The Stigma of Self-publishing now Comes with a Smiley Face - by Dan Holloway

We never think of ourselves as experts, do we? That is to say, I certainly never do, though I’m no expert on what other people think of themselves. So it is always rather surprising to be asked to do something in a technical capacity. Flattering, intimidating, but above all surprising.

In the space of a week I will be “expert”ing myself in two very different spheres. So I want to ponder the whole question of expertise.

The two events in question illustrate perfectly the flip sides of my writing life, the good and bad angels as it were, sitting on my shoulders whispering like something from the comics I read as a child. Last Friday, I hosted an evening of poetry at The Tea Box in Richmond. This Wednesday I am speaking to a writers’ group in Oxford about the ins and outs of self-publishing.
The two events are as far apart as you could imagine events being. My job in Richmond was to perform poems, to make an audience feel at home, to make people who had never performed before feel at ease, and, following the monthly event’s tradition, to piece together a new poem called The Thing using lines from everyone else’s poems. It was an incredible night, helped in no small part by the amazing venue, a tea connoisseur’s heaven combining every element of tea ritual and sensual delight (not to mention rather scrummy food ). But also helped by the fact that this is what I do. And more to the point, it’s what I became a writer to do – to create, to perform, to nurture creativity and celebrate the arts in any way I can.
On Wednesday, I will be giving a half hour talk to a writers’ group associated with Blackwell’s book shop (a place very dear to my heart). I will be talking about editing and ebooks, blogging, formatting and finding your audience. There will be a handout, and a series of methodically followed bullet points. In a way the job is the same – engaging with an audience and nurturing. And having spent six years teaching, and countless more giving academic presentations, it’s not something I’m unfamiliar with. And I positively love the idea that other people might get something genuinely helpful from what I have to say.
But, it’s not why I became a writer. It’s not something I expected to emerge from my writing. And, as someone who has specifically set out not to make a career of writing, it is something I made a conscious decision I wouldn’t resort to in order to pay for the creative aspect of writing. And yet, as a self-publisher, it’s something i find myself being drawn to constantly.
And that for me is the interesting thing about self-publishing as opposed to being a writer with a regular contract. Yes, of course the latter can and often of necessity do choose to use their creative skills to do something more lucrative than actually writing. But it’s something they choose to do and have to work hard to market as a sideline.

