Self-Publishing Review

Self-Publish and be damned?
There is a case for doing just that.

Back in 1996 my mother, then aged 91, announced that she would like to have her writings made into a ‘proper book’. There was no chance whatsoever that a publisher would be interested in her collection of poems, prayers and thoughts on life. Besides which the process of refusal would be dispiriting and long-winded. Which left two options: the ‘vanity’ press, or doing it myself. I chose the latter. About six months later I was very pleased to present her with her ‘proper book’, ISBN included. It had cost £2000 (still a lot now and huge back then)  to have 250 copies printed after painstakingly transcribing her writing, laying out the pages, adding line drawings, providing the printers with the page layouts and endlessly checking the proofs. My mother thought it was money well spent and was delighted. So were the family, and her friends and acquaintances who bought copies. Because of the ISBN she also sold a few round the world.

That was then and this is now. How I wish that the brilliant make-your-own-book print-on-demand and ebook web services of today had been available to me then.

Then in 2009 a friend and I published a book about the Thames. It was a project that we started in 1988 which we did for the pleasure of it. For twenty years we had constantly told ourselves that we really should do something with all those photos and 18,000 lovingly crafted words. So finally we did, courtesy of We made The Further Bank, 80-odd pages of photographs and text which looks exactly how we always imagined it would. It’s a real book and those who had a copy were as delighted with it as my mother was with her ‘proper book’. And the cost of this personal treasure? The usual amount of hard work assembling the content, (that is true however your work is published), but in money terms around £250 to have ten copies of the finished article delivered to our door. That included printing the various stages of the essential proofs.

Vanity publishing? Only if you want to call it that. We had no delusions of fame or fortune. But there were these huge pluses:

  • our friends and family were impressed with the quality of the book, not just the content;
  • our children, long grown since they accompanied us on Sunday mornings taking photographs of bridges, have it as a lasting memento of part of their childhood;
  • we finally had the satisfaction of finishing the project;
  • there is a properly written and researched document for posterity to refer to (if it wishes!).

Self-publishing has a better history than many would have you believe. The creative inspiration for our Thames book was taken in part from The Stripling Thames by Fed S. Thacker, which is commonly acknowledged as being a definitive study of the upper Thames. Fred Thacker published it himself in 1909. Through vanity? Probably not. More likely because he wanted to share his knowledge with what he accepted might be a limited audience. His more widely known Thames Highway was published by David & Charles.

With today’s technology you can a make a book about anything you want, get an ISBN for it, have it printed (or more likely Kindled), and if you are very lucky – sell a few copies. The great plus is that some really worthwhile work can make it into print at minimal expense. The great minus is that a lot of complete rubbish can do the same.

Photography, art and design books really can work well and can be an excellent showcase for the artist’s work. They probably don’t sell many copies, but the author can buy as many as they wish and distribute them as they wish. Remember, you only pay for what is printed, often the minimum print run is just 1, and that can be repeated endlessly.

Then there are those smaller interest books alluded to already, of which ours is one. Local profiles such as St Mawes (also a Blurb title) is another example which certainly meets the criteria of worthwhile and interesting, particularly for those familiar with the place. Class yearbooks are another category. These might be part of a curriculum module in the design and making, with a ready audience of maybe a hundred or more. For whatever subject you can think of, there is likely to be a worthwhile book to be published. And when it’s done properly with care and thought the results can be extremely satisfying for all involved.

Less convincing, although there is probably a place for each of them, are wedding albums, ‘my trip to Europe 2008 holiday snaps’ (however good the snaps), ‘baby snookum’s first 3 months’, and ‘grandpa’s 70thbirthday’. Want to make a picture book? Fine go ahead, any subject you like, but why-oh-why put them up for public sale and scrutiny? Even if your dog does look cute in a straw hat.

Then there is the thorny problem of fiction. The basic advice about this is (and always has been) – Don’t. True, there have been famous exceptions that prove the rule, but they are extremely few and far between. If your writing is good and you have the skills to design your book well, if you are willing to go to the trouble/expense of getting an editor and an ISBN, if you are prepared to do all that a publisher might do, then please go ahead and give it a try. But only after you have first explored the traditional route of trying several publishers. (The original version of this article read ‘traditional route of receiving lots of rejections‘ but as the modern reader will know, rejections are a thing of the past – rude silence is all a writer can expect from a publisher today.) And if you still believe the world is waiting for your prose, at least test it on some honest friends before you go for self-publishing.

If you do all that, you still have another hurdle to overcome. Although far fewer in number than cheesy birthday albums, there are vast numbers of fiction titles appearing, thanks largely to the ease of the creation process – especially with the likes of Amazon Kindle and Kobo., another huge POD book making service, already have thousands of fiction titles in the ‘crime and mystery’ category alone. Using a book preview facility it is possible to read the first few pages of most titles on line. It is a rarity to get past the first few pages of most self-published fiction offerings without wanting to scream. So even if your work is really excellent, a true undiscovered gem, it risks staying that way, lost in a sea of dross.

Self-publishing is great, long may it thrive. It has brought great pleasure and encouragement to tens of thousands of creators, and no doubt similar pleasure to their immediate circles. It may launch a careers for photographers, designers and artists. It is a boon for students with their media studies or their degree theses. It may save many a budding author from unscrupulous vanity publishers who do little beyond printing books and leaving the author to store them. It is perfect for tiny-market special interest books and classroom projects. And yes, even the family holiday snaps look better in a book.

Damned if you do and damned if you don’t is what they say, isn’t it? May as well give it a try then.

References: The Further Bank –  with Neil  Evans. 2009; My Thoughts and Prayers – Winifred G Wiseman. Froghouse 1996; The Stripling Thames – Fred S Thacker 1909; St Mawes – William Stephens. 2007; The Hidden History of St Andrews – Michael Manson. 2008. St Mawes cover copyright William Stephens, Hidden History of St Andrews cover copyright Michael Manson.

This article was first published in 2010 and updated with minor changes here in 2021.