25 Things You Should Know About Self-Publishing

Time again for another list of 25, this time about the trials and triumphs of self-publishing. This article could be titled, Things I Think About Self-Publishing, or, One Penmonkey’s Ruminations Upon The Subject Of Self-Publishing, and is not meant to be an end-all, be-all list, but rather, little nougaty nuggets of contemplation. Feel free to drop down and add your own if time and inclination allow.

1. A Sane And Reasonable Part Of The Ecosystem

Self-publishing has become a real contender. Major authors are self-publishing now. And self-publishing has its own scions who have attained epic success in that space. Self-publishing is now a very real part of the ecosystem. Some truly excellent self-published storytelling is at work. Anybody who turns their nose down automatically at the practice should be kicked in the junk drawer.

2. Not Better, Not Worse, Just Different

Publishing your own work is no magic bullet; it guarantees nothing and is not a “better” or “smarter” way to go than the more traditional route. It’s also not a worse path. Each path has its own thorns and rocks, just as each path offers its own staggering vistas and exhilarating hikes. Self-publishing gets you out there faster and tends to give you a better return on every copy sold. But it’s also a more self-reliant path, putting a lot of work onto your shoulders. The self-published author dances for every dinner.

3. Self-Publishers Can’t Just Be Writers

This is true of all writers, really: these days, every author must contribute a deeper share of editing and promotion. But the self-published penmonkey does even more. You’re a carnival barker, web designer, customer service agent, CEO, porn fluffer — wait, maybe not that last one. Point is, you’re now a publisher, with all the responsibilities that come in the package. Don’t want those responsibilities? Don’t self-publish.

4. Some Doors Are Presently Shut

Media reviews? Major and not-so-major awards? Foreign and film rights? Libraries? Book signings? Sexy book signing groupies? Not so much. Self-published inkslingers will find that many of these things are not necessarily opportunities that exist for them. Not yet, at least.

5. This Is Not The Path Toward Credibility And Respect

You will not find a great deal of credibility and respect in self-publishing your work. Part of this is due to old prejudices. Part of this is due to the fact that self-publishing still represents a vibrant and virulent catalog of glurge and slush. Of course, if you were looking for credibility, you wouldn’t be a writer in the first place, would you? You want respect, go be a zookeeper or a sex worker.

6. Most Self-Published Books Suck A Bucket Of Dicks

This bears special mention: you’ll still find that a lot of self-published books are basically canker sores on the prolapsed anus of good writing, good storytelling, and good publishing. Contrary to what some will say, this crap can and does sometimes float: I will from time to time peruse the Kindle Charts and gape in amazement at how superheroically buoyant some garbage can be. And yes, I acknowledge that legacy publishing offers some real stinkers, too. But I thought the  goal was to be better than that, yes? And for the record, I have every confidence that the fucking Snooki book at least meets minimal standards compared to some of the piles of midden that pass for books amongst some self-published authors.

7. Your Book Is A Boat Which Must Ride Upon Sewage

Those ass-tastic self-published books are your competition. But they’re the competition of any author. It just bears mentioning that, whether traditionally published or whether you DIY, come to the field with the best motherfucker of a book you can bring. Don’t half-ass it. You’re here to tell stories, not pleasure your ego. Let your book rise above all the effluence.

8. Pinocchio Wants To Be A Real Boy, Goddamnit

Treat your book like a real book. Not like it’s some part-human mutant hybrid, some stumbling thing with half-a-brain and a bison’s heart. Send out review copies. Get blurbs. Make it look nice. Sound nice. Read nice. Force the book to command the credibility and respect that others of its ilk are lacking.

9. Two-Fisted Team-Ups

A good self-published book does not need to be the product of some lone weirdo in a closet jizzing his foul-skinned word-babies onto the Smashwords marketplace. It comes to fruition with the help of a good cover designer, editor, beta readers, and others within the self-published community. It’s why I don’t like the phrase self-published — you should rely on others beyond yourself to bring your book to life.

10. Money Out Before Money In

For the record, that might mean spending some money. It’s worth it. The reward of having a professional-grade product and not the remnant of some amateur hour karaoke will earn out.

11. Please Don’t Let Your Cover Look Like A Three-Fingered Smear Of Dog-Shit

So many ugly covers. So many ugly covers. Once more for the cheap seats: SO MANY UGLY COVERS. Listen, I know — a cover does not make a book. But it’s the first line of offense at a place like Amazon, where I’m almost universally seeing the cover before I’m seeing the description. I will click a kick-ass cover because, I dunno, I’m an attention-deficit raccoon who likes shiny trinkets? A great cover shall be your standard-bearer. If you use Comic Sans or Papyrus on your cover, you should be drowned in a washtub.

12. E-Book Designers Are Non-Essential

The e-Book designers out there are probably mad — let me get ahead of that and say: you may find them useful. They do good work. But for many DIY authors, you may not need one (and may not be able to justify the cost). Formatting an e-book for the major services (Amazon, B&N) can at times be an exercise in soul-squishing agony, but over time you figure out the tricks and learn how to make it work. And once you do that, it’s not even all that hard. (For Amazon, can I recommend Mobipocket Creator? Free software, totally useful.) Hell, for the basics, Amazon and B&N will auto-format.

