)
  • Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (1855)

The message here? The stigma that self-published books aren’t as good as their traditionally published counterparts is simply false. In fact, in some cases the exact opposite is true. Traditional publishing doesn’t take as many chances as it used to; readers not finding what they’re looking for through traditional publishing may be pleasantly surprised with self-published offerings.

Paul Goat Allen has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with BarnesandNoble.com, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and more. He also teaches in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program. Readers of this blog are offered a $50 discount on a BlueInk review by using the “key code” Allen. (This in no way guarantees a review by Allen.)

3 thoughts on “The One Universal Truth About Self-Publishing is a Lie

  1. Idelle says:

    Thank you for this post. I have found it so demoralizing that self-published books are at such a disadvantage compared to books traditionally published. I hired a developmental editor, a copy editor, and a proofreader for my two novels and the challenges in promoting them are overwhelming.

  2. Until the Amazon revolution, the biggest problem for self-publishing authors (after finding the money to do it) was reaching potential readers. Now it seems to be reaching those readers past the duff and chaff of bad books.

    I suspect the proportions of “good” to “bad” aren’t so different than they ever were, but there’s just so many more books in the marketplace now. The best way to vet books seems to be finding a handful of review sites or individual reviewers who share your interests and standards of quality, and relying on their word-of-mouth for recommendations.

    Luckily, we have you, among others.

  3. Great post, Paul! Here’s a list of some great indie novels I’ve discovered:

    Déjà vu All Over Again by Larry Brill

    Delivering Virtue by Brian Kindall

    The Unlounging by Selraybob

    Thank you,
    Scott Semegran
    Author of To Squeeze a Prairie Dog and The Benevolent Lords of Sometimes Island

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