When we self-publish we automatically, in the eyes of the literary world, take on a dual identity. And whilst there are many claims that the stigma of self-publishing is diminishing, this is one area in which it resolutely remains. Because the simple truth of the matter is that the outside (and even the literary inside) world sees our expertise primarily in terms of our self-publishing skills. We are experts on working with cover designers, whizzes at platform-building, the go-to people for advice on avoiding US withholding tax. Have even a moderately raised profile, barely a gentle wold of a profile in fact, and all kinds of people will want our opinion on these matters. And this is sold (often by the people who are victim to it) as a massive leap forward. A diminishing of stigma, almost its eradication.
It isn’t. Entrepreneurial types seeking to make a buck have always flocked around people who have made a buck. Early adopters in any new business model have always had a ready following from the eager second wave. I am not sure that anyone has put forward an argument that convinces me that increased coverage of self-publishing is something new or, given that the coverage focuses solely on this second identity of the self-publisher, something that reduces stigma. The simple fact of the matter is that we are asked to talk about self-publishing not because our writing is great but because we have sold books. As though the mechanisms of self-publishing are more a part of our identity than the writing. I should say that Blackwell’s are a gleaming exception. They have been good enough not only to ask me onto a literary panel alongside amazing authors like Lee Rourke and Rachel Genn, but have thrown their doors open and let me put on a performance evening. But they are the glittering jewel in the junk shop.
Where does that leave us as self-publishers? Yes, of course most self-publishers must have a series of skills (even if they are only sourcing skills) that for writers with publishing deals are optional or ersatz. But we remain writers, just as they are writers, and singling us out for conferences, festivals, and panel work, whilst very flattering, perpetuates and even enhances the stigma attached to self-published writing. If our value is perceived by literary establishments and media as lying in our non-creative expertise, that subtly lowers the value of our creative endeavours.
I welcome and love the opportunity to talk to people about self-publishing. But I am loathe to think of myself as an expert. I certainly think I am by no means as well-equipped to talk about formatting a .mobi file as I am to talk about how to unearth your voice, how to handle complex ideas within a narrative framework, or how to deliver a performance poem.
So what I propose is this.
Dear festival, conference, writing group and bookstore owners,
Please continue to ask self-publishers to talk. But when it comes to the “arrangements” (and if you pay published authors to do events, please don’t tell me you don’t also pay the self-published. I take on non-paying events for many places in good faith, but if I were to find out ever that they paid published authors for equivalent events my good will would run instantly out of the door and down the street screaming), consider offering a session for the writer to talk about their work, or about an aspect of literature in which they excel, as part payment in kind. And if you don’t consider their work to merit such a session, well, yes they may sell lots of books, but I would ask you to consider not inviting them to speak about the other stuff either, because the implicit message you’re sending is “How to hoodwink the public into buying junk” and that’s not really what you want, is it? It’s certainly not what any self-respecting author would want (and yes, that IS deliberately provocative because I know several authors happy to operate on that basis [none of the authors here I should add], and whilst they may respect themselves the lack of respect I have for them I hope cancels that out!).
I would also like to make a plea to writers to help tackle the issue of the smiley stigma as I shall call it by having just this conversation with anyone who invites them to talk about. Ask them if they would consider also having them speak – maybe at a different time, but a commitment nonetheless to a time being made available – about the creative aspect of their work.
We are constantly being told to take ourselves seriously, yet all too often what this means is taking ourselves seriously as business professionals. We need to start taking ourselves seriously as artists as well.
And in the meanwhile, I am hugely looking forward to both talking on Wednesday and returning to the Tea Box in Richmond.


Susan Price said…
I read this with great interest, Dan. As a writer mostly for children and teenagers, a good part of my income has always come from giving talks in schools. When anyone asks me to give a talk, my first response is always either to ask, "How much?" or to state my charges.
If someone wants me to spend two or three days preparing a talk, then travelling to the event, and then using the experience of public speaking that I've acquired over many years, then they have to pay me.
I'm astonished to learn that self-publishing writers are being asked to give talks for free!
Anybody wanting a nice, lively flea for their ear should come and ask me to give a talk for free because I self-publish. Come on, make my day.
Dan Holloway said…
I don't mind doing some talks for free. I mind even less when it's not assumed - when it is assumed, I mind very much. And if I found out that regularly published authors were being paid for teh equivalent there'd be more than a flea in their ear.

My real frustration is that people see that I'm self-published and only ever want me to talk about self-publishing - as though it's utterly irrelevant *what* I self-publish.

The exception is the world of poetry (probably because pretty much everyone self-publishes, even the most high profile) where I don't think it's ever been mentioned, and where what people want are the poems. Which is probably why I've more and more ghettoised myself as a performance poet - it's a place that's made me feel at home
Nicky said…
Ah If I'd known you were a friend of Sue's I would have come to listen at the Tea box as I live in Richmond.
It is true what you say the emphasis tends to be on the method of delivery not the message, but that is your USP isn't it ? There are too many writers who can woffle about writing. I wouldn't knock it because at least you you have a USP and most of us don't.
Jan Needle said…
There's another weird mindset growing up around the world of virtual authors publishing virtual books. I get fairly frequent tweets from people offering to process and format Ebooks for nothing. Not sure why. The goodness of their souls, perhaps? I also have a highly qualified techie-wizard son, Matti Gardner - first class hons and then a master's in some form of computery stuff that is a mystery to me - who processes books for me, Julia Jones, and several other writers to the highest professional standards for a ridiculously small amount of money. Like most others of his generation he is finding earning a living in a job that would fit his skills excruciatingly hard to find.