13. Editors Are Your Bestest Friends

Get a good editor. Can you self-edit? Sure. Is it a good idea? Not usually. Bare minimum: seek the advice of people you trust, and implement their advice in some way, shape, or form. Give them wine and chocolate and hookers and four-wheelers and kites made from the skin of their enemies and anything else they ask for. Pay their price. A good editor is your best friend.

14. Traditional Legacy Publishing Is Not Your Enemy

You will find little value in slagging those in traditional publishing, particularly authors, agents and editors. They’re not your enemy. We’re all part of the same ecosystem, swimming around in the pond where we a) tell stories and b) hope to not starve and die in the process. Most of us are here because we love what we do, so hold hands, kiss each other on the cheek, and stop casting aspersions.

15. Agents And Gatekeepers Are Still Your Friends

Iconoclasts love to hate on those that keep the gate, but those that keep the gate aren’t universally bad people. Further, they’re trained to a certain standard. Agents in particular don’t deserve scorn, and can, in fact, still help the self-published author. They may know when a book is right for a published market. They may be of aid in selling rights (print, foreign, film) that you otherwise might not have had access to. And, let’s not mince words: many self-published authors would jump like a cricket at the chance to have a book on bookshelves with a big publisher. For that, you will find an agent potentially quite helpful.

16. Amazon Is The 800-Pound Gorilla (And He’s Got A Gun)

If you sell anywhere, you’re going to sell at Amazon. Start there. Talking to other self-pubbed authors, the majority of their sales come through Amazon. And, since we’re talking, if Amazon is the big-ass gorilla in the room, I suppose that makes Smashwords the anemic marmoset who keeps scratching his balls and falling asleep in his own waste. Uhh… yeah. I might not be a fan of Smashwords.

17. The Term “Indie” Makes Some People Vomit Fire

Indie has been a term used in publishing for a while now, meaning a publisher who is not beholden to a Big Faceless Corporation. Thus there is some scorn at those who would use that term — “indie” — to describe self-pubbers. Of course, everybody just needs to pop some quaaludes and calm down. Language changes for better or for worse: the definition of “indie” is a moving target, and has been in film, music, and now publishing. We can all share the language. If we can’t agree to share, you’ll have to fight in the arena with poison-tipped fountain pens.

18. Beware The Insidious Whispers Of Froth-Lipped Zealots

Eschew false dichotomies. Avoid loaded promises. Spurn those self-proclaimed oracles who claim to know the future. Nobody knows what the truth is regarding self-publishing or traditional publishing, and anybody who thinks you need to jump one way and not the other may not have your best interests at hand. Make your own call as an Informed Human With A Super-Computer Inside Her Head Called A “Brain.”

19. This Is The Time For Bold-Faced Brave-Ass Experimentation

So much of self-publishing is doing what’s been done. (Another Twilight rip-off? Tell me more!) But the advantage of DIY publishing is that you are beholden to no one but an audience — so why not go big? Fuck the rules. Hell with the genres. Experiment. Play around with storytelling. Do something different instead of traipsing the same paths, la-la-la-lee-la. Got a picaresque cyberpunk novel loaded with ciphers and clues in your head that links up to some kind of bizarre geocaching transmedia experiment? Fuck it. Why not? You want to write penguin erotica? Transgender adventure tales? Bible II: Son Of Bible? Find those things that no major publisher will touch but you have passion for, and put it out there.

20. A Future Found In Format

The future of self-publishing isn’t merely in storytelling. It’s in the format. The format now is a clumsy foal stumbling around on wobbly legs. Find ways to break free from that. It’ll be up to the DIY authors to find new formats — transmedia initiatives, app-novels, stories told across social media. Do not be constrained by the formats that exist. Story does not begin and end with a physical book. It doesn’t stop at e-books, either.

21. You Are Not A Spam-Bot

Self-publishers have a lot of their own promotional work to do. That means it’s very easy to accidentally become naught but a megaphone hawking your wares. While you should never be afraid to ask for sales or market, you need to market as a human being. Connect. Be funny. A lot of this is going to succeed based on that most ephemeral of market drivers: word-of-mouth. The way you generate that? Nobody knows. But it starts with writing a kick-ass book. Well, that and human sacrifice. But you can’t make an omelet without killing lots of innocent people in the name of dark literary entities living beneath the earth.

22. Do Not Buy This Book

Let me just be frank: you don’t need this book. Anything it contains can be found elsewhere. For free.

23. Embrace A Vibrant And Active Community

The self-publishing community is a helpful place, for the most part. Can be quite helpful and vocal in support. Discover through this community the best practices. Return the favor. Communicate and converse.

24. But Don’t Be A Cheerleader For Crappiness

On the other hand, some elements of the community can be toxic, and further, can act as cheerleaders for self-publishing’s own worst instincts. Don’t champion a novel because it’s self-published. How it got there is irrelevant to the end result. If it’s a good book, then talk about it. If it’s shit, then forget it. You have the freedom to self-publish; there’s no need to vociferously defend that right. But if you want self-publishing to be real, to earn the respect and credibility you think it deserves, then it needs fewer cheerleaders and more police — people who will call a rat-turd a rat-turd and not pretend it’s a Rice Krispie treat. Self-publishing also needs more sexy groupies, since we’re talking. Call me.

