Why Self-Publishing Is a Tragic Term

The Birds Tree by ploop26 / DeviantArt

The Birds Tree by ploop26 / DeviantArt

Today’s guest post is by Ed Cyzewski. You may recall him from his previous post here, When Self-Publishing Is More Useful as a Marketing Tool.

My friend Shawn recently released a book that shares his journey into full-time writing. It involves a failed small business, $50,000 in debt, a difficult return to his parents’ basement, and a plan to rebuild his life through writing. It’s a unique, inspiring story, but that’s not what really caught my attention about his book.

Shawn invited nine colleagues to share their own stories about writing full time. I shared how I advertise my freelance blogging and editing services. I’m sure there are plenty of books out there that include short stories and case studies, but Shawn actually wove each contributor’s essay into his own story, explaining how each of us provided ideas for his work.

Technically speaking, Shawn self-published this book. However, his community-based approach provides lessons for both commercial publishing and self-publishing.

Self-Publishing Doesn’t Have to Be Lonely

Writers are already cooped up in corners of their bedrooms or in back corners of cafes. Must the publishing process add another layer of isolation?

Many authors have wisely moved away from the term “self-publishing.” I’ve seen words like “independent” or “indie” publishing tossed around. They help characterize this kind of publishing as an independent business model, not necessarily a solitary pursuit. The very use of the word “self” belies a tragic individualism and reliance on “self” in publishing today. To speak of “self-publishing” is a linguistic mistake that could hint that publishing is all up to you.

There’s No Such Thing as Self-Marketing

I am one of many nonfiction authors whose nose has been rubbed in the word “platform” long enough to realize that I can’t sell books on my own. Nonfiction authors especially need tribes, subscribers, followers, friends, pins, backers, and enough Facebook shares to convince hipsters that your writing is “so over.”

People have to decide that our work is valuable and share it, buy it, or preferably do both.

Shawn didn’t just build a community in order to market his book. He built a community around creating a book—including the writing and cover design. When it came time to promote his project, he had a community of writers who were eager to share his creation because we all shared a part in it.

Is Community Publishing for You?

Shawn’s book is one of many projects that have prompted me to rethink my future publishing plans. While I’m already pitching several book projects with a variety of co-authors, I’m beginning to explore what “community publishing” could look like.

I’ve already worked hard to build a community of writing colleagues through blogs, social media, and writing conferences, and now I’m trying to match these colleagues with my own community publishing projects. One particular proposal involves a series of essays about leaving and returning to the church. My own story creates the framework for the book, but brief essays by my colleagues add depth and insight that I could never offer on my own.

I’m still hoping to publish these community projects commercially, but the thought of self-publishing them isn’t quite so daunting since I wouldn’t be on my own throughout the publishing process.

The word self-publishing tells a lie of sorts—at least, it’s a lie for most of us. It hints that you can publish a book successfully on your own. For most of us, that simply isn’t true. For the great majority of us, self-publishing a book on our own will also be lonely and unpleasant.

I’ve seen authors and publishers produce incredible books with community-driven models. While I’ll still pitch some projects that are solely my own, my long-term publishing plans revolve around sharing my work with a community of writers and rising together.

If community publishing strikes you as too intimidating, keep in mind that many bloggers already know how community publishing works. Bloggers who host guest posts make community publishing work. In fact, many of the most popular blogs accept guest posts.

Perhaps community publishing is a passing fad, but I’m betting that it provides an ideal way forward for writers who are tired of staring at the wall in a café. If it flops, at least I’ll have a few friends willing to buy me a cup of tea so we can talk about our next project.

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Ed Cyzewski
Ed Cyzewski writes and edits books in Columbus, Ohio, and is the author of Pray, Write, Grow, A Christian Survival Guide, and Write without Crushing Your Soul, among other books. You can find him at www.edcyzewski.com and on Twitter and Facebook.
Posted in Getting Published, Marketing & Promotion.


  1. This was interesting Ed. My Writing Group is collaborating on an epic fantasy novel. It is wonderful world building together and tossing about ideas for plot and character. Gets you out of the study! I love the community concept.


    • Community publishing is a good idea except when you decide to commercialize; some publishers don’t like work with multiple authors but if you decide to self-publish it may be okay. As for the term self-publishing, it depends on how one defines it including the author’s participation in the publishing process. For example, there must be another name to call when the author pays for the publishing, rather than have the publisher pay for the entire process. Sorry for typo error if any I’m having problem typing a response, hope the author is aware.

