If you’re trying to choose between self-publishing and traditional publishing, you need to think about quality and prestige.
You should already know what your book is for and the order of your priorities. For a lot of entrepreneurs, raising their status is a biggie. But think carefully: is it your status or your profile that you want to raise? There’s a difference. Your status is your prestige: how significant people think you are. Your profile is how many people know about you and think that.
Traditional publishers are the stamp of approval and the gatekeepers of quality. They are not the only stamp of approval or the only gate that quality can go through.
Prestige: where’s it coming from?
Most thought leaders look to their book to raise their prestige. It demonstrates their expertise, yes, but the sheer fact of having written a book says something, right? Yes and no. It says you’ve bothered to write an entire book, but not that it’s any good. That logo on the cover says this book will be good: whatever you may think of the ideas, it will be substantial, polished, and well-organised.
If your credibility is already established, you don’t necessarily need that publisher’s logo to speak for you. Maybe your name already speaks volumes. If you’re aiming to establish your credibility, that logo is more important. Prejudice against self-publishing persists, whether we like it or not, so self-publishing your book doesn’t automatically give you kudos. That prejudice is there for a good and embarrassing reason: a lot of self-published work sucks. If you’re going to self-publish, know that you must combat that prejudice: make your book great. You can build your own credibility – but not without quality.
Traditional publishers are still the gatekeepers of quality. They’re not a spiteful hegemony, clinging to power and stamping on genius through instinctive risk-aversion, blind to brilliance. If you’ve ever seen some of the stuff they turn down, you’ll realise their worth. And once you’ve been through the book-creation process, their timescales stop looking so insane. Slow, yes, but not insane. Quality takes time.
If you aren’t using a traditional publisher, you’re responsible for your own quality. The best you can possibly make it is your starting point for quality, not finished perfection. From there, you need to get your own guardians and gatekeepers. You need…
- Editorial reviews and critiques: These are the equivalent of a commissioning editor’s feedback, telling you what’s working, what’s not, what to cut, where to add. Get a professional – friends and family are notoriously unreliable for feedback.
- Editing: If your book’s passed its final review, this should just be style editing: smoothing out the language to make sure it flows, the tone is right, and the language is appropriate. If you skip out the review stage or are struggling with the organisation, this might be a structural edit: rearranging the content and flagging up holes for filling. Editing makes sure that your book reads easily.
- Proofreading: This is the final step before your book goes to print, to check every comma is in place, every sentence is grammatical, and no embarrassing typos will jar the text. Again, use a professional for this: anyone who can’t tell you the difference between an em-dash and an en-dash, who doesn’t have opinions on the Oxford comma, and doesn’t care whether it’s “learned” or “learnt” isn’t good enough. Find someone who is.
As well as the quality of the text, you also need to care about the quality of the book: the layout, the cover design, and the physical object itself – the paper, the binding, the type of cover. Some self-publishing companies publish quality books. Some produce weird plasticky flappy things with curling covers.
At every stage of this process, you’ll have people to help you and pass you on to the next person, and they’ll all care passionately. Editors and proofreaders have arguments about commas and tell jokes about them. Layout designers and typographers are enraged by ugly “g”s and fall in love with fonts. (Top test: say “Comic sans serif” and if your designer doesn’t explode, find another one.) True book-lovers twitch at the mention of “glue-binding”, purr about stitch-binding, and bang on about the grain of paper. The level of quality you finally go for will depend on many things – but all these people care about it, passionately, and you need to, as well.
Self-publishing is the right choice for many people – Julia Cameron won’t even consider anything else. Is it right for you?
If you self-publish, where will your book’s credibility initially come from?
If you self-publish, who will be your guardian of quality?