Are Self-Published Books REALLY Second-Class?

I'd considered writing a warm and fuzzy "What I'm Thankful For" post for today. Instead, I couldn't resist jumping into the gravy pot and swimming around in the murky self-publishing discussion. Indulge me for a minute and jump in too. I hope this post is a different flavor than what you've already tasted.

In response to my last post, What Do Agents REALLY Offer Writers, there were a couple of comments that not only surprised me, but sent my mind into overtime. Both comments alluded to the idea that self-published books are plan b or second class.

Karen Walker said: What about the really good writers out there who try and try to find an agent and just don't have the luck. They never know if it's the query letter or whether they just got lost in the shuffle. . . How long is a writer supposed to try? I tried for almost 2 years. Self-publishing was not my first choice--it was always my plan b.

Eva Ulian said: I’ve dealt with more agents than I have seen Sunday dinners. I think assisted publishing like WestBow is an unprecedented, excellent opportunity for us, often categorized by agents as “second class,” “inferior fodder” of the writing industry.

First of all, I hope I've never given anyone the impression on this blog that self-published books are second class. I haven't read many self-published books and am not in a position to pass judgement.

The reality of the writing business is that there is no easy way to define what makes a book appealing to agents and editors. But I do think there are several factors that come into play:

Writing Skill: I'm sure there are self-published books that didn't make it through the agent/editor "gatekeepers" because the skill of writing wasn't up to par. And yet we can all point to best-selling books and find fault with the number of adverbs, clunky dialogue, or passive verbs.

When my book is released, I suspect I'll receive criticism, especially from other writers. Just because I have an agent and editor doesn't mean my book is perfect. And just because someone is self-publishing doesn't automatically mean they have poor writing skills. Whether going the traditional route or self-publishing, we're all at different places in honing our writing skills and learning the craft.

Story-Telling Ability: We've all read published stories that fell flat--books we put down and couldn't finish. Some writers have a natural ability and some have to work really hard at it.

Perhaps we've got the gift (or worked for years to develop it) and now we've written a book set in ancient Mesopotamia, and it's full of adventure, and romance. The drama and excitement are all there. But still we can't find an agent or editor to take a look. Does that mean our story-telling is second-class?

I would say, no, of course not. In fact we may have nearly perfect writing skills AND an incredibly well told story. So, we're definitely not second class. Instead I would have to say the issue lies more with the last point. . .

Saleability: Agents and editors have to constantly look at what the large majority of readers are buying. They have to keep tabs on what is selling or what they think will sell, and then plan accordingly.

Most of you already know I had two books under consideration for contract, but Bethany House only took one of them in the three book deal they offered me. That doesn't mean my other book is second-class. It just means that right now it's not as saleable, especially for a debut author like me. I need a break-in book. (Read here for more about break-ins.)

So, are self-published books REALLY second class? If I self-published my second book someday, would it be inferior to my traditionally published book? I doubt it. And no, I'm not planning to self-publish it. For now, I'll continue to work on writing saleable books and maybe someday my second book will have another chance.

My final word of humble advice: If you want traditional publication, don't give up too soon. But also know that it takes more than writing skill and story-telling. It takes a saleable book--and that's not so easy to figure out.

What do you think? Are self-published books generally considered second-class? And is it fair or unfair to stereotype them as inferior? I'd love to hear your opinions.

Happy Thanksgiving! Even though I won't be posting again until Monday, I'll still be checking in and reading ALL of your comments!


  1. I don't think all self-pubbed books are second class, but there are a lot that are. So, saying that by no means labels them all that way.

    And really? how "good" a novel is is in the eye of the beholder.

    Personally self-publishing isn't an option for me. FOr one, I write fiction, and we all know how hard it is to sell your own fiction without a traditional publisher. Two, it's just not what I feel God calling me to do. For ME, it would be like taking God's will into my own hands and "helping" him.

    That said, there are many people who validly self-publish and do well. And that is TOTALLY COOL for those who feel led to do that.

    It's just not for me.

  2. I think that they are generally considered inferior, but I think that's because it only takes one opinion for that book to be pubbed, and it's the creator's opinion.
    It's like holding a beauty pageant for your kid and announcing them the winner, almost.
    That said, I haven't read too many self-pubbed books so I don't call them inferior, but I am aware that they only passed one person's test of value, and that person will be biased. :-) Of course. LOL
    I think that instead of calling self-pubbing second class, we should just put it in a completely different class. It's just not the same as traditional pubbing. That doesn't make it less or inferior, just different.
    Only my opinion though.
    For myself, because I write fiction, I would never, ever self-pub.
    BUT for some people, depending on what they've written, self-pubbing may actually be a better thing.