25. Calm Down, Twitchy McGee

Got a novel? Don’t self-publish it. Not right away. Give it time. Sit on it. My advice to you is to run it up the flagpole with agents and editors, with friends and readers and other writers. You need to know if it’s worth a shit, if it’s worth putting out there — do you want to contribute another bucket of crap to the ocean of effluence? No, you do not. Further, you want to be aware of the pluses and minuses to self-publishing. Some books have a shot at going big with traditional: you might earn a good advance and have a chance with film or foreign rights. Do not be hasty to ignore these benefits. Other books will do very well on the Kindle marketplace despite not having a great shot at traditional. Self-publishing can be transformative — and lucrative — if you put the right work, your best work, out there on the block.

My advice is the same I will continue to give when it comes to the fake bullshit battle between self-publishing and legacy publishing: do both. Write books for each — plant a foot in each world so you may reap the harvest of each. What say you, authors? What are your thoughts on self-publishing these days?

* * *

Want another booze-soaked, profanity-laden shotgun blast of dubious writing advice?

Try: CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY

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And: 250 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT WRITING

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106 comments

  • In the sense that publishers can’t just be writers, self-publishers can’t just be writers. The only difference between a publisher and a self-publisher is when readers can tell the difference. Every book is an investment, spend the money and time to make it pay off.

  • A while back my dad tried self publishing, to go along with his podcast. It never took off in the way he wanted, but I can’t help but imagine this list would have helped had he seen and considered it.
    A foot in each world? Occupying a liminal space betwixt two things? That is the realm of the shaman Wendig. Yes I like that. Writing Shaman Wendig: striding from traditional to self pub, even diverging to film and game he strides across the wilds of the writer world, taking all the booze and dispensing dubious advice.

  • Another 25 glorious reasons to lick your beard. (Er, that’s metaphorically. Wearing a bunny costume.)

    Just curious: could you elaborate on your Smashwords comment? I thought Smashwords were nice and shiny, but I may have missed an episode.

    • @Peter: Is there a show called Smashwords? I’m talking about the e-book site — which I can’t even open right now because it’s telling me Smashwords is down.

      @Sparky: I think you said it better than I did. You will now be writing all of terribleminds’ posts. Here is your bottle of gin. BTFO.

      — c.

  • Totally agree, particularly #14 – self-pubbers who act like they’ve found the Holy Grail of authorial ambition, and worse still that anyone who’s looking for a conventional book deal is a loser, get up my nose. One name. Amanda Hocking. Sold a million ebooks and still accepted a book deal in order to further her career – whilst still planning on self-pubbing some of her other work.

    Self-publishing well takes time (at least, time that could be spent writing) and money, either or both of which are in short supply for some folks – there’s no “one-size-fits-all” solution. If/when I have work that I think would do better as self-pub (maybe short stories or novellas, which are a much tougher sell in the trad market than novels), then sure, bring it on.

    P.S. For Mac users, you can do worse than the export functions in Scrivener for making ebooks (ePub and Kindle versions). I used it to create digital ARCs of my book, and they looked fine on my iPad. Haven’t tried the files on an actual Kindle, admittedly, as I don’t have one.

  • Nice post. I’ve much enjoyed the previous “25 Things” posts, and this continues their quality for sure. It’s an interesting time to be an independent author, or hell, any sort of author, for that matter (sometimes in that Chinese fortune cookie curse kind of way).

    I think your boldness and format points might be related. I’ve been reading more lately about how Kindle is revitalizing the novella market. The short stories I’ve Kindled do pretty well, but what’s most surprised me is my “Just Looking,” which is an academic essay I completed to fulfill the honors portion of my bachelor’s degree. It was useless for a long time–where on Earth might I publish something like that?–even though I thought it was interesting and might appeal to folks (it’s on the effect of a medical education on William Carlos Williams and Arthur Conan Doyle; probably the definition of “niche”). Since March, it’s been slipping into and out of the Kindle non-fiction top sellers list.

    I want to bring up a point about 14, too. Because I get why you mention it (Hell, for a while, I think I might have been guilty of casting so-called “traditional” publishers as anathema). I think that mindset might be–at least in part–a response to the stigma so-called “self-publishing” has carried, which I think has partly been created/propagated by the corporate model. For years, those in the publishing industry arguably wasted a lot of breath on how awful going alone was, that writers were delusional and mediocre, that they were the only way to guarantee quality.

    I think that “publishing = enemy” mindset might have sprung from that. Even now, it seems like the people who advise against independence, for whatever reason, have either ties or aspirations to the “traditional”/corporate ecosystem. And those are fine aspirations, for many of the reasons you mention in this very post. But I think it’s a problem when too many people are telling others what they can and cannot do, or why they’re wrong (the “indie” argument you mention is one example. Part of the point of being indie is defining “indie” for one’s self, and, I’d argue, perhaps resisting others’ labels), rather than doing whatever they do to the best of their ability and fuck what other people think of it.