I expect we'll get there in the end, though. Hope so!

For anyone interested, here are Matti's details:

Dan Holloway said…
Nicky, I think I will be back there hosting on the second Friday in December - would be lovely to see you. It's such a warm and friendly evening and an amazing venue.

I would hope that the most interesting and original thing any writer has to say concerns their writing (if not, without casting nasturtiums as it were, then perhaps they ought not to present themselves as writers, for whom it is essential they can make a case to readers to drop *every single book that has been written except theirs* at one moment). I write experimental fiction about the nature of identity in the modern world - both the virtual world, and the disintegrated world of post-communist Europe - drawing from the tradition of the "literature of the ruins" that details the fragmentation of cultural identity since the death of Yugoslavia and from the online world of forums, bulletin boards and chatrooms where peopel endlessly reconstruict themselves, and hopefully add a touch of sentiment that is both my own and draws on the "exile in their hometown" writings of Kundera, Hrabl and others who wrote under communism. I'm sure it's no more important or interesting than what any other self-published writer is doing, but these are such important questions, and ones that writers pour their souls (not to mention 5 years of postgrad study on feminist studies of subjectivity identity in modern Europe, and goodness knows how many years spent travelling through Eastern Europe in my case, and everyone else's equivalent) into. It is especially frustrating when these are areas that regularly published novels just aren't looking at.

Jan, full marks for chutzpah!
Dan, thanks for a really incisive and thought provoking post. I too have been asked to speak about ebook publishing and you're right in that some people seem to see it as a way to make a quick buck. (Doomed to disappointment I'd say!) although I'm also asked to speak to older writers who have a backlist they want to get out there, and I'm happy to do that. I've done it for the Society of Authors in Scotland (am doing it again next week!) and to be honest, since we've been doing it as a threesome, I get a great deal out of what the others are saying -and also out of audience feedback. But there's a sense in which that is a discussion between fellow professionals and it can be immensely useful. In general, though, as the years have gone by, I find I get more pleasure from talking to readers rather than writers - and the self publishing thing has compounded this. Readers are much more interested in what I write and why, and how I got there, including ebook publishing. I did a session recently involving members of local bookgroups and found myself telling the (somewhat appalling but definitely entertaining!) story of my experiences with traditional publishing over the years. It's something I tend to avoid when I'm speaking to writers, on the principle that people have to follow their own dreams and who am I to tell them that any one way is better than another? Their experiences may be quite different. But this group of readers seemed to find the whole thing more interesting than I had realised it would be. Horses for courses, I suppose.
Nicky said…
Dan, I wasn's suggesting you didn't have other things to say, what I am saying is that people may well look at your books if they have found you interesting in person.
Being successfully self published makes you more interesting to more people than those of us who aren't successfully self published. You need some kind of platform to sell books these days and it seems to me you have one. If it translates into people buying your boks it doesn't seem to me to matter too much what it is and it is much more respectable than being a topless model.
Lisa Scullard said…
I'm still surprised that people offer to pay me for anything technical, that involves playing with a computer (formatting their books for print and ebook, setting up blogs and book pages), and even more so for anything to do with teaching them self-promotion, which to me personally is like scraping barnacles from the Devil's bottom. Like yourself, my enjoyment comes from writing itself, and creating some other world out of my thoughts. Not teaching.

But maybe there are already folk who speak of such things eloquently enough, and not enough who can clearly point out where "RightClick-FormatPicture" is and what to do when the little box pops up on the screen...

I haven't done any face-to-face public talks on self-publishing, although a few were discussed, maybe due to my loathage of selling and of those people who make money by running get-rich-quick conferences.

