Self-publishing vs. Traditional

Wow, those bindings look nice! What kind of binding do you use?”

It took a minute for the question to register, and for me to realize that the woman obviously thought the books on display were self-published, and that I had chosen the binding for them.

These are the books I display at speaking engagements; my first book, Homeschooling From Scratch, as well as anthologies that I am included in.  I also bring copies of magazines with my articles in and a large white binder that holds over 125 published pieces. In each case, I was paid, in cash or with free copies, for my work.

I’m preparing a speech for next Monday night and dreading that inevitable question, “What about self-publishing?”

I’m not sure why that question makes me uncomfortable, but it makes me squirm every time.  I guess because it puts me in the awkward position of having to explain exactly why I would not choose something that someone in the audience most assuredly did. Because every time I have been a featured speaker, there has been at least one self-published author in the audience.

I don’t know about other areas of the country, but in our small town there seems to be quite a large number of self-published authors, and little to distinguish them from those who have been traditionally published.  The local newspapers print their press releases alongside those authors who have gone the traditional route of publication. Area businesses hold book-signings and readings with them as featured author.  The larger Iowa newspapers do continue to distinguish between the two with headlines promoting a “self-published author,” or announcing “author releases new book.” The very first question I was asked in 1996 when I sent press releases regarding Homeschooling From Scratch was “Did you pay to have this published?” At that time, self-published authors weren’t lauded in their paper’s pages.  

I do believe that there are many people in our area who do not actually know the difference. A woman I once knew only through a local Curves gym, upon hearing that I was working on a book and looking for a publisher, exclaimed “Do you know (and she named a young boy in town)?  He just had a book published! He is my neighbor. Do you want me to get the name of his publisher?”

Where do I even begin to start in a case like this? Um, I want a real publisher? Or how about, His mother paid to have that published and I could do the same with my two-year-old’s scribbles?

Either response would be rude on my part.

There are young people who have been published, and self-publishing in itself does not give me the right to equate someone’s writing to that of a two-year-old. There are many levels of self-publishing today, so it isn’t a cut and dried “vanity press” decision anymore.  Authors can develop a very lovely and professional book with the help of a publisher who charges a fee. Some reputable self-publishing companies have formed in the past few years.

So instead of a knee-jerk response, I might ask questions.

Is this a traditional publisher that pays, or did his mother pay to have the book published?  A gentle way of pointing out there is a difference.

Or, I might simply reiterate that I am looking for a traditional publisher, and not one that I have to pay.

Either way, there is often an awkward pause that ensues. Does the other person think I am putting down the self-published writer? Do they “get” what I am saying? 

In front of a group of women who may or may not have gone the self-publishing route themselves, I am even more uncomfortable. I don’t want them to get the impression that I think I am better than those who self-publish.

What about self-publishing?

This is an answer I have come up with:

“I believe there are instances when a person should self-publish; when what they are writing is for a small audience like their own family, or when their audience is very limited, such as when they are speakers for a specialized group, and they can pass out or sell their self-published material at those groups. Otherwise, I believe a writer should never have to pay to be published. Instead, they should be paid for their work.”

What about you, as a writer or a reader? What do you think about self-publishing?