    • @Will —

      Real quick I should note that this is kind of a self-publishing week. Tomorrow is some more talk about price point, and Thursday is your interview. 🙂

      I agree that self-publishing had a stigma, though, to be clear, I also think it earned it. It earned it big. Self-publishing has long been the refuge for the weak and unpublishable. That is a sad reality but, for me, a reality just the same. I’m sure I’ve told the story of the guy who hawked his book to me and my wife five or so years ago at an eyeglass place? If I haven’t, I’ll re-tell it, just ask.

      Self-publishing just wasn’t viable then. Or smart. But it’s becoming that with a revolution of distribution and the leveling of the playing field that the Internet provides.

      I think that’s changing and that it needs to change, and now the message is changing, too.

      — c.

  • I keep forgetting there are sane people out there putting their own work on the Kindle, etc. Too often it gets drowned out by the noise of OMG I GONNA BE RICH zealots. Nice post man.

  • Regarding #4 what are your thoughts on epublishers, of which there has been a rise (and, in full disclosure, I run one).

    Regarding #19 we are currently negotiating on a 20k word crime fiction poem. Can’t say more.

    • @Brian:

      I think e-publishers are a great interim for those writers who don’t want the burden of creating that self-publishing ecosystem — those authors have more time for straight-up writing, then, because you guys carry some of the weight (covers, editing, marketing). I don’t necessarily know how you run things, though — can you speak to what you guys do, exactly, at Snubnose? Do you pay advances? What is your percentage that you give authors?

      If you don’t mind talking about that, of course.

      — c.

  • Re: #12 – if people are willing to spend $45 on a copy of Scrivener they can create good-looking Kindle and ePub files in seconds. I’ve used it for my last three books and figure it’s saved me $400 in formatting fees. So no,you don’t need e-book formatters.

    And srsly – any post that uses the term “prolapsed anus” is an epic win.

  • I’m currently with a small publisher. Their time to market has (generally) been quicker than with a big publisher. However, I’m submitting a book to a big 6 house that still takes unagented subs and I have a book I plan to send to agents this fall. I think it’s worth spreading yourself out to cover a lot of bases.

    Putting my short stories up on Kindle sounds like fun (in a root canal kind of way). I’ve had the rights revert back to me on a number of them.

  • This post is relevant to my interests. thanks, Chuck.

    I can’t agree enough about hiring a professional editor. No one is better at flashing a light into all those ugly corners we fear to look at as authors.

    Speaking of promotion: What’s your opinion of book trailers and if you think they are nifty, can you recommend some tips or resources?

  • Awesome post! Really cuts into the heart of the matter. There are some who are wholeheartedly on one side of the fence or the other, and a few in the middle. I think the market will clean up a lot of the refuse out there, giving “indie” a much better name. Of course, by then, it will probably have a different name, like Co-op published.

  • What makes me cringe is the self-delusion that seems to go with self-publishing. And no, I’m not talking about the offal that some people call novels. That’s everywhere. What I’m talking about is this: a friend of mine tried to put me in touch with one of his other friends who is also a writer. Her profile and blog all said she was going to be published in the spring. I sent an email introducing myself and congratulating her on the impending publication.

    “Who’s printing your book?” I asked.
    “Oh, my friend and I have started a publishing company of our own. We don’t want someone else messing with our work. This way, it’s ours from start to finish and we don’t have to change anything.”

    Translation: My critique partner and I stroke each other’s egos and we can’t take actual criticism, so we don’t want to try traditional publishing.”

    You know what? That’s fine. If you can’t take it, then yeah, it’s not for you. But, the comment she made smacks of denial and a childish stubbornness. Grr! That’s what irritates me most. That and the fact that she is now “hiring editors” for her company….and these editors are high school drop outs who have no experience with writing or editing. Grr. Grr, i say!

    • @Jamie —

      In my opinion, someone always needs to mess with your work. It needs to get run through the gauntlet, get all the barnacles scraped off. That’s true of anybody telling stories, self-pub or no.

      Delusion has no limit, I’d say.

      — c.

  • I couldn’t agree more with No. 11. It’s a shame that someone would work hard on a book and then use a cover (even create their own) that looks like it was made for a church cookbook or an AA-affirmation collection.

    No way around it, a writer (indie or not) has to learn many things: Promotion, finance, marketing, formatting, etc. But the hardest thing to learn is what you’re NO GOOD at, and to accept that limitation. Judging from what we wear in public, it’s no surprise that writers aren’t much good at design.

  • @Jamie/Chuck – I think we put too much trust in the gatekeepers’ opinions. Not that we don’t *need* their opinions, but that we let them get in the way of becoming awesome writers.

    “Oh? You weren’t happy with my vision? Let me just change it for you.”

    This was 90% of my creative writing classes in college and writer groups prior to my current one. I’d rather see a few barnacles than a ship with holes in it, induced by over-helpful scraping. My experience is that the more professional the editor, the less they suggest; a gatekeeper with 101 suggestions is about as valuable as a two-by-four across the face. A wakeup call, sure, but who needs the missing teeth?

    I’d rather see people overreact about self-publishing when they first start out than not try it at all. Kind of like how people get weird when they first start questioning their other beliefs.

