Some people seem to be of the opinion that self-publishing means rubbish publishing, or at least that to be taken seriously as an author you have to be commissioned by a traditional print publisher.

The root of this opinion appears to be that the selection process operated by publishers ensures that only the best books get through, and therefore that any book that does not go through this kind of rigour is somehow sub-standard. Others believe that a book that has not gone through the production process used by publishers will be sub-standard in terms of editorial and print quality.

As someone with over 12 years’ experience in the business, including as a commissioning editor, I want to offer an alternative viewpoint to this. So, if you are worried your self-published book will be less valuable than a commissioned book, I want to explain the difference between commissioned and self-published books, and how you can avoid producing a ‘rubbish’ book yourself.

Commissioned does not mean brilliant

The tendency to assume that a ‘good’ book will automatically get published and ‘bad’ book won’t is pure fallacy. There are many great books that never get published, just like there are great films that don’t get shot.

Books get commissioned because they meet the needs of a publisher and a publishing list. The fact that there are editors and writers who can turn a sow’s ear to a silk purse is testament to the fact that ‘good’ is not about the quality of the writing but more about the quality of an idea. Sometimes it’s just that a book turns up on a commissioning editor’s desk at the right moment.

Publishing is not an egalitarian business; in fact, it is intrinsically unfair. Publishers and commissioning editors have a wish list of books they want to publish based on the areas of the market they want to reach and the parts of their lists they want to enhance. What that means is that a poor book that meets a need, is more likely to get published than a good book that does not fit the brief.

The other key fact is that the bottom line for a publisher is the bottom line. If a book offers to make the bottom line bigger, a self-publishing-cartoonpublisher may well publish it. Let’s face it, we can all justify having what we want, even if it isn’t good for us. However, that doesn’t mean that a bottom-line enhancing title is a ‘good’ book. In fact, it could easily not be good at all. What may be more important is that the author has a ready-made market who will buy the book, which guarantees a return on the investment that makes investing in the book irresistible to the publisher.

As a commissioning editor, I had many books submitted to me for publication. I rejected 95 per cent of them, but not because they weren’t good, decent, well-written books. Some books were too niche for me, the market for them just didn’t justify publishing them in print. I often advised these authors to, yes, you guessed it: self-publish!

I rejected other books because I already had books like them on my list, or because I wanted bigger names to raise the profile of my list. There was always a good reason why I said ‘no’. Sometimes, though it was the publishing board that said ‘no’. Publishers only want to invest in books that they are confident that they can sell in volume and if that is in doubt, the word ‘no’ is more likely than the word ‘yes’.

And that is the important point: publishers want books that sell in volume. Producing and printing books is expensive and risky. This is why publishers spend so long selecting books. Despite this, publishers don’t always get it right. Books that should be published get rejected – repeatedly. Books that should not be accepted get published – repeatedly. Some swim, some sink. In a way, that is what makes publishing fun, because publishing is a bit like sport; if you could always predict the outcome of the match, you wouldn’t bother to turn up and watch.

So, if being published by a print publisher doesn’t necessarily mean a book is good, it also doesn’t mean a self-published book is bad. Proof of this is that publishers are often interested in taking on books that have previously self-published as this gives them direct data about the popularity of a title before they invest in it. This fact alone unravels the good book/bad book argument because, as Amazon and Kindle have proved, all books are in fact, equal in front of the market.

Only published books are produced to a high quality

It is true that a published book has to meet a high standard because quality is very important to publishers. That is why publishers seek out the best editors, designers, artists, photographers, picture researchers…because they want to produce high-quality books. Quality definitely matters.

The problem with most self-publishers is that they fail to budget for the same level of quality as a publisher does. It isn’t that the same standards are not achievable it’s simply that few people want to invest sufficiently to enjoy those standards. Almost all top editors, designers and cover artists will work for any client if he or she is prepared to pay the fees they charge. In fact, most would love to do the work. Most don’t get asked.

Sadly, the majority of self-publishers seem to think they can avoid spending money producing their book but despite this they still expect to get the same results as a professional publisher. On the other hand, some self-publishers simply don’t care. Does quality always matter? It’s true that some books will sell no matter how badly they are produced, but whether that makes low-quality acceptable or not is a matter of opinion.

3 top tips on how to produce a high-quality self-published book

  1. Ask an experienced publisher or editor to review your book or give you feedback on your idea.
  2. Make sure you budget for professional services: editing, proof-reading, book cover.
  3. Listen to what you are told, especially if you don’t like it.

A final word if you want a printed book: get a professional print designer to do your page layouts. I have seen far too many short books stretched over too many pages. Now, that really does look rubbish!

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Deborah Taylor
Deborah Taylor

Hi, I'm Deborah Taylor and I'm a publishing consultant and book-writing mentor. I work with established business owners who want to share their message by writing a book but are struggling to get started (or finished). I help them write, publish and launch a stand-out, attention-grabbing book that will raise their profile, reach more of their ideal clients and grow their business. I am a trained editor with over 15 years' publishing experience with major blue-chip UK publishing companies such as Hodder & Stoughton, BBC Books, Cassell and Pearson. I have produced books on every subject under the sun and with professinals and experts from a wide range of professions, from chefs and gardeners to life coaches and career consultants. I would love to help you write a book you love and that will raise your profile, attract new clients and bring you exciting new business opportunities.