Does Self-Publishing Your Book Hurt Your Credibility?

March 4th, 2007 by Bob Bly

If you want to establish yourself as a recognized expert in your field, which is the best option for building your credibility — an e-book, self-published print book, or a book with a traditional publishing house (e.g., McGraw-Hill).

Years ago, at a talk to the NYC chapter of National Speakers Association (NSA), my colleague Dan Poynter said words to the effect that the reader doesn’t care who the publisher is — noting that no one goes into the bookstore and asks “Do you have any Random House books?

And therefore, he concluded, whether the book is self-published or published by a mainstream publisher is irrelevant.

I respectfully disagree, and to illustrate my contention that a traditionally published book gives the author greater credibility and status than a self-published book, a quick story:

When I was in my 20s, eons ago, I was speaking at an event. As I rode to the event with my host in his car, he said — a little snidely, it seemed to me — “So, you’ve written half a dozen books?”

Yes, I told him.

The snideness in his voice grew: “Where did you get them printed? I may want to write a book, too.”

“I didn’t ‘get them printed,’” I replied evenly. “My publishers — John Wiley & Sons, Henry Holt, and McGraw-Hill — handle that.”

His eye bugged out wide in what was unmistakably awe, or at least a modicum of surprise and respect: “Your publisher is McGraw-HILL?” he said enviously.

In my opinion, from most to least prestigious and reputation-building, the ways to publish your book are:

A. Large traditional publisher.
B. Small publishing house.
C. Self-published paper book.
D. E-book.

Right or wrong, when it comes to impressing others, nothing beats a traditional “bookstore book” — wouldn’t you agree?

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35 responses about “Does Self-Publishing Your Book Hurt Your Credibility?”

  1. Frank Catalano said:

    I’d agree. There is nothing quite like the credibility conveyed when SOMEONE ELSE thinks enough of your writing and thoughts to make them willing to pay you for those thoughts — rather than you paying to inflict them on others.

    Now, this may change, over time, when there is enough transparency in how eBooks and other new media forms are selling (not free, like YouTube, but actually selling) even if they are self-published. But we’re not there yet.

  2. Jim Logan said:

    I agree.

    I believe the only way it will change is when top authors stop using traditional publishers and go the route of self-publishing. In other words, the prestige needs to be moved elsewhere otherwise it will remain.

    Could there be a day when recognized authors and authorities in their field only self-publish and traditional publishing it left to those that need a helping hand?

  3. Joel Heffner said:

    Eons ago it mattered. Today, I’m not sure. I’d rather have a great publicity campaign than a big name publisher if I were to write another book. One other point, as you have found yourself, Bob, is that you can sell an ebook for $97 and produce it for just about nothing. The same “book” wouldn’t ever go for that much money…in a bookstore.

    Joel

  4. Tim King said:

    It doesn’t matter so much today as it did eons ago, and I expect it to matter less and less in the future. There’s so many good books printed by niche publishers–some of which are run by authors primarily for their own material. (And just as much garbage that comes out of mainstream publishers.) Add that publishers do very little for authors anymore–and big publishers will do less for an unknown author than a niche publisher will. And the fact that modern technology makes it easier and easier to self-publish a book, making niche publishing more and more feasible…

    It’s the long tail again.

    -TimK

  5. Bob Bly said:

    Joel: I own the rights to my out of print books. One 200-page book generated a net royalty to me of 72 cents per copy. I have converted it into three separate ebooks selling for $39 each, so now, the same content nets me $117 per sale! But, I content that there is very little prestige in self-publishing e-books. Right or wrong — and I think it’s wrong — people are always impressed by my 70 bookstore books.

  6. Ron Shevlin said:

    I agree w/ you Bob, w/ one slight caveat. It does depend to some degree on who you’re trying to impress. If it’s the Fortune 1000, then having your book published by the Harvard Business School Press is pretty good for credibility building.

    My mother, on the other hand, will be impressed regardless of where I get my book published (if I ever write one, that is).

  7. SpongeBob Fan said:

    Absolutely agree about the e-books (tho’ I bought one once on secrets of selling on eBay for $9.99 that has been worth its weight in gold).

    Lots of people I know self-publish under their own banner – starting a small publishing house to give them that sheen of separation. It can certainly work, and the money is way better than with a publisher, especially for niche stuff.

    It all depends on why someone’s in it – for the respect or for the money.
    (And both of those are perfectly viable.)

    My problem right now is that I’m drowning in resources and have decided not to buy any more until I’ve made a decent stab at the ones I already own!

  8. Bob Bly said:

    Sponge, that’s a whole other discussion, and will probably be the subject of my next post: people who love to read and study materials so much (me included) that we keep buying and reading, instead of stopping, absorbing, and DOING.