    • @DeAnna:

      Blind faith in anybody isn’t going to get you anywhere good. The writer has to come out of a place of confidence — not ego — and be willing to test her efforts and see what holds up and what doesn’t. The problem there though isn’t with gatekeepers, it’s with *bad* gatekeepers. Professional editors and agents rock. Less professional agents and editors… well, no, not so much, but the problem is, some authors (self-pubbed or no) use the bad ones as a reason to condemn the whole lot.

      When I submitted BLACKBIRDS to agents, I got a lot of non-responses, a lot of nice-but-no-responses, a couple dick-arounds, and of course, Stacia. But I don’t see agents as a force for bad even though my work didn’t reach some of them or some of them weren’t particularly helpful (or even responsive).

      Good writers are frequently made great by editors, agents, and other gatekeepers.

      — c.

  • So much of what’s self-published is, in fact, clumsily cobbled together crap. Then again, so’s most of life. Why should this be any different?

    One thing I do note is a zealot-like uber-politeness in the twitter feed, a cloyingly false niceness and tendency to support virtually anything as being worthy simply because someone was brave or stupid enough to put it out. People. Wake up. This is like band demo tapes – most suck. They do. It’s OK to admit they do. Occasionally you’ll hear one with some rough talent, but it isn’t sufficient to make it. And rarely, you’ll hear one that represents a fully-formed talent ready for a shot at the big time. Those are singularities, and atypical in the extreme. Let’s not pretend they aren’t. Sure, we live in a world wallowing in mediocrity, where the race for the bottom seems inevitable, however do we really need to contribute to the dross pile?

    My work’s f#cking brilliant, so obviously I don’t include it in any of this. If you haven’t already bought it, especially How To Sell A Gazillion eBooks In No Time (even if drunk, high or incarcerated) you are probably by now covered with suppurating open sores and shaking the stump where your fist used to be at a cruel God who’s punishing you for your oversight. As it should be. I’d propose you stab at the buy button on Amazon and salvage what passes as your miserable life, but hey, you know best. Maybe it’ll take a flipper baby or flesh eating bacteria for you to figure it out. Whatever. It’s evolution. But if you’re honestly seeking redemption, I’m here to help. Mostly.

    Great list, funny style. You da man, fluff fluff, suck up, and so on. I heart your blog. Folks who like yours will probably like mine, but then again, there are a lot of stupid people for whom long words are problematic, so perhaps not. They can bite me.

    Carry on.

  • Holy crap. H…holy crap. I now want to read everything you’ve ever written.

    Seriously, I’m not over-speaking. I’m in a library and I’m trying not to disturb every soul in this oxygen-enriched, paper-compost-smelling building by laughing my bloody arse off. Thanks, dude.

    OH! And… “Got a picaresque cyberpunk novel loaded with ciphers and clues in your head that links up to some kind of bizarre geocaching transmedia experiment?”

    Why yes, in fact. Yes I do. Experimentation time…

  • OMG. I laughed my ass off and now everybody in my office is staring at me like I’m a freak. Number 11 is spot on. Why? Why must my eyeballs bleed after 10 minutes of randomly browsing indie titles?

    I’m a self-published author, and honestly, I’ve not read anything as succinct and down to earth as this. Next time anybody asks me for a summary on self-publishing I’m bringing them here.

    Class! Ta.

  • Something else to consider is that:

    If you can write fairly clean drafts (talking grammar here, not content. I’m not a censor.) and do so quickly, then you’re more likely to gain an audience faster if someone likes your writing. They’ll buy all available books in a series, if they’re able.

    I know a lot of people frown at the idea of fanfiction, but there are some serious lessons to be learned by comparing the people who gain fans on a FF site and those who gains fans solely through self-e-publishing. No one has fans on day one. Then a couple of people try your stuff out to see if it lives up to the blurb. If they like it, they tell others, and those others come and take a look, and pretty soon, you’re going from 3 new readers/story to hundreds and thousands. And when a new reader comes along, they tear through your back catalog of stories because they like your style and voice and they’re happy to find someone who knows the difference between: your, you’re and UR.

    Be business savvy – if you have a four book series, there’s nothing wrong with offering book 1 for $0.99 and the other three at $2.99 (or whatever). If people like your writing, 3 or 4 dollars is NOT too much to ask. Books have value, and they shouldn’t be treated like door prizes someone wins for clicking a link.

    (How do I get a picture to show instead of the skull avi?)

  • Chuck,
    I think I may be a little in love with you. Anyone who can write a blog using penguin erotica, attention-deficit raccoon and porn fluffer in one post is two steps beyond awesome. Now I have to spend a bucket load of time going through all your other posts to see what other genius I have been missing.
    Brilliant post!

  • @Deanna/@Chuck –

    I agree that we ALWAYS need critique. I welcome it with my own work and cringe when I see others hide from it. Sure, sometimes it can be about as pleasant as a first date with a speculum, but it’s necessary. We need to get other eyes onto it.

    Deanna, I think you’re right, though, that some people put way too much stock into the “gatekeeper” idea. There are people who will bend over backwards trying to write what one person wants to read on one particular day, or based on a trend that in 2 years will have petered out or bloated into morbid obesity. I see that and it makes me sad. I worry that the writing community tries to homogenize author voice in favor of “what will sell”.

