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    In Defense of Self-Publishing

    by Marcy Goldman
    February 11, 2015
    Image by

    There are so many op-eds these days on when or if to self-publish, and even more so, features (albeit they’re dwindling) on how inferior self-published works are — just by the very fact they are self-published. This premise is applied even if the self-publishing author has the budget, foresight and professionalism to engage all manner of expert editors, proofreaders, formatters, designers and thoroughly research the distribution and promotion of his or her work. There’s also a presumption (or fear) that without sufficient social media or a platform, books (even great ones) won’t get noticed — that is, if you publish it, who will find you or it? This suggests that Shakespeare or Elizabeth Gilbert, without the benefits of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, or a YouTube video of “Othello,” would never have been discovered  — which suggests that we, as authors, creators and publishers, actually believe form trumps content.

    And these opinions never cease to amaze (and annoy) me. For one thing, there’s a passion, even a nervous derision or tempered dismissiveness, offered to self-published authors in most of the opinion pieces I’ve read. There’s the assumption that a self-published author is a “never-published author” or “can’t-find-a-book-deal author.” The articles I’ve read also seem to refer to fiction writers when there are many other types of authors. I am, in fact, a cookbook author — another genre of author now in the fray.

    "I am not unique in forging a new path, but why would authors be so disparaging to their fellow authors on the subject of self-publishing?"
    Photo by Opensource.com and resused here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by Opensource.com and resused here with Creative Commons license.

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    Let me explain a bit about cookbook authors.

    Cookbook authors are writers. We are not verbose home economic teachers –- we are specialty writers with a second specialty in food. Some, as I am, are trained chefs in addition to being wordsmiths. Consequently, our challenges are even more so than regular writers. We battle the plethora of amateur recipe blogs and zillions of free recipes, the charisma of celebrity chefs on TV, blogs or YouTube phenoms. In addition, our books require expensive food photography and complicated book design, our recipes need extraordinary copy editing, and we also need legions of volunteer recipe testers to make sure our recipes work. When it came to food photography in our cookbooks, many a time my advance (in traditional publishing) was a quarter that of the photographer’s budget.

    In short, if you think self-publishing the average black-and-white 300-page paranormal novel is difficult, try self-publishing a 300-page full color cookbook. No one would choose to do this alone –- not even Mrs. Jerry Seinfeld, Rachel Ray or the ex-Mrs. Billy Joel. Jamie Oliver and Ina Gartner  could well buy Random House 10 times over, I imagine. But even they don’t self-publish. Why? Because even the well-heeled and well-connected use publishers for their cookbooks because it’s hugely difficult –- even with a team assisting you.

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    So it’s not about money –- self-publishing garners you 70 percent royalties versus 15 percent royalties at traditional publications. Indeed, if it were, wealthy authors would do it themselves. On the flip side, what is more prestigious is saying you’re a Random author or Scribner author -– at least, when that meant something and had a fiscal bottom line.

    But here’s my pain: Overall, there is a premise that if you self-publish, you are either an inferior or unaware author. Having had a reasonable advance, you somehow chose to “go rogue” and venture into self-publishing, whether it is due to a misplaced vanity press adventure spirit or the idea you could out earn on your own what a traditional publisher would be offering you.

    As a traditional and well-established cookbook author with a track record and solid book sales, I don’t see myself represented in these discussions, and yet I am part of a silent majority –- the mid-list cookbook author. Furthermore, I find it hard to believe that any traditional author, with great book numbers, a brand, a platform and a plan would consider self-publishing if, in fact, the advances hadn’t shrunk dramatically (some 80 to 90 percent). It’s not a whim choice; it’s a have-to choice.

    My first self-published book

    After 25 years of great publishers, great cookbooks — and what I thought was an upward spiraling career — I self-published my first cookbook, “When Bakers Cook,” two months ago. I did this not because I wanted to but because I had to. I love words, books, and in my case, creating ambrosial baking that I want to share with my readers. As publishing up-ended itself, I realized — with skepticism, then denial, anger, sadness and finally, pro-activeness — I had three choices. I could quit and be a Wal-Mart greeter. I could take tiny (untenable) advances and supplement that with freelance writing. Or I could dive into the Bermuda Triangle of self-publishing.

    I’m a Taurus and we don’t quit, so I chose Door No. 3 — self-publish.

    Photo by Berto via Flickr and used with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by Berto via Flickr and used with Creative Commons license.

