Somewhere between the rainbow... Part One

Is there a “third way” of publishing? 

Nicky Schmidt 

Since writing a series of blog posts on self-publishing in 2011, I have followed the debate with interest. Three years later, self-publishing remains a hot topic - driven by a publishing industry in a state of flux and focused on shareholder profit. The reduction in royalties and advances and lower offerings on new books also factor into the debate. While it is true that publishers are still very much on the lookout for new talent, it is equally true to say that nurturing an author’s career is increasingly a thing of the past. Authors have a small window of opportunity in which to prove their financial worth and should they fail, they are cut adrift. 

“...we’re modelled on a traditional press, with a strict vetting process… traditional distribution… and authors who bring strong marketing plans to the table…"

So what can writers and published authors who have lost follow-on deals do? Is there an alternative to traditional publishing and the still somewhat tarnished option of self-publishing? With this question in mind, I posted an article “Between Traditional and Self-Publishing, a ‘Third Way’” to the SCBWI-BI Facebook page. The writer described the offering as being “author-subsidized” and said there the similarity to self-publishing ended. “In every other way,” she wrote, “we’re modelled on a traditional press, with a strict vetting process… traditional distribution… and authors who bring strong marketing plans to the table (which authors now need to do regardless of how they publish).” She described her offering as qualifying “as both a traditional publisher and a self-publisher, and we are redefining the middle ground as part of an ever-growing landscape of hybrid publishers.” 

The article generated significant discussion. While comments indicated that this particular “third way” was nothing more than a vanity press, both published and unpublished writers expressed a desire for a genuine “third way”. 

Faced with ongoing rejections for work that is seen as uncommercial, more and more writers are exploring self-publishing options.

It has always been the case that many beautifully written books do not make it into the marketplace, but the sheer volume of writers currently vying for publishers’ attention makes it much more noticeable. Constant rejections and cancelled contracts are frustrating and demoralising for any writer, especially when they are deemed to be ‘not commercial enough’, despite positive feedback. At present, to succeed in publishing a writer must be seen to be instantly commercial. Those who are not, irrespective of whether they are traditionally or self-published will have a hard time earning a living. Faced with ongoing rejections for work that is seen as uncommercial, more and more writers are exploring self-publishing options. 

To succeed in publishing a writer must be seen to be instantly commercial.

Self-publishing, however, despite gradual improvement, continues to have a tainted reputation – primarily due to lack of quality. Librarian and writer Tracy Hager remarked that self-published books she is asked to promote are, “…rarely very well edited and the 'published books' are usually cheap and riddled with typos.” 

Self-publishing is no guarantee of success.

Self-publishing is also no guarantee of success. While there are success stories, they are rare and many have not helped the tainted reputation. Amanda Hocking and E L James’s novels are hardly great literary fiction, yet they were read by enough readers to make publishers offer substantial contracts. What this does indicate is that many readers are willing to read a badly-written, easy and rollicking story. As Will Self said in his recent lament about the death of the serious novel, “The kidult boywizardsroman and the soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy are clearly in rude good health.” To this end, a writer must consider her personal integrity and weigh it up with career aspirations. 

To self-publish well, writers should pay for professional editorial and illustration costs and invest much of their valuable time in marketing and PR. But this doesn’t necessarily guarantee financial success. Besides, many are unwilling to use professionals, some don’t realise they should, others can’t afford the cost. And even books which have been professionally edited may not make the grade. While an entire industry has grown up to support aspiring authors looking to self-publish or get their manuscripts in publishable shape, there remains a concern that while many provide a valuable service, others are just looking to line their own pockets. Spotting the cowboys can be hard, and decent options may be unaffordable.

Read more in the second part of this article on Wednesday.

SCBWI-BI “member abroad”, Nicky Schmidt  is an ex scriptwriter, copywriter, and marketing, brand and communications director who "retired" early to follow a dream. Although she still occasionally consults on marketing, communications and brand strategies, mostly she writes YA fiction (some of which leans towards New Adult) in the magical realism and supernatural genres. When not off in some other world, Nicky also writes freelance articles - mostly lifestyle and travel - for which she does her own photography. Her work has been published in several South African magazines and newspapers. As well as being a regular feature writer for Words & Pictures, Nicky also runs the SCBWI-BI YA e-critique group. Nicky lives in Cape Town with her husband and two rescue Golden Retrievers.


  1. Thanks for this post, Nicky. It's very interesting and I'm looking forward to Wednesday's installment.

  2. Thanks, Nicky. I read that Will Self piece, and while I agree with many of his points and love the idea of the "Gutenberg mind", he is rather biased to the kind of books he writes and the male-dominated world of "serious" fiction. It remains to be seen whether such weighty (often pretentious) material becomes primarily self-published in the future because of a shrinking market, or whether traditional publishers cling on to the prestige of these books and find their own profiles shrinking instead!

  3. Nick, I completely agree with you about the Will Self piece, but I thought the piece I quoted was relevant to all of us. The future remains an interesting place, and right now my crystal ball is hazy!
    Jeannie, glad it was of interest.


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