Because also, like you, I would much prefer to be invited to talk about my imaginary friends and their adventures, or even about how I was inspired to write as a teenager by the authors Tom Sharpe and the little-known Jan Needle... I still have my original copy of 'Behind the Bike Sheds' ;) x
Jan Needle said…
Behind the Bike Sheds! Wow, now that really was chutzpah! I really loved that book, but as you can imagine, teachers hated it. It contains possibly my favourite line:

Dan Holloway said…
I'm not sure I approve of being more respectable than anything :)

" people may well look at your books if they have found you interesting in person"
I have no idea whether I am interesting in person, but yes, that's a very important point. My sense is simply that when I speak about self-publishing in the sense people want to hear about it (editing and formatting and cover design and platforms, as opposed to the exciting "look at this world of creative possibility" way)
I am a lot less interesting than I would be talking about Modernism and identity and the like - and by being offered, and accepting, invitations to talk about self-publishing but not about my writing I am actually putting off the readers who might be interested in my writing in return for mildly interesting people who will hate my writing. Contrast that with the fabulous interview I was lucky enough to do for a small Facebook group (transcript here - where we had a detailed discussion about the meaning of pain in modern society.]

Very much hope to see you at the Tea Box :)
Lisa Scullard said…
Jan, you and Tom Sharpe made it legal for me to write what I wanted to write, out loud :)

I think one of my favourite lines was '...thought he was as sexy as a septic tank...'

Dan Holloway said…
Catherine, I'm delighted that self-publishing has opened up more rather than fewer chances to talk to readers for you. I must say that has happened to me with poetry, but not yet with prose. I do think probably things will rebalance themselves as the landscape settles. For all the main objects of my campaigning are the media and festivals, the main objects of my frustration are writers who forget they are writers before they are anything else.

Jan and Lisa, wonderful how reintroductions are made!!
Dennis Hamley said…
Dan, I shall be at Blackwell's on Wednesday when you talk to Cherry's group. Looking forward to it very much. I think you'll find a keenly interested audience -but, having met and worked with some of them, I can assure you they will be at least as interested in your writing as they will be in the self-publishing.

About payment: I've never been paid for a visit to a bookshop, even when I'm asked to talk rather than just sit to sell books and be ignored for two hours. The theory is that I'll make up the loss with sales, though that's always been a pretty forlorn hope. A school or library is a completely different matter. There's a rather ominous double standard there which I won't enquire into. But I would hope nobody reputable works to the mantra 'published author good, self-published bad.' Honest people pay for expertise they wouldn't get from anyone else. Or so I'd like, perhaps foolishly, to think.
Dan Holloway said…
Marvellous, Dennis! I shall very much look forward to seeing you. Just to check, though, I think it's in St Giles rather than Blackwell's.

