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Why Self-Publishing Has a Bad Rap: Three Pitfalls and Their Antidotes

Let’s face it, my friends. Self-publishing has a bad rap.

Publishing your own book is snootily labeled second-class, amateur, slipshod, self-centered, unprofessional and much worse. In the “bad old days” (before the digital print-on-demand revolution rendered self-publishing a reasonable pursuit for just about any author) DIY publishers were actually called “vanity presses”!

The stigma, as they say, was real.

And yet, the self-publishing industry has seen exponential growth in the past 20 years. Many high-profile authors are leaving their traditional publishers for a more independent, self-determined DIY experience. Hybrid publishers, book shepherds, and self-publishing coaches are entering the business in droves. Self-publishing, it seems, is here to stay.

So why is it that, even today, the going perception is that self-published books are, ahem, low quality? Why do we expect them to look bad, read poorly and lack elegance? As well as lack the symmetry and ease of the reading experience—All of which we expect from a traditional published tome?

After 20 years in the book business—and working with many authors on both sides of this divide—I’m here to give you answers. And I’m not going to lie, what I have to say is a sobering message in this time of wanton enthusiasm for self-publishing.

But don’t fret! I want you to have this information, so you know what you’re getting into. Because part of our company mission is to help indie authors get their books in the world, and making sure the books are great before they do.

Great books get read. And I want yours to be among them!

So without further delay, let me share the three top reasons why self-publishing gets a bad rap—followed by my suggestions for how to make sure yours does not fall into each trap:

Bad Rap Reason #1: Quality Control (Or Lack Thereof)

Contrary to traditional publishing—where you have to win over a literary agent and then a publisher before you are invited to the party.

When you DIY the only arbiter of your book’s readability, usefulness, and virtue is, well, you.  And just like every Mama thinks her baby is the cutest in the world—even when it looks like a grumpy old man to the rest of us—most authors deeply believe their book is the belle of the ball regardless of its objective quality.

Because of this, the plain fact is that many self-published books are neither easy or interesting to read for anyone but the author herself.

Antidote: Take a really honest look at your writing skill, your book idea and your outline before you jump into the writing process. If you’re not clearing the bar of excellence on any of these three elements (or you don’t feel qualified to self-assess) consider seeking the advice of a professional book editor, ghostwriter or book doctor.

Bad Rap Reason #2: Editing (Or Lack Thereof)

In a similar way, walking the traditional publishing path ensures your book will receive not just a cursory grammar-check, but will in fact be given 6-8 in-depth, highly professional rounds of editing before it ever hits the shelf.

The biggest tragedy I see in self-publishing is when an author actually has unique, useful and interesting content to share—i.e., the content clears the “quality control” bar I mentioned in Reason #1 above—but they neglect to give the book the depth of professional editing it deserves.

Lack of editing = lack of readability and, consequently, lack of reading. And lack of reading = lack of word-of-mouth sales, which is the key to the success of any book.

Antidote: Get your book edited for both content and technique. A traditional publishing company gives every book 2-3 rounds of content editing and 4-6 rounds of technical editing (copy-editing and proofreading). If you want your book to stand tall on the shelf next to its traditionally published peers, you need to do the same.

Bad Rap Reason #3: Design Professionalism (Or Lack Thereof)

The third reason self-publishing is the outcast of the publishing world has to do with design—both exterior and interior. Too often DIY authors want to cut corners and save money, which means they hire cover and interior designers with minimal book-specific design know-how.

Give me 5 seconds with most self-published books and I can tell you whether they’ve been professionally designed (or not).

The #1 dead giveaway? The interior is laid out with full line breaks between paragraphs rather than run-in paragraphs with indentation.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Reason numero uno to hire a professional book designer. They know these things so you don’t have to!

Antidote: Use professional book designers for both your cover and interior design. By “professional” I mean, “designs book covers and book interiors for a living.” Use the power of Google, or simply give us a call and we can point you in the right direction.

What do all three of these antidotes come down to? Simply put, professional excellence. This is good for you, but it’s also the only way to truly respect your reader.

Think about it: Spending 6-12 hours of precious time reading a book is a real commitment, especially when we have so many other things vying for our time and attention. I want your reader to feel that her investment of time and finances is well-spent on a beautiful, clean, easy-to-read book.

But maybe even more than that, it’s about what I want you to feel!

I want you to feel as proud and confident in your self-published masterpiece as you would if you were being published by one of the big houses. After all, you’ve put enormous time, energy and resources into creating this book, and you’ll need to put similar resources into spreading the word about it. Cutting corners on quality is not going to make the road any easier.

