March 17, 2018

What’s the Problem with Self-Publishing?

The discussion of self-published titles in libraries has increased in recent years, in direct proportion to the angst surrounding ongoing ebook licensing negotiations with major traditional publishers. Prompted by the prospect of limited availability of popular titles or higher prices—probably both—­librarians are understandably weighing alternatives that might satisfy readership demands.

There are, however, very real barriers that must be overcome before self-publishing is likely to be even a small component of many collection efforts. Some barriers will fall away naturally as this growing market gains momentum and filters its way into downstream publishing markets like libraries, while others will require a more concerted advocacy effort to overcome.


The longest-standing barrier is the stigma associated with self-published works. Long synonymous with “vanity publishing,” these works have been rejected for decades on the grounds that if they weren’t good enough to appeal to a traditional publisher, they were unlikely to serve the needs of library users. On the publishing side, the business case for self-publishing as a profit center is forcing many in the industry to reconsider this attitude.

Penguin parent company Pearson last year acquired self-publishing company Author Solutions, with an eye toward acquisition prospects. At the time of the deal, Penguin CEO John Makinson told PaidContent that Penguin’s partnership with Author Solutions “will fall somewhere between self-publishing as presently defined and Penguin publishing as presently defined.” Meanwhile, the increasing number of anecdotes of breakout self-publishing successes—such as Amanda Hocking, E.L. James, Hugh Howey, and many others—indicate there are gems among the self-published offerings, even if not every title is equally compelling.

On the library side, there is likewise a growing acknowledgment that the taint surrounding self-published materials is not always justified and that librarians are fallible when it comes to curating collections. Brian Kenney, director of the White Plains Public Library, NY, notes in a recent column for Publishers Weekly, “Last summer, White Plains started a ‘you ask, we buy’ program. We immediately received a stream of requests…. [M]ost surprising has been the number of requests for self-­published titles, especially in YA fiction—which is very helpful since libraries do a lousy job of collecting self-published works.”

Henry Bankhead, interim town librarian in Los Gatos, CA, tells LJ, “The traditional role of the librarian has been the curator [of quality] and to keep the ‘trash’ out. But that’s illogical, if you’re saying you’re a big curator but actually relying on sales and popularity and sort of hiding behind this mask of being a curator.”

While Bankhead is a staunch advocate of self-­publishing potential and prominent supporter of the Smashwords digital self-publishing platform as a local business near Los Gatos, he also acknowledges the well-oiled machine that spans libraries, publishing, and popular culture (review sources, television interviews, best sellers lists, etc.) that is designed to promote efficiently a relatively narrow swath of published materials.

The self-publishing breakout must necessarily succeed outside the range of this enterprise, at least for the time being. That’s because it is set up to reinforce the same elements that have propagated the self-publishing stigma: while this marketing machine does not directly castigate self-published materials, it does attempt to emphasize the link among selection, quality, and traditional imprint publishing especially as traditional publishers are focusing on the value proposition that their marketing efforts offer to prospective authors.


Ready to reject the stigma? There’s still the issue of availability. According to Bowker, there were 235,000 print and ­ebook self-published titles produced in 2012, up 43 percent from 2011. Sixty-three percent of those are print titles, generally available via print-on-demand (POD) to libraries seeking them out. But the remaining 37 percent are self-published ebooks, with nearly half (47 percent) of that share published via the Smashwords platform. While Smashwords recently made a prominent, large-scale collaboration with Douglas County Libraries, CO, and California’s Califa Library Group to make some 10,000 titles available to these library partners, there are only a few libraries making efforts toward large-scale access to self-published works.

As the balance shifts toward electronic titles, especially for breakout sellers, the most appealing route for libraries is going to be the increasing smaller-scale integration of providers like Smashwords and Author Solutions with existing library distribution platforms such as 3M, Baker &Taylor (B&T), and OverDrive (B&T already has Smashwords’ titles included among its offerings, while 3M and OverDrive each indicated that access to 10,000 self-pubbed titles will be available in the coming months; similar arrangements with platforms like Author ­Solutions and others are already in place or in the works).

Still, the example of Hugh Howey illustrates the availability gap that stymies patrons from getting at many requested works. Howey has become a tremendously successful self-­publisher via the Kindle Select program, citing a $150,000 a month income in 2012 from ebook sales alone; the film rights for his popular “Wool” series have been optioned by Ridley Scott. But libraries had no recourse for acquiring the component stories singly or via the collected omnibus as an ebook, even though that was the medium of its success. In late 2012, Howey sold print-only rights to Simon & Schuster for a reported seven-­figure advance, which would allow libraries to acquire the print edition (while a few enterprising libraries also sought out versions of the series made available via the ­CreateSpace POD platform, again in print only).

