Self-publishing = vainglory?

Dymocks’ announcement of the launch of D Publishing Network is lighting up the newsgroups and Twitter at present. It’s at pains to state that the venture is not ‘vanity publishing’, the service will nevertheless allow writers to pay to have their books designed and uploaded, with the distant possibility that some books may be distributed via the Dymocks chain of bookstores.

I am not sure how this model is different from ‘vanity publishing’, but it will allow Dymocks to participate in the shift to authors self-publishing that is already very common on Smashwords and

I myself have books on both Smashwords and Each of the titles was previously published by small presses (Homosapien Books and Five Star Science Fiction) and are now out of print except for the digital imprints I’ve now released online. These books have been through the curation process of having a publisher select them from submissions and polished in collaboration with a professional editor.

So, like Dymocks, here am I distancing my own online efforts from that dreaded label, ‘vanity press’.

Cory Doctorow doesn’t seem to have this problem owning what he does. But of course, he was a professionally published author long before he experimented so successfully with the digital self-publishing route.

Why is it that readers automatically assume self-published means bad books? True, we’ve all read books that were published in this way that were at best full of typos and at worst full of badly plotted, badly written, self-indulgent purple prose. But then, I have read professionally published books that are just as guilty of poor structure and style, many of which I’ve abandoned by chapter five because I just don’t have the time to read books I’m not enjoying.

If someone creates jewellery that they then sell at markets (or on Etsy), we might be intrigued and praise the artist for their work. We might similarly encourage and support musicians who fund their own CD to sell while busking. Such efforts don’t have the sales reach of an official music publisher or art gallery to promote them, but we don’t disparage the efforts or talent of such entrepreneurial creativity.  The popularity of such work will soon be determined by those who see and buy things on the spot, and help the creators build up an audience of enthusiastic fans.

But try to write a book, publish it and sell it on a roadside stall (or online) and everyone will just assume it’s terrible. Admittedly, it’s harder to determine in a short period whether the book will be your cup of tea. A painting, a piece of jewellery and even a track from an album can be assessed in a pretty short period of time. Taking out fifteen minutes to read the first chapter or two of a budding new work is more time consuming and maybe less revealing to the casual purchaser.

But this is not far from how we select books (either digital or paper) in the bookshops. There, we may leaf through the first few pages to see how it strikes us. We also go by word of mouth or, in digital books, a free sample to download and try. Staff and friend recommendations and reviews give us an overview of what we might like to read. Surely this same model can apply to self-published books?

I am trying to train myself out of the old gut response that a self-published book is necessarily a bad book. I’ve been disappointed often enough with traditional titles, and every good book started as an unpublished manuscript at some point. The self-published titles on Smashwords, Amazon and, in future, D Publishing, will eventually be sorted into wheat and chaff by virtue of the same methods used for books with publishing houses: reviews and recommendations.

Nevertheless, authors taking this route can learn a lot by understanding and valuing the process that takes place in traditional publishing, where manuscripts are selected, curated and promoted by experts.

Many self-published books fail on a basic level because of the lack of editorial input and proofreading. I owe so much to my own proofreaders and editors for catching things that I have missed because I have just been looking at the damned thing for far too long. It’s not fresh to me any more, and I’m reading what I meant to say; not what I actually said.

Those fresh eyes, who are paid to be constructively critical rather than being friends, who are looking out for my delicate writerly feelings, are essential to helping me become a better writer, and to releasing books that are as good as I can make them at the time. Luckily, the publishing house takes on the economic responsibility of paying these fine people in the hopes that my books will sell well enough for them to recoup their costs.

My publishers have all been small presses, so while finding distribution channels can thankfully be left to them and their expertise, on the whole, promotions and marketing are left a lot to me. It’s hard work, and it’s time spent spruiking that I would rather spend writing, but I have to get word out somehow. Those recommendations and reviews don’t write themselves. (Well, some try via programs, but nobody’s falling for that.)

