Overcoming the Self-Publishing Stigma

You want to self-publish but there’s still a stigma attached to it. You know it’s there. There’s glory in publishing the traditional way, getting your book chosen for publication. When you self-publish you may get an eyebrow raise, but probably not for a good reason. So, can the stigma be defeated?


The assumption: a self-published book wasn’t picked from thousands of manuscripts for publication, therefore it’s not as good as a published book.

Why’s the stigma there? Quality, both inside and out. To overcome the assumptions about self-publication, you–we–must be honest and willing to put extra work and money into our books.

Why are you thinking of self-publishing?

There are thousands of articles examining the pros and cons of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing, and I’m going to assume you’ve read at least one.

What drives you to self-publishing?

Answer: eagerness. You have probably read countless stories of how your favorite authors got published. They’re trial by fire stories about the lone author, perhaps with their spouse or family, putting all their hopes in their book. They peddle it to agents, receive rejections, but persevere. Finally an agent takes a chance on it, and fights for the book until one day, after even more rejections, a publisher decides to buy it. Viola, a dream has come true. It’s a popular story, and let’s be honest, it’s romantic as heck.

Going the traditional route can take years, and after all the work you’ve put into your book, you figure the biggest, most important thing to you is having the book published and available to others, not the story of how it was published. Yeah, traditional publishing is romantic, but you’re over that. You want to publish your book now.

If self-publishing had been this easy 100 years ago… well, I’m pretty sure a lot of the published authors of today would have done it themselves. Especially after years of struggling. I’m just saying.

Traditional publishing is how it’s been done for hundreds of years. It’s How It Worked. It’s What You Did. A publisher choosing your book is validation that it’s worth something. So it’s natural for both authors and readers to assume that if something has been published traditionally, it’s at least halfway decent.

Is your book good? Would it have made it the traditional route if you’d decided to give it two to three years of trying? You’re probably nodding your head; of course your book is good–it’s yours. Your brainchild. You take great pride in it.

You have no objective feelings about it, either.

You may think your book is the next great thing, but that’s you. And what do you know about your own book? That you love it? Certainly. No one will ever love your book more than you, that’s a given. But will others love it?

This is how the “self-published books are rubbish” stigma came into being. An author (let’s call her Milly*) loved her book so much she was blind to criticism. The opinions of others be damned. Those who were critical of her writing, those who didn’t like her story, they were fools! Obviously they didn’t understand the complexity of the work, they were confused, or just plain stupid. Milly’s book was destined to be a classic. She would forgo everyone and publish the book herself, because it would be a crime not to give the world The Great Mouse Nest.

Milly designed her own cover in Microsoft Word, edited the book herself, typeset it herself, and put it up for sale on amazon.com. Needless to say, Milly’s book is misunderstood by all.

So. Is it good?

Believing in your book is important, but others need to believe in it too. The reason you want to publish it is so others can read it. Your faith in your book means diddily squat if other people don’t like it. The book’s success depends on other’s liking and helping you to market it.

Ever watch American Idol? You have probably seen at least one buffoon make a total fool of themselves in an audition. Maybe someone sent you a video clip via email or a post on Facebook, with the caption “LMAO!” and you watch, your ribs cracking, as a guy tries signing “Don’t Cha” in a high pitch whiny voice.

It’s funny but also sad. These hopeful pop stars don’t just believe their good, they’re convinced of it. Chances are, one of their friends–or their mother–reinforced the idea. So, thinking they were the next Celine Dion or Josh Groban, they tootled their non-singing-talented tushies down to the American Idol audition and crooned their hearts out for all of the TV-watching world to see.

With the ease of self-publishing, where any monkey with a computer can publish a book (no offense to monkeys) the literary world is about to be flooded with the equivalent of American Idol rejects.

Before you get testy with me, let me also say this: among all the crappy singers, a few gems are found, which would otherwise be shining in the dark, unseen.

Back to the original question: is your book a gem waiting to be discovered, or is it something a lot less valuable? If you’re self-publishing, you have to create a filter system. Just because you wrote it doesn’t mean it’s amazing.

Using the Bovine Feces Meter

Send your book to family and friends with simple instructions: tell the truth. And when you issue that command, do it sincerely. You want the truth. You do not want to publish something that may be absolute and total crap. It would embarrass you. You do not want to start a legacy of you being a horrible writer. You want whatever has your name on it to shine. You must demand honesty. No flattery. No wish-washy. No sugar-coating. Keep your eyes and ears open for traces of bovine feces, because despite your wishes for honesty, friends may try to spare your feelings if your book isn’t as wonderful as you think.

While your friends and family are reading the book, remember this: the book is important to you, but it isn’t you. If someone says they don’t like your book, they’re not saying they don’t like you. Distance yourself. It will be hard, but you need to do it. Brace yourself.

Whether your book is a romance, espionage, murder mystery, legal thriller, or fantasy, a family member or friend, if they care for you and have followed your sincere wishes, will be able to tell you if it’s worth something. Doesn’t matter if it’s not their favorite genre. A well-written book crosses genres, as does a poorly written one.

Examine how long it takes for people to finish your book. Most people take at least a week or two to finish a novel, depending on how long it is, how busy they are, etc. Did it take them about their average reading time? Did it take them longer? Shorter?

