How self-published authors can overcome the DIY stigma.
So, we had an interesting discussion on Tuesday about self-published authors and book bloggers. Something that I’ve heard again and again in the past week is the notion that self-published authors have a stigma slapped on them that book bloggers perpetuate by refusing to consider their works. While my original stance on the matter stands, I don’t want this to be a war between self-published authors and book bloggers–not because I feel sorry for self-pubbers, or because I feel that we bloggers have an obligation to them, but for one simple reason: I want to read more good books, and I know there are some self-published authors that do have a good book in them. I’ve seen it firsthand.
I’d like to help self-publishing overcome its own stigma. To do so, we need to understand exactly where the stigma originates; this is the part that might sting a bit for some, but it must be faced to make progress. Without understanding, a solution can never be found to what seems to be a huge problem for authors who decide to go it alone–which, in theory, could be a very profitable option for authors. I certainly don’t think the basic concept of self-publishing should be one that comes with a stigma, so it must lie elsewhere.
Let’s start with the “common wisdom” surrounding this issue. Strap in, darlings; it’s going to be a long one.
Myth: Book bloggers don’t accept self-published books because of an unreasonable prejudice.
Contrary to what a lot of people seem to believe, most of the book bloggers I know don’t seem to care where good books come from as long as they’re good. One of the points in the post that I referenced in Tuesday’s Reading Rage was that bloggers might feel “tricked” if they read a good book that was self-published. Honestly? A truly good book is a good book, and only the most awful snobs would turn down a good book due to its origins.
“But, then–why the no self-published books policies?”
Fact: Book bloggers often don’t accept self-published books because of the small benefit for the amount of time invested in going over review requests.
So what, some people say? How hard is it to look at a pitch and say yes or no? Difficulty isn’t exactly the issue. If I want to do your pitch justice–and you want me to do it justice, right? You want a fair consideration, I assume–then I need to take the time to read the pitch. I also need to take the time to read sample chapters (which might mean that, if you don’t send them, as many authors don’t, I may end up spending time tracking it down via Amazon or Google), look at other reviews of your book, and see if it overall would fit the tone of my blog. I hold review books to a higher standard than I do books I might read for myself; I’m not just reading your books, I’m also providing content based on what I’ve read. My content, if I am doing blogging correctly, should be high-quality, cohesive, and fit my blog’s direction. (This is why I also don’t review traditionally-published authors that I might love but that don’t fit the direction of our blog.)
In other words? Blogging is work, and I have to weigh whether or not I accept pitches based on whether it will add value to the work that I do here. Self-published authors of all stripes send me pitches (whether they fit the blog or not) because they want to tap into the audience I have built through my hard work. The catch is that, if I were to let my standards drop to accept many of the ill-fitting pitches that I receive, I would lose that audience and be able to help no one.
Myth: Book bloggers are snobs that only like to support legacy publishing or are in the pockets of traditional publishers.
Same premise as Myth #1, really. It’s not that we’re snobs about where our books come from. It’s not that we’re beholden to traditional publishers. As consumers of entertainment, we’re looking to be entertained from any quarter, and we seek the entertainment that we like best.
Fact: Traditional publishers offer added value for many book bloggers for the amount of effort put into research.
With self-publishing, quality is all over the place. I have absolutely no past experience on which to base whether I will like a self-published book unless that particular author has put out work that I’ve read before. With a press, small or large, I get two major benefits: one, I can assume that the book has undergone quite a bit of quality control (editing, proofreading, formatting) based on the publisher’s reputation; two, I often have a large body of work to choose from once I find out that I like the selections that the publisher releases, not to mention the fact that they’re releasing new books all the time. Tracking that information down for every individual author takes a lot of effort and doesn’t give a lot of overall benefit at the end. If I find one author out of dozens who has put the time in to create a spectacular book, that author might have two or three books that I can read; then I’m off to sort through dozens more to find the next gem. If I find one publisher I like, they will often have a backlist of dozens of books that I can peruse; the effect is inversely proportional in favor of publishers. (Note: I generally blog small press books, so I do pay attention to who publishes the books I read and review. Even if a person doesn’t pay attention to individual publishers, benefit #1 still stands.)
“Yeah, but it sounds like you’re saying that bloggers are taking the easy way out. That’s not fair to self-published authors!”
Why, I beg to differ. It’s absolutely fair for me to want to get the maximum benefit for my efforts to produce content on my own site that I developed and continue to pay for, especially considering that I don’t earn a profit (or if I do, it’s probably been about ten dollars so far) off of this site. Even if I did profit from the site, it’s because of my own work; it wouldn’t make me beholden to anybody. If someone paid me to seek out high-quality self-published authors, then that would be my job, and I would do it without complaint.
Myth: Book bloggers refusing to review self-published authors perpetuates the stigma placed upon self-publishers.
I can honestly say that if I spent, say, six months reviewing every self-published work that has been pitched to me for review, this would do very little to reverse the stigma of self-publishing. Because IB does allow self-published authors to pitch work to us, I look over the pitches we receive very carefully (except when it’s apparent from the beginning that it’s not for us–we get a surprising amount of genre fiction pitches, even though we don’t review genre fiction). I read excerpts. I do research. I do this because I don’t want to waste a self-published author’s resources or accept a book that I know in advance will not be well-received. Most of the books pitched to us would probably get poor reviews from this site–not because they’re self-published, but on the merits of the actual writing. (The one SP book we chose to accept got a four star review from us. We’re not biased, but we know good writing when we read it.) If my readers saw review after review of self-published books that said the books were poorly-written, poorly-edited, or poorly-conceived, I don’t think that would do much to reverse any pre-conceived notions.
Fact: The large number of low-quality self-published books perpetuates the stigma of self-publishing.
I would never shame an author who pitched me a book in earnest, but I have to say that I wish I could dig out some quotes for you from cover letters, synopses, and sample chapters that I have received. If you are one of the few self-published authors who has created a great book, you might not realize that you’re a minority. A very small minority–I mean, just statistically, you’d have to be. There are hundreds of thousands of books self-published per year; if you compare it to the ratios of good books vs. crap books that even traditional publishers put out, where there’s usually at least a little quality control before the book hits the market, the number of great books out of that number would be small. Because there’s no standard of quality control associated with self-publishing, I think we can safely assume the number would be even smaller than that.
Everyone, though, thinks their book is awesome. And they want to get it reviewed because they want to sell a bazillion copies. They know they stand little chance of getting it reviewed by, say, The New York Times, so where do they turn? Book blogs. This is how we get inundated with review requests, most of which aren’t amazing work. We don’t like being buried under the slush pile; it’s not what we signed up to do. It’s not good times. Moreover, readers who buy books don’t want to pay to wade through slush piles. By the time a product reaches the consumer, it should be excellent quality. The fact that it so often isn’t is what creates the stigma associated with self-publishing.
I don’t know if there’s an easy “fix” for this across the board. Do I honestly think that the majority of self-published authors will read this and up and decide that they all need to hire editors, designers, and learn to market themselves, etc., to beat down the stigma of self-publishing? No. I don’t think that’s going to happen. What’s more, they’re going to continue to pitch their books to book blogs . . . especially to blogs that have high traffic, which means that self-published authors who have taken the professional route and want to get reviews on these blogs will be a single voice trying to yell over a very frustrating crowd. The more popular the blog you want to submit to, the more people you’ll have there ruining it for everyone else.
If you really want to overcome this stigma, though, it has to start with you. This isn’t a stigma that we have randomly decided needs to be a part of self-publishing. There are root causes that should be addressed. My tips?
- Hire professionals to help you launch your book. Just because you’re DIYing it doesn’t mean that you don’t need to invest in your book; whether you’re paying for the editing, design, and possibly marketing out of your own pocket or you’re taking a reduced profit cut and letting a publisher foot the bill, any published author should be investing in professional assistance to create a quality product.
- If you’ve hired professionals, mention that when you do a pitch. (Ask your editor, etc, if they’re okay with name-dropping–if not, don’t use the name . . . but I should think if they’re proud of their work, they’d be more than happy for you to put their names on it.) Acknowledge the short-comings of the industry in a mature way and highlight that you have invested in your own work to elevate the quality of your book. This won’t guarantee a review, but it will get your foot further in the door.
- Consider not aiming for high-traffic blogs to start, as these bloggers will be dealing with the highest number of requests and may be frustrated with pitches from self-published authors. Aim for blogs with smaller but appropriate audiences and build up a few reviews; this will build the buzz about your book. When you pitch to the high-traffic blogger later, you can point to good reviews by other bloggers–but, always ask the blogger if it’s okay to link their review in a pitch to another blogger. Otherwise, this can seem like shady name-dropping.
- Endeavor to be professional at all times in public spaces on the internet. Authors behaving badly have made some book bloggers wary of reviewing books that don’t have professional PR attached to them. Be courteous and friendly. Read How to Win Friends and Influence People. Build your reputation as an author that bloggers love reviewing. This can only help you.
- If you’re not sure if your book fits the blog, or if they will take a self-published book? Ask politely before you pitch. Accept the answer graciously. This can go a long way if you encounter the blogger again in your promotional travels–or, if you fail to do so, can work against you if bloggers talk to other bloggers about you, which happens sometimes when we have negative interactions. Ranting at book bloggers or reviewers on the internet will instantly put reviewers off of working with you.
- Remember that you’re competing with a number of self-published authors that approaches a million a year, not to mention the number of traditionally-published books that have been and continue to be released. (Perhaps that self-publishing number has already arrived at a million; the last numbers I saw where in the 800,000’s in 2009.) If you want to stand out, you have to work at least twice as hard as other SP authors, and you have to put in the same investment as traditionally-published authors. As readers, many of us don’t separate the two in our minds as far as considering which books we want to buy; it’s not as though we have a special budget for traditional authors and one for self-published authors. We just want the best books, period. Experience has shown many of us that these books lay in the realm of traditional publishing. If you want to stand out, you have to compete against them as well as other SP authors.
The bottom line for self-publishers is that more of them will have to step up a little before they will see an improvement in the way that self-published authors are viewed. The process is already beginning, really–self-published authors may not yet be fully accepted by the reading community at large, but the stigma has dropped considerably from what it was before the internet age made self-publishing a financially viable option. Over time, if the quality of work improves, the association with self-publishing will improve.
I know you guys have all of the opinions about self-publishing, so I’m going to let you have the floor now. Tell me what you think–am I off-base? Am I right? If you’re a blogger, what would it take to get you interested in self-published books? If you’re a self-published author, do you hire professionals or do you do everything yourself? What has been your reception? Drop me a comment below!