The Seduction Of Self-Publishing

Maybe you’re at a men’s restroom. Or an old-school phone booth. Or wandering drunk and naked around the TARDIS again. And there, on the floor, you spy it — a little slip of paper folded in half, maybe it looks like a five dollar bill, maybe it looks like your grandmother’s boozy fruitcake recipe or a folded-over Polaroid of a nude Herman Cain teabagging your pizza before it goes out to delivery.

But then you open it up, and it’s a little cartoon.

A Chick tract, of sorts.

And inside would be this little shitfire-and-brimstone cartoon about some poor goob who uploads his unedited first novel to the Internet and it’s a hideous turd-bomb of a book that garners a frothy chum-bucket of angry 1-star reviews. Crowds gather to mock him. They throw panties at his head, but not sexy panties, oh no — dirty panties, panties that look like they’ve been dragged through a muddy field by angry wolves. The author’s name becomes synonymous with bad wordsmithy and someone devotes a Tumblr toward his ludicrous prose and then eventually two seraphim angels — fiery gatekeepers at the Edenic doorway to traditional publishing! — show up to chastise him about his giving in to the seductions of self-publishing. End of tract.

(Of course, you might one day find the tract’s opposite, wherein a greedy author signs the contract of the Devil — aka the “publishing industry” — in baby’s blood, but that’s a post for another time.)

The tract is, like all such little propaganda machines, overwrought. It’s mostly nonsense — nobody’s going to vilify you for self-publishing your book, even a bad book.

I am, of course, a self-published author. I have six self-published books, all of which came out in the last year. Some are quite successful. Others, less so. None are total stinkers.

All of them increased my annual writer’s take-home by — *does some quick math* — 15-20%.

So, I’m for self-publishing. I think it’s a good idea.

…usually.

It is not universally a good idea, and while I’m happy I am at present self-publishing some of my work, I think back to when I started writing novels. I think about the six or so novels I wrote before BLACKBIRDS, and then I ask myself: do I really want those in the world? Eeesh. No, no I do not. And with easy self-pub options at my fingertips, that may very well have happened. Even the last novel I’d written before BLACKBIRDS, a book about, well, modern dogs with the souls of ancient warrior spirits — I thought it was the real deal. I sent it to agents, got a lot of “oh hell no’s,” got one “okay, show it to me, oh, now that I’ve seen it, oh hell no,” and that was that.

At the time, I thought the book had promise.

I thought that about most of my books at different points.

I’ve since gone back to read them and —

Yeah, wow.

No.

Nooooo.

Nuh-uh, no way, nichts, yeesh.

But — but! — if I had the option to self-publish those books at the time, you know what? I might’ve done it. The best case scenario would’ve been that they left zero impression and earned me nothing, leaving not so much a black mark on my writerly record so much as just whispering across the earth and disappearing like a serpentine twist of dust or snow. The worst case scenario would’ve been that they sold well and that I would’ve succumbed to the echo chamber of the cheerleading rah-rah-rah go-you community where I get an A+ for effort even if my prose deserves a phlegm-gob of spit hawked into my open mouth. That would be the worst because you know why? I’d never have upped my game. My writing would’ve lain fallow like a barren field, never cultivated to quality. I would’ve been rewarded for being crappy, and such rewards are like a kid smoking cigarettes: it stunts your growth.

I would’ve given into the culture of resentment and revenge surrounding many self-published authors — the ones who have to keep asserting their reasons for doing DIY, the ones who have to turn every blog post into propaganda, the ones who have to make sure to get in their jabs at the Mean Ol’ Sour-Faced Publishing Monopoly with its big stompy boot on the neck of the poor blubbery writer.

The option to self-publish is a compelling one. Seductive, in many ways. On the one hand — holy crap! New option! Totally awesome! On the other hand: is it the best option?

Time, then, for a little litmus test to see if you should self-publish.

If you’re self-publishing because you’re pissed off about traditional publishing: don’t.

That’s the wrong reason. Self-publishing is very much about taking risks and owning your work all the way down to the marrow. It should not be about a big ink-stained middle finger to the publishing industry at large. If you get your knickers in a pee-soaked twist anytime you say the word “gatekeeper,” calm down, take a pill, and back away from the Kindle marketplace.

If you’re self-publishing because you’re tired of rejection: don’t.

Rejection is not a great bellwether of quality. That’s not to say those who rejected you are correct: they may very well not be. (And, admittedly, some rejections are good rejections — “This is a good book but I can’t sell it” is a sign your book could survive and even excel in the self-pub marketplace.) Point is, don’t use rejection as a reason. Resentment and revenge are not smart motives.

