It’s a serious question. Increasingly so, in fact. A few years ago you heard of the odd success story (and even that one was discovered “by chance” and then traditionally published), but that’s just what they were: odd. Self-publishing was the road you took when your book wasn’t good enough to be accepted by a traditional publisher– at least, that was the perception. Still is for most people I know.
And now? Well, now there are people publishing their own work to e-readers and/or print-on-demand companies like CreateSpace and selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Hardly what you’d expect from a book that’s “not good enough,” is it? People are turning down offers from “real” publishers because the benefits of going it alone are very real.
For some people.
This is a tough topic, and I’m working out the questions for myself in this post. Please offer advice in the comments, thoughts, anecdotes, whatever. And to make it all easier to stomach, I’m gonna throw in some pictures of cats. Because I’m nice like that.
I always assumed that I’d do things the traditional way. Agent, publisher, edits, publication, see my book on the shelf in Chapters, cry, party. Obviously that’s greatly simplified; I understand the obstacles and the potential (even unavoidable) frustrations.
But as I sit here attempting to polish my quivering blob of a query letter into something more closely resembling a diamond (a feat of alchemy that I’m quite aware may be impossible)**, I wonder whether this is really the way I want to go. Not only is self-publishing becoming a more attractive deal in many ways, but traditional publishing is pulling back, offering less to unproven writers (and even to established writers), and screwing them over, sometimes in epic and permanent ways. So many questions…
- Do I want to spend the next X number of months begging agents to take a few minutes of their time to look over my work, then waiting for them to attempt to find an editor who likes it, then waiting two frigging years to see my story in print? Because that’s how it goes these days.
- Do I want to give up control of everything? Am I willing to risk my book going to a publisher who probably won’t put much effort into cover design or promotion, thereby dooming my book to the dreaded midlist for all eternity? It happens.
- Do I want to face the possibility of being forced to change my book to be a “stand-alone with series potential?” Because that’s all you hear when you read about pitching a book: series potential=awesome, but don’t get ahead of yourself, honey. Nobody wants to hear about a three or 4 book series from an unpublished author when you can’t prove the first one will make good.
You know what? I’m telling a long story. Yes, each book has its own story and character arcs, its own themes, its own beginning, middle, climax and resolution, but they’re all tied together, and the story only gets bigger as it grows. Think more “Hunger Games” than “Nancy Drew.” Do I want to let go of that vision?
But there are problems with going the other way, too. There’s still a stigma attached to self-publishing; people still think it’s second-best, that it’s what you do if you’re not good enough to make it the “real” way. Do I care what people think? If I’m being honest, yes. I do. I shouldn’t, but I do. This is huge for me, this feeling that I need to prove myself this way, but I can’t let it outweigh other considerations.
There’s the fact that I’m not an outgoing, glad-handing, look-at-me, self-promoting entrepreneur. And as anyone who has self-published or indie-published will tell you, promotion is an absolute necessity. People will not find you on their own. You’ve got to make yourself known.
…but again, I’m a new author, unproven, and these days a publisher is probably going to tell me to market my own work, anyway. So that sucks.
There’s also that little issue of me knowing nothing about formatting or cover design, the issue of me not having any friends who are professional editors to barter with for their services, and me not having money to pay for any of these things. Call it being professional, call it investing in yourself and your work… I just don’t have the cash.
It’s enough to make you want to close the computer and use it to gently bash your own brain in.
What would this look like if we laid out the benefits of each path? Please feel free to add to either column in the comments:
*Someone else takes care of cover design and marketing; professional editing is part of the package.
*A chance to see my book on store shelves. Not as important as it once was from a sales standpoint, but it’s a dream of mine. It’s part of the validation thing, of knowing that my work is good enough to be there, playing with the big kids. Stupid? Probably. But it means something to me.
*Working with an agent means working with someone who knows the business, who knows about foreign rights, etc., who has contacts, dammit!
*E-readers are gaining ground, but most people I know still do their book shopping by browsing in stores. So maybe that point above isn’t so stupid, after all.
*Sales potential- but really only if the publisher decides that my story is the shit and promotes the hell out of it. Otherwise, as far as I can tell, I’m still mostly on my own.
*Might be more likely to get reviews… I’d have to look into that, but most book reviews I read are for traditionally published books. So there’s that.
*I can still hold a real, paper copy of my book in my hand if I go through CreateSpace, and they’ll help with e-publishing, too… to a point. I don’t think they publish to kobo, but they do Amazon and a few others.
*Potentially being in bookstores means less and less. (But as the author of that piece points out, people aren’t likely to stumble upon you while browsing on Amazon, either)
*Creative control. I still get to tell the story I want to tell (if I can dig up the cash for a good editor), I can make sure the cover kicks ass (if I can dig up the cash for a good designer), I can make sure it’s available everywhere I want it to be (if I can dig up the… you get the picture)
*Greater percentage of profits. Instead of paying an agent 10% and getting a small fraction of every book’s sales because the rest goes to the publisher, the money that comes in would be mine (minus Amazon or whoever’s cut, which is significantly smaller).
*Control over prices. If I want to sell the e-book for $4.99, I can do that. If I want to do a 99-cent promotion, I can do that, too. If a traditional publisher wants to price an ebook at $9.99 where few people will ever consider it, that’s not my call.
*It’s faster. Call me impatient, but I’ve been working on one book for two years; I don’t know whether I want to wait two more (minimum) to see anything happen with it. I could publish on my own schedule, get the next books out when they’re ready and not when a publisher demands them, get short stories into the mix.
*Rights. I’d keep them. All of them.
There are people with convincing arguments who are firmly positioned on both sides of the debate. This does not help me at all.
Side A: “Self-publishing is less than the best you can aspire to, and it’s killing the publishing industry. A traditional publisher will find the best work and take care of it. If you’re not good enough to make it the real way (and why else would you resort to self-publishing, you ogre-faced noob?), best to keep your work in a drawer. If you are good enough, why wouldn’t you want to have the power, reach, and experience of a real publishing house behind you?”
Side B: “Side A is full of shit. Traditional publishers don’t care about new authors unless they prove themselves through their own efforts, anyway; all others can fall by the wayside. These days they’re just throwing (insert substance here) at the wall and seeing what sticks. Self-publishing lets you avoid those assholes and reap so many nifty benefits… if you do it right. Oh, and they find the best work? Please. They ‘take care of’ poorly-written-but-popular crap like 50 Shades of Grey, and publish knock-offs of whatever else is selling. They’re not going to take a chance on something different.”
Side C: “Um… hi, what about smaller publishers? Sure, with many of us you might never see your book in print, but we’ll take care of the editing and cover and stuff, and for an e-book-only edition, turnaround time is about a gazillion times quicker than going with a big publisher. Just watch out for anyone trying to give you the worst of both worlds.***”
That helped a lot.
*bashes head in with computer*
** Someone recently said that an author writing a query letter to an agent/editor is like a ballerina being asked to prove her skills with a lap dance. Whole different skill set, and that’s not the only reason the comparison works.
***Footnote to that: Yes, those guys are fixing it. That doesn’t mean someone else won’t try it.