  9. SpongeBob Fan said:

    Yup, Bob – especially on the “doing.”

    It’s way too easy to read (if you love to read) instead of the all-important “do.”

  10. Richard Armstrong said:

    I was asked by someone once, “Who published your book?” I said, “William Morrow.” He seemed unimpressed and sniffed, “I’ve never heard of him.” I generally agree with you on this, Bob. Dan Poynter is right that book buyers don’t care too much who published a book as long as the topic interests them. But reporters, talk show hosts, bookstore event planners, etc. etc. care very much who published it. The funny thing is that nowadays there are so many “imprints” around that you can have a very distinguished publisher with a very undistinguished name. How many people outside of the publishing industry know that “Riverhead” is a part of Putnam, for example?

  11. Bob Bly said:

    Richard: I agree that whether your book is self-published or traditionally published depends on who’s asking, and that many people only know a handful of publishing houses by name — e.g., McGraw-Hill, Doubleday, Prentice Hall, John Wiley. But don’t you feel better about your great first novel now that it is published by a “legitimate” publisher rather than self published? BTW, I just signed a nonfiction book contract with your novel’s publisher!

  12. Mark Vladir said:

    Not only does it depend on who you’re trying to impress, but who you’re trying to sell your work to. If you’re trying to build an academic reputation, the large publishing houses are the only way to go but if (as Bob Bly and SpongeBob Fan already pointed out) you’re trying to sell to the average consumer, e-books or other digital content are the quicker (and more profitable?) way to reach an audience.

  13. Amy Kalinchuk said:

    I must run with a very down-homey crowd, as most folks who first meet me are impressed that I’ve written a book, much less have it published. I think folks who ask about the publisher are savvy to the publishing business, and if they turn their nose up at me, I guess I don’t care.

    I guess I don’t care much about impressing anyone but myself, really.

  14. Michael A. Stelzner said:

    Hey Bob;

    Mentioning a publisher might get you kudos with peers, but readers could care less.

    Dan Poynter (and Peter Bowerman for that matter) are very well respected authors that have NOT gone the traditional route.

    The content of the message is more important than the publisher.

    As I reader, I have no clue what the difference is, I just look for a good book.

    MIke

  15. Richard Armstrong said:

    You’re right, Bob, when it comes to fiction, I would consider self-publishing a last resort. But if I ever write another non-fiction book, I’m gonna take a long, hard look at self-publishing and e-book publishing before I reflexively start looking for a conventional publisher. Too much has changed in recent years to rule out self-publishing. Btw, congrats on signing with Sourcebooks, but you shock me … you told us you were retiring from writing books!!!

  16. Frank Catalano said:

    What some of the fans of ebooks and self-publishing are forgetting is that what a good publisher brings to the table — aside from lending credibility among those who know the publisher’s imprint since the publisher pre-paid you for your brilliance — is distribution.

    Don’t underestimate the power of being on the shelves in hundreds or thousands of bookstores. Or in every Web bookstore, without your having to lift a finger (other than to write the book).

    Sure, the Web theoretically means anyone can buy your book from a single author’s Web site. But unless they already go to that Web site, you have a marketing challenge on your hand.

    Also, coming from a publisher also usually means book reviewers will take the book more seriously than if you self-published it.

    It’s hard to replicate the distribution help on your own, unless you hire a rep firm or do the hard work of getting it into distribution and promote it to independents.

  17. Deborah said:

    Bob, I really respect you and your opinion, and I believe there was a time when credibility came from the big publishing houses. And I’m a huge fan of the traditional book store – spend most of my free time in them – but the world is moving toward the Internet with the number one voice being Amazon.com. Amazon offers a print-on-demand program that allows your book to be seen world wide. the key thought there is that your book is “seen.” Most authors will wait a life time to have a large publishing house consider their manuscripts – meanwhile the message they have to share perishes. We can now print the message we have to share for little money, in a quality format and have it available to the world for little money and in a short amount of time. I have just shared a friend’s story of this very experience over on BizInformer.com. But I must say – I love all of the passion and dialog around this topic. Great post!

  18. Frank Catalano said:

    Things will change when there is a bestseller — in terms of absolute hard dollars spent by buyers — in POD or eBooks that compare to traditionally published books. But we are not there yet, from what I’ve seen (there may be instances I’m not aware of).

    At this point, these forms are simply another variation of the vanity press. Albeit more professional looking and perhaps less expensive. Sure, individual authors may take home more on each individual sale. But in aggregate, traditional publishing still holds the balance. For now.

    You might recall even Stephen King stopped his eBook experiment when those paying for new installments never reached what one might expect for a “bestselling” author. (That’s my fuzzy recollection without doing some research.)