    • The key for me is that you need to do whatever makes a project better. So sometimes a more community based approach won’t work. However, I think it’s worth taking a risk with some new approaches to see what will come of it.

  2. Ed,

    You touched a nerve.

    I applaud Shawn (and his friends). I’m one of those “technically” self-published authors. After tiring of the publishing game, I jumped to my long-term plan of forming a fellowship of writers who would write mainly fiction from a Christian worldview. Literature grade, hopefully, stories that are entertaining, engaging, and with a well-defined theme without being in your face with a message.

    I formed one of those “indie” publishing houses (Graceful Word) that lives on a shoestring budget. I’m the only writer at present. After I get established with my first novel, I’ll be in the hunt for the next writer.

    While the stigma of self-publishing is diminishing, it’s still alive and well. No matter what name you attach to your venture, most folks in the standard publishing world lump you into the self-pub mindset, and you get the stiff-arm.

    I agree that you don’t (and shouldn’t) have to make the journey alone, but it’s tough to find folks who will offer more than sympathy and the often empty promise, “I’ll pray for you.”

    But I’m convinced I have God’s blessing to pursue this, and with that, I’m endowed with perseverance. And that is an essential quality for anyone who is going to pursue this.

    My heart goes out to Shawn and to you, Ed. Persevere, my friend. Persevere.

    Jim Hamlett
    Author of Moe — “…woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” Eccl. 4:10


  3. Thanks for the shout-out Ed. I was honored to have you contribute to the book. It is indeed a new and exciting time in publishing, and I’m eager to see the direction your new projects take.

  4. I’m excited about so many things in this post. I love the idea of community publishing — and the idea of the returning to church with new purpose and vision. I also am one of Shawn Smucker’s fans and hope to do a guest post here for Jane’s blog later this summer. You provide an excellent model. Thanks!

  5. I’ve also noticed the word “indie” used to describe self-publishing, such as this headline about ON THE ISLAND in digitalbookworld: “Indie Author Inks Seven-Figure Deal with Penguin after Shooting up E-book Bestseller List.” But I think of indie lit the same way I think about indie film: the content, style, aesthetic vision is less commercial, more “artistic.” This doesn’t describe ON THE ISLAND, which is a quite well-written romance novel. The “community” model you advocate for here has been happening for quite some time in what I’ve come to know as the “indie lit world,” which is thriving in the form of independent publishers like Dzanc Books (initially fueled by founder Dan Wickett’s blog, The Emerging Writers Network), online and print literary magazines (like PANK, storySouth, Artifice, and the Collagist), and the tireless work by young book bloggers and literary citizens like Matt Bell and Vouched Books’ Christopher Newgent. If you’re looking for community-driven models, look no farther than the already existing indie-lit world.

  6. I just had my first fiction novel published, but didn’t do the publishing myself. I relied on a small Indie publishing company, which meant I was willing to share the small earnings with them in exchange for their tending to the business side. It’s not that I couldn’t do it myself; I’d just rather write and not bother with the business side. I do, however, get quite involved with the marketing/advertising side of things, as I really have no choice. As for community writing, I’m the opposite of most. I’d rather do my own writing in my lonely corner. Maybe that’s insecurity but it works for me.
    Excellent post!

    • We all certainly need to figure out what works for us by way of creativity and working with others. I’m sure there are plenty of ways to publish with a community. Thanks Terri.

  7. Ed, I really like the way you take these laden words and turn them on their heads. I pursue community first because it is important to me as a human, second as a writer. The natural byproduct is collaboration (another buzzword), whether we recognize it or not. I have long maintained, just ask Shawn, that just be ause I write in solitude doesn’t mean I write alone.

  8. Ed. Wonderful share. The older I get, the more convinced I am that life was meant to be pursuied through community and relationships. I am currenlty doing a post series on Personal Branding and during the research I realized that marketing, branding and yes publishing all starts with the community of relationships we intentionally and unintentionally build. Again, thanks for the reminder.

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  10. I’ve had the tendency to correct someone who says, “Now you’re published,” by adding “self-published.” Then I attempt to refine that image as well so as to distinguish my book from the tell-all memoir written to let everyone know what Uncle Harry did to me when I was a kid.

    Ed, the main difference between the publishing road I traveled and the traditional pub trail is who footed the bill. I know there’s more to it than that but, honestly, I didn’t publish at all. I wrote the novel and the check, but a whole lot of other people made the pub part a reality.

