Self-Publishing’s Limits

Self-publishing has never been easier. As Michael Bhaskar eerily puts it, “[a]nyone can now publish in a way never before possible. Without a strong response publishers are inviting decline, irrelevance and, in extreme cases, annihilation” (70). Technological advancements have made it simple for nearly anyone to get published, both in print, with print-on-demand capabilities, and even fewer restrictions in digital format. According to Rowland Lorimer, there has been a dramatic increase in self-published titles, at the rate of “three times the number of new titles being published outside… the traditional book publishing industry (U.S. figures) [and] is changing the market” (332). Bhaskar further discusses self-publishing’s “disintermediation,” of the industry, or the cutting out of the middleman (i.e., publishers) so that material flows from author straight to reader (65). In terms of digital self-publishing, “the ease, cost and potential effectiveness… is high. . . . Amazon’s dominant position means it can afford to pay royalties far in excess of those offered by traditional publishers” (Bhaskar 65). So what does traditional publishing still have left to offer in the current publishing landscape? Why would an author choose to go with a traditional publisher if they can make more money self-publishing? Does the publishing value-add chain still have relevance in today’s market? In this essay I will argue that the motives and expectations of the author will determine whether self-publishing is an option, but overall, traditional publishing is still the most valuable route for today’s writers.


If the expectation of the author is to have a print book, in stores, a traditional publisher is definitely the way to go. Mike Shatzkin concludes that “there is a lot of work involved in self-publishing. . . . [G]eneralized advice to authors to eschew publishers in a world where print still matters and stores still matter remains… unwise” (Shatzkin). Jenny Roper explains that while ebooks do not have the issue of distribution, for self-publishers, “the logistics of getting a printed book in front of a reader… can be dauntin[g]” (Roper). Traditional publishers already have warehousing and distribution channels in place, while a self-published author would have to make these arrangements themselves. In addition to this administrative problem, these print self-publishers also need to make an up-front monetary investment in print costs. Bill Goss, a print-on-demand centre manager explains that “the vast majority of those getting books printed off their own backs today are individuals with limited experience of what’s involved in publishing a book. . . . [T]here is typically… a fairly wide gulf in what they’d like to achieve and how much knowledge, time and money they have to do this” (qtd. in Roper). Ann Haughland helpfully makes a distinction between authors-as-creators and creators in other fields, such as painters, who are “encouraged to produce work that they can share with their family and friends… and never seek to find a larger market or audience. . . . Writers, however, have historically faced a different situation: sharing writing—a novel, a memoir, a collection of poems—required an investment in production” (13). This monetary investment needs to be made in printing costs regardless of the route of publication.


If we take printing, warehousing, and distribution costs off of the table, and purely look at self-published ebooks, the path to publication runs a lot smoother for the self-published author. Paula Hane details only a few of the many options available for the self-publisher: Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, Barnes & Noble’s PubIt!, Kobo’s Writing Life, Smashwords,, and Blurb (7). Hane very optimistically writes that these platforms are “designed to put the power of all the publishing aspects—from price setting to advertising to marketing—in the hands of writers, helping them to maximize sales” (7). Stommel and Bechter explain the trade-off: “[b]ypassing publishers not only removes one barrier, but simultaneously leads to the author not being able to benefit from the services that typically result from a publishing contract” (64). Alison Baverstock more realistically defines self-publishing for the author, as “taking… personal responsibility for the management and production of… content (which does not necessarily imply either the wider dissemination of the material or the pursuit of financial gain in the process)” (43, emphasis added). Depending on the experience of the author, taking care of all of the aspects of publishing may increase their own profits, or it could lead to negligible sales.