    I think that’s why credibility still tends to go to books published by traditional, big publishers — books released this way have the best potential of being read by, and paid for by, a large number of people. To say nothing of the fact there’s still something magical to the average reader of having someone else pay to take the risk to publish another’s book. Or screenplay. Or stage play. Or music.

  19. Bob Bly said:

    Michael: in my experience, potential consulting, speaking, and copywriting clients are more impressed by a traditionally published book than a self-published book. That’s why many self-publishers use an imprint name instead of their own name: to create the impression that their book is with a “real” publisher. I am not saying a traditionally published book is superior to self-published. But anyone can self publish a book. Selling to a mainstream publisher is more difficult.

  20. Michael Stelzner said:

    Hey Bob;

    I concur fully with your point.

    I would never use my name.

    Looking forward to your teleclass in a few weeks.

    Mike

  21. SpongeBob Fan said:

    Kudos to Richard Armstrong for being so observant.

    Bob – what’s the new book about?

  22. Bob Bly said:

    Sponge: I am going to do a post on why I am still writing a couple of books when I said I wouldn’t, and I’ll reveal it then, when I’ll also be asking you guys for contributions….

  23. Sally Rushmore said:

    A couple of comments: First on your reply to #5 above I believe you meant contend rather than content. Second, I would have agreed with you that traditionally published is “better” until I learned about Peter Bowerman whose first book got kudos in all the traditional writing magazines and then won awards and now Peter is one of the best-known “how-to” writers in the U.S. and beyond, including his newest book on . . . what else? . . . self-publishing! As a 15-year-old I wrote a “how-to” book that was published by a tiny local press, but was able to get museum shops to carry it. The Smithsonian Museum Store sold it for over 20 years! Now I do lots of ghostwriting as well as writing for myself and all my books sell as ebooks for lots more than they would ever sell in a traditional bookstore! Also, I learned more practical step-by-step information about internet marketing from your recent teleseminar than the past year’s worth of reading, subscribing, downloading, reading, etc. of all the gurus and experts! Thanks so much!

  24. John Weiskopf said:

    In broad terms, Bob, I agree with you. However, the road to getting published is often filled with hurdles that take an inordinate amount time and patience, not to mention frustration, particularly when an author knows that he or she has a good book. Some good books, just as some good screenplays in the film business, simply get overlooked because of the complex machinery of the traditional publishing business. There is a saying that the cream always floats to the top. But the real question is often “How long will it take?” Often, it becomes a catch 22. Unless you know someone, a large publishing house will only consider your book when it is submitted through a registered literary agent and agency, and often only with agents with whom the publisher has close ties. Agents usually have a narrowly-defined perspective on what will sell and what won’t. Queries of books that break the mold, merge cleanly-defined genres into a new form, or are viewed as “problematic” from a marketing standpoint challenge the status quo perspective of the agents, whether the books are non-fiction or fiction. Whether the books are well-written or not, the queries are often rejected because they do not conform to the current tenor of the publishing biz. Therefore, some writers are forced to self-publish to get their books recognized and obtain the reviews necessary to get a larger publisher’s attention. Sometimes it does work. It is an opportunity for the author to shine with his or her storytelling, writing, organization, designing & packaging the cover, overseeing the promotional & advertising copy, and getting the book not only reviewed, but distributed and placed in selected bookstores and Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and Borders.com. That is quite a creative and executive accomplishment for a writer, who decides to self-publish and does it well. It worked for THE CELESTINE PROPHECY, THE EXPECTED ONE, THE ONE-MINUTE MANAGER and other books because the authors have vision, and they used the contemporary tools of publishing for their ends.

  25. Brett said:

    I agree, and disagree.

    Yes, it’s impressive to have a publisher, just like it’s impressive to have a record contract, just like it’s impressive to own your own business of 100 employees.

    But I think the process has changed. Publishers will start looking more and more to the eBooks and self-publishers, just as record companies look to all the indie bands out there. And rather than wait for a publisher to come knocking on your door, you can produce an ebook and start mustering up some grassroots fandom and get the spark lit so the publisher can just fan the flame. Just like the business owner who has to answer the phones at the beginning, partly because she has to, and partly because she wants to.

    More and more people are enamoured with the entire process now, and how they can do it without the publisher, at least to a certain level.

  26. Deb Finnamore said:

    It depends. “Better” is relative. Does our society place value on an author of a traditionally published work? To be sure. However, these days unless you’re an author with Grisham or King potential to sell billions, you’re likely as not to end up in the reject pile of manuscripts before you get past the acquisitions editor. Few there be that pass into the inner sanctums of publishing, actually making it to press with the sacred publisher logo gracing their work. Heck, you deserve some respect for the accomplishment! Yet, there are other works that end up in the print-on-demand bin merely because they didn’t meet the publisher’s vision/mission criteria for the year. To be fair, I submit their content is no less valid just because what they had to say didn’t fit with the publisher’s annual focus.