    It took me three years to simply research the self-publishing partners and players. I had no idea what formatting really meant, and I had to cobble the budget to pay my editor, copy editor, indexer, proofreader, photographer and publishing costs with Create Space and Kindle. Let it also be said that some of the talented staff I hired were recently let go from prestigious traditional publishers.

    And let it also be said that we can no longer assume that having a traditional book deal ensures a “team” of editorial and sales help –- things are lean everywhere. Speaking more directly to that, I recently was in Barnes and Noble and stumbled on a cookbook by a great colleague, produced by a huge publisher renowned for their wonderful cookbooks. In this book was a neat three-page addendum of text and recipe errors. My point is, we can no longer assume perfect and quality is only the domain of traditional publishing.

    Despite having a complete manuscript, it took me another 13 months to get my book out through the self-publishing route. “When Bakers Cook” launched on December 20, 2013. Thanks to a galley physical copy I had to send to one editor, it was later named one of the “Best Cookbooks of 2013” by the Washington Post. It continues to sell quite nicely, day in and day out. I am now working on my second self-published cookbook, due this summer, as well as a book on tango and one on scent. And I will probably, indeed, publish my book of poetry. Why? Because, I now can. And I am quietly and proudly building my own back list. While I respect and miss my publishers, I am no longer waiting for a publisher to determine if I am the next hot trend or its derivative, or if I have enough platform to merit a book deal, which is about the same as four freelance features for the New York Times. This is a new publishing world, and what looks like something often isn’t. Twitter follows don’t necessarily distill down into book sales, and a good Google ranking doesn’t make me the next Julia Child. But how we hate to release an old romance -– however bogus it really is.

    In those 13 months and the horrific learning curve of self-publishing, as my spirits and confidence rose, I noticed the put-down features on self-publishing. I couldn’t fathom it.

    I also tried many times to share this great adventure, which few, if any colleagues — who are struggling themselves — wanted to hear. Overall, my sense is that I’ve betrayed something or someone, and crossed a line into a land I never wanted to visit. I was its sole resident but am now beginning to thrive. That’s the part I still don’t get. I’m not unique as a mid-list author having to face things I hadn’t anticipated. I am not unique in forging a new path, but why would authors — both those traditionally published and those eking by — be so disparaging to their fellow authors on the subject of self-publishing?

    Better to publish than perish

    I never wanted to self-publish. I imagined a continuance of Random House, HarperCollins book deals for my growing baking author platform and more features in the New York Times. I envisioned more Christmas baskets from my publishers, publisher web staff to help me with my blog and website, publicists to set up my interviews and promotional spots. Instead, I am now River Heart Press (my own imprint) and I am boldly going where I went when I was 12 years old and was editor-publisher of my own street newspaper The Goldman Times. That little girl knew then what this grown woman/adult author is just learning all over again. Better to publish than to perish.

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    Photo by jessamyn west on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Here’s my take-away. If you want to publish — whether you’re rife with talent or no one has dared tell you you’re not — do it. If you are traditionally publishing and even established but have another genre of book your current publisher won’t consider — do it. If you are incredibly talented, passionate and have wonderful book numbers and fate or the times have left you without a chair in the musical chairs of book deals — do it. There are no “sides” in all this — there is no either/or approach. There are pros and cons to it all, but overall, between no book or an “OK” self-published book (in content and production) and a potential Pulitzer Prize winner (or thwarted or unattempted dream) languishing in your drawer or in a Word file — I will take the mediocre (or not) self-published book. I suggest you do too.

    And to my colleagues who refute my pathway or otherwise seem to attempt so hard to dismantle my efforts to stay afloat and bring my words and recipes to my readers, I say: Jump into the pool. The water’s warm and there’s plenty of room.

    Marcy Goldman, an IACP Julia Child Cookbook Award nominee, is a non-fiction writer, master baker and host of www.Betterbaking.com. Goldman has been a feature contributor to Martha Stewart Sirius, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Bon Appetit,  Epicurious and Costco Connection.  She’s the author of several best-selling cookbooks, including “When Bakers Cook,” “A Passion for Baking,” “A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking,” “The Best of Betterbaking.com” and a book of prose, “Love and Ordinary Things.” 

    Update: This piece has been altered to correct a typo in the second paragraph.

    Tagged: books e-books e-publishing freelance self-publishing
    • Marcy,
      Thanks for this great post.

