Books should enlighten and educate

The following article was originally published on Freelance Writing Tips in January 2008.

The book buying public cares little how the books they read were published, only that they are interesting, well written and affordable. It is only those within the publishing industry who seem to have a problem with self publishing.

The reasons they give are usually that such books are:

* Nothing more than “vanity press”
* Badly written with little if any editing
* Difficult to market as the author has to do everything themselves with no outside help
* Self publishing companies will publish anyone who can afford to pay

I aim to dispel all of these myths and maybe some more.

I will begin though with the so-called vanity press stigma. This is something that all self published authors need to be aware of, as some factions of the publishing industry still cling resolutely to the idea that self published books regardless of quality, fall into this category. They fail to realise that self publishing, with the advent of print on demand technology, has moved on since the days of true vanity publishing when authors paid thousands of pounds for books that languished in a warehouse gathering dust, as no one was prepared to buy them.

Today’s print on demand providers offer a far more credible service where the author gets to choose the level of service that he or she requires. They typically offer a number of different packages which include such things as text formatting, ISBN registration, legal library deposits and distribution – in the UK via Gardners and Bertrams, but also online. Services such as editing, proofreading and bespoke cover design are usually available for an extra fee. These services are contracted out to a number of freelancers who have gone through exactly the same training as those who work for commercial publishers, meaning that there is little difference in terms of the service they offer.

It is ironic that so many consider self published and in particular print on demand books, to be of poor quality when Lightning Source, the largest printer of such books in both the UK and North America uses paper of far better quality than that which is used by the majority of lithographic printers. Print on demand offers many advantages over lithographic printing, not least of all its eco-friendliness. Commercial publishers pulp hundreds of thousands of unsold books each year, but with print on demand you know that any books that are printed have already been sold.

Self publishing is seen as vanity press as the companies that take the authors money are perceived as pandering to their clients egos. Commercial publishers that offer vast sums to celebrities in order to publish their works or more accurately ideas, as the majority of such books are ghost written, are in their own way doing exactly the same thing, since they are pandering to the celebrities’ ego.

This creates a three way symbiotic relationship that feeds the ego of the celebrity keeping them in the public eye, at the same time offering publicity to the publisher who makes even more money. This in turn feeds the illusion that celebrity status is desirable as it gives fame and fortune thus making the public, especially young women, feel that their own lives and aspirations are vastly inadequate.

Books at their best should enlighten and educate the public, making us think about the issues that really matter, whether through fiction or non fiction. Books such as these celebrity titles do nothing to either educate or enlighten, but have the opposite effect. They contribute to the general dumbing down of society by feeding the public with an endless supply of meaningless drivel that keeps their minds in overdrive and acts as a distraction that ultimately keeps both them and the so-called celebrities in chains as they have to work ever harder in order to maintain the illusion.

The rise in self publishing can arguably be said to be a by product of the so-called celebrity culture that commercial publishers so espouse, since it leads people to a false sense of their own superiority, believing that if these celebrities, some of whom like Jade Goody, came from humble backgrounds can do it, then so too can they. It is then partly the industry’s own attitude that has created this explosion.

Commercial publishers have painted themselves into a corner, as by focussing on celebrities, who make up a small proportion of the population and demand much higher advances, there is little money left with which to nurture new talent that comes from the many. The many grow to resent this as they are not being given equal opportunity and so choose to take matters into their own hands and redress the imbalance by self publishing.

In October 2007, my publisher Authors OnLine Ltd celebrated their 10th anniversary of business. During that time they have published more than 500 books in both written and electronic format, written by authors from all walks of life, across all continents. The celebration featured a copy of every one of these books, laid out in boxes for the attendees to look at. I have never seen such a vast array of talent in one room, so many books written by so many authors, each with their own unique story to tell – some novels, some biography and some like mine, non fiction.

I was struck browsing through these books, at the high quality of the work and just how closed to anything new or different the publishing industry has become. Books are no longer assessed for their literary quality, but only on the basis of how many they are likely to sell. There are never though any guarantees in a world where the public are increasingly fickle and fashions change faster than a chameleon changes the colour of its skin.

The best written books in the world are not necessarily the best sellers. It is the same in the film and the music world, where the small budget productions are often far superior in terms of quality and innovation, since they are prepared to take risks on the projects that the large production companies will not touch, nurturing new and upcoming talent. It is though the Hollywood blockbuster (or book) with its big production and marketing budget that makes the most money.

Having said this, some of our best known authors began their writing careers through self publishing, including my own namesake Jane Austen. One author recently sent an extract from one of Jane’s books to a well known British publisher for consideration, under their own name. They wrote back to say that they did not consider it worthy of publication. The irony was that the same publisher had only recently reissued that same work. This just goes to show that despite their presumptions, commercial publishers are not infallible and can and often do make mistakes. I bet those who rejected JK Rowling’s work have been kicking themselves ever since.

Contrary to popular belief, because print on demand providers assess work purely in terms of literary quality rather than commercial viability, the standard of such books is if anything slightly higher. Print on demand providers do not though accept work from just anybody, as the bona fide operations would never touch pornography or material that is likely to incite any form of hatred.

Neither do claims that such books are poorly edited stand ground. Some might be, but the same could also be said for commercially published books as they also contain errors. It is only a matter of opinion anyway as fashions in editing also change, and most publishers have their own house style. New words are added to the dictionary every year, some of which older generations would regard as nonsense, but this does not make books that contain such words poorly edited, it just means they are aimed at a different market.

If the self published author chooses not to pay for editing and/or proofreading, then that is their right, but they are always given a choice. This is more a reflection on the author and their own attitude than the self publishing industry as a whole.

The lack of marketing budget and outside help can place the self published author at a distinct disadvantage, but having said this, very few commercially published authors receive that much help either. Authors are led to believe that once they have secured a publishing contract, the publisher will go all out to help market their work, but sadly this is often not the case. The internet is filled with tales from commercially published authors whose books failed to make the grade because of lack of support from the publisher, reducing their chances of securing a contract for their next work.

The self published author on the other hand knows from the outset that they will have to market their work themselves. Far from this being a problem, I see it as a positive advantage, for who better to market the book than the author him or herself? After all, they spent months or years writing it and know it inside out. Because it is their creation, they have much more at stake and so work that much harder in order to create success. They know exactly how to make their pitch, and work hard to make contacts and garner free publicity. Perhaps more importantly, they alone make the decisions as to what they are and are not prepared to do in order to generate publicity.

Because self published books typically take longer to build up sales, the authors are not subject to the same level of instant fame that their commercially published counterparts have to cope with, but instead have time to acclimatise making it less of a learning curve. When success does come, the books also tend to have a longer shelf life, since they never go out of print, but can be maintained as back lists indefinitely. Many commercially published authors use print on demand in order to bring their titles back into print, after they have been dropped by their publishers. Publishers are also increasingly using this method in order to maintain their own backlists.

The level of success achieved by self published authors may seem insignificant compared to commercial books, and it is definitely not for the faint hearted. Anyone who has the confidence and the self belief to consider this route is already a success in my book as they did not give up on their dream.