I asked a few questions about my novel that I wanted honest answers to. They are:

  1. Did you feel any passage was slow?
  2. Did any part of the book make you feel embarrased?
  3. Did any part of the book confuse you?
  4. Were you ever lost, or did you not understand what was going on?
  5. Was one passage weaker than another? If so, which?
  6. What words would you use to describe this book?

What sorts of answers do you get? Are the responses to your book hot, cold, or lukewarm? I know when I’m being schmoozed. I also know when people are being genuine. There’s always a difference, and if you’re being honest with yourself, you know it too. Do your people like your book, or are they trying to spare your feelings with marketing spin/bovine feces? Milly probably assumed that everyone who hated her novel The Great Mouse Nest, was just jealous. Milly was wrong. Don’t assume that the reason people don’t like the book is jealousy, especially if it’s every single person you know.

Ten Gallon, Bowler, Baseball, Beret

If you got mediocre responses to your book, you probably widened your audience. After all, not every book is for everyone. If you still got mediocre responses, you need to reexamine the book and maybe chalk it up to practice. If at first you don’t succeed…

But if you got raving reviews, even with the bovine feces meter set to extra sensitive, you’re ready to publish this baby.

Hang on just one second. A publisher does more than choose your book. They refine it. They make it pretty. They go to work on it.

You may have written the book, but do you know how to do anything else with it?

Remember, Milly did all the work for The Great Mouse Nest. The book reeked inside and out, and it wasn’t just the content. The presentation was horrible. Milly didn’t know how to create a cover. She didn’t know how to lay out the book professionally. And she really didn’t know how to edit.


Like when you were asking for honest opinions about the book content, be honest with yourself. Do you know how to design a cover? Even if you can figure out the logistics, do you have any graphic design experience? Importing an image into Word doesn’t count. Knowing the primary and secondary colors on the color wheel doesn’t count either. Taking a couple of Photoshop classes means bupkis.

If you’re serious about making this book look professional, and if you want to kill the stigma that self-published books are equivalent to toilet paper, then hire a graphic designer to create your cover and typeset your book. Plan on spending anywhere from $500-$2000 (depends on your book and quality of design). Good graphic designers won’t charge any less. Make your book look like one. Don’t design the cover yourself unless you have made thousands of dollars as a graphic designer working for clients who are not your mother.


You. Cannot. Edit. Your. Own. Book.

This doesn’t mean you won’t try. Take my word for it, wait MONTHS (six if you can go that long) before reading through and editing your book. Then do it again (don’t wait six months, but a few weeks). Maybe three times for good measure. Print it out. Highlight with a red pen. Read the book on your Kindle and make notes. You’ll find a lot that needs fixing. You’ll catch wrong words, missed words, typos, missed and extra commas, inconsistencies, a whole heap of stuff. But you won’t catch it all. Not even close.

How many times have you read a professionally published book and found at least one or two errors? Probably lots. And those books had at least one or two editors going through that book with the sole purpose of finding and slaying errors! You can’t catch everything, you can’t catch even close to everything. You need help! So go get it.

Figure it out yourself

One of the reasons you’re self-publishing is the M word. Money. But if you want to make all the profits, you have to do all the work. ISBNs, Library of Congress, converting to an e-book, getting the book listed with the big guys (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.), distributors, and the always challenging marketing, will all have to be done by you. If you love your book and you think it’s got a fighting chance, this shouldn’t be a headache. You’ll learn the ropes and make it as professional as possible. Loving your book is key to all this. Self-publishing is A LOT of work. They’re are rewards, too, but you must believe in your work, and others will have to believe in it too.

A super helpful resource to figuring out what all needs to be done for your book is The One Hour Guide to Self-Publishing by Dave Bricker.

Make it look good, inside and out

Honesty, honesty, honesty. Be your own filter. Is the book good? Are you willing to spend the time, money, and effort to make it look professional, like a real book?

In the end, it’s all the same

Traditionally published or self-published, all books depend on the exact same thing for success: word of mouth. Even though she had the best seller of all time, only 12-13 people showed up to J.K. Rowling’s first book signing. It took her years before she was successful. It takes a while for people to read books, and to spread the word. But that word needs to be spread. If you’re book is good, word will get out and people will buy and recommend it. If it’s a stinker, it’ll lay forgotten.

IN ORDER TO DEFEAT THE STIGMA, YOU MUST DEFY IT. People should pick up your book and ask “How did you get published?” just like how all the big authors are asked by eager, budding, wannabe writers looking for tips and romantic tales of perseverance. Make sure they don’t add italics to the question, like “How did you get published?” while frowning and curling their lips. If your book looks self-published on the outside, it will probably read like The Great Mouse Nest on the inside.

Quality control is the only way we can win. Self-publishers are lucky. For years, traditional publishers have been the gatekeepers, and the only way to get a book out was to go through them. But we must act as our own gatekeepers on our content, quality, and methods now, so our books can sit side-by-side with the traditionally published books, and not look or read any differently.

*Milly is not a real person, just used an example. You probably knew this, but I’ve learned that the internet is full of people lacking any sense of humor–people who take everything literally.

Images borrowed from http://www.sxc.hu/index.phtml