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. But the value of ‘having a publisher’ doesn’t lie in their skills, 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 them 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 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, we are greater than the sum of our parts. Our partnership multiplies our abilities — and, if we’re lucky, dilutes our neuroses.

When you’re self-publishing, that relationship doesn’t exist. Even when you hire in publishing skills, self-publishing is like single parenting with a babysitter. You can’t hire in a publisher any more than you can hire in a parent, because the value of having them is not in your skills combined but in the nature of your relationship. As a self-publisher, you are the client, and they are the supplier, and the only real power they have is to make you happy.

In my work, I am a publisher on some books and a book-maker-for-hire on others; and I’ve seen it countless times. When I’m making a book for a fee-paying client, we both want to believe I’ll bring all my years of experience to making their 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’s 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 an argument and often I’ll prevail. But even then the book is the product only of our skills added together.

Where a true author–publisher relationship multiplies abilities, an author–supplier relationship only adds them together: they are merely the sum of their parts.

Strangely, ‘creative control’ is often touted as a reason to self-publish. That’s like choosing to be a single parent because you believe you’ll do a better job on your own than with a committed partner. There are many good reasons to self-publish (it’s faster and more profitable per sale, for instance) but creative control is not one of them.

Does that mean self-publishing is always a bad idea, and that self-published books will never be as good as published ones? Of course not. There are many great self-publishers and, just as in marriages and parenting, there are lousy publishers — often too tired, broke, overstretched or inexperienced to do the job properly. And, anyway, finding a publisher can be one of life’s great snipe hunts. But this remains: if your book doesn’t have two independently minded parents, you will have to work much harder, and get much luckier, to make your book all it can be.