The problem with self-publishing

What self-publishers lack is not skill, but the relationship between an author and a publisher

I make a lot of books, so authors often ask me: should I find a publisher or self-publish? And I usually say, ‘publishers don’t add any skills you can’t hire in yourself.’

That’s not the whole truth.

It is true that, if you find the right people, you can hire in all the skill of a crack publishing team — that’s what we provide at Fire and Lion. But the value of ‘having a publisher’ doesn’t lie in the publisher’s skill, but in their relationship to your book.

That relationship is a very special one: when a publisher invests in an author’s work, both parties are personally committed, first and foremost, to the success of the book. They both get a say over how it’s published. The author is committed for obvious reasons. The publisher is committed because their salary and job satisfaction depends on the book’s success. For each party, the book comes first, the other party’s happiness second.

That relationship produces a creative tension that is impossible to replicate when self-publishing. The tension arises because the publisher has the power to overrule the author, even if it makes the author unhappy. And that’s necessary. Most author–publisher contracts bake this power into the deal, specifying the decisions a publisher can make about the finished product. To an author it may seem like a big risk to hand someone this power, but when both parties have real power, their relationship benefits the book itself. That’s why a happy, healthy author–publisher relationship is so special.

A published book, then, is like the child of two parents, constantly negotiating over how to raise a happy human being. In our family, Michelle and my work as parents is the product of our relationship more than the sum of our individual contributions. That is, we’re better parents because parenting happens at the intersection of our contributions. Together, our parenting is greater than the sum of our parts. Our partnership is greater than our combined abilities — and, if we’re lucky, it dilutes our neuroses.

When you’re self-publishing, that relationship doesn’t exist. Even when you hire in publishing skills, self-publishing is like hiring a babysitter. You can’t hire a publisher any more than you can hire a parent, because the value of having them is not in your skills combined but in the nature of your relationship, to one another and to the child. When you hire a babysitter, you are the client, and they are the supplier, and their ultimate responsibility is to make you happy.

In my work, I’ve been a publisher for some books and a book-maker-for-hire for others; and I’ve seen this countless times. When I’m making a book for a fee-paying client, we both want to believe their book will benefit from all my years of experience; that I will make the book as good as it can be. That’s what they’re paying me for, right? But throughout the book-making process we will have differences of opinion. Maybe over structure, editing, illustrations, cover design, paper choice, page size, subtitle, blurb, and so on. And that’s when it becomes clear that we are not equals in this process of bringing a book into the world. They’re buying satisfaction, and I’m supplying it. In our transaction, the most important thing to both of us is that the client is happy.

Of course, when I disagree with a client, I will make my argument and often I’ll prevail. But even then the book is the product only of our skills averaged out.

Does that mean self-publishing is always a bad idea, and that self-published books will never be as good as published ones? No: there are great self-publishers and there are lousy publishers, often too tired, broke, overstretched or inexperienced to do the job properly. And finding a publisher can be one of life’s great snipe hunts; whereas self-publishing gets a job done. But this remains: if you can find someone who cares more for your book than they do for you, then your book is the better for it.

(This post was updated from its original form after generous friends pointed out that I’d overstretched my parenting metaphor, and was being a jerk. They were right, and I hope I’ve fixed it.)