Self Publishing from the perspective of an Open Source Advocate

From that title you might think I’d be all for self-publishing.

Well, I’m not against it. I don’t like it when it’s done badly, which I see far too often, and it frustrates me. Just like bad documentation with a great piece of open source code. It’s just sloppy, why put in all the work you have, then blow it at the last hurdle?

I’ve self published many things. Manuals, software guides, and some teaching materials. All of these however have been self-published using a Creative Commons Licence. And always in a form that allowed for post release updates to fix errors.

The way I released most of my own self-published works has been dictated by my not expecting to get paid for them. A result of this was there was no requirement that I do any marketing, although since I did most of my releasing within the special interest groups to which my documents were of interest. This was another factor minimising this aspect. I did it because I was in those communities. They advertised it for me.

One of them, a game tool guide, became insanely popular. It’s still downloaded thousands of times a year over fifteen years after I wrote it. Back when I first wrote it that number was tens of thousands of times a year. I still get emails about it.

But I, like many other people writing similar things, in that particular community, most of whom put in far more work than I did, I didn’t expect to get paid. Had it not been available free of charge the story of my small contribution might have been different.

Most self-published authors now do so precisely because the do want to get paid. I see nothing wrong with this. This is, after all, how I open the first of my lectures on Open Source. ‘You will need to make money if you write Open Source code, and I’m going to help you learn you how to do that’.

Not all writers feel this way, some just want to get their name out there, but making money is a completely valid end game. However, money alone should never be the only reason you write.

Self-Publishing for money

For a detailed guide to this see, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, most of the rest of the internet. But this is my personal take. I have a lecture where I compare Open Source programming to self-publishing, and I’m doing the inverse here.

If you are a fanatical hater of conventional publishing, then this is not the post for you. I’m unpublished right now, and may never be, though I am trying. It won’t be the industry’s fault if I don’t get into print, it will be mine, for not creating something good enough, or not finding the right agent. I have nothing against either agents, conventional publishing, or self-publishing for that matter.

If your work is good enough to make serious coin in the self-publishing world, then that’s fantastic, well done, you are an amazing writer, and able to wear the many other hats required. You can do more than I can.

But, why are you trying to be an agent, a publicist, a copy editor, a salesperson, and all the things you can get other people to do for you while you just get on and write? This isn’t a criticism, is a genuine question. People are buying your fiction (I’m only meaning fiction here, not non fiction, I cover that below), so you have the talent. Wouldn’t it be better if someone else did those jobs for you?

These days eBook companies exist which can do some of this work. When these first appeared, there was going to be a total revolution in publishing.

We’re still waiting.

Changes have happened, but the main conventional publishers produce eBook versions too, and hardbacks, paperbacks, and audiobooks.

I’ve been on many writers forums where people ranted on about the evils of the conventional publishing industry. I just don’t see it. You think Amazon and Apple are somehow angels in all this? Amazon have put the squeeze on local bookshops. I don’t like this. So many of the odd little bookshops I browsed when I was younger have vanished. They’re just not profitable enough any more. Not that they ever really were. Like writing itself, bookshops were, and mostly still are, something you do if you have a passion for it. No-one opens an independent bookshop to get rich.

Amazon have introduced some great innovations recently, with self-publishers getting paid by how many pages of their work people have read. This is a genuinely good thing that helps a lot of writers who might otherwise struggle to sell their short stories. But they’ve also tried at every opportunity to breach contracts with publishers and reduce the money they have to pay out per book sold. It’s not good. The latest issue with audiobook captions is simply the latest in a long line of attempts to circumvent contracts.

This is not a company I’d be happy working with as a sole trader. Yet many are forced to, because they’ve made themselves the only show in town.

If you’ve self-published because you got rejected, you’re convinced your work is the greatest thing ever and you’re annoyed no-one agrees with you? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, either way this isn’t the reason to self-publish.

The decision should be the result of careful planning, with you choosing the right platform. It’s a business decision, because by self publishing, you’re moving from being a writer to being a business person. This isn’t something to take lightly.

Another aspect to consider is once your book has an ISBN, you can’t have it republished by a conventional publisher (yes it happens, but it’s so rare it’s not worth considering). Nor can you change it (unless that is it’s only in eBook form, in which case you can update it. I’m unsure how much, I know you can fix errors.)

It it’s released in hardcopy form? It’s a different matter, you can’t alter a printed book once it’s been bought.

I confess to not knowing how Amazon Print on Demand works, Maybe you can change the source image it prints from, I don’t know. However I’m pretty certain no-one can come round to my house with tipex and alter a book on my shelf.

This is another way in which where self-publishing differs from open source.  The other being some, but not all developers hope to make money.

I never did, because making money was never my motivation, but I teach my students how they might, because now I teach how to make a career out of open source, the world is changing in exciting ways and I want them to have the knowledge to hit the ground running when they leave.

However, an open source product once released can be updated forever without any restrictions.

Having read some of the less good self-published books, just to see what went wrong. It seems to be a lot of the reason they failed wasn’t because they were awful, it was because they didn’t seem to have hired an editor, and they published too soon, before they’d made that really difficult final push to the finish line.

Yes, getting from 90% done to done is harder than writing the first draft. It’s a freaking nightmare. Until you’ve been there you won’t understand. And this is before you can hand it over to an agent or editor. I’m just talking about finishing the story.

Amazon have made the process of self-publishing far too easy. They don’t care either way, no matter how well or badly you do they make money.

All isn’t doom and Gloom however

Self-publishing has its place, and that place is very much required. I just bought a self-published book written by a Youtuber, and I love it (On Writing and Worldbuilding: Volume I by Timothy Hickson – ‘Hello Future Me’ on YouTube). I can see why he self-published, it might not have a wide enough market to appeal to an agent or publisher, but I would imagine he’ll make a profit, because the market it does have is still pretty big. It’s really good, nicely produced, and his channel has quite a following.

Niche non-fiction books, printed on demand are great, I’ve bought several. I had one as recommended text on a module I taught. large publishers and agents tend not to touch books that have a small potential audience (Mind you, small to them may not be small to you, if you get to retain most of the money made). Small publishers might, but Amazon print on demand is convenient, and small presses that could easily offer the same service aren’t doing a good job of advertising themselves. This needs to change.

These books still need to be edited to a high standard. Being non-fiction they have the advantage of being able to have revised editions released. Fiction can’t, as a rule have revised editions. Not unless it’s a really popular book, and the revision adds some great stuff, like adding in the authors original intended ending, or new artwork (Folio Society editions). I’m just saying it’s not common.

Another difference is that open source release portals have communities associated with them. These aren’t always well structured, and there have been controversial incidents around some of these portals regarding commercialisation as they have sought funding to remain viable. Still, however unstructured some are, communities do exist, and thanks to the nature of the open source world, exist without the control of commercial interference. This is however, a whole new subject, I’ll not go into it here.

Hope this was interesting.

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