Tim Laquintano summarizes the main issues for self-publishing writers, they may “face problems of producing high-quality manuscripts, of locating readers, and of lacking the skill to be their own publisher” (470). Though it may look as simple as uploading writing into an ebook conversion platform, there are many factors that need to work together in order to produce the most successful book possible, even Bhaskar admits that “content creators or intermediary actors carefully design frames to achieve precise results. . . . [They] think carefully about frames, spending a great deal of time and energy getting them right” (96). These “frames” shape the entire reading experience, from acquiring to consuming the book. Traditional publishers know and understand their target markets, and how to give their readers the best experience. This level of understanding may require a huge time and possibly financial investment by the self-publisher, and potentially costly trial-and-error experiments, after all, “[o]ne of the problems for the publishing industry has always been that effective publishing is often only evident when absent” (Baverstock 43).


How might self-publishing be a viable option for a writer? Again returning to the author’s motives, Baverstock explains the self-publisher may wish to “perpetuate work for purposes other than commercial: perhaps experimentation, rationalization, preservation, [or] finalization” (43). Some, perhaps, are writing a memoir, a family history, or for only personal audiences, and only ever intend to print or share a few copies. Though critics fear that self-published works can be “slush pile” rejects, they may also be “about narrow subjects and/or aimed at restricted audiences and therefore are not likely to find a home with national mainstream publishers” (Bradley et al.). Recalling Chris Anderson’s concept of the long tail theory, Laquintano explains that “writers of obscure treatises may find a substantial audience and write to them without the mediation of publisher” (471).


Baverstock further argues that self-publishing may be a useful stage for authors in their “creative journey” and that “readers are often actively (and passionately) involved in the development of material,” and thus writers may gain useful feedback (43). Laquintano imagines this feedback concept as the alternative to a publisher’s capital investment “authors and reader/writers have manufactured valued texts through collective literacy practices” (471). He explains that a useful avenue for self-publishers to exploit is “an already existing online infrastructure of blog networks, discussion forums, and online communities” (Laquintano 472). Fan fiction is a prime example of how publicity provided through specific interest groups and online collectives may help locate readers.


We must remember, though, that the onus remains solely on the self-publisher for the entire publication process including marketing and promotion, and therefore “writers ha[ve] to attend to issues in digital writing and publishing simultaneously” (Laquintano 472). Thus the publication process requires a substantial time investment with self-publisher’s learning through experience: they have complete control yet also sole responsibility for their book’s success or failure. Baverstock also sees a unique opportunity for publishers and agents to watch the self-publishing scene as “valuable market research, signing up authors who have demonstrated reader appeal and for which the market has not yet been sated” (43). In this way, the author takes the risk to see if there is a viable market for their type of content, and if there is, it will assist in uncovering market potential for publishers. In addition, traditional publishers may sign self-publishing success stories—think E. L. James, acquired by Vintage—who can then focus solely on writing. Baverstock warns, though, those successful self-publishing authors may need special treatment, and rightfully so, they may “want to be partners, fully consulted and informed, and to negotiate hard over respective remuneration from exploiting markets they have identified” (46).


Perhaps the best way to determine whether to self-publish or to publish traditionally might be to ask whether the author wants to be an entrepreneur or a writer, as the self-publisher will need to be both writer and businessperson in order to achieve what a traditional publisher can offer them. In today’s publishing landscape, the publisher can be viewed as a service provider: “[t]he publisher is offering services to the author to edit, design, print, promote and sell the work on the author’s behalf” (Phillips et al. 3). Haughland explains the relationship simply as “[t]he author provides content; the publisher adds value by investing capital and providing expertise; [and] both benefit from selling books” (6). Another avenue that traditional publishers have a handle on is post-publication traction through “reviews, or award-giving organizations” as they are essential to reader discoverability and popularity, and “[t]hose institutions have mostly ignored books not endorsed by the traditional publishing industry” (Haughland 15). Although self-publishers can pay to be reviewed, many view this as a “controversial subject,” and even if the work is being reviewed (whether by legitimate means or otherwise) “[c]onnecting these reviews with potentially interested readers is still problematic” (Bradley et al.).


