I’m going to wade into shark-infested waters with this post. I’ve been thinking about the epic battle between self-publishing and traditional publishing. I’ve seen arguments from each side. Self-publishers might say: “Traditional publishers don’t give authors the time of day. They can’t get their foot in the door. No one is even looking! We help them get their foot in the door, get found.” Traditional publishers might say: “We’ve developed a tried and true formula and we know what we’re doing, and we’re going to keep doing it. Besides, we ARE looking for new writers all the time. The writers just aren’t good enough for us.”

Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Well, I’m not going to answer those questions. I’m going to note some things I know and let that stand. Today I’m going to write about self-publishing.

Anyone who picked up last weekend’s Washington Post Book World may have seen the two very large ads for iUniverse and AuthorHouse, the two biggest self-publishing companies. iUniverse’s ad on page 13 reads: “Discover Tomorrow’s Authors Today!” and then proceeds to list a few of its titles. I’ve not heard of the authors, but I guess that’s the reason for the ad. The covers of the books look, well, exactly like professional covers that any publisher might put out. Authorhouse’s ad appears on page 5, and it goes like this: “Check out These GREAT READS from exciting NEW AUTHORS.” From my perspective, the covers from Authorhouse look better–but I’m not going to judge books by their covers!

What’s interesting about these ads is that, in each case, they implore the reading public to go and and find these titles (which is good: it’s an ad and that’s what ads are supposed to do) and they both note (though again, AuthorHouse notes this better) that you can buy their titles at your local bookstore (but does that mean that the stores will actually carry them or will you have to order them once you get there? More likely the latter). Behind this ad, I will argue, is something aimed directly at writers: Hey, People, we’re here for you! Come market your books with us.

There’s something nice and cozy about this. Say you’ve written a book. You’ve had agents and publishers look at it. Maybe they admire it but say it’s not for them, maybe they politely don’t admire it at all. Either way, the manuscript sits on your shelf collecting dust. What do you do? Well, it’s terribly tempting, I’d imagine, to jump at the chance to run to AuthorHouse or iUniverse and have your book “published”(some might disparagingly say “printed”). After all, don’t they advertise in Book World?

But wait. Not so fast. Let’s consider something. Have you ever seen a self-published book reviewed in a major newspaper? Probably not–major newspapers rely on the machinery of the publishing business–the agents, publicists, etc.–to get the best books into their hands. I don’t know what kind of PR AuthorHouse and iUniverse gives its authors (and there’s a big difference between the kind of marketing that gets you paid space in newspapers and PR that gets you free space in newspapers). There were over 400,000 books published alone last year, and a large portion of that number, I’d bet, are self-published. With book review sections dwindling throughout the country and more books to sift through, how can these companies ensure that their titles get reviewed? I’m not sure they can. They rely on paid advertising (and BW is not cheap). By the way, consider the amount of page space used up on those two ads–that’s space for 2 or 3 book reviews if the business was doing well. That’s really something to consider.

The bottom line may be that distributors are more likely to touch your book if you go the traditional route. And once a traditional distributor works with your book you’ll have a better chance at landing a review (presuming that your publisher/publicist is angling for you). Also, exploitation rights–big, big, big–are where you can really get the most “value” out of your book. Traditional publishers may be the way to go on that.

All this is not to say that it’s not possible to find your book on the bestseller list with a self-published press. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was self-published, as was, apparently, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (Yardley pointed this out in his review of The Man who Invented Christmas in the same Book World). And how can anyone ever forget the gi-normous success of The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield? Self-published until a major publisher realized the thing could make some serious dough.

As I reread this now, I realize that I may be harder on these folks than I am on traditional publishers. (In another post I could discuss traditional publishers more, and I’d no doubt be hard on them too.) But the business is suffering at the moment and I admittedly do side with the traditional presses, particulary the smaller ones who’re promoting a truly diverse range of books.