    There has to be a middle ground.

  • Chuck, thanks for a very informative post. I agree with your points.

    I’ve been self-published for four months. Sales of my two sweet, meaning not sexy, historical Western Romances have exceeded 17,000. I’ve recently also posted the first two books in my Fantasy Romance trilogy. I’ve sold 130 books so far this month. (Although to be fair, about a sixth of those are sales to friends.)

    I had two agents try to sell the first book in both series to New York. The feedback was consistent that the books weren’t sexy, and that’s the romance market for the last ten years. Historical Westerns also aren’t a popular subgenre.

    I’m proof that self-publishing can hit a niche (in my case two) that doesn’t interest traditional publishers.

    I’ve enjoyed the process of creating covers–a different artist for each series–but I had a lot of input. I also haven’t done much promotion. So doing it yourself doesn’t have to be a stressful experience. (I can’t say the same for the formatting process. I didn’t even try. Paid for that to be done.)

    I’ve become a big cheerleader for self-publishing, but I’m in no way bashing traditional publishing. I think each person is going to pick his or her path, which now includes a lot more choices.

    The best thing about self-publishing (besides the sales and the money) is that my muse has awakened after have shut down from years of rejections. I’d turned to nonfiction and sold to a traditional publisher. But nonfiction isn’t as much fun to write. Now I’m writing the next books in my series and am looking forward to self-publishing them. My agent wants me to write a book she can submit to a traditional publisher, and I’ve put it on my to-do list. 🙂 After I finish the two I’m working on.

  • You’re an dark bitchy psychic- I needed to hear all of this as I come close to being ready to self publish and didn’t need flowers and sweet words but clear reality and the mention of sex workers. Thanks

    • @Debra: 17,000?! In four months…! Man, I need to be writing historical Westerns romances. 😀 Congrats. Nice covers, for sure.

      @Roger: I am not familiar, nope. Does he have a specific post somewhere you can link to?

      @Jamie/DeAnna: The middle ground is usually where the truth lives. I mean, not in certain ethical issues, but in terms of stuff like writing and publishing, no doubt.

      — c.

  • “…closet jizzing his foul-skinned word-babies onto the Smashwords marketplace”

    I resemble that statement. I have the courtesy to use antibacterial wipes afterward.

    True that on #25. I’m shopping my book to agents and publishers as I write. I got my first agent response last week. “No, thanks.” she said. I wasn’t even worth a nicely worded form letter. If she said, “In Jesus Christ and the major and minor prophet’s name, absol-fucking-lutely hell no,” it would’ve warmed my heart. At least it would be a passionate response. If she sent an MP3 of her horrified scream, I’d be elated.

  • Lol. Chuck, I don’t think you could write SWEET romances! Not that you couldn’t, but the attempt to write something that’s so not your voice would probably tie you into a pretzel. You’re much more funny as you are. 🙂

  • ” If you use Comic Sans or Papyrus on your cover, you should be drowned in a washtub.”

    Even worse are wacky, highly stylized, and utterly unreadable fonts. Like those seen on books about vampires or other gothic-y themes: fonts that look like dripping blood, etc.

    When it comes to covers, an author should pony up the money and get a good cover artist/designer. A real professional designer with an extensive portfolio of work, not your unemployed nephew who still lives in mom’s basement.

    Also, while your grandmother’s watercolors may look lovely on your living room wall, they will look like cat puke on a book cover.

  • @chuck

    A finished draft. I’m follow the agent’s or publisher’s submission guidelines listed on their website or in Writers Market. I’m also working with a pro editor on my book proposal and sample chapters. The next barrage of queries will be more organized.

  • Hmm. 14 is a crock, actually. Or rather, in that ecosystem, you the self-published author are a new little fish, which the bigger, older fish will happily devour and hate with a passion. They believe you’re eating their food. As self-published author it is of no particular benefit to you slag them off. Being nice to them however is about as useful as Science Fiction’s cool kids kissing-up Margaret Atwood. They’ll still do their best to destroy you.

    • Hmm. 14 is a crock, actually. Or rather, in that ecosystem, you the self-published author are a new little fish, which the bigger, older fish will happily devour and hate with a passion. They believe you’re eating their food. As self-published author it is of no particular benefit to you slag them off. Being nice to them however is about as useful as Science Fiction’s cool kids kissing-up Margaret Atwood. They’ll still do their best to destroy you.

      Dave —

      Is this a joke? As an author who is, if I’m correct, traditionally published, this seems an odd and paranoid thing to say.

      — c.

  • This is a great Wendigized almagamation of a lot of advice I’ve been hearing other places.
    I review books on my blog. Most of the books I’ve reviewed have been self-published or put out by a small publisher. The first two I received looked as though they were barely out of the first draft. I walked the first author through all of the problems I’d found, which included changing tense, head-hopping, and shit tons of exposition.

    The second author had an incredible first paragraph. He’d written a Crichton-style thriller, but didn’t bother to do any research on how medicine and hospitals actually work. At one point, a nurse warned of a, “medical fail.” He had great prose, but wooden dialogue and a clumsily hidden religious diatribe. I made it to page twelve and managed to write three pages of notes. That’s really not good when you consider that I have no writing training beyond a college analytical writing course.

