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The State of the Stigma

[1]The media — both traditional and social — is doing a fabulous job spreading the word that self-publishing has officially lost its stigma.  Outlets as venerable as The New York Times Sunday Book Review [2] and PBS.org [3] and have weighed in on the pros of going solo and how the changing landscape has brought this phenomenon into the mainstream.

But two major caveats to the stigma’s end seem to have been left out of the conversation.  As an author about to self-publish who’s learned a lot the hard way, I think it’s vital to air, share and build some awareness around these quirks of the trade that impact us all.  For lack of better names, I’ll call them “The Rubber Stamp” and “The Blanket Policy.”

Quick primer:

The Rubber Stamp

Not all methods of self-publishing are created equal.  On one end of the spectrum e-books seem to have virtually no stigma attached, possibly because they’re so different and new.  On the other end, paper books produced by one-stop-shopping firms like Lulu.com [4], AuthorHouse [5] and iUniverse [6], which offer everything from design to distribution in a convenient package deal, are a glaring target for anyone inclined to turn up their nose.

These firms stand at the absolute bottom of the self-publishing food chain.  Many people take issue with the fact that they charge an up-front fee for a package of services, throw their logos on your book’s cover, set the price, take a cut of the royalties and turn a very nice profit.  They also have some nefarious practices such as offering accolades (e.g., iUniverse’s “Editors Choice [7]” and “Rising Star [8]” awards) to books they find deserving then requiring costly supplemental services before the awards can be granted.

Bottom line: These firms’ logos on your book are like a rubber stamp reading “stigmatized.”

The Blanket Policy

There’s a silent rule that book reviewers follow like the gospel, book bloggers often adhere to and far too many authors with traditional publishing deals reinforce:

“Self-published authors need not apply.”

It results in extremely limited review opportunities for self-pubbed authors, especially in traditional media outlets like newspapers and magazines, and a culture of benign neglect by traditionally-pubbed authors who — oops! — overlook chances to tweet, blog about or attend events honoring their self-published peers.

 

As an author mindful of conventions, I opted out of using iUniverse when I realized it carried a stigma, even after having signed a contract, used a number of its services and received its Editor’s Choice award.  Instead I switched gears to the more widely acceptable approach of purchasing my own ISBN number, assigning it to my very own indie “publishing” company created for this purpose and independently hiring a designer, a copy-editor and a printer.  Frankly, it was a hassle.  iUniverse had done a terrific job holding had my hand, which made my busy life much easier.  But the upshot is I can now set my own price and drop my “publisher’s” name with pride, as if it were a small, literary press.

Also in the spirit of conventions, I know better than to waste my time pitching reviewers when the novel I’m self-publishing, Veronica’s Nap [9], comes out.  And I simply walk away when traditionally-published authors drop the names of their publicists who don’t take on self-published projects or chat about opportunities they’re collaborating on exclusively with their traditionally-published friends.

As a critical thinker, however, this disturbs me.  Truth be told, the criteria dictating where to place a “stigma” stamp seem as arbitrary as the criteria my 12-year-old son describes when talking about why some kids in his middle school are “popular” and others aren’t.  So iUniverse, AuthorHouse, Lulu.com and their competitors charge an upfront fee?  That fee happens to cover the same design, copy-editing and printing services I ultimately wound up paying much more for on my own.  And they set books’ prices, take a cut of the royalties?  Hey — so do traditional publishers!  What’s more — caveat to the caveat — with many of the one-stop-shops now allowing authors to work through them to create their own indie brand, the line between “indie” and “one-stop-shopped” has all but disappeared.

As for organizations and individuals with a blanket policy excluding self-published titles and authors, we can debate their reasons till we’re blue in the face and get absolutely nowhere.  On the high end politics and grandiose egos surely prevail.  On the low end, I suspect insecurity and a hunger for validation play a role.

The takeaway for writers is to be aware of the state of the stigma and be careful not to blindly buy into conventions with no valid rationale.  An honest, case-by-case assessment of all books seems more appropriate than rubber-stamps and blanket policies.  Substance is more important than any label.  And let’s not forget that self- and traditionally-published authors have more and more in common, including being in a field where there are as many exceptions as there are rules.

About Sharon Bially [10]

Sharon Bially (@SharonBially [11]) is the founder and president of BookSavvy PR [12], a public relations firm devoted to authors and books. Author of the novel Veronica’s Nap [13], she’s a member of the Director's Circle at Grub Street, Inc., the nation’s largest independent writing center, and writes occasionally for the Grub Street Daily.

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