Doctorow recently pointed out in a Locus article that self-publishing and especially marketing books is much harder than it looks.

In the end, I think that self-publishing can work and be worthwhile, but the author needs to exercise professionalism. Self-publish by all means, but be professional and businesslike in your approach to the manuscript. If you don’t have a professional publisher to take on the costs of editing, find an independent editor to at least proofread your work. Value their input. Even if you don’t agree with it, don’t dismiss it out of hand. If they’ve missed the point of your prose, maybe you haven’t written that passage well enough.

Take the time to learn more about the craft of writing. Learn about grammar, spelling and structure. Read widely to see how others do it. Accept constructive criticism gracefully. Be painstaking and check your work. Consider your marketing approach, because publishing is absolutely not a case of ‘if you write it, they will come’.

Be like those artisan jewellery-makers, those struggling artists, those hungry musicians. Put everything you can into perfecting your craft. Help to get rid of the stigma of self-publishing by respecting everything that a publisher does for a writer and replicating it as much as you can.

Then, with luck and good timing, the readers will determine what happens in the market.


My thanks to Katherine Horsey, a fellow editor, who proofread this entry for me.

I will be presenting ‘Introduction to digital matters for writers’ at the Australian Society of Authors’ E-Exchange Day on 17 September 2011. Check out the ASA page for the details.

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  • Great post, Narrelle.

    As an editor I may still make silly mistakes – leave in or miss out a word when changing rouind a sentence to make it read better (one hopes). As you say, after going through several drafts one begins to see what they mean to say and not what is there. To this end I have organised editing and/or proofreading swaps with other writer/editors.

    The cover of In the Shadow of Vesuvius I worked up myself because I love art and illustration helps fill that need.

    • It’s nice that you have that skill. I created the ebook covers for Fly By Night and Sacrifice from photos I have of the relevant cities and places where the action took place. A friend drew the covers of the ebooks of Witch Honour and Witch Faith.

      You people who can write *and* draw… I’ll bet you can sing too! 🙂

  • Simon Haynes

    By the way, I hired professionals for the cover, jacket design, editing and proofing. Some of them were the same people who worked on my trade-published novels.

  • Simon Haynes

    I’ve been self-pubbed and trade-pubbed … the latter after one of my original novels was spotted on the shelves of the local Dymocks store.

    My background is small business (both retail and wholesale) and marketing. Having my novels in the hands of a trade publisher was great, but I found time-frames in the publishing industry extremely aggravating.

    That’s why I decided on self-publishing again for my new series (junior scifi). The market has changed considerably in the past 2-3 years, and I wasn’t prepared to wait 18 months or more to find a suitable publisher, then a year or more on top of that waiting for publication.

    I love the cycle of write – edit – design – publish – write. The longer the publishing process takes the keener I am to get back to writing, and when I’m getting sick of writing I can remind myself that I can have the book in print within 8-12 weeks of finishing the final-final draft. Suits me just fine.

    • Having control over the process is one if the things I find most appealing about it. I just wish I knew more about effective publicity. I lack time and, currently, money. I’d rather know how best to spend it to raise the profile oft work on Amazon.

      This is probably the point at which I ought to read more about it, but my limited writing time is being spent on writing at the moment.

  • Grant

    There’s always been a prejudice against self published prose that simply isn’t there in other media.

    • Precisely. While there are particular challenges with self-publishing prose – partly the fact that the potential audience has to invest more time in finding out whether they like it – the new publishing landscape offers some opportunities for people with talent who are willing to put in the time and expense to polishing their product before putting it out there.

      I’m absolutely not dissing the traditional publishing process, by the way. There is huge value in having disinterested third parties select work, give you criticism and help you prepare a book for market. I value and indeed treasure the efforts of my own publishers and editors. It’s just that I think that if writers appreciate what that means and invest the same level of time and professionalism, the standard of self-published work would improve and maybe that label could be left behind.