The mention of pay was very much a tangent in my piece but that's very interesting and yes, a possible double standard? Some bookshops (Blackwell's being a gleaming exemplar again with massive stalls up for days and tills next to the speaker's desk) are excellent at ensuring good sales at events. Others (at least one branch of Waterstones in London in my experience, and almost certainly more) not so much
CallyPhillips said…
I've come pretty late to this debate, but find it very interesting. My own little point is that I was initially amazed that you wouldn't talk about 'your writing' as part of the 'self publishing' talk? During my periods of residency I had to deliver many talks and the like about various aspects of writing (I consider self publishing just an aspect of writing) and I always use my own experience (and my own writing) as examples. I gave a talk in 2003 about why I had 'self published' which sent the small publisher there into apoplexy but afterwards a timid wee woman came up to me and said 'thank you, I just never thought - we can do it for ourselves and you've shown me the value of how to do that' (I paraphrase obviously) So I guess my suggestion is that you have the confidence to realise that if you are talking about self pub you are NOT just there to talk about the nuts and bolts YOU CHOOSE what angle you take on it (especially if no ones paying you!) and you make it a talk which is more about creative freedom - and pepper it liberally with your own writing as example! Top Tip. Maybe. But then I don't DO talks/workshops or anything any more because I got FED UP talking about myself and my stuff!
Susan Price said…
Completely agree with Cally (except about being fed-up with giving talks, which I enjoy, though I insist on being paid for it.)
And Dennis, I had rather taken it as 'goes without saying' that a good self-published book is no different to a good conventionally published book. It's the standard of writing that matters. The good, the excellent and the bloody awful can be found among the self-published and the conventionally published alike.
Agreed - and that's partly what these Society of Authors sessions turn into - a useful exchange of ideas about work as much as anything else. I've been (successfully!) trying to phase out 'workshops' for the past year, although I have a couple more to go, general drama workshops for a couple of groups. I still get asked to do radio writing workshops several years after my last radio play was produced, but now I just say 'no'.
My information isn't current enough and to make it worthwhile for all concerned, I would have to dig out CDs and scripts and I just can't bring myself to do it. My only reason for looking at radio scripts these days is to turn them into novels!
I love talking at a tangent though - about things that are related to what I write and why.
Dan Holloway said…
1. That's a very good point!
2. The only problem is they always want to know how you *should* do it, or how *they should* do it, and it all comes back to that bloomin' thriller I wrote and the books I want to talk about I've followed paths I most definitely wouldn't advocate.
3. Nonetheless, that's a very good point and I shall avail myself of an ideological shoehorn to make use of it

Mm, yes, Catherine, tangents - perfect!

And I agree, Sue, that speaking events, whatever form they take, are hugely fun
Dennis Hamley said…
St Giles? Oh God, please say it's not at the Friends' House. No wine there on pain of death. Still, Bird and Baby very close. Sue,of course it should go without saying. I don't believe the mantra I attributed to others.
Dan Holloway said…
a writers' event with no wine? Good heavens!
Lee said…
If I gave talks on self-publishing (which I don't and won't, mostly because I won't give talks on anything - and yes, I've been asked), I'd probably not use examples from my own writing but from the best self-published books I could find, and with as much diversity as possible (genre, style, culture, etc.). At this stage, we not only need to take ourselves seriously as artists (hurray for the right priority, Dan!) but probably need to be better artists than the average conventionally published writer. In time, this will change - or so I hope.
Dan Holloway said…
Lee, I think, sadly, you're right. If we do persuade people (especially reviewers/those in the media) to look at our work, a whole raft of tighter criteria will be applied than would to a regularly published book - as if they're saying "go on, then, prove it"
Pauline Fisk said…
A lengthy debate, and an excellent article. Not wanting to add to any of this apart from to say I read it too, I was here, I'd just say thank you, Dan.
Alison Wells said…
A very pertinent post Dan. I'm having a debate in my head right now because in certain spheres I'm being called upon to be the 'self-publishing blogger' or be on a panel re: self-publishing but what I really want to do more than anything is write good books and read good books, talk about short stories, think about good writing and promote writing that I've enjoyed. I'm concerned about that stigma versus the reputation/visibility that it's possible to achieve in the writing community here in Ireland. What I mean is that if I become (slightly) known for something I want it to be the writing. In my case there are issues of time too. I don't mind sharing the self-publishing story but the writing & books have to come first. Putting the time into being a self-publishing expert might jeopardize that.
Dan Holloway said…
That's exactly the dilemma I was talking about. I think that's why I make a point of saying right at the start of talking about writing or self-publishing that the very first thing we must do is answer the "why do I write? What do I want? What will I stand for?" questions and then stick them in bold capitals to the wall. The thing is that what seem like opportunities are both piecemeal and subtle - they don't scream "distraction", certainly no single one does. In fact they scream "do this and it will aid the actual goal" - it's only with hindsight that we look with horror at the extent to which we've deviated off course and not even realised it, so I would advocate hypervigilance. Be honest about each opportunity that comes along and ask, honestly, how it fits with the bold type on the wall.

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