    I think what TN and HQ are doing (the way they're going about it) is sneaky and on the border of unethical.

    Have a great Thanksgiving! Oh, I had to come look you up. This post didn't show up in my dashboard.

  3. Happy Thanksgiving, have a wonderful weekend!

  4. I agree. I don't think that ALL self-pub'd books are second class. BUT I do think that some self-pub'd books never made it in the world of mainstream publishers because they should not have. Some and I do mean some books are simply not worthy of the paper they are printed on. I guess though that can be said for both self-pub'd and traditional pub'd books. There is usually a valid reason why books are rejected.

    In the case of non-fiction work though, I think self-publishing is an excellent option because the major reason for rejection in that genre is lack of platform or lack of mass marketing appeal (of course it could also be that the book is not written well enough). Lack of platform does NOT mean that you don't have something that needs to be said. If the book sis well written and the author is happy to market then I think this is a good route to go.
    Some books are written for niche markets. Text books, educational/self-help for specific markets etc may not have mass marketing potential meaning major/tradition publishers wont take it on. Still if the book is well written and the author see the need for the work, I think it should be out there.

  5. It depends on the book. Unfortunately, the way the market works, most readers won't get the opportunity to locate the book through standard channels (chain bookstores) and discover for themselves if the book is first class or not.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  6. All second class? Definitely not. But it does make it easier for lower quality written books to get out there in the bookstores.

    There is a place for self-publishing, I'm just not sure that saturating the market with the ability to do so is in anyone's, readers or writers, best interests.

  7. To be honest, I've never really even thought about self-publishing. I don't think it's second rate or anything like that.

    I think if you self-publish, and you are currently unpublished or unestablished, then it would be harder to get your book "out there". Sure, your friends and family, or even people in your community, might read your book, but I would think that it would be more difficult to get your book in establishments across the country - or even in another country all together. The result would be not as many people would have access to your book like they would if you publish in the traditional way.

    Shelley @ Ink Scrawls

    P.S. I've added a link to your blog on my sidebar!

  8. I do think that the majority of self-published novels are bad. NOT ALL. But, the absence of gatekeepers means that a lot of garbage is welcome to come through, and therefore probably will.

    I think the "don't give up too early" point is a good one... not just because everything takes forever in this business, but because there's a lot to learn! If a novel doesn't get an agent, maybe the author needs to shelve it, and work on the next book. And maybe the author will learn during the course of that writing that the 1st book can be improved. Or maybe the author will find a new crit group who can fix the mistakes in the first query letter.

    I'm trusting the system to guide me as a writer as much as I trust it to keep high standards for me as a reader. If I don't get an agent, maybe the novel's just not ready or not saleable. I certainly don't want to do ALL my own marketing and sales. So, I'll wait.

    That said, I have a couple self-pubbed books on my shelf right now that are EXCELLENT. The agents/publishers couldn't see a big enough market for them, but the authors believed they could find that market on their own, so they went for it. I understand that both are doing well within their small demographics.

  9. By definition, self-published books are not second class. They're simply books published by the author (or by the author in conjunction with a publisher selling its publishing services vs. buying the rights to publish).

    Self-publishing gets a bad rap because too many writers have seen it as a route to publication when their manuscripts were not saleable due to their quality moreso than their content. If more self-published authors made choices to improve the quality of their books through professional editing and cover art, this rap would begin to die.

    I think it's an alternative, which for some is plan b, but for others, may be plan a. Because those writers are willing to hustle and prefer ownership to selling their work. They know and are willing to do what it takes to market and sell their books on their own. For that, they get a greater piece of, if not the whole royalty pie. Kudos to them!

  10. Jody, I haven't read a lot of them either, but a writer friend of mine did take a dip into the pool of self-publishing. Her story-telling abilities are superb, but I found numerous glaring errors (typos mainly) in the book, and I realized that without that excellent second and third and fourth glance by an editor, copyeditor, and all of the additional eyes that would have caught those errors in traditional publishing, I wouldn't have been taken out of the story so many times. The errors kept distracting me from the story and we all know that that is not good. We want our readers to be with us in the story the whole time. I recently caught an error in a book another friend wrote that was traditionally published, but there was just one; it seemed excusable. The self-pubbed book had many. I don't know if that's common, but it turned me off to the self-pubbed world. That said, I don't want to discount sef-publishing altogether. Like I said, the storytelling was superb. I just don't know that I would want to take that chance on my own work. If I'm going to work this hard, I want to present it to the world in the most refined state as possible.

