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Is self-publishing a bad idea?

Without gatekeepers, how good can your book really be?

I was recently in a heated discussion in a Facebook Group for writers.

It started off innocent enough, but in reality, the poster had an agenda.

He’d posted a screenshot of 8-9 books on Amazon, by 8-9 different authors, and from a distance, each of the books pretty much looked the same. The covers were all similar, and if you didn’t know any better, you might think they were from a series of books by one author.

His initial question: “Why do they all look the same?”

We answered his question.

“That’s what works.”

“That’s what readers are buying.”

“Those covers tell the reader what to expect.”

Yes, we’d all love to have our ideal, beautiful cover, but we want to sell books, too.

Pretend each bullet begins with “Yes, it’s unfortunate, but…”

…readers want covers that tell them exactly what to expect inside the book. Not the story, but the genre, sub-genre, tone, theme, type of protagonist, etc.

…books that sell have covers that are the same, but different. If they don’t ‘conform,’ the reader’s eye will skip over them on Amazon or any online store.

…most genres have a cover ‘formula’ or type that’s proven to sell books. These change over time, which is why you might see some variety at any given time.

Skipping the gatekeepers

We answered his question, but he really just wanted to talk.

He launched into a typewritten screed that was insulting not only to indie authors but to any artist who failed to follow his chosen path to publication or distribution, which is to go through the established and traditional gatekeepers.

  1. First, find an agent, most of whom will not accept you until your book is good enough for them to tell you it needs work.
  2. Your new agent will then continue to tell you your book needs work until it doesn’t.
  3. Your agent will then try to find you a publisher, who will tell you your book needs work until it doesn’t.
  4. They will then give you an editor who will either tell you your book needs work until it doesn’t anymore.
  5. Then, they will have a professional cover designer create a cover for your book that’s not only amazing, but exactly what you know is right for your book.

A lot of that is true to the path of traditional publishing, up until the end. That cover thing. That part was kind of funny.

Most traditionally published authors have zero say in their cover unless they are already a famous author or go with a small press publisher.

When the other writers in the group pointed out the many traditionally published book covers that were bad, or had missed the mark, he told us we just didn’t understand them or know the reasons for those covers, or that we don’t know art or design.

Mostly he just skipped ahead to his next point like we hadn’t even responded.

None of this mattered to him because he had an agenda. He’d started with a question, but he meant it as a statement.

He went on, insulting the art and design of the indie covers themselves, and at this point had shown his anti-self-publishing hand – These authors, he said, were impatient, greedy, desperate, and vain. Or, they had simply sold out by going the self-publishing route and paying to be published, none of which was true.

Speaking of vanity…

First of all, he doesn’t know what self-publishing is. What he’s talking about is vanity presses, which take your manuscript and your money and hand you a lot of books that you have to sell out of your garage.

They are usually pretty bad, poorly edited, and have cover slapped on.

This is a common scam on authors, who get sold a bill of goods that “this is what publishing is like in the 21st century.”

It’s not.

They are lying.

He’s wrong.

Indie authors are the publisher

Yes, self-published authors (or independent authors as many like to call them) pay for services like covers and editing, and very rarely, paperback or hardcover printing.

However, they are not paying to have their book published.

Indies are the publisher.

Indies are doing the same thing a traditional publisher would do for them, but for themselves – covers, editing, distribution, marketing.

I will point out that in the ‘olden days’ of self-publishing, the author had to pay big bucks to have their books printed. The systems and services (like Amazon Kindle and print-on-demand paperback books) didn’t exist yet.

In those days it cost a lot of money because you had to pay for hundreds or thousands of books at once. This was not a scam, just the way technology worked back then.

Today, if someone suggests you pay many thousands of dollars to publish your book, tells you your book is amazing, and promise you big things, it most likely is a scam.

These scam ‘publishing companies’ tell you this is the way it is, but it’s not.

As more new authors learn about self-publishing, more services are popping up to help them. Many of these are legitimate, but it can be hard to tell. You have to do your research, and always be a little skeptical. These scammers play on your dreams. Don’t let them win.

So if indies are the publisher, was he right about them skipping the gatekeepers?

Not at all.

You can’t skip the gatekeepers

At this point, the disgruntled poster’s holier-than-though thread had fallen apart.

Most of us had figured him out, but what seemed to clinch the deal was when used his very music career as an example, and told us the audience was the gatekeeper.

“You see,” he said, “in music, people will only pay if it’s good and it’s what they want to hear.”

You put your music out there, and if people don’t buy it, you have to get better, and maybe play in a style the audience likes. At least if you want to make money with your music.

Turns out that he and his musical friends played gigs and open mic nights until they were good enough for people to pay to see them.

And if the audience didn’t like them, they stopped paying to see them.

That, my friends, is indie music.

And that audience is the gatekeeper.

That’s not any different from indie publishing.

Write your books, get better at stories, put them out there to sell, and if your audience likes what they’re reading, they’ll keep buying.

Or look for a traditional gatekeeper who can keep you from testing your audience in the first place.

Talk soon,


PS. What do you like or dislike about indie publishing? Let me know in the comments below or in the Facebook Group!

Roland Denzel

Roland has been helping authors just like himself be more productive and write more books, all while staying healthy, happy, and sane since 2015.

Read his story right here, and if you want to send him a message, visit Roland's contact page here.

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2 thoughts on “Is self-publishing a bad idea?”

  1. Kevin Tumlinson

    I’ve mostly given up on going to the line with guys like this, because no matter what, they are going to stick to their guns on gatekeepers. They just can’t live without them. They fall into existential self-loathing when they have no one to tell them what to do with their lives.

    There are scads of would-be authors who aren’t brave enough to take on self-publishing, and use the concept of trad pub QC as their excuse. They’re daunted by the responsibility and accountability that come with the title of “indie publisher,” and they look for reasons to eschew the entire practice.

    And there are plenty of good examples of bad publishing out there. Bad covers, bad editing, bad writing, bad marketing. Of course, I’m mostly talking about traditional publishers. Zing!

    But seriously, folks, there really are a lot of bad books out there, under the banner of “self-published.” There are also phenomenal books that could (and often do) run toe-to-toe with anything Macmillan & Friends might put out in a year, and they have the reader base and the revenue to prove it.

    The real proof is in the volume of indie author success stories. Guys like this will write all that success off as a fluke, scam, or lie. And none of these successful authors will try to assuage him of that opinion, because we’re too busy bathing in our tubs full of money. Or living whatever lives our hack, unvetted, unproven, unwashed work has enabled us to live, with barely any percentage of our revenue going to a third party who had to scrutinize and approve us before we could deign to present our work to the public.

    I want guys like this to continue to fling poo from their monkey cages. I’ll watch their antics as I walk away, whistling and smiling, and I’ll publish the next book in my bulging catalog, meeting the high reader demand for them, as he emits howler-monkey screams of rage over having his book rejected by yet another agent who only wants books that fit her specific tastes and check her specific boxes.

    That was a long sentence to express a short sentiment: This guy’s opinion about self-publishing means absolutely nothing.

    1. Absolutely agree. The only reason we kept on him is that the group where this happened is primarily new authors who only know the old lines. When his story fell apart, there was an uptick in questions on how to learn about their indie options.

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