Depending on who you ask, there either is or is not still a stigma surrounding self-publishing. The “is” people will tell you that your writing has not been vetted by the proper people, that it has not been through the rigorous editing process. You are an unknown quantity, and only certain people are qualified to let you into the sacred gates of publishing.
The “is not” people disagree with most of that. They say that there is still an editing process, one that the author accepts the costs for. While you are an unknown quantity, so are the “debut” authors of the traditional houses. Just because an editor at Tor thinks X person’s book is fantastic doesn’t mean that the world at large will.
Me? I think you know which camp I fall into overall, just based on the title of this post.
I am an advocate for self-publishing. You can call it indie publishing if you want; I’m not here to argue semantics. Well, I am, but not on that point.
I have wanted to do this post for a few months now. Then a question came up on Twitter that sated my immediate need. Then certain time-sensitive posts happened. And now, finally, I get to bore you with my take.
As always, this is MY path. (Nor is it a path to any particular “success” so far, full disclosure. I think by the end of 2021 I will be able to consider myself a 3-figure author, which is significantly better than the 2-figure I was last year… but still not a huge success.) Any advice you glean from this tirade is to be taken with that ever-present salt lick.
SO WHY, ALREADY?
1) Well, the easiest answer to that question is that I’m not very good. Those gatekeepers I told you about would have shut me out faster than I’ll turn off a Kevin Costner movie. I would be a 0-figure author if I left my fate in the hands of that select few.
2) Loathe as I am to use a Costner movie’s quote to prove a point, there is a line in Field of Dreams where a ghostly voice tells Costner, “If you build it, they will come.” And, as I understand it, he does. And “they” do.
Similarly, if you write it, they will read. Just because you can’t consider yourself “good” by a gatekeeper’s standards doesn’t mean there isn’t an audience for your work. And this is the major crux of the argument. By basic business standards, I have failed. I have put out more money in covers, editing, and audio narration than I have made back. My business, though I do not treat it that way, is very much in the red.
However, making a living with writing is not my immediate goal. Having fun, producing books I enjoy writing — that’s the goal for me. Would I like to eventually make it into the black? Sure, who wouldn’t? Would I eventually like to pay myself a decent salary from my books and quit having to JOB for a living? Sure, who wouldn’t?
Am I holding my breath on that?
No. No, I’m not.
The point, lost in a tangent as it may be, is that there is an audience for Comedy of Terrors. I know this, because people have bought it. They have borrowed it from libraries. They have listened to it through their Storytel subscriptions.
The real Point #2 is that no Gatekeeper gets to dictate whether or not my stories are available to the people that want to endure them.
3) On the subject of failure: Publishing, especially tradpub, is a business. That business has suffered in recent years because the Big Guns haven’t learned how to pivot with emerging technologies and trends. As a result, contracts are worse than ever. Advances and royalty rates are lower than ever. You, as an author, are asked to sign a contract that gives that company ALL of the rights to your book(s), in every language, in every format (“existing and yet to be invented,” as I understand the wording goes), for the life of copyright — which means 70 years after your death in the United States. (Most countries, but check your local listings to be sure. I am not a lawyer, etc.)
What kind of nutbag would sign something like that? Yes, I understand that you are expected to negotiate that down to a reasonable level of rights — but the fact that ALL RIGHTS being forfeit is in the standard, boiler-plate, not-yet-negotiated contract? It’s heinous, and it takes advantage of anyone who may not fully understand intellectual property or copyright.
I own all the rights to Seeing Red (nothing to be proud of there, DB!) and Comedy of Terrors. If a movie studio somehow managed to find one of those books and thought, “We could put the guy in a hockey mask instead and have the next Friday the 13th film!” they would have to come talk to ME. And I would be the one to benefit from the discussion — not some book publisher who used a crowbar to pry the rights out of my cold fingers. (I’m not dead; the office was just chilly.)
