Why the Self-Publishing Disconnect?
Yesterday, I ran you through my thoughts on the very different ways that the two creative industries in which I participate (videogame development and book publishing) differ in their perceptions of self-published work. In today’s post, I’ll run through my theories why, including those I’ve self-debunked.
Theory 1: Self-published books are often poor quality – riddled with typos, featuring generic covers, and difficult to read due to layout issues. This is because it’s impossible for authors to produce a quality book without the guidance and approval of a traditional publishing house.
Analysis: A cursory inspection of books on Amazon will confirm there a number of poor quality self-published books out there – unlike in traditional publishing, gatekeepers do not exist. Yet this can’t be the reason game developers and book publishers view self-publishing differently, because the exact same thing is true of independent game development. The vast majority of indie games are poor quality as well. Just go on any app store and you’ll find a huge number of indie games that are riddled with bugs, overpromise and under deliver, and feature unintuitive and clunky controls.
So why aren’t game developers at big publishers constantly telling new developers that they should never publish a game on their own? That they should only publish if they can gain a big publisher’s approval, guidance, and coveted release slot? Because all game developers, including those at big publishers and those working on their own, understand that experience, planning, and hard work are all you need to make a great game. Who publishes the final product doesn’t matter.
Experienced developers recognize that independent games can really shine – when done right – and offer newcomers advice on how to make a game the right way. Prototype. Playtest. Feedback. Playtest. Feedback. Playtest. Bug check. Playtest. And when a new designer finally self-publishes their completed game, other designers congratulate them on this accomplishment instead of looking down on them.
As with game development, the theory that only big book publishers can make great books is incorrect. An author who approaches a self-published book the proper way – hiring a professional editor, listening to and incorporating that editor’s feedback, purchasing quality cover art, and ensuring their early draft receives plenty of unbiased feedback from advance readers – can absolutely make a great book. Like a game, when the quality’s there, it doesn’t matter how it was published.
Theory 2: Market research shows that readers only buy books curated and hand-picked by editors at traditional presses. Readers aren’t interested in and won’t purchase self-published books.
Traditional presses actually disproved this theory themselves. All you need do is look at the number of self-published titles they’ve subsequently purchased from authors and re-published themselves, once the book met with success. Even traditional presses acknowledge that great self-published books exist and it is possible for any author to release one if, again, just like games, they do it right. In addition, there are now a number of self-published authors doing very, very well – in some cases, even better than those authors with traditional press – completely on their own.
The game industry, of course, has never believed a game must be handpicked by a big publisher to sell. We believe all a developer must do to make a successful game is do things right. Find the fun. And many of these independent games, completely free of any influence or seal of approval from a big publisher, turn out as fun as games with hundreds of designers and budgets in the millions – because the independent developer iterated and tested their game until they got it right.
Just as independent game developers who do things right can release a quality game, self-published authors who do things right can release a quality book. They simply publish it themselves, when it’s ready, and how it is published has no effect on the quality of the final product or who will buy it.
Theory 3: Publishing a high quality book and selling it to readers across the world, on your own, was next to impossible for a very long time, before today’s technology and distribution methods. By comparison, game developers have been able to self-publish high quality games for as long as the game industry has existed, and have been able to do so across multiple electronic distribution channels – not just physical stores.
Analysis: Ultimately, this is the theory that makes the most sense to me. Before print-on-demand, e-books, and Amazon, a traditional press and its attached apparatus was the only way to publish a quality book – and I think many in traditional publishing still believe (incorrectly) that this remains the case. In the “old days”, printing presses wouldn’t even print a book unless the client purchased many physical copies at once, which was very, very expensive. Readers could only discover authors at brick-and-mortar bookstores, on shelves that had limited space stocked with physical books from traditional publishers and absolutely no one else. E-books and e-readers didn’t even exist.
By comparison, the game industry has been self-publishing since it was conceived by people making games on computers they built themselves. They proved repeatedly that anyone who was smart enough and ambitious enough could release a quality game, and finishing and releasing a game entirely on your own has always been an accomplishment. Even the big publishers who formed to produce physical media (disks, cartridges, and CDs) retained a healthy respect for “self-published” games because they came from a background making them. Finally, games have always been available in electronic formats – not chained to brick-and-mortar distribution – while e-books have only become popular recently.
The different ways each industry grew up is where I believe the stigma traditional publishing attaches to self-publishing originates. Many in traditional press simply don’t understand how far self-publishing has come in the last ten years, and thus assume it must be inferior. Commonly available software packages allow authors to quickly edit manuscripts and create interior layouts just as clean as traditional presses. Print-on-demand services produce quality paperbacks without the need for an author to pay any money up front, store books in inventory (books don’t exist until they are sold), or mail them to buyers. And online retailers like Amazon and others allow any author to sell direct to readers anywhere in the world.
Finally, the biggest market change comes from readers, huge numbers of whom will buy a quality book regardless of if it is traditional press, small press, print-on-demand, or a plain e-book. Quality is quality, and who published the book doesn’t really matter to the majority of readers these days. All they want is good value for their money – and self-published books can now offer the same quality as traditional press books.
Why Is This Important?
Tomorrow, in the final part of this post, I’ll explain why I think it’s important to remove the stigma associated with self-publishing from the book industry, both from the perspective of authors self-published and traditionally published and from the perspective of those in traditional press. If we don’t do this, we’re giving up some terrific opportunities for publishing to grow.