Self-Publishing: An Insult to the Written Word or a Boon to the Industry?

01/03/2017 10:48 am ET Updated Jan 04, 2018

In an article by author Laurie Gough titled Self-Publishing: An Insult to the Written Word, she argues that self-publishing is devaluing to the art of writing, disrespectful, and less desirable than sharing "a cabin on a Disney cruise with Donald Trump."

A divisive statement, in more ways than one. To rub salt in the wound, the word "published" is put in quotation marks whenever used to refer to a self-published author.

When I first read through the piece, I wondered whether it was satirical.

Gough purports that traditional publishing isn't perfect, but it's the best system that we have because it's the only system that includes gatekeepers.

Here's why, as a self-published author, I think that her view is short-sighted.

Readers Are (And Always Have Been) the Real Gatekeepers

An author--whether published by the Big Five or their own imprint--is nothing without their readers. It is an author's loyal readers who leave book reviews on Amazon, blog about their books, buy their books, and tell their friends to do the same.

As a memoir addict, when I'm looking for my next fix on Amazon, I look at a book's title, cover, and synopsis first. When I find one that piques my interest, I read the reviews before I make my final choice, clicking "buy" before I've even had a chance to check whether the book was released by HarperCollins or CreateSpace. It is the reviews, and therefore the readers, that ultimately seal a book's fate for me.

A few months ago, after I picked up and devoured a beautifully written memoir by Elisa Hategan and was left with a serious book hangover, I decided to contact her. I asked her a myriad of questions, including why she decided to start her own imprint and self-publish her memoir. She told me that she actually walked away from negotiations with a Big Five publisher, and hasn't regretted it for a second.

"To be honest, I've earned more in the last year selling my books directly than I would have received as an advance from a traditional publisher," said Hategan.

If an author already has a large audience (or is a savvy marketer), self-publishing can be quite lucrative. Not to mention, it is a great way for the author to connect with their following on a deeper level. Self-publishing allowed Hategan to write the book she really wanted to write.

Healthy Competition Strengthens the Publishing Industry

Gough believes that the traditional publishing model is the best system we have, but just because some find it to be the system that works best for them doesn't mean it should be the only system available. To have just a handful of major players dictating who gets a piece of the publishing pie is a recipe for disaster. It would mean a world of shrinking advances for authors, missed gems for readers, and a lack of sustainability for publishers.

With self-publishing, authors can create their own imprints and function as a small press, competing with traditional publishers. I love to cite the example of Meredith Wild, an author who self-published her series, built a brand around her imprint, and scored a multimillion dollar advance for five books.

Gough's main concern with self-publishing seems to be the quality of the books produced under this model. She says, "As an editor, I've tackled trying to edit the very worst writing that people plan on self-publishing just because they can," but I'm of a different mind. I enjoy freelance editing, and feel honoured when self-published authors trust me with their babies. These authors are investing in their book and realize that they need professional help to improve on their work and make it more enjoyable for their readers and more marketable. Why put them down for that?

Moreover, editors and designers who work at traditional houses also often take on freelance work. Many writers have published with traditional presses and under their own name. Successful self-published books sometimes get picked up by publishing houses. The overlapping of the two methods keeps the industry thriving through economic turbulence. Whether we prefer traditional publishing or self-publishing, this is good news for book lovers everywhere.

Self-Publishing is Empowering

With the business aspect aside, self-publishing a book is, at its core, a way for writers to express their thoughts to a wider audience. Writing is an art, a method of communication with the world at large, and part of what makes us human.

Gough softens her post with a few half-hearted words of acquiescence: "I have nothing against people who want to self-publish, especially if they're elderly. Perhaps they want to write their life story and have no time to learn how to write well enough to be published traditionally."

According to Gough, writing is tough to learn, and she claims that this art form takes decades to master. I agree with her there, but art is so subjective and impossible to perfect that I see no point in dissuading someone who is brave enough to attempt it.

Words are a powerful tool, and books are so meaningful and life-changing that I would never discourage anyone who told me that they thought they had a book in them. Most people do.

Her piece heavily focuses on how not only books, but the craft of writing itself has been cheapened by self-publishing. But self-publishing can help to give people a voice. It provides them an outlet that they may otherwise never have had so they can connect with other people.

Isn't that what art is all about?

*Samita Sarkar is a freelance writer and editor at BlossomsWriting.com. She is also the author of a travel memoir, self-published under her imprint Blossoms Books.