    So, yes, I agree that self-publishing has more than earned it’s reputation of being an ocean full of questionable material. I now require that books have been vigorously edited by someone other than the author before I’ll take them.

    If you want to self-publish, check out what Jane at http://theselfpublishingreview.wordpress.com/ has to say. She’s a great resource. Check her out and see if your writing has the same problems she commonly sees.

  • I don’t have any opinions, I just have questions. Since I was unaware of the battle between the big publishing houses and indie publishers and self-publishers and e-publishers, i sort of naively thought that self-publishing (with the caveat that it is quality work) would lead to notice by a big publisher. Step three would be buckets of money. Where am i wrong?
    And Chuck, you said to keep a foot in both worlds–is the work you would self-publish different from what you would have done traditionally? I mean…it is, but should it be? Why shouldn’t it be the same?
    It sounds like a smaller house or an indie house might be a reasonable hybrid. I fear getting ignored by a big house. I fear getting ripped off by a small house that I know nothing about. I fear having a houseful of unsold books if I self-publish.
    I can see now that the fear is what’s keeping me out of the game. Fuck me. I get it now. Thanks for the pep talk, Chuck.

    • @Oldestgenxer

      — well, if you honestly sell super-buckets of a self-pubbed book, sure you might draw the attention of a publisher. Or Amazon as a publisher. Mostly the situation here is, pick a road and walk down it. None of them are wrong, but all of them have their own concerns and complexities.

      — c.

  • Yes, I think I have 15 books out or in press with traditional publishers, a few more on contract. And a bit of stuff on Kindle. Not paranoid (they always underestimate the severity of the problem). Just dispassionate and inside the system enough to see a little more. Publishing will smile sweetly at John Locke in public, and if you do well, try to co-opt you, but they (and a lot of traditionally pubbed authors) would cheerfully shut down self publishing tomorrow. They like to blame it for their woes. There is no benefit in slagging them off, as you – and I -said. But to think of them as your friends-in-adversity rather than competition is, well, shall we say optimistic. The rest of your points are pretty good. 16 is worrying. Amazon accounts for about 2/3 -3/4 of sales, so it would be nice to see some real counterweights.
    Dave

  • Chuck: Oh, neat. Looking forward to it. I’ll hope that interview will provoke similar thoughtful discussion as this one did.

    I should clarify my comment, or at least highlight the words “which I think has partly been created/propagated by the corporate model.” Just partly. Not even in large part. But partly? Certainly so.

    So far as the idea that “self-publishing earned” its stigma and has been “the refuge of the weak and unpublishable” . . . see, this is where these discussions start to break down. What do we mean by “publishable” or “unpublishable”? To “publish” means, simply, to disseminate information. Information by the very nature of its existence, is, in a technical way, “publishable.”

    What I think you mean here, though (and correct me if wrong, as I’d not presume to read minds or put words in mouths) is “the writing which is of poor quality and from which a separate, third-party entity beholden to shareholders might profit.” Which is where the old gatekeeper argument comes in, I think, and where it gets muddied, as well. With the late twentieth century distribution model, agents and editors assumed for themselves a position of authority from which to certify that which was of “good quality” and that which was “of poor quality,” but the problem was that they needed to profit from it, and so what was of “good quality” became first synonymous with and subsequently subsumed by what would sell in greater quantity.

    As time has gone on and more publishers have structurally reorganized such that there are likely hundreds of imprints within the big six conglomerate publishing houses alone (this might be an overestimation, but I know that each of the big six has more than ten imprints each, so that’s at least 60), profit has become ever more important. And not necessarily profit in the sense of Dan Brown/Jo Rowling numbers, but also in the sense of Clint Eastwood’s take on Magnum Force: “70% good is fine. My fans won’t care beyond that. We know what they want and will deliver it with consistency. Don’t surprise them too much.”

    The problem in addition becomes that, when beholden to a profit margin, businesses need to continue to earn revenue, and become less likely to take risks, be they new authors or new series or new formats or new media or new books. Most business tend to throw good money after bad simply because changing strategy mid-execution is as difficult as turning a boat around, and the bigger the boat, the harder it gets.

    (One example: one of the biggest arguments offered for the corporate distribution model is that, without it, it’s difficult for authors to get on shelves. Earlier today, Barnes & Noble announced previous quarter losses in retail, while online sales and those via nook increased something like 50% or so. Point being: what shelves? If corporate publishers were smarter, they’d be partnering more closely with Apple and Amazon, offering better deals, reducing e-book prices [ten bucks for an ebook is egregious], and reaching more readers more widely. They’d also be changing copyright law for the better.)

    One final thought: the problem with the idea of gatekeeping is two-fold. First, for it to be an effective (I’d say “fair” or “equal,” but one could easily argue that it’s not meant to be either at any rate) way to demonstrate quality or, as is mentioned in the post, “credibility or respect,” some objective rubric of quality would have to be both determined and measured. Second, one would have to demonstrate that those keeping the gates had earned the right to hold the key.

    • @Will:

      The problem as I see it is, there’s a lot of talking around the fact that, for a very long time, the self-published were unpublishable — as in, yes, able to be published by a third party. And I’m not just talking about the Big Six. I’m talking about small pubs. Independent pubs. Literary magazines.