4) Publishers don’t want your quirky book that breaks all the molds. They’ll say they do. They’ll lament that they’re looking for the “next big thing” — but they’re not willing to take the chance that YOUR book will be that next big thing. They want the next thing to exist and then buy books that fit that mold.
5) They also don’t want an author with no preexisting following. (This assertion is based on anecdotal evidence — I listen to podcasts, and a number of authors who have appeared have said it.) One of the questions an agent will ask (because they work for the publishers and not for you like they are supposed to — sorry, that one came from Dean Wesley Smith) is, “What’s your online following like?” And this is a realistic question, sadly. If you go into your local bookstore and you see RANDOM BOOK by RANDOM AUTHOR right next to IF IT BLEEDS by STEPHEN KING, which one is the average person more likely to pick up? At least if your name is recognizable to some people, they’ll choose your book instead.
Which leads back to me. I have less than 20 followers on Twitter and less than another 20 Page follows on Facebook. Some of those people overlap. I would be surprised to learn I have 25 distinct followers between them. No gatekeeper is going to let me in, just based on that alone.
6) Which leads to marketing. That bane of every writer’s existence — except the ones who enjoy it. One of my friends, who shall remain nameless, said she wanted to shop her book around to an agent and try to get it sold traditionally. I, being the self-pub guy, said, “Why?” My friend’s answer? Because they will market her book so she doesn’t have to.
Our other friend and I laughed our heads off.
That may have been true in the 1970s and into the 1980s, but here in 2021, that hasn’t been true for DECADES. Sure, they might throw a small amount of money at marketing your books (so, okay, they’ll help you in that regard), but you will be responsible for the heavy lifting. You’re expected to leverage your social media presence into trying to sell your book. If you go to a conference to promote your book, it’s on your dime. If you manage to land a podcast appearance (highly recommended, according to some I’ve heard), much of the time you will have to land it. (One podcaster, who is traditionally published herself does have PR people reach out to her, so I can’t say “always.”)
Unless you’re Stephen King, you have to do your own marketing. Point blank. Period.
I’M HEARING A LOT OF SOUR GRAPES HERE. TRADITiONAL PUBLISHING CAN’T BE ALL BAD.
I am going to give you that. There is a fair amount a traditional publisher can do for you.
1) Editing: They have in-house editors on the payroll to help you make your book the best it can be, according to them. It will cost you nothing. If you self-publish, you will have to pay for editing.
2) Cover: Again, they have a marketing team that will put together a cover that they think they can sell. Since they, too, are on the publisher’s payroll, this will cost you nothing. If you self-publish, you will either have to hire a cover artist (which can get pricey) or find a good pre-made cover, like the ones I get from SelfPubBookCovers.com. (Free plug.)
3) In-Store Placement: Now, this is actually the only one I think is a true positive. With a traditional publisher (especially one of the Big Guns), you are more likely to be able to walk into a bookstore and find your book. They say it’s very difficult to get your book inside a store with self-publishing, although it is possible. With internet stores using algorithms to show people things they’re more likely to buy rather than letting them simply browse until they find something interesting, the bookstore is where you have a better chance to be discovered. Just sitting there on a shelf. Minding your own business. And BAM! Someone picks up the book and decides it’s for them.
4) Library Placement: If you are with a traditional publisher, your book will have the advantage of any agreements they have in place with libraries. A librarian is more likely to order your book, especially if some of that small amount of marketing money went to making your book’s placement in the catalog more attractive. Again, you can get physical books in the library if you are self-published, but it takes effort. Or someone who REALLY wants to read your book requesting it from them.
5) And yes… Marketing: There is likely to be a non-zero amount of money allotted to your book for the purposes of marketing it and enticing readers to pick it up. What that looks like is probably very dependent on each circumstance. Rachael Herron’s publisher had bookplates made, which she used to entice people to pre-order her thriller from a specific bookstore. It worked on me! Even though I can’t read physical books any longer, I ordered one just so I could get a signed bookplate from her. She also had a book launch at that bookstore (virtually, of course). Incidentally, I also got the audio version from Audible so I could actually enjoy the story. It was really good. It’s called Hush Little Baby, and I recommend it.