Scale & discoverability

The Douglas County/Califa foray with Smashwords also points to a third potential problem, which is scale. Because it can be hard to make fine distinctions from among the 235,000-plus titles and because the publishing of these works centers on large aggregators, access to them comes in bulk.

So even if tomorrow every library in the country could give its community access to some 10,000 self-published titles, the sheer scale of that addition would itself be an issue, in some ways more problematic than the issue it intended to address, unless handled with deliberate care.

Mark Coker, Smashwords founder, previously told LJ that the effort to select roughly ten percent of the company’s offerings to create a library-centric collection “was a lot more complicated for us than we expected.”

His team worked with librarians to create a first-pass algorithm “based on total sales by author divided by their total number of books to help identify titles that were truly in demand,” according to LJ’s report. Meanwhile, LJ’s 2012 Ebook Usage Report for U.S. Public Libraries pegs the median number of ebook titles available via the average library at just over 5,000 (obtained independently or made available through a consortium). It’s one thing to offer unprecedented access, but it’s another to dwarf a preexisting ­collection.

There is a balance to strike in making access to self-published works a viable option without overwhelming the discoverability of materials for which there is existing and proven demand. Here, vendors and aggregators are the ones who will make the difference, because they create the interfaces and algorithms that will make or break the self-publishing discovery mechanism for library patrons. This is a solvable software engineering problem that is likely to take inspiration from the academic market aggregate-index discovery tools like Summon, EBSCO Discovery Service, and Primo Central, which combine searches for books, journal articles, and local collections into a single search interface. In any case, it’s largely out of the hands of libraries, except as customers voting with their dollars.


Partially to deflect the stigma associated with self-publishing, libraries historically developed collection policies asking authors to supply independent proof of a title’s appeal. As Ted Bohaczuk, orders librarian at the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP), describes it, “We have a soft response that says, ‘We base our purchasing decisions to a large extent on reviews that are available, please attempt to get your product reviewed’ ”; the FLP practice is to advise authors that “as your title gets reviews, we will make a determination as the budget permits.”

However, the historical review mechanisms are not integrating any significant number of reviews of self-­published works. LJ, Booklist, and others consider self-published titles on their merits, but since they skew heavily toward prepublication reviewing, and most self-published titles do not have review copies available several months in advance of the publication date, few are submitted (ask yourself: What does a prepublication review even mean for a self-­published ebook?). Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, meanwhile, have paid services that (on a discretionary basis, in the case of PW Select) also review self-published titles, but the payment barrier limits the number of titles considered here as well. There are many excellent blogs and other sources that highlight independent and self-published works, but, again, the issue of scale rears its head.

Reader-generated reviews are often posited as at least an approximate measure of appeal, but for many if not most of these works, the readership may not be large enough to initiate even a single useful review.

As Bohaczuk tells me, “We’re often left in the tough spot of reviewing the review source, as they get more fragmented and people rely more on do-it-yourself approaches. It’s freeing for them creatively, and it could be producing ­really good work, but for us it’s a big problem to sift through, in terms of workflow and how to deal with it.”

David Vinjamuri, an adjunct professor of marketing at New York University, recently penned a piece for Forbes describing a distributed effort that would be one way to approach this issue of self-publishing scale: “Now let’s do some simple math: there are 16,000 library buildings in the United States. If each library were to review just one unique book a month, as a group they would cover 192,000 titles in a year.” He continues,

Many of these books could be reviewed quickly: they are poorly written, unedited, and lacking any redeeming virtues. Perhaps one in ten would be worthy of a detailed review. Yet if each library discovered just one interesting book a year—and shared that result with other libraries that could review and rate those interesting books—there would be 16,000 interesting books for libraries to review. If we assume that just one in one hundred of those reviewed books are ‘great,’ libraries would still have discovered 160 great new books to recommend to library patrons each year.

Even if his “one in one hundred” estimation is off by an order of magnitude in either direction, the distributed and collective approach to tackling this problem of scale is a thought in the right direction.

Enthusiasm vs. demand

The possibility of dozens of “great” books—out of 235,000-plus published in 2012—brings us back to a problem in many ways related to one of the original criticisms of self-published material, which is that while there are certainly more gems than most librarians realize, the volume of attention given to it in some circles is disproportionate to even an optimistic estimate of demand for it in libraries. Simply put, tremendous enthusiasm is there on the part of many library and publishing professionals, but the demand from patrons is not yet commensurate.