Imagine what would happen if everyone involved in the world of DIY books were to make this same commitment to professional excellence?

Self-publishing’s bad reputation would turn around lickety-split.

This is a future I want for you, for me, for all authors, and for all readers. Please implement the antidotes above and become part of the solution!

Are you ready to turn the bad rap of self-publishing around? We’d love to help. Schedule a free call today to hash out your own professional publishing plan!


16 thoughts on “Why Self-Publishing Has a Bad Rap: Three Pitfalls and Their Antidotes”

  1. Personally I am studying the most perfect launch of a Self-Published book while having zero platform. Such a person needs a service that does just that . . .

    I need a company and service whose mission statement is something like this:

    Work with us and we will deliver your most perfect book, set up the author with all optimal financial mechanisms to receive maximum revenue and profit, help create the most comprehensive and effective social media platform, organize a cut-throat marketing plan, and ensure that the book is given the greatest reach to all potential readers. We will see to it that everything from the completion of the book, to the launch of the book, to the follow through of the book is done masterfully and with personal one-to-one service. At the end of the day, whether you sell 100 books or 10,000 books, you will have peace of mind knowing you did everything you possibly could to reach every potential reader of your particular book, possible.

    As I piece together my experience of bringing a book to the public, this is what I would want. Impossible or very expensive yes, but true nonetheless.

    • Oh, I’m with you on this, my friend. What I would give to hand the marketing reins to someone who could actually move the needle for me. Even a little.
      My novel is professionally designed and edited, and the few people who have read it have come back with glowing reviews. But I’m finding the sheer scope of marketing options so overwhelming that I’m paralyzed with indecision.
      Is there such thing as a self-publisher’s marketing fairy? And I don’t mean vanity presses. I’m talking about a professional advertising firm that caters specifically to indie authors. I mean, we’ve already spent a kajillion dollars on professional editing, formatting, book cover design, website creation, etc…why on earth would I want to DIY the most important piece of the puzzle?

  2. What about who prints the book? Just Amazon print on demand? Do they do ecologically sustainable printing? If not, who does?

    • Steve, thanks for your comment! Great question!
      There are a number of printing services out there, Amazon being one of them. The sad truth is that there aren’t a lot of eco-friendly printing options out there. You can go with thinner paper (which also has the benefit of being cheaper), but as far as we know, recycled paper is not yet an option at the majority of the printing houses. Of course, the most environmentally responsible edition of your book would be the ebook.

  3. A very good article. yes both types of publishing have their pros and cons. I self-publish and now have a business helping other Indie Authors to get their books out to the public. I d also like to point out that Traditional Publishing has only been around for approx 120 years. So that leave us with centuries of self publishing or printing, which ever way you will look at it.

  4. Kelly, you always have the most interesting blog posts. I find this post fascinating since I’m now going the self-publishing route.

    You raise some important areas of concerns, which I’ve been carefully addressing since this time I’m not going with traditional publishers — my first two books were with Berkley Books and Hay House.

    This experience not being with a large publisher (I’m with Balboa Press this time) has been fascinating.

    Although this time, I have a lot more responsibility and many things to consider that were taken care of before, I’m loving having so much control over the cover, the editing, the layout and the pub date.

    I’m doing everything I can to make sure my next book, I blew my diet! Now what?, will look like a book from a mainstream publisher.

    Thanks again for the great blog post.

    • Thank you for your comment friend!
      The self-publishing route really does open authors up to more control which can be great for the cover and other things you prefer to have that control over. But very well stated, in that it can be more responsibility on you to make sure all of the details are caught and ironed out.
      The best of luck on your next book — It sounds intriguing!

      • Thank you very much Kelly for the above points regarding self publishing books.I’m a would be author and writing poems and short-stories in English.Want to get published.I seek your guidence for editing before publication.I know from others KDP Amazon is a trustworthy publication house?Whether it takes huge amount of money for publication and marketing?Would you give some authentic suggestions and instructions. I believe in your precious guidance.
        Anticipating your kind response.

        Deep regards.


        • Thanks for your comment. We would love to discuss your specific editing needs during a free, no obligation, phone call at this link: Your editorial matchmaker can provide direction for your specific project, and provide guidance on your publication goals. They would be happy to answer any of your publication and marketing questions during your call.

  5. Is it bad for me to dream that my book will be read by almost every race? I’m a Nigerian and I want to aim high. Should I change my name to an English name for a better chance?

    • I share this exact dream! And I want to say no you absolutely should not need to change your name to an English name.

  6. This was a very well written and helpful article. Very insightful. Thank you very much! What are your thoughts on an indie writer finding a good editor?


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