  27. Carolyn Warren said:

    I’ve received an interesting reaction from some people when they learn I’ve written a book.

    “Where will it be sold?” they ask.

    “Barnes & Noble, Borders, amazon.com, and local bookstores all over,” I reply.

    Then their eyes light up, and I see a look of respect. “Oh, it’s for real,” they say. Then I can tell they thought maybe it would be an e-book and not a “real book.”

    So I found it interesting that I got that question from some rather than a question about the publisher, which is John Wiley, by the way. My book, if it’s okay to mention here, is Mort gage Ripoffs and Money Savers.

    Great question, Bob.

  28. Patrick Borders said:

    I think it’s also a generational thing. The internet generation wants easy access and doesn’t care as much who delivers it. Can I find that video on YouTube? Is there a podcast? Does Amazon carry it? The NY Times recently carried a story on authors who took their novels directly to self-published audio podcasts and after distributing thousands of copies, then made a deal with a publisher. They still sought a traditional publisher, but those podcast users put them on the map.

  29. Gary Michael Smith said:

    I would like to introduce a book that may be a useful resource to would-be authors on this blog.

    Publishing for Small Press Runs is a pioneering book promoting quick and affordable short press run book publication using the latest digital technology for producing covers and text. This 372-page guide currently is being used as the course text for a class at the University of New Orleans. For more information, see http://www.ChatgrisPress.com, Books, Publishing for Small Press Runs.

    For an AuthorViews video, see http://www.authorviews.com/authors/smith/video.php.

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  34. Bob Lehrman said:

    Bob:

    As someone who thought carefully about whether to self-publish my new book (The Political Speechwriter’s Companion: A Guide for Speakers and Writers)– and decidedto have CQPress do it, let me tell you why I agree with you. 1) You’re right — for a lot of people, self-publishing carries a stigma; it’s the mark of someone not good enough to have a “real” publisher buy the book and assume risk. They’re not always right, but the reaction is common. 2) While self-publishing can work with a genuinely entrepreneurial writer, there are plenty of ways to be entrepreneurial. For me, blogs, workshops and ways to supplement CQ’s skillful marketing group give me more than enough ways to be entrepreneurial. 3)Writers are prone to deceive themselves about their own work. It’s understandable — who can look at something they’ve worked on for trwo years and say, “Yeah, it’s crap.” While traditional publishers can be wrong, if they turn a manuscript down one after the other, that’s a warning sign no writer should ignore.

  35. Common Sense Is Worth Millions! said:

    I think there is one BIG THING self publisher never seem to consider when complaining that publishers won’t “let them in”, and that is that their writing probably isn’t good enough to be ANYWHERE NEAR PUBLISHED! I doubt that all these millions of SP “authors” are writing so unique and so far out that publishers,with 30 years of industry experience- just can’t market it. A first draft of a first book is usually UNPULISHABLE for anyone. The reaaction of traditionally published authors is to “hone” their craft and write something that can actually SELL more than 5 copies. “Then” they go back to literary agents with their work (most publishers don’t even DEAL with authors directly, so why would you even go there and try to “bypass” a literary agent who can open the front door for you???).
    I’ve read about 30 of these types of discussions and out of the hundreds of descriptions posted by SP authors, I’ve only read 4 posts where the writer sought a literary agent.

    One girl said she sent a query to agent Nathan Bramsford. According to her he rejected it so she resorted to SP. Um, sending your work out to only one agent isn’t even trying! And then turn around and blame the “system”? The post I’m talking about can be found on Nathan Bramsfor’s own blog if you Google his name and type “Self Publishing” after it.

    Another SP children’s book writer who’s situation I just read about said he submitted his “middle grade” book to publishers and some weren’t interested and told him they didn’t even REPRESENT middle grade books! That told me he didn’t bother to see what those publishers even represent before sending his stuff, which of OF COURSE would result in rejection! Then agents told him they thought his manuscript was “children’s” instead and rejected him. That says he hasn’t studied the very genre he wrote before submitting. Unprepared. He then decided to SP his book.

    My point is, I feel like many SP authors destroy their chances of snagging an agent/doing things step by step because they want a “short cut” to being an “author”. There IS no short cut. SP is just Vanity- you pay someone to make you feel like you’re a real author, instead of having someone “pay YOU”.

    And yes, they say the amount of SP books published these days is greater than traditional titles. But sadly, SP books only make a tiny fraction of books actually BOUGHT by consumers. There is no “outcry” from consumers for more SP books to look at because they are to busy shopping at Barnes and Nobles, buying The Lovely Bones, Twilight Saga, HP, The Passage by Justin Cronin, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and other books people actually WANT to read!

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