  11. You're right about the saleability factor. And I think that it is unfair to judge self-published books as inferior. Maybe, they're not considered saleable by agents, but that does not mean to say that they are not well-written and worth reading.

  12. I read a blog post recently (forgive me for not remembering which one)that offered a great perspective on self-pub. The strongest point made was that self-pub books do not allow for the 'policing' of the literature found available to buyers.

    Self-pub books don't necessarily mean bad books; but, if self-pubs were to be more dominant on the shelves, how would it affect the overall quality of the selection? Would we purchase books based on the jacket, only to be disappointed by the quality of the writing inside?

    There are probably thousands of wonderful self-pub books out there, but my guess is that there are just as many not-so-good ones.

    We, as writers, must be honest with ourselves. Numerous rejections could mean we're just sending our queries to the wrong agents... or it could mean we need to improve our skills.

  13. That's a bit harsh. SPeaking strictly for me, if I ever choose the self publishing route I think I would know deep in my heart I didn't get the gold. It saddens me. Jody, please stop by my blog if you get a chance. I put up a query. Happy Thanksgiving! XOXOX

  14. Hey, Jody! I agree--especially about the saleability part. I love my fourth novel so much, but I haven't tried submitting it yet. The reason is because I think it's a book that has to come after I've established myself. It's not a great "first book", but I do think it will have a place in my library one day. I just have to be patient and "sit" on it until then.

  15. I think it has to do with credibility. Like I think Jessica said. If you self publish, you're the one saying your book is worth while reading and that might be the case, but the publishing world definitely gives the reader credibility.

  16. In the past, I think you would have been more likely to find the majority of self-published books of an inferior quality than traditionally published books. More recently, however, with advances in technology, access to editors, book club feedback, etc, you are likely to find some real gems in the self-published crowd.

    I self-pubbd my first book because a) I had several book clubs who wanted to read it, and b) I needed to build a platform. I've sold lots of books and gotten some great reviews, so I'm using that in my agent-query process. Self-publishing has been a means to an end for me. It's going very well, so far.

    Publishing professionals need not fear the self-publishing "beast." It's still very hard to get these books into book stores, and very difficult to get reviews in print media. There are still many layers of filters, even when an agent and traditional publisher aren't involved.

    I think there's room for all of us at the table.

  17. I do think self-publishing is unfairly considered second class but the label is unavoidable because of the lack of quality control from the writing to the copy editing to the printing. Self-publishing is egalitartian which is a very American ideal. It has some appeal for that reason. Although traditional publication is an accepted mark of success to most authors, exclusivity doesn't sit well with the masses.

    The saleability point is big issue, especially in a bad economy. Marketability does not always equate with quality, and quality is not always broadly marketable. I would rather see worthy books self-published than stuffed in a drawer because the won't sell.

    The problem of sorting the good from the dreck is one that social media can be tapped to solve. The author would have to work exponentially harder at marketing, but I think the potential for success is increasing because of our ubiquitous interconnectivity.

    (Climbing down from the soapbox and untangling my tongue.)

  18. Good food for thought.

    In the writers' conferences I've attended I got a clear impression that self-publishing was a second option, definitely not the most respected route to pursue.

    Because there's no gatekeeper the quality of the writing, layout and cover varies vastly from amateurish to professional. Because anyone can self publish, I think that takes away some of its credibility.

    That said, I'm sure there are some self-published books that are far superior to traditionally published ones.

    I've also perceived a similar lack of respect from traditional magazine publishers for online magazines sites.

    Traditionalists will always fight change and I gather publishing is a very traditional industry. But, technology is here to stay and publishing will never be the same again.

    Thanks for always stirring the pot with great info and thought provoking conversations!!

    Wishing you and your family a wonderful Thanksgiving!


  19. Great thoughts. Like you, I can't judge, because I don't think I've ever read a self-published book.

    I will say, though, that I think it's harder for a self-pubbed book to be first class. Mainly because self-pubbed books don't generally go through the same check points as a traditionally published book.

    Happy Thanksgiving!!

  20. Well said. I agree with you one hundred percent, especially in the idea that we should never give-up but instead, keep trying.

  21. Hi Jody -

    I've read some self-published books that were good, and others that made my eyes cross. Recently, I read one book that had a major grammatical goof on page 1. I put it down and haven't picked it up since.

    Self-publishing is great for ministries and speakers. Their books are often done by ghost writers and quite professional. They don't have time to go through the traditional channels.

