“Indie First?” What Is Best In Publishing?

A brief recent history:

Salon posted an article that said, “Hey, self-publishing is masturbation.”

I responded.

Salon posted a different article by Hugh Howey that said, “Nonsense to that other thing, self-publishing is full of success stories and it’s the better option going forward.”

I responded to that, too.

Then, another thing happened: I was getting a bucketload of views from Kindle Boards (kboards?), and so I popped over there to find out what was going on and saw that some people seemed to think I was bashing Howey (I wasn’t) or bashing self-publishing (I wasn’t), and I thought, okay, I’ll say hello, I’ll try to be forthright and clarify my position which is to say, “There’s no one path up the mountain, no one best way for everybody.”

A fairly uncontroversial opinion. Very moderate. So soft it might as well be marshmallow.

Some folks over there were very nice and well-reasoned and well-intentioned. Howey himself dropped in (as he did here at the blog) and made some polite comments of disagreement. The rest presented, to my mind, a hostile vibe that tells me I probably shouldn’t go to the Kindle Boards anymore because, really, what’s the value? That’s not the hill I want to defend.

What I want to do, however, is to talk a little more about this “indie first” path — the path that Howey and others feel is the best way forward for new authors. This was also echoed a number of times at the Writer’s Digest East Conference, where I spoke this past weekend. Lots of folks were suddenly presenting self-publishing less as a standalone option and more as the new gate (kept or unkept) leading to traditional publishing. Self-publish first, they say, and get attention and audience. You can even query the published story while it sells on the digital marketplace.

It’s an interesting shift. And not wrong or impossible.

But, is it “the best?”

Now, I’m going to quote Howey from the Kindle Boards, and in that I want to make clear that before any self-publishing acolytes get their genitals in a twirl over any of this, I am in no way bashing Howey. The guy should be celebrated. He did it his way. He tried new shit and embraced the options and powers available to the modern writer and it paid off in heaps and mounds, leaps and bounds. No one in their right mind should tell him he did