  11. Interesting post, Ed. I’d never thought of community publishing as you’ve described.

    I’m published in nonfiction by Prentice Hall, had 3 mysteries published by a small press, and chose to go the indie route with my historical mystery after my agent failed to sell it. My “community” includes my editor, cover designer, book designer, web guru, Facebook guru (a work in progress), and a publicist. I, of course, write the checks. But in the 6 months my book’s been out there, I’ve made more than 5 years with the small press.

    What’s interesting to me is that few people ask about the publisher nor do I mention it. The reading public wants books they enjoy. Beyond that, they don’t care.

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  13. Never thought about it like this, but I like it

    Danny Iny is just starting a collaborative project and it has me fascinated. This idea of community publishing is a great idea. The very essence of engaging, which lets face it, is what building a platform is all about

    topp post my man

    Matthew (Turndog Millionaire)

  14. My first book was published by Doubleday in 1977. My second by a tiny publisher about 20 years later. I didn’t like the books or my earnings. In 2008 I formed Silver Sands Books, intending to publish exactly one book. Publishing is addictive, and I’ve published over 20 books so far.

    At first I called myself a self-publisher, or a self-publishing author, or an independent self-publisher.

    The term “self-publish” (and its variations) has been taken over by the companies that used to be called vanity presses, subsidy publishers or even author mills — so the label can be fatal. Even “indie” has been co-opted by the Author Solutions brands.

    Now I’ll say I’m a writer, publisher, author — or author and publisher. Benjamin Franklin and Bennet Cerf were authors and publishers, so the description works well, even though I’m not in their league.

    No one seems to care about the business mechanism behind my books. If anyone asks, I sometimes say I’m one of the owners of the company that publishes my books. I don’t have to explain that the other owner is my wife — not Bain Capital or Warren Buffet.

    Michael N. Marcus





    • This is a great post, as it touches a nerve so many writers have. Hearing that dreaded question: Is your book self-published? My first novel, THE RICHEST SEASON, was self-published in ’06 and I proved it had an audience and “won the literary lottery,” as writers’ blogs put it. I was thrilled, finally achieving the dream of being with a major publisher. But…oh yes, every good story has that “but”…when it came to my new novel, THE BOOK LOVER, which chronicles the journeys of an aspiring novelist and a struggling bookstore owner, I found myself on a slippery slope. While editors loved the bookseller’s story, they were all “uncomfortable” dealing with a struggling writer. “I deal with them every day,” was a common refrain. To top it off, I’d given my fiction writer, Lucy, alot of my backstory in going from self-published to major deal, which also struck a nerve with editors. My agent asked me to “tone it down.” After a few months of trying, I decided not to. It was not the story I wanted to tell.
      And so my third novel, THE BOOK LOVER, became the project of an indie press. Reader friends who were library cataloguers came to me and said they wanted to form a press and put this book out as it was meant to be read: showing that magical, perilous, journey of how a book starts in a writer’s mind and makes it’s way finally onto a bookstore shelf and into a reader’s hands. They put up the money and Three Women Press was formed (www.threewomenpress.com). I added the expertise I knew of the business side of things.
      So when people ask if this book is self-published, I say, “No…and yes, in a way it is, because I helped.”
      THE BOOK LOVER became a May Indie Next Pick and has gone into a third printing. It has gotten amazing reviews in PW and Library Journal and others. We are breaking new ground, I believe, as the old model of publishing isn’t working. So, I now call myself an author, and a publisher. But I’m also a marketer and anything else I need to be. These days, simply writing is a luxury very few authors can afford.

      Maryann McFadden

  15. I think you hit the nail. I hope that more writers will embrace community publishing, because it’s absolutely viable if you break it down to its most basic:

    You’re building advocacy and support for your work as you write it. You gain trust, authenticity and most importantly, relationships.

    I’m on this sort of community publishing journey myself, although I’m more exclusively focused on building a community of readers around the work before it’s published. Slightly different but same result – we’re never alone when we share out stories.

    Thanks Ed! (and Jane 😉

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  17. Loo9k up “belies”

    This is silly. “Self publishing” means you published the book on your your own instead of somebody else contracting to publish it.
    Kind of like “do it yourself” home remodel or anything. Doesn’t mean you have to go into a monastary. Just means you’re the independent contraor.

  18. Solid article. Team building is very important, particularly in “independent” publishing, and the author definitely hits the nail on the head here with a reminder on that point. If I may, allow me to share a recent blog post of my own on the subject: http://budurl.com/v647 Thanks!

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