If you’re self-publishing because you think it’s easy: don’t.

It isn’t easy. It is, in many ways, harder than trad-pub. DIY is not an automated process. You don’t drop your novel on the conveyor belt and let the publisher handle it. Because, er, you are the publisher. Self-promotion and getting your book “out there” is an epic challenge all its own. Besides, if you were looking for easy, then writing maybe isn’t the career for you.

If you’re self-publishing because this is your first novel and you think you’re ready: don’t.

Or, at least, take a long and serious look and get some very real, very honest feedback from others. Like I said, I had six novels under my belt and I’m thankful that not a single one of them has escaped its lead-lined box and harmed the world with its radioactive prose. Be smart enough to know when you’re not ready.

If you’re self-publishing because you want it fast and you want it now: don’t.

Fast things are rarely good things: your work is not the equivalent of a goddamn Chicken McNugget. Treat it better than that. Give it — and by proxy, your future readers — the time and effort they deserve.

If you’re self-publishing because you don’t want to be a piglet sucking at the corporate teat: don’t.

Whether we’re talking Amazon, B&N or Paypal, you’re still going to be giving capitalist hand-jobs to super-big companies, companies that are more than capable of pulling the rug out from under your DIY enterprise. (For the record, a publishing monopoly is a myth: no such monopoly exists.)

If you’re self-publishing because you’re so desperate to be published: don’t.

Listen, desperation is par for the course when you’re a writer — the miasma of flop-sweat surrounds me every day. But you need to transform that desperation from wanting to be published to writing a helluva story. The latter step should come before the former, but self-publishing only further helps to shortcut that.

If you’re self-publishing because you think you’re going to earn a fast and fat pay-day: don’t.

I know of many tremendous novels that went self-pub and don’t earn out — and many never will. Further, they won’t come close to nabbing what a good advance would’ve netted them, much less a meager one. And many self-publishing books take a while to start generating real revenue (and often only do so when you have multiple books in the marketplace).

You have a whole host of reasons to self-publish: the control, the freedom, the relatively direct access to readers, the ability to take risks that you could not normally take with larger publishers. And, further, you have a host of reasons to not rush out and submit work to a publisher, too — though, again, that’s a post for another time. The key is, publish smart. Gather data. Make your work the best it can be — concentrate first on storytelling, second on how you’ll reach readers. Because you don’t want to reach readers if all you’re going to offer them is a hastily-scribbled slap-to-the-face.

Be wary of the seduction.

Don’t let self-publishing stunt your growth.

Follow your gut.

And be smart.

(Related: Reasons Not To Publish, 2011-2012).

58 comments

  • “ And with easy self-pub options at my fingertips, that may very well have happened.”

    And with self publishing you could easily take down any online store selling books you don’t want sold anymore. You have more control not less. In fact you could take the same book and re-issue a new version every year, getting better and better, and taking down any reference to the old work. The only way old work exists is on the Kindles of your satisfied customers.

  • If self-publishing had been as viable or popular a path in 2009, I probably would have published a stinker of a novel. A big steaming pile of story doo.

    Self-publishing work you can be proud of – your very best work – demands a discipline and commitment to professionalism that I, quite frankly, didn’t have then.

    I have an editor who hauls me over the coals until something is good enough. I think that’s crucial.

    Perhaps the query grind knocked a few stupid ideas out of my head too.

    I’m happy with where I am and how I got here. I’ve no real regrets. I spent 6 months too long working on a terrible novel about a failed hand model called “I Need A Hand Job” (it was that one joke stretched over 200 awful pages), but that’s about it.

    Might rework that as a short one day, though, if I can write a version that doesn’t completely suck for 20 straight pages.

  • When you self-publish, nobody is going to tell you your book idea sucks or your writing isn’t good enough unless you deliberately seek out unvarnished feedback from people who don’t know you and don’t give a rats about protecting your ego. Writer’s forums are perfect for this.

    Most self-publishing disasters can be avoided if authors are brave enough to get non friends+family feedback on their work. Other authors will be the first to tell you “oh hell no” if your work deserves it – it’s in their interests to stop indie authors releasing poor quality books and damaging the perception of the industry.

    I don’t think you need to go through the trad pub grind to get real about the quality of your books, but you do have to seek out people who will tell you the ugly truth about your novel, even when it hurts.

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