Some authors have concerns over the control of their work, and prefer self-publishing for that reason, to “preserve proprietorship over their texts” (Laquintano 478). In his blog post, independent and self-published author Joe Konrath rather dramatically begs a series of questions to his readers, such as: “[w]hich is better, working hard and keeping control or working hard and having no control?” (Konrath). His other concerns listed include “having control over cover art,” and, most dramatically, “[w]hich is better, choosing the edits you want to make or having your editor force them on you?” (Konrath). This anxiety is simply unfounded. As far as cover art, the publisher presents professional designs, and the author makes the choice. In editorial matters, an editor may explain grammatical errors to an author, but the author has veto rights when it comes to the presentation of their writing, as they have “moral rights” to the integrity of their work (at least in Canadian law). Besides, any writer can benefit from a second or third reader, especially considering editors are trained professionals in making writing better. Regardless, if any of these decisions come to a head, or if either party is not fulfilling obligations or expectations, the publisher or author can terminate the contract and not publish the book.


Overall, publishers “recognize the need to ensure that their relationship with the author, who is an integral part of the publishing value chain, is maintained successfully” (Phillips et al. 4). Most publishers would agree that the bond with the author is paramount, as “[t]he primary characteristic that still unites mainstream publishers is their relationship with the author” and is one of the largest benefits of traditional publishing (Bradley et al.). The publisher needs the author in order to have a business, but considering the ability of self-publishers, the author does not need the publisher, thus the publisher-as-service-provider is a useful way to view the relationship.


Haughland explains there are six main ways that the publisher adds value to the book: through “content acquisition;” “investment and risk-taking;” “content development,” including editing and design; “quality control;” “coordination of the publication process,” including warehousing and distribution; and “sales and marketing” (5). Though self-publishing has never been easier, traditional publishers still provide invaluable support for authors, including shouldering the monetary risk and investment (such as advances which are non-existent in self-publishing). Overall, it comes down to the author’s expectations and motives for writing, and if the author wants to cast the widest net in terms of potential readership and wants print books in stores, traditional publishing is definitely their best option.



Works Cited

Baverstock, Alison. “Why Self-Publishing Needs to Be Taken Seriously.” LOGOS 23.4 (2012): 41-46. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.


Bhaskar, Michael. The Content Machine: Towards a Theory of Publishing from the Printing Press to the Digital Network. London: Anthem, 2013. Print.


Bradley, Jana, et al. “Non-Traditional Book Publishing.” First Monday 16.8 (2011): n. pag. Web. 28 Nov. 2015



Hane, Paula. “Spotlight on the Self-Publishing Market.” Information Today, September 2012. 7. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.


Haughland, Ann. “Opening the Gates: Print On-Demand Publishing as Cultural Production.” Publishing Research Quarterly 22.3 (2006): 3-16. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.


Konrath, Joe. “A Case of the Shatz – Fisking Mike Shatzkin.” A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing, 14 Feb. 2014. Web. 29 Nov. 2015



Laquintano, Tim. “Sustained Authorship: Digital Writing, Self-Publishing, and the Ebook.” Written Communication 27.4 (2010): 469-493. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.


Lorimer, Rowland. Ultra Libris: Policy, Technology, and the Creative Economy of Book Publishing in Canada. Toronto: ECW Press, 2012. Print.


Phillips, Angus, et al. “The Nature of the Relationship between Authors and Publishers.” Publishing Research Quarterly 21.2 (2005): 3-15. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.


Roper, Jenny. “Self-Publishing – New Authors Seek Out Printers with the Write Stuff.” Print Week, 15 Mar. 2013. n. pag. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.


Shatzkin, Mike. “Much as I like Hugh Howey, I Disagree with Just about All of This Recent Post of His.” The Shatzkin Files, 16 June 2014. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.



Stommel, Yves, and Clemens Bechter. “Challenges, Chances and Risk Sharing When Self-Publishing Ebooks – Research into Author Preferences.” International SAMANM Journal of Marketing and Management 1.2 (2013): 63-95. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.


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