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Why John Green has got it wrong: Self-publishing isn't about doing it yourself

13/06/2013 23:11 BST | Updated 13/08/2013 10:12 BST

Author John Green has caused a ruckus. He recently posted what I can only describe as an angry, sweary rant in opposition to an institution that he calls self-publishing. In it, he claims that we must "strike down the insidious lie that the book is the creation of an individual soul, labouring in isolation", explaining that this 'lie' threatens the quality and breadth of American literature.

Unfortunately, the premise of Mr Green's argument is flawed and I feel that as an author who has experienced both traditional publishing and self-publishing, it is my duty to curtail the (equally flawed) ensuing debate.

What Mr Green has done here is to whip up his own, misguided comparison between:

Self-publishing (= doing everything yourself)

and

Traditional publishing (= collaborating with experts)

He points out that "Without my editor, my first novel would have been unreadably self-indulgent." (No doubt this is true.) He also explains that his book "wouldn't have found its audience without unflagging support from booksellers around the country." This is probably also true. At his most irate, he claims: "I wouldn't have any books to my name without the tireless and committed collaboration not only of my editor... my agent... my friends... my family... everyone at Penguin... but also the collaboration of thousands of other people: copyeditors, warehouse employees, programmers, people who know how to make servers work, librarians and booksellers." Again, fair point.

What John Green has failed to recognise, however, is that self-publishing is not about trying to take on the jobs of editors, warehouse employees and librarians. Self-publishing is not about trying to do everything yourself.

Self-publishing is about staying in control of your destiny as a writer and having a say in how your book is packaged, produced, distributed and promoted. It is about making your own decisions, in collaboration with the experts (and in some cases, fans) to ensure that your work reaches readers in the way that is right for you.

Here is an accurate depiction of self-publishing (done well) vs traditional publishing debate:

2013-06-13-SelfpubvsTradpub.png

If John Green were to study this comparison, he would find that the characters who feature in the traditional model also feature in self-publishing. Editors play a key role, warehouse employees still feature and librarians and booksellers remain the gateways to readers. To say that self-publishing lacks the collaborative element and that traditional publishing incorporates it is so wrong that I struggle to know where to start.

In 2011, I walked out on my publisher, HarperCollins, because of the lack of collaboration in assigning titles and cover designs to my books. For each book, I was simply shown the final package and told that it was 'compelling' and that it had 'stand-out qualities'. When I tested these 'stand-out qualities' with potential readers who had enjoyed my previous novels, I found that my grave concerns were upheld. Each time, the audience misinterpreted the contents of the book based on the clichéd titles and trend-led covers that my publisher had applied. Each time, upon showing this market research to my publisher, I was told "thanks, but we're going to go ahead all the same". Collaboration? What collaboration?

I opted to return to self-publishing precisely because I longed for collaboration. For Feral Youth, I wanted to liaise directly with my cover designer. I wanted to seek feedback not just from one lone individual with a subjective view from her ivory tower, but from a stable of trusted, crowd-sourced advisers as well as from my professional editor. I wanted to liaise with fans over cover design to ensure the end result reflected the contents of my book and I proactively embraced people's input throughout the journey because I knew that when it was time to launch, I'd have a whole team of people around me, rooting for the book's success. When I tell people about the book, they sometimes stop me and say, "Who is 'we' in all this?", because it feels as though I'm part of a team. It never felt like that with my publisher.

2013-06-13-03components.png

I hate to break it to you, John, but there are certain components of the self-publishing model that fail to feature in traditional publishing, perhaps putting self-publishing above traditional publishing in the quality-of-product stakes.

Traditional publishers may have the edge when it comes to tall, glass atriums and expensive fixed cost bases, but they lack flexibility and imagination on the production and promotional front. I recently heard Stephanie Duncan, Director of Digital Media at Bloomsbury Publishing, speak at an event. Whilst she was engaging and full of energy, the most innovative digital development she could talk about was the scanning and uploading of out-of-print titles to ebook form. My experience of Marketing at HarperCollins involved one part-time PR assistant sending out identical press releases to a bunch of print journalists and feeling that her job was done. For Feral Youth, I've had the freedom to experiment with various exciting promotional techniques, including the production of a movie-style trailer.

There are many, many reasons to oppose Green's argument that self-publishing 'threatens the quality and breadth of American [and, presumably, non-American] literature'. In my view, it does the opposite. Self-publishing, when properly executed, produces high quality literature that is well-packaged and available to readers whenever, wherever they want it.

We must strike down the insidious lie that self-publishing is the creation of an individual soul, labouring in isolation. It is not. It is all about collaboration.

Polly Courtney is the author of six novels including Feral Youth (26th June), which will be her first title to be (self) published following the 'dumping' of her publisher, HarperCollins, at her last book launch.