Also writing for Forbes, UK author and journalist Suw Charman-Anderson notes, “Self-publishing is only at the beginning of the hype cycle, and this rapid growth is part of the climb up the Peak of Inflated Expectations. We can look forward to a significant backlash against self-publishing—moreso than the current mutterings about quality—when it crests that peak and crashes down into the Trough of Disillusionment.” A similar if somewhat less exaggerated curve handily describes the likely library interest in self-publishing as well.

Consider a different approach

So what to do as these issues are addressed incrementally? One approach is to consider the public’s interest in self-publishing as a service opportunity rather than a collection development concern. There is much libraries can do to align themselves with the inversion of the vanity label on self-publishing and capitalize on the passion and dedication of proud creators. One leading example is the Sacramento Public Library, CA, which combines classes and access to an Espresso Book machine via its I Street Press program, dubbed “A Community Writing & Publishing Center” (for more, see Jennifer Koerber’s “The Makings of Maker Spaces.” Pt. 2: “Espress Yourself”).

Yet an Espresso Book Machine isn’t required to bring self-publishing into the fold of the library-as-creation-space movement—simply making the connection between that creative impulse and the staff and material resources of the library is an extremely effective and powerful step, a point stressed by Walt Crawford in his The Librarian’s Guide to Micropublishing.

As Anne Silvers Lee, chief of the materials management division at FLP, puts it, beyond setting up a “Local Authors” shelf for acknowledging the works of local creators, which some libraries do, “we know now that we have to be much more proactive in taking people by the hand and showing them what to do.”

And though Bankhead of Los Gatos has yet to connect his library’s catalog with the self-published stores of a platform like Smashwords, he regularly points interested patrons toward self-publishing tools, even as he waits for collections integration with existing ebook aggregator platforms. For example, in late March, he created a publishing portal, cobranded with Smashwords and linked from the library’s homepage, intended to guide users from that moment of inspiration to the creation of a book and finally to the library’s catalog of available materials.

“Providing a content creation avenue that eventually leads back to the library shelves…moves us to a place that focuses on free creation rather than just free access, because it offers free tools both to create and house content,” Bankhead says. “Aligning with that whole magical idea of content creation at the library, the Maker space, that is a win for us, for readers, and for authors.”

Photo: My Work Desk by David Joyce

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Josh Hadro About Josh Hadro

Josh Hadro (@hadro on Twitter) is the former Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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  1. Roger Eric Hoyt says:

    It seems to me that, according to this fine article, the self-published author faces the same dilemmas as traditional publishing hopefuls have always faced–that of getting recognized out of the slush pile, and finding their way past the intern/first-reader to an editor’s desk. The “Slush Pile”, in the case posed by this article, is now the multitude of new titles forging their way into the e-book and POD marketplaces; the first-reader being one or more of the mob of reviewers who have been appointed guardians of the gate to publishing success. The only difference between that process in the traditional- and self-publishing worlds is the shear volume of self-published titles to be reviewed. The decision to review, and the review itself, will remain–now and always–the arbiter of readership, and thus, the gateway to success. Therefore, in my opinion–as a writer and journalist for more than 30 years–whether or not an author becomes successful is left to the opinions of a small sampling of individuals whose job it is to review the literature brought to market. As to reader-demand being the driver: marketing a work of literature, that is, bringing work to the attention of readers, critics and reviewers, is left almost entirely up to the author–a daunting task, at best.

  2. We just sold 97 titles to the Douglas Country, CO. Library system along with metadata from Cool Gus Publishing. We love working with libraries, to the point where, with smaller systems that can’t pay, we will give away eBooks. We have an array of titles from bestselling authors, including myself. We’re also in Overdrive.

    I was traditionally published for 20 years with 42 titles in NY. I’ve been “indie” since then. So technically I’m self-published, but I think that’s evolving. One has a hard time surviving for long all alone. Perhaps a scale to use is sales threshold? A handful of us indies have sold over a million eBooks. I think that’s pretty significant. But even 100,000 is significant and more than the average mass market from NY sold.

  3. Yes, I think there is a major role here for the incubation and promotion of local authors by public libraries. To that end, I continue to believe it wise for libraries to acquire some kind of system for the management of their own content. I’ve got a forthcoming article about a proposed system for this. It looks like a lot of us are thinking about this topic.

