Are Self-Published Authors “Real” Authors?

This old chestnut of an argument has recently reared its head again: “Self-published authors aren’t real authors.” (See also: “Self-published books aren’t real books.”) So, of course, let’s go through the debate once more.

What this pronouncement almost always boils down to is the idea that, in order for any book or author to be “good,” they must go through–and ultimately succeed in passing–a vetting process that traditionally consists of finding an agent, then a publisher, then undergoing a number of editing and proofreading cycles as well as a professional formatting and book design (cover and interior). The cherry on top is generally the marketing and promotion one hopes comes with all this so that the book and author, after all that work, can shine bright in the cluster of other stars hoping to be noticed.

So, what someone who declares they “don’t read self-published books” really means is that they only trust a limited number of people and a capitalist industry to choose for them what is worth their time and money.

Look, there are perks to gatekeeping. Yes, I really did say that. Having a minimum standard for entry isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And sure, there are plenty of self-published books that fail on one or more fronts: grammar, structure, design, etc. Supporters of self-publishing will often argue that these problems can be seen in “traditional” books, too, and they aren’t wrong, but the percentages of these kinds of flaws are typically much lower in books put out by bigger publishers. (Though, those numbers are sliding, based largely on the constricted editing cycle in publishing these days; the industry is moving towards quantity over quality since that seems to work so well for self-published authors. In fact, what we’re really up against is a decline in reader demands and standards, but that’s a different argument.) In the end, what this boils down to is that you are much more likely to come across poorly produced self-published works than you are mainstream ones. And some of that is just a law of averages; there are so many more self-published titles than mainstream ones because publishing does have limits, but individuals can do a lot more a lot faster to put out their own books and there are so many more people self-publishing.

All that said, there are plenty of reasons a book or author doesn’t get an agent or publisher, and not all of them–not even most of them–are because the book is bad. As I’ve said so many times, publishing is about what sells, and there are thousands of great stories that aren’t considered marketable by the industry for one reason or another. Agents will sign, and publishers will publish, a less well-written book if it’s more likely to sell than a well-written one. If the subject on trend, if the author is already a name (or has a big TikTok following), a manuscript might get snapped up regardless of flaws. Meanwhile, a worthy story that doesn’t easily fit into a genre and thereby is considered more difficult to market will be rejected. Remember that agents don’t get paid until they sell the book, so they’re looking for something they can sell quickly. Publishing houses, too, are looking for books they can turn around and make money on. “Well written” is only one criterion, and sometimes not even the most important one, as it’s often seen as something (a) fixable, or (b) readers won’t care that much about if they’re into the story or characters or themes or whatever.

And none of this even approaches the arguments about how many minority authors use self-publishing when the industry tells them their stories have no value in the broader market.

But let’s just look at the question: Are self-published authors “real” authors? And the answer comes down to how you define a “real” author. If it’s someone who has written a book, then yes, self-pubbed authors are real authors. If it’s someone who has published a book, then again, the answer is yes. If it’s someone who has gone through the very specific process of agent to publisher to mass published tome that is then sold to bookstores and libraries, then… probably not? Each self-published author puts in the time and effort to write a book and publish it to the best of their ability. Sometimes there are financial constraints on that. Sometimes the best of their ability is not as informed as it could (arguably should) be. But my books are in many libraries and sometimes also in stores, so… Does that leave me in limbo? What about self-published authors that invest in editors and designers?

In truth, we shouldn’t be judging books or authors by how they came to the market. The books themselves should stand on their own merits. But there will always be people who look down on anyone working outside the norms, no matter the reasons. Arguing with them is pretty pointless.