      I read excerpts, by the way, at http://www.ThePassiveVoice.com and followed the link into your full-length narrative, here.

      Glad I did.

      Many years ago, in total ignorance, I attempted to help my Mom to write a cookbook – a no-salt specialty cookbook, which introduced the added dimension of health-related claims, etc.

      Suffice to say that the experience soon led me to a much improved, lay understanding of just how difficult and complex is the cookbook author’s task, when responsibly and professionally done.

      Suffice to say that, in our case, the right thing to do was a course correction away from publishing that particular title.

      I can see, in retrospect and just as you have said, how much easier it is to write the romance or the book about how to grow weeds to attract butterflies, even the book about how to buy used cars without apoplexy. Anyway, just a note to say thanks for writing this post and good luck with self-published book #2!

    • Tamara Leigh

      Wonderful, uplifting, spot-on article! Thank you, Marcy :)

    • Rashomon8

      What’s “a nervous derisioncol”?

      • Courtney

        Apologies. That was a typo. All fixed.

    • David VanDyke

      Great article. You’ve said so many things well.

      “…but why would authors — both those traditionally published and those
      eking by — be so disparaging to their fellow authors on the subject of
      self-publishing?”

      Fear of the sand shifting under their feet.

      Investment in the status quo, combined with hope that the brass ring will someday land in their lap, despite evidence to the contrary.

      Envy of those who’ve made it, especially those who seem to have done so faster than usual, and without the blessing of the powers that be.

      Jealousy that others’ success is a harbinger of their future failure.

      “But here’s my pain: Overall, there is a premise that if you self-publish, you are either an inferior or unaware author.”

      Slowly changing, but still lodged in the minds of many. A friend of mine whose income exceeds seven figures and who consistently sits in the top 5 of one of the major genre fiction lists can’t get invited to an appropriate event, because all of his titles are published independently and/or through Amazon imprints.

      I believe it will take a generation to fully shift. By analogy, we are the Reformation, the American Independence movement. Protestantism and the United States both took some time to establish legitimacy as something more than an opponent to the entrenched powers.

      “I never wanted to self-publish. I imagined a continuance of Random
      House, HarperCollins book deals for my growing baking author platform
      and more features in the New York Times. I envisioned more Christmas
      baskets from my publishers, publisher web staff to help me with my blog
      and website, publicists to set up my interviews and promotional spots.
      Instead, I am now River Heart Press (my own imprint) and I am boldly
      going where I went when I was 12 years old and was editor-publisher of
      my own street newspaper The Goldman Times. That little girl knew then
      what this grown woman/adult author is just learning all over again.
      Better to publish than to perish.”

      The Old Guard had their opportunity to lead the digital revolution instead of follow. They could have worked together to create a digital reader like Kindle that would have kept eveything in their hands. Instead, they selected a third, near-disastrous path: they chose to try to fight that which could not be defeated, namely, the move to digital reading. Rather than carpe diem and guide the inevitable, they tried to hold back the rising tide. Amazon got out ahead of the curve, and the burgeoning use of tablets and smart phones sealed the deal. The Big Six, now Five, voluntarily yielded the digital battlefield whilst trying to fight this war with the last war’s suite of weapons.

    • Lisa Medley

      I was traditionally published (yeah, paranormal romance/urban fantasy) albeit with a digital-only imprint. Mercifully, I got all those rights back and relaunched my second self-published title today! Last year with a traditional publisher was a wasted year. Minuscule sales. But I leaned a lot, and I will continue to be my own boss. I’ll never give my rights away again. Lesson learned. I am proud to self-publish. I’ll continue until I find success because I am a Taurus, and WE DON’T QUIT! Rock on.

    • Thank you for this impassioned and reasoned article. I’m fully in agreement, that self-publishing is not inferior, just ‘another way’. Considering all the decisions, risk and work a self-published author undertakes, it infuriates me that the traditionally-published ilk, and many in the industry, see it as a cop out. The dinosaurs died out, let’s remember; I predict those continuing to derise self-publishing through an elitist attitude will be the minority sooner than they think.

      When there’s so much free content in the public domain – far more than can ever be consumed – I see more pressing things to worry about. And I certainly don’t see how traditional publishing houses can take any sort of moral high ground on quality content when the numerous autobiographies of Katy Price exist.

    • bobbly

      Self-publishing is inferior, the refuge of authors whose work is not good enough to sell to a REAL publishing house.

    • highwayscribery

      Enjoyed your piece.

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