  4. Johnson Smith says:

    I don’t know, it feels like we’re saying “give “em an e-book, any e-book will do.” If these self-published titles are so good, why aren’t we buying them in print? This shotgun approach — hoping there are a few real gems out there in the scatter — seems imprudent and a slap in the face to our well-read patrons. We’re counting on them to sift through the dross to find the gems for us.

  5. 1. Re: “Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, meanwhile, have paid services that (on a discretionary basis, in the case of PW Select) also review self-published titles,” Clocktower Books submitted a James Bond-like thriller by an excellent author this spring, for review at PW Select ($149 a pop), and the result was arrogant drivel by a staffer who clearly had not read the book but had only skimmed through it. Not sure if the issue was man-hating or confusing small press with “vanity”, but our reaction is that PW Select is yet another scam from the NY industry (speaking as one of 60,000+ small press who are the *real* traditional publishers, not the Big Six shopping mall anomaly of NYC. But we gave it a try, and the hype was just that.
    2. Surprisingly, some research for a website recently revealed that about 80% of the syllabus of the typical English course consists of self-published authors who had to bypass the mediocre gate keepers of their day. These include Beatrix Potter, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, STephen Crane, James Joyce, D H Lawrence, and many more. Whitman was a professional typesetter, and Virginia Wolf not only self-pubbed but owned her own press, which in turn published many other literary authors.

  6. Xist Publishing started as a self publishing venture for illustrated children’s books and in the last two years has developed a catalog of over 180 children’s eBooks from around 30 different authors and illustrators, many with POD editions.

    Like Bob Mayer’s Cool Gus, we’re a new type of publisher. We’ve directly sold our catalog to the Harris County Library system and to hundreds of libraries through OverDrive but have run into a number of the problems this article mentions.

    When I contacted our local library system, the digital collections development office said we needed local (and preferably national) print reviews of our titles to prove their would be a local demand for the half-dozen or so local authors I was suggesting be added. There are a number of major bloggers who have reviewed our books (and many more smaller ones), and a few large media sources who have profiled either myself or one of our authors, but since we don’t have that review process in place with prepublication copies there are 100 times more of our ebooks circulating outside the US than inside our own state.

    We see libraries as a very important partner for our mission of “encouraging a lifetime love of reading in children, no matter what form it takes.” I’m pleased to read that strides are being made to expand the ways libraries acquire ebooks and I hope that the future will bring even more ways for kids read eBooks for their local libraries.

  7. I support indie/self published authors via my book review blog: and also my longer established review blog:

    It’s time librarians started investigating self pubbed books. It’s a huge market sector in itself. People are reading them. Shouldn’t libraries promote what the people want?

    Big houses are inundated with manuscripts; only a small percentage of well-written books even make it to publication. Why not self publish? Why discount the vast numbers of books being self published?

    Libraries need to stay ahead of the curve to survive. It’s time we all take heed of self/indie books.

  8. Wonderful article, and I’m glad to see librarians seriously considering the self-pub issue.

    I’m a self-pub author, as well as a member of two indie author co-operatives (Indelibles for YA and Emblazoners for MG). So far my indie author groups have mainly been supportive and information-sharing, but we’re starting to explore the options for leveraging our group’s size (and increasing number of titles) to act as a small press (like Mayer’s Cool Gus). In fact, as a rep for the Indelibles, I just applied for an Overdrive account – hopefully that will pave the way for our authors to provide ebooks for library patrons (we have two NYTimes bestsellers in our group as well as many others who are selling very strongly midlist).

    This article was extremely helpful to me – as an indie author – to understand how the library system works from the acquisitions side. From the indie author side, there’s a couple things I’d like to point out that you may not be aware. Penguin’s Author Solutions is a vanity press (reviled by most indie authors for their scams on writers; they are currently in a class-action suit brought by their own authors). Smashwords, while a legit distributor and advocate for indie authors, is a relatively small player – many, many indie authors do not publish on Smash for a variety of reasons. Although if Overdrive contracted with Smash for distribution of titles, I can see that being an incentive for more indie authors to distribute through Smash (at least for that purpose).

    Finally, I absolutely love the idea of librarians reviewing one self-published title a year and sharing those results! I know I’ve introduced my local librarian to my own self-published works, and I could recommend others to her. Quality indie authors are discovered by the same mechanism that most books are: word of mouth. In fact, one could say that much of the success of indie authors rests on the fact that word of mouth now travels at the speed of electrons. I would love to see librarians fully integrated into – and feeding – that system.

    Thanks again for the great article!

  9. Kell Brigan says:

    So Bankhead & Co. are putting stuff on their shelves/in their database with no quality control whatsoever? Isn’t that a pretty rotten thing to do to an innocent reader?