    I agree with you, Jody. Saleability is a huge factor.

    Susan :)

  22. What a balanced post. I couldn't class all self-pubbed books as inferior. Some are niche books, non-fiction that appeal to a very narrow audience. I applaud people willing to fill that niche.

    However, most self-pubbed books never get read. If an author wants to reach a big audience, they have a slim chance of finding that audience with a self-pubbed book. Sure, some s.p.'d get big, but some people win the mega-million lottery too. It's rare.

    Thanks for your take on this divisive topic!

  23. I think your analysis is bang on, Jody. A very thoughtful and fair post.

    I don't read a lot of self-pubbed fiction simply because I don't usually encounter it at my book stores when browsing. But in the past couple years I've ordered online at least a half dozen because of connections with the authors. I would say half were well worth reading with only a few noticeable errors, while the other half were quite painful to read. I don't know how representative that ratio is but it says that labeling all self-published works under a single negative banner is grossly unfair.

    Perhaps one of the reasons behind the ongoing criticism is that there isn't a quality or popularity measuring stick for s.p. books such as the NYT best sellers' list (not that I think everything that makes that list is a great book). Maybe the market needs such a thing for mid-list books and others in the s.p. realm, to help readers weed out the not-worth-reading titles and save us from a lot of wasted time and money. (I think I'm half tongue-in-cheek here, although not entirely!)

  24. Funny how I was researching this topic just two days ago because I wanted to know the details and differences between the two. After reading your post, and with what I've learned, I agree with you completely. Thank you much for always providing great insight! Enjoy your Thanksgiving with your family Jody!
    PS. I ended up writing the 'What i'm Thankful for' post :)

  25. I think there is a general assumption that a self-published book is not as good as a traditionally-published book. But, I don't think that is a fair assumption. I've read four self-published books, and of the four, two were very decent and I could have imagined them published at any traditional house. One was also very good, but it had several typos in it. If it weren't for the typos, I would have thought quite highly of it. The last one is also decent, but perhaps not as good as the majority of traditionally published books I've read.

  26. I really don't feel I'm in any position to pass judgement on whether self publishing is for second class author. Right now I am a second class writer! LOL.

    Really, every path is different and God is the only righteous judge. So write and leave the direction of publication up to him. But like you mentioned Jody make sure don't rush things. Publication is not an overnight market, and we have to be willing to hold out for the success that we long for.

    I will! Just watching you and others like Erica, Katie, Elana reminds me that all things are possible.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  27. I think it is so individual -- who can say what is right for one person is right for another? No hard and fast rules when it comes to this, imho.

    Have a great holiday :D

  28. I think I'm going to be taking an unpopular stand, but I *do* tend to think that self-published fiction is second class. I haven't read much self-published fiction, though, so I am perfectly willing to admit that I might be unfairly biased.

  29. HEY!!! Im with Justice Publishing Inc. and we are happy to announce that we have a new series coming soon in stores and schools called the "Adventure of Cinnamon and Spice"!.We are partnering with E-Squared Studios Inc. to produce colorful designs for the series. It a really fun book with silly characters that children will fall in love with over and over again. This book will will make a great stocking stuffer! So come on by and check out blog, leave a comment and tell us what you think. Get ready for the adventure!!!!

  30. It's a sticky topic. I used to think that if someone self published it's because no one wanted what they had. OR they didn't want to pursue the traditional route which is, let's face it, hard.

    But there's a part of me that thinks these people who go the self publishing route are people who DO have a great story, people who believe so passionately in their story that they aren't going to be discouraged by anyone or any industry.

    If you have a great story, people will want to read it. If you can market your book and sell it yourself, then by all means, go for it! I think you have to do what works for you. If you go the traditional route and find no one who's interested, and you know that you know that you KNOW your story IS the best it can be, then by all means, sell it yourself and achive success that way.

    I actually admire people who self publish and market their own books. I think it's a courageous thing to do.

    Happy Thanksgiving,

  31. Jody, They are two completely different animals. Self-published books and traditionally published books.

    That said, Beth who sits above me^ and I have discussed this at length at our crit group meetings. I just know this. I want to be traditionally published. I want the WHOLE nine yards. To me, if I self-published, it just would NOT be the same. Now I may feel different after going through the query process, but I doubt it.

    And I don't think ALL self-published books are inferior, but most are. At least the ones I have picked up. So...the discussion goes on. And on, and on...

    Happy Thanksgiving.

