Self-Publishing: Let the Buyer Beware
Recently I received a flurry of promotional e-mails which sought to publicize the efforts of a bunch of self-published authors. I get these all the time, mostly from Yahoo or Gmail addresses, but on this day received a particularly large number of them. The subject titles varied from the quaint ("'Stories in My Eyes' Gives Voice to Children Experiencing Nightmares") to the amusingly vague ("The Plight of the Unaccompanied"), but most were simply banal—"The Power of Imagination," "The Impact of War," "All the Fallen Angels."
The e-mails made me think of all the aspiring authors out there and all those who make money providing services to them. Many of those in the burgeoning self-publishing market truly provide a valuable resource to writers, working to help authors polish their books and create attractive final products with a full range of distribution options. We've all heard the success stories and read testimonials from satisfied writers.
Yet I can't help but think of the advice I read in a guidebook back in the early '90s, for those looking to break into the music publishing business. It said, in effect, that you should never pay anyone to publish your song. If a publisher truly believes that what you have created is good, then they should be willing to assume some risk—otherwise, what incentive is there for them to promote and sell it? A music publisher may tell you that, for $500, your song will go on a mix CD sent to important record producers, but they know producers get hundreds of such CDs, and most are never listened to. Not that it matters to them. All they have to do is bank your money, make a few cursory efforts at promotion, and move on to the next sucker.
Self-publishers, unlike disreputable music publishers, do not try to deceive. They do not say that you might become rich and famous because your short story will be included in an anthology sent to Stephen King. In most cases, they do what they say they will—create a salable product. But many do offer promotional and editorial services, and as with music publishing, I wonder how much heart they can put into that effort when they know they are getting paid either way. The incentive to make the content as great as it can possibly be, and pound the pavement to sell it, simply isn't there. That's just human nature. I hope all aspiring authors remember this when they hand over their cash.
Which leads me back to those e-mails. Few of them will be opened, fewer still will lead to book reviews or sales—yet behind each missive is an eager individual looking for fun and profit in the glamorous world of book publishing, hoping to become the next Stephenie Meyer, Brian Jaques or Tony Robbins. I hate to tell these writers, but the e-mails I received weren't in my Inbox. I discovered them in my junk mail filter.