      Further, while I’m not going to defend publishing as some kind of magnanimous white knight riding forth to save literacy, I will say the people within that system — not the companies, but the people — get lumped in as if they’re all just faceless automatons kowtowing to a bottom line. A bottom line that isn’t that robust for them in the first place. Editors and agents are generally in this because they love it, not because it makes them rich. And I’ve seen lots of editors and agents take risks on risky books, books that do not follow a pattern. Hell, look at Frank Bill’s CRIMES IN SOUTHERN INDIANA, released today. Incredible short fiction — the guy’s got a voice like you would not believe.

      Where do I see more derivative work? Where do I see fewer risks being taken? In self-publishing.

      Do I think publishers are somehow bulletproof? No. They’re behind on technology and trends and as companies are often too big to change — though, I’ll add some (admittedly biased) kudos to a company like ANGRY ROBOT, which is a small publisher that takes some great risks on genre material and is also trying to be ahead of the game on format, too. (Their e-books run around five bucks.)

      The turf wars are just tiring. Publishers could stand to improve — all publishers. Big Six, little guys, and self-publishers.

      As for writers, a lot of them need someone to tell them they suck and that they need to improve. Gatekeepers often do possess some objective knowledge toward this — some of writing, after all, is beholden to objective standards like the ability to string words into a sentence and sentences into paragraphs.

      — c.

      • And sidenote: my novel BLACKBIRDS was rejected by a number of agents and editors. I don’t fault the system. Many said they didn’t know how to market or sell the book; fine. I don’t blame them. I’m happy my book is in fact not with a company that doesn’t know how to market it. What I didn’t do is reject the system and rush off to self-publish it — I felt like I had a shot with it and I took that shot.

        I was patient. And it paid off. And the gatekeepers along the way for that book helped make that book better than when I started.

        — c.

  • I have decided not to care who wins this epic skirmish. I’m getting tired of all the freaking out people are doing from both ends. I don’t believe in apocalypses, not even in the publishing and writing industry. My feeling is that self publishing will become more formal and polished to resemble the traditional publishers and traditional publishers will embrace, inch by painful inch, the technology and the energy of the self publishing world. Each will adapt for survival.

  • @will

    You said – “For years, those in the publishing industry arguably wasted a lot of breath on how awful going alone was, that writers were delusional and mediocre, that they were the only way to guarantee quality.”

    For clarification, who was wasting breath? Editors? Agents? Published authors?

    I think there’s a little bit of aggrandizement and battle fantasy going on if people think the Big Six (or whatever the number was ten years ago, fifteen years ago) were fighting THIS battle. They weren’t fighting against self-publishing, it wasn’t on their radar. Certainly not as any threat or competition. There was nothing to gain in talking shit about self-published authors.

    When an angry writer stood outside of a Big Six office shaking his fist screaming “Stupid publisher doesn’t understand my genius!” There wasn’t a guy on the other side of the window shouting “Stupid author doesn’t understand our genius.” The window was just closed and work went on, same as it always did, focusing on the books in house.

    I think this is part of the problem with this overall conversation, it tends to devolve into ascribing ulterior motives to the people who work, for lack of a better term, as “gatekeepers.” It’s folly to think there was/is some big plot to hold others down. It ain’t there. Like Chuck said–the people who are in this business are in it for a love of words/books, not literary sadism.

  • In case anyone is interested, I have some mea culpa, explanations from the gatekeepers, going on on my blog now (merbarnes.blogspot.com). Looks like great minds things alike re: self-pub week. Or…er…this mind thinks like a terrible one…oh dear.

    Full disclosure before you schlep over, I’m an agent. And I care that you get your questions answered!

    Thanks for the post, Chuck!

  • I always get a kick out of your posts, and learn quite a bit to boot. You had me at penguin erotica, but #22 sealed the deal. I am probably not exaggerating by much when I say nearly every single writing blog I follow has at some point or other had a post about that blasted book in which it is held up like some kind of writing bible with much blathering about how we can all be gazillionaires if we just do the steps therein. I’ve never read any of his books, but the fact that he felt the need to write a book ABOUT writing his books, no scratch that, about SELLING his books, is a huge turn off. Gag.

  • Number 15: not me. I’d only want a publishing deal if I could retain eBook publishing rights.
    Number 19: I disagree, to a point. I’ve started by writing to a target audience, with my own voice. That means my book is geared at YA readers, but ticks all the boxes of their vampire romance needs in my own adventure adding way.
    Number 20: Good idea! I’m going to create an online game where players can be a zombie who’s trying to avoid the epic farts of my demon pug novel character: Thunderbug.
    Number 22: lol – I’ve already read that. Poop.

  • I may have asked this before now and you might have answered me, but I might have been drunk or distracted or both at the time. I learned it by watching you.

    Anyways.

    When self-publishing a bunch of short fiction, how many stories is “enough” stories to justify an anthology? Is there such a thing?

    • @Josh:

      I don’t think there’s a mandatory number of stories in a collection — mostly you’re just trying to give value to the reader. But some folks charge a buck per short story, which is valid — you have to find your sweet spot and go for it.

      — c.

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