Last week I wrote a defense of traditional publishing, answering the question: What value does the traditional publishing industry provide to readers? We analyzed its contributions around quality control, raising literacy rates, ensuring access, protecting copyright, and more. Honestly, I didn’t know what I would find when I set out to write that post, and it made me love the traditional publishing model more for its obvious positive impact on society.
I anticipated that my friends who love self-publishing would have things to say as well, and they did—primarily, again, from the author’s perspective. So I want to first look at why it’s important to distinguish between the reader’s perspective and the author’s, and then—to be fair, and because I’m curious about self-publishing, too—I’ll provide a defense of self-publishing.
As an aspiring author myself, I have to admit that it’s my first lens. The question I first asked when looking at these different publishing models was, how do they benefit me?
But I realized pretty quickly that the sustainability of any publishing model doesn’t depend on my use of it, but rather on whether through it I produce a product that people want to buy, that’s easy/accessible for them to buy, and that they know about in the first place. It sounds obvious, but I think many authors forget that we are dependent on our readers. We need them, and so when we’re deciding which publishing model to use, our first question should be: How is this going to benefit my readers?
Thankfully, for all the self-publishing proponents out there, there is significant value that self-publishing adds to the world as well.
Again, I honestly didn’t know what I would find when I went researching this. To get around my own bias, I actually turned to ChatGPT to help me think of reasons—and it was able to help prompt me in the right direction. (No, none of this is written by ChatGPT, but it did give me helpful direction!)
This is the most obvious and significant value-add, which several people pointed out last week on Instagram. Traditional publishers’ risk tolerance for untested ideas and authors fluctuates, and more often than not, they want to stick with the tried and true sellers. The affordability and access of self-publishing for authors makes it easier for them to get around the gatekeeping that happens with traditional publishers.
There’s also a significant argument to make here about race in publishing. I don’t have up-to-date numbers for the last five years, but in 2020 The New York Times reported that only 11% of traditionally published books in 2018 were written by people of color. WordsRated also reported that between 1950 and 2018, 95% of books were written by non-hispanic white authors. That’s an obvious problem.
I do know that traditional publishers are very much aware of this problem, and that there are a number of editors and publishers who are working hard to change that fact. Especially since George Floyd’s murder in 2020, there’s been a noticeable increase in the number of books written by Black authors particularly. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to report more on this from my own analysis of Publishers Marketplace signings data at the end of this year!
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any demographic information about the number of authors of color who self-publish, so it’s unclear whether authors of color have been turning to self-publishing instead—but there are anecdotal indications that that may be the case.
I think, too, about the role self-publishing has played historically. If you want to rebel against authorities, you’re more likely to be able to self-publish your thoughts and opinions than go through mainstream traditional publishers with higher visibility, where you’re more likely to be caught—or who would refuse to publish you in the first place. During World War II, the underground press played a major role in the anti-Nazi resistance. This happens still today in Communist China, too.
One of my favorite stories about self-publishing is told by Kate Moore in her incredible book The Woman They Could Not Silence. In the 1860s, Elizabeth Packard was wrongly imprisoned in an insane asylum for years. During her time there, she kept copious notes and a detailed journal documenting the atrocities she witnessed. Although she was eventually freed and acquitted, she could not find support with traditional publishers for her memoirs. So she crowd-sourced the funding and self-published them instead! Her advocacy work brought to light many horrors of the insane asylums and she was able to help free many other women.
Amongst all the benefits of self-publishing for society, there’s no doubt that this one weighs most heavily.
Traditional publishers need to yield higher profit margins. Because of technological advances such as Print on Demand (POD), self-publishing has become much more affordable, lowering the barrier of entry for aspiring authors. This allows self-publishers to price their books much more affordably for readers.
Lower pricing is also incentivized by Amazon, the primary distributor for self-published books. If you love to take advantage of $.99 ebooks on your Kindle, then you’re probably choosing from a selection of primarily self-published books.
It’s common for books to take two to three years to publish in the traditional publishing model. I argued in my last post that the longer timeline actually has some benefits in raising the quality of books, but there’s a flip side to that, too. Sometimes, society benefits more (despite, perhaps, a lower quality end-product) by getting information out quickly and affordably. Again, I think of revolutions and activism benefiting particularly from this much quicker timeline.
Neither model is perfect. I truly believe there’s no better/worse option; they both play beneficial roles for society at different times and under different circumstances.
As an Enneagram 9, I’m an expert fence-sitter and line-walker, which may frustrate some people. But my own biggest takeaway from this exploration has been the importance of balancing the needs of the author with the needs of the reader. As I help authors make decisions around how to publish their work going forward, I’ll continue prompting them to ask first which model will benefit their reader the most.