    Oh hey, I didn't know you home-schooled too. And yes, some days are definitely better than others. But it's all worth it in the end. :)

  32. I left a really long comment earlier today and apparently it didn't "take." Now I'm not sure what I said! Anyway, you and I have talked before about my back and forth thoughts on the subject, but I wanted to tell you that I went to a seminar on this at the writer's conference earlier this month, and it was interesting. The speaker has a traditionally published book and now works for a self-publishing company, so he was able to give firsthand information from both sides.

    I think (as some have said) it's about what is right for YOU. And while I still have people telling me this is giving up or not trying hard enough, I still think it's a route worth pursuing.

  33. Just wanted to stop by and wish you a Happy Thanksgiving!

    Hope you have a wonderful day!

  34. I'd love for you to read my blog about self-publishing titled:
    In Response to Rachelle Gardner's Hair Ripping Blog

    Also read the comments.So many people have a great deal to say about this topic. I think it all depends upon the writing. Good word on a book travels fast.

    M.J. Macie

  35. Jessica said, "I think that they are generally considered inferior, but I think that's because it only takes one opinion for that book to be pubbed, and it's the creator's opinion."

    I second that motion. I don't think self-pubbed books are all inferior, but I think the problem is that a LOT of self-pubbed books shouldn't be pubbed. Therefore, the good self-pubbed books that may've fallen through the traditional publishing cracks unfortunately get lumped in with the under par ones, simply because the standard for self-pubbing is, well, what you'll pay.

  36. Great post! I could not have said it better. I have tried to communicate this very idea in comments, discussions, responses over the last few months, and done it rather poorly. You finally put it into just the right words!

    When all of the self-pub buzz erupted, I realized suddenly that our family's most beloved textbooks, curriculum supplies, and teaching materials were self-published by other homeschooling instructors. I had never even paid attention to that aspect of what we used in our homeschool journey.

    For those who have doubts about the value of our educational program, I can only point to our results -- a National Merit Scholar, an AP scholar, perfect test scores, two four-year scholarships, and a 4.0 GPA at the honors college of a major university. There are a number of other honors, but those will do for a start. Did our teaching materials get the job done well? In spades. And 80% of them were self-published.

    Self-publishing has its rightful place, for particular purposes and audiences. I'm so grateful for these wonderful teaching materials that were *just right* for our family.

    Publishing is a business, and as a business, must pay attention to what will be most likely to sell on the market now. It doesn't mean that all of the great manuscripts get attention from a conventional publisher. They don't.

    We must understand the focus of conventional publishers, understand our mission, understand our audience. What is the right fit for a particular book at a particular time? Each author should choose the proper fit.

    Seeing publishing options as OPTIONS (rather than grades of excellence) which let us create our own custom fit gives us the larger and better perspective on this. Freedom is a wonderful thing.

  37. Two published books, one award, and a slew of reviews have taught me "Beauty is in the eye of beholder. One girl's diamond is another girl's cubic zirconia.

    And isn't that a cool thing??????!!!!!!!!!

    A world with only primary colors would bore the pupils.

    Love this blog!!!!

  38. I've been told I should consider self-publishing both the manuscripts I've written (one fiction and one nonfiction). The comments that have come back to me is that the books are good, but they both hit niche markets. My fiction book has a salability potential. Maybe if I sell that one, I can use the proceeds to fund self-publishing my nonfiction one (though I did promise my wife I'd get her earrings the day I finally sell a book).

  39. I think this is a conversation that's going to be happening for a long time to come. I have read self-published books that would have been much better with the help of an expert editor. But then again I've read traditionally published books with the same problem. That said, I'm pursuing the traditional route for now. If that doesn't work, I'll look at other options then. And I can't say how long I'll give the traditional route to work. Thanks for the great nudge to thinking.

  40. This topic sure generated a lot of comments! As someone who HAS self published, I thought I'd jump in with my reasons. First, I never thought about the traditional route, and really never researched any options. My book is an inspirational/devotional style, a collection of things I'd written over the years. I completed the book as my 50th birthday was approaching. We had met a Pastor who's church had a printing ministry, and my husband suggested contacting him. Their quality was good and their prices great, so it seemed the Lord had opened the door. In a way my book was a birthday gift to myself, and my concern wasn't selling thousands of copies, as much as it was to have something for my family. It was a first book that I just needed to get out of my system! LOL
    Having said all of that, I will be the first to admit that I made mistakes. I rushed to meet a self imposed dead line. I didn't have a real editor, and many typos were missed(they make me cringe now!!) But I learned a lot from the experience. I would do it again, but do it better!
    Although I haven't done a lot to market my book, I do get orders through my blog, and the reviews have all been positive.


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