The self-publisher’s dilemma and literary strays

“[W]hen the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.”

Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband, Act II

Publish and be damned

Message in a bottleMost self-published authors would sacrifice a body part to have their book reviewed in a national newspaper. The Catch-22 of self-publishing is that it allows many more people to launch a book onto the waters, but creates an ocean of titles so vast that it’s unlikely that readers will spot your little craft from the shore. Without the marketing and publicity support and editorial feedback of a major publishing house, self-published books can easily sink beneath the waves. Newspaper reviewers couldn’t possibly read all the books that are released each year by publishing houses, let alone all the self-published ones.

Imagine, then, how excited Author X* must have been to find that his book had been reviewed by The Sydney Morning Herald.

Imagine his horror when he read this line in the review:

“This self-published volume … should win an award: it is surely one of the most poorly written, edited and designed books of the year.”

The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 March 2012


If it’s so hard to get your self-published work noticed (in a good way), why do people self-publish? The answer, of course, is that it’s near-impossible to get through the back door of a publishing house (that is, get published by sending in an unsolicited manuscript). You need to be invited in at the front door (that is, you need a commissioning editor or publisher to approach you), or you need someone who can get you an invitation (that is, a good agent).

Literary strays

When I worked in publishing, one of the most dispiriting tasks I had to undertake was reading the slush pile. This was usually done at home as unpaid overtime, because during the working day I was paid to get commissioned books published and promoted, not rescue strays from the literary pound.

Occasionally, the slush pile towers would grow so big and so old that the editorial staff would be allowed to go through them together during work time. The method was this: The team would sit around a big table, surrounded by the crates of manuscripts. You would take one from the crate and read the first page. If anything about it grabbed you, you might permit yourself to read the next page. If not, you had to move the manuscript to the rejected pile. Later, a junior would send the author a generic rejection letter; they couldn’t send specific feedback when hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts were received each year.

Authors would ring to ask when their unsolicited manuscript would be read. The conversation would go something like this:

Author: Listen here, you beeping little beep, I’ve been waiting beeping long for someone to read my manuscript. Put me through to the publisher! I wanna talk to him now! I wanna talk to the person who reads the manuscripts.

Me: You are talking to the person who reads the manuscripts. The publisher commissions books. She leaves the unsolicited manuscripts to me, the beeping little beep.

(OK, I didn’t actually answer back like that, but I certainly thought it.)

As someone who hates to see fellow would-be authors suffering, I hated the slush pile process. Of course, I fantasised that I would find a wonderful manuscript, become the author’s champion and see the book published. The chances of being discovered in this way are pretty low (even lower if you’re in the habit of calling the sentries the bleeping little bleeps).

*I won’t name Author X here; he has been through enough.


  1. I have a rather more optimistic view of the rise in digital self-publishing. Way I see it, the cream will always rise to the top. If the advent of the printing press and later of mass production books didn’t cripple readers or diminish the long march of good books, neither will this.

    Is it hard to get noticed (by a publishing house/by an agent/by an ebook reader/by an online book reviewer)? Well, sure. But anything worth having is worth the effort of re-submitting manuscripts or e-pubbing the book and writing a solid, engaging “review me!” letter for the blogosphere.

    A lot of writers are discovering that the internet and indie e-publishing isn’t a magic pill to fame, but hell, same goes for all the other possible pathways open to authors. There is no shortcut.

    But I think all paths lead to the result (if the author has the balls and the book has the brawn to make it).


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