A Contradiction in Perception
After amicably parting ways with the small press that published my first novel, I consulted with several fellow game developers who had published their own books about where to go next. After hearing about the experiences, I decided self-pubbing my book’s reprint (a “second edition”) was the way to go. I found doing so easy and painless, and I remain quite proud of my first book… moreover, I now plan to self-publish my second book, a sequel to the first, at the end of the year. It just makes sense.
Despite my own positive experiences with self-publishing, I still hope to publish a book traditionally some day, and remain open to publishing my future work via any avenue. Yet conversations I’ve had with both fellow authors and editors have reminded me a significant stigma remains attached to self-publishing, which, coming from a background as a videogame developer, I’ve always found quite odd.
This got me thinking about why the book and videogame industries view self-publishing so differently, and what might have led to this divide. The book and game industries are very similar (both produce art that consumers subjectively enjoy or deride) yet the perception of the content creators themselves (authors versus game developers) and their art remains very different. In part one of what will be a three part blog post, I’ll offer my thoughts on how both industries view self-published products.
Self-Publishing in Game Development
In the world of professional videogame development, “self-published games” are generally called “indie games”. Rather than looking down on indie games, both independent game developers and those with big publishers consider the ability to complete and release an indie game an accomplishment, even a badge of honor. What matters is that the developer completed and released a playable game – if it’s a quality experience, gamers love it and developers praise it. How it was published couldn’t matter less.
In addition, many in the professional videogame industry call out independent games and independent game developers as advancing our industry as a whole, exploring themes and gameplay mechanics the big publishers wouldn’t touch. In short, innovating. Gamers often seek out indie games for experiences beyond the “samey” first-person shooter and sports game sequels the big publishers release each year.
When both professional game developers and gamers use the words “indie game”, it is almost always in a positive context. While I could list dozens of indie games I personally enjoy, I’ll simply list one you’ve almost certainly heard of – Minecraft. Its indie developer eventually sold it to Microsoft for billions.
Finally, just as with the book industry, there are a limited number of big videogame publishers and they can only publish a fraction of the games released each year. Big publishers are also far more likely to publish sequels to previously successful games created by developers they already know. There simply aren’t enough slots in their publishing schedule to publish new games from new developers, limiting opportunity for newcomers, and this is why many independent game developers self-publish. A spot with a big publisher may simply not exist, regardless of the quality of the game you’ve created.
Self-Publishing in a Traditional Publishing World
Now let’s compare this to book publishing. Many traditional publishers, as well as authors who publish through them, still look down on self-published books and the indie authors who write them. While the stigma continues to fade each year, a number of agents, editors, and authors maintain that any book which is self-published must be inferior to any book published through traditional press – period – and those who release these books only self-published because they weren’t skilled enough to sell a book to a traditional editor, agent, or press. The derisive term for self-publishing remains “vanity press”, which in and of itself clearly shows how some in traditional publishing still view self-published work.
Among readers, the derision toward self-published work is far less noticeable, and though still present, it continues to rapidly fade. This is largely due to advances in the technology of books themselves – print-on-demand technology is now widely available, e-books are selling well, and the traditional brick and mortar bookstores (where shelf space was limited to traditionally published books) have given way to the level playing field provided by Amazon and other online book vendors. Anyone can publish a book these days and it sells based on its quality and marketing, not who published it. Only quality matters.
Finally, just like in the game industry, the number of big book publishers (and the slots they have to print and publish books each year) remains limited. When a big publisher doesn’t even have enough slots in a year to publish books from all of the authors they’ve already signed, why would they consider taking a book from a new author, regardless of quality? A slot in the big publisher’s schedule simply doesn’t exist, so like indie game developers who fund their own development, indie authors use their own money to hire a professional editor, purchase cover art, and recruit both fellow authors and advance readers to critique their manuscript. They do everything a traditional publisher does to ensure their final book is of the highest quality – the only difference is, once they’ve done this, they publish it themselves.
So What’s Going On?
Why does this disconnect between two equally creative industries exist? Why are the perceptions of professional game developers and traditionally published authors so different? Why is self-publishing a negative in the book industry and a positive in the game industry, when both methods can now produce art of equal quality regardless of publication method? I have some ideas, but I’m breaking this blog post into three parts to keep it manageable.
In Part 2 (to be published tomorrow) I’ll suggest and then debunk some popular theories as to why these industries perceive self-publishing differently, and provide my own thoughts. In Part 3, I’ll explain why I think the stigma associated with self-publishing books needs to end, and how it divides authors.