  • Catherine Ryan Howard has blogged about the work involved in doing self-publishing the right way. CHeck it out at

    I haven’t read any of Ms Howard’s work so this isn’t an endorsement (or a non-endorsement). BUt that’s one big list of things to do and it only involves one round with the copyeditor. If you’re working with a novel, particularly, try to find someone to give overall structural edits and feedback, not just comments on the formatting and grammar. Whether or not you take up the edits, you’ll have some idea about whether you’ve communicated your ideas effectively.

  • What would be really interesting if Dymocks created tiers for manuscripts submitted to them via D Publishing.

    Tier 1 “D Published” is the standard uploaded book available on the Dymocks webpage and any other web stores Dymocks can organise sales though.

    Tier 2 “Dymocks Approved” is anything that they like the look of and may be willing to promote on their web page with the promise they will bring the title to the attention of franchisees for them to make a possible physical order.

    Tier 3 “Dymocks(Buyers?) Choice” is the cream that Dymocks garauntee can be found in all stores in limited numbers for say 6 months(to pull a figure out of nowhere) after it gets the T3 tick of approval.

    As long the tiers are assigned by quality, not as an extra priced option, this could really work.

    • I think you make a good suggestion, although Dymocks may not want to foot the bill of paying staff to search the books for Tier 2. Perhaps they could adopt a model similar to Authonomy and use peer-voting to help identify potential books for wider distribution.

      • Brendan Podger

        They already promise some quality control before getting books onto shelves, Dymocks and its Franchise Owners will regularly review all books published with D Publishing to select which books they would like to make available in their Dymocks stores so if they are already checking for diamonds, it shouldn’t take that much effort to label the semi-precious offerings too

        • Oh, I’d forgotten about that bit. Yes, it looks like they have things covered in terms of sifting through the material. I imagine they’ll also keep an eye on what’s selling well for anything unexpected that’s a hit. We’ve all heard of books that were rejected by a dozen publishers before finding a home and promptly becoming critically acclaimed award-winners.

  • All good points. I’ve published two books – a science fiction/fantasy thriller Mind the Gap and a collection of my travel articles about Poland, We Have Here the Homicide (more details on both at and I have found the marketing to be easily the most challenging part of the process.

    I did try to run the novel through as many editorial filters as possible; luckily the content of the travel book had already been edited by various newspaper eds. Would be happy to have either picked up by a major publisher, but also happy to have it out there in the Kindle store rather than mouldering away in the digital equivalent of a shoebox under the bed.

    • The publisher at Twelfth Planet Press, Alisa Krasnostein, recently posted on Twitter that she likes the term ‘self-reprinted authors’ for writers who are reprinting their back catalogue. That would cover my digitally reprinted novels and We Have Here the Homicide.

      As a writer, I love that I can have more control over my older books and make them available fairly easily, once I’ve regained the rights. (Doing that depends on the terms of the contract with the original publisher.) I believe more and more writers will be looking at self-reprinting as a way to continue to earn revenue and maintain their profile. We spend years writing the things: it’s great to keep them in print.

  • I agree with you. Self-publishing can work, but it takes a lot of work and the writer must put out an even more polished piece than if they went via traditional publishing – because of the scrutiny they’ll be under.
    I’ve read some really good self-pubbed books, but I’ve read a lot more that didn’t seem anywhere near ready.
    I do think this Dymocks model will be promising because the books that are good quality could be distributed through the stores.

    • Like any creative project, the more work the creator puts into learning the basics of their craft and polishing the final product, the more likely they’ll produce something really good.

      Of course, simply having command of the past participle and knowing how to avoid a comma splice won’t help if the writer doesn’t have an interesting idea for a book: but if the writer has a cool idea, knowing that stuff will certainly help to communicate it.

      Dymocks gets to win a couple of ways with this new venture. They will make money from writers who want to get their work out there, and they may discover great new Australian writers and get the economic benefit of being the distributor for their work. I’ll be interested to see what’s in the agreements writers sign when they take this route.