Why self-publish?

There are many good and valid reasons for pressing on where no traditional publisher is willing to go. Here are some of them.

Because it’s relatively easy

It is only about 25 years ago that desktop publishing burst upon the scene, only 14 years ago that from small beginnings the World Wide Web started to transform our world, only in the last decade that digital printing has become a viable alternative to traditional lithographic printing, and only in the last year or so that e-books have finally begun to show real promise as a new publishing platform.

All of these developments (and others) have had a major impact on publishing. More to the point, their effect has been to bring the tools of publication out from behind the closed doors of practitioners where they were and put them into the public arena where rank amateurs can use them. And do. This transformation has been bad for the old craftsmen and other publishing professionals (and arguably bad for standards) but it has been good for the democratization of publishing itself.

Before then, self-publishing was not really practicable; today, the electronic and printing revolutions, especially, have opened up the real possibility of self-publishing for those with the energy and technical ability – it is in fact relatively easy (but only relatively, as shall be seen in a later post).

But is relative ease a good enough reason to self-publish? Perhaps not.

This is where the buzz is

Where is all the media attention today? It is not on boring publishers in suits, let alone their back-room minions with ink on their fingers. No, the focus and adulation is on savvy authors who bypass the system and connect directly with their readers, often selling impressive quantities of their book in the process. In short, it has never been a ‘sexier’ time to self-publish.

It’s also where the future is

Actually, the future is an open question, one attracting a multitude of contradictory answers. (In the same way, a rock is a rock, but how it is perceived can vary greatly depending on where the observer is.) That said, it is possible to discern trends in publishing and from these predict likely outcomes. A common vision of the publishing future is the slow death of the publishing house in its present exclusive form and the gradual adoption of open, collaborative forms of authorship. These lend themselves quite naturally to a self-publishing approach.

Speed of publication

Speed of publication is another major consideration, especially in the life sciences where pre-prints are used to establish ownership of an idea or discovery often years ahead of formal, peer-reviewed publication. Even in the humanities and social sciences this is becoming a factor. One of the attractions of Open Access publication is the early archiving of soon-to-be-published manuscripts in institutional repositories at a time long before actual publication takes place.

Freedom from control

Not always unreasonably, there are authors today who see publishers not as skilled but disinterested guardians of intellectual standards but as obstacles, parasites and even as ill-informed spoilers. Some go further and reject the current peer-review system which publishers/editors control as outmoded and bankrupt. The urge to be free of all such parasitic, meddling gate-keepers is a key reason why people consider self-publishing.

Freedom of expression

In few years ago, an eminent university press became embroiled in controversy when it was revealed it had withdrawn publication of a monograph that had upset the Greek government. The accuracy or otherwise of the study was not the issue; rather the Greeks had threatened to take their lucrative ELT (English language teaching) business to another publisher.

On an everyday basis, there is far less lurid interference in what an author may say but publishers do shape what is said in three ways:

  • They are the ones deciding if a work is ‘suitable’.
  • A low-level hum of political correctness is prevalent among many editors.
  • Author contracts make it very clear to authors that they are the ones who will bear the brunt of again legal action against their book.

By self-publishing, authors avoid these restrictions on what they say (though this will not make them immune to legal attack – on the contrary).

Ownership

Author contracts typically sign over the author’s publishing rights in a work to the publisher, often for a paltry payment or none at all. By self-publishing, the author’s rights are preserved; nothing is alienated to an outsider.

Overcoming rejection

Rejection of one’s manuscript by a publisher often prompts an author to contemplate self-publication. This is a quite reasonable response but, that said, the author should ask her/himself a few hard questions before setting out on such a course.

Avoiding waste

If your work has been rejected, a common motivation to self-publish the work instead is because you have already invested a great deal of time in writing the manuscript and are loath to admit that this effort has been a waste of time. Arguably, this is not a valid reason; you need to have a positive reason to self-publish, one that gives you a reasonable expectation of success.

Resuscitating a cherished work

In time, almost every study reaches its ‘sell-by’ date. New copies of the work cease to be circulated or even held in stock. The work becomes out of print, after which all rights in the work revert to its author. In such a situation, you are free to take your out-of-print book to another, keener publisher – or indeed to take it on as a self-publishing project to keep the book alive.

Need and demand

An important, positive reason for self-publishing could be that you know there is a readership eager for your book, but one that is too small to attract a publisher to the project. If your readers are indeed keen to read your book, then self-publication may be the only means by which to reach them.

Altruism

An unintended effect of the digital revolution has been the rise of a radically different kind of scholarship based more on community effort (often collaborative authorship) than on individual achievement. Often – as with the Creative Commons movement and open-source publishing – there is an altruistic motivation behind these efforts. Rather than the trading of ‘intellectual property’, publishing is seen as the free exchange of information/research (with even free adaptation often allowed). Such an approach is generally anathema to publishers, hence why typically it takes the form of self-publication.

Money

Conversely, self-publication has the potential for authors to earn more from the sale of their book than they might otherwise earn in royalties from a publisher. However, as shall be covered in a later post, it is easy to spend a lot of money producing and promoting one’s own publication.

Satisfaction

Whatever the effort and costs involved in self-publishing a study, there is also great pleasure and satisfaction to be had from knowing that the final product is yours and yours alone.

No alternative

If you have had your manuscript rejected by every single publisher in your field (whether because they all believe it is not commercially viable or that it is bad), then – if you are determined to get your study out to its potential readers – self-publication is probably your only alternative.

It is clear, then, that there are many good reasons to self-publish. However, there are also a few negatives plus other issues to consider. These shall be considered in the posts that follow, namely:

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