6) Control: OH, wait. This one should not be in the “what they do for you” list. The reason I said #3 was the only one worth its salt is that you give up every ounce of control when it comes to producing your book. You have no say in your cover design. Edits that the editor “suggests” better be taken unless you can defend your reasons to the death. You don’t even get final say in your TITLE — which might be good for some. And the library placement? Some of the bigger guns have recently gotten into a kerfuffle with libraries, so if you end up with them, your book will NOT be there.
And there is nothing you can do about it.
SO…. WHAT ARE YOU SAYING?
I’m saying what I always say. Do you. Know what you’re getting into, but do what is right for you and your career. I personally think everyone should self-publish, but I am also far from an expert. Obviously. (3-figure author in the red, remember?)
For me, the choice was always clear. If I wanted to even play around with being a published author, I needed to do it myself. There was no way some gatekeeper was going to let me into the elite club, and in my opinion, they don’t have the RIGHT to keep people out of the club. I get that business dictates certain decisions that mean my book is unpublishable.
But you know what? I published anyway.
And I don’t regret it.
WRITING IN PUBLIC
Some things have happened in the last month. As a Patreon supporter of Rachael Herron, I get to “use” her as my mini-coach on her podcast, How Do YOU Write? I love this cast, and I love her voice, and I love how positive and gentle she is with everyone she encounters. I cannot say enough good things about her, so I should go ahead and shut up.
Well, I asked a question, and it showed up in a recent episode, #246. While she didn’t quite answer the question I was asking (because her original advice was meant a different way than I took it), the answer still resonated.
What does this have to do with my writing? Well, last month I was in the dumps about where my costumed hero story was going. I was on the verge of scrapping it and starting over. Herron’s advice has me thinking about it more. While I will confess to zero words this month, because I do still need to solve the fundamental problems (i.e. no antagonist or central conflict), I am not going to let the fact that it sucks stop me. If I did that, I would have never published!
No words for July except for the ones in this blog. And technically, most of those are August. (I am a little late getting this one written. It proved more difficult than expected.)
Having a blast on our pirate ships in Skull & Shackles, the second Pathfinder Adventure Card Game box. We won our most recent scenario, after figuring out why certain things were broken. Remember how I said we pulled in the Holy Candle from Runelords? Well, I also pulled in duplicates of all the gaming boards as a result. Blessings Deck was advancing two at a time instead of one, and some of the sorting wasn’t working as advertised. We fixed it.
We skipped a session somewhere, probably Independence Day weekend, in part because of the holiday but also because we had done so many weeks in a row. As much as I LOVE playing, I do not ever want THEM to get burned out on anything; if they do, they will stop playing. That would make me a sad.
Then in the most recent session, we were down a player. The remaining three played Blather Round from Jackbox Party Pack 7. That game is so much fun, but so hard to come up with good clues. (They don’t usually give you good ones to choose from.)
Weekly game group has restarted, as well. Unfortunately, in the time since the pandemic started, my eyesight has gotten so bad I will never be able to play a physical game again. I am okay with this. I did stop in for the first session so I could hug some people (we are all vaccinated) and give one person a book he was owed. We have tentative plans to break bread at some vague point in the future. And I will be returning when the last member I owe a book to comes back for a visit.
You know… I am full of opinions and snark, but I like to think I’m a not-bad sort of person. Some people disagree, especially when I get on soapboxes similar to the ones in the main post. I’m not trying to be cruel or mean about it. Those are just my observations and things I have learned from other people’s experiences. One writer I know, who was the NaNoWriMo ML for this region for many years, has what she feels is a pretty good deal with a traditional publisher. To her, I say Kudos. If you can make that world work for you, I hope it’s everything you dream.
For me, that world is not an option. It doesn’t want me, and to be blunt, I do not want it either. Just as you should do you, I gotta do me.
There’s room for both of us.
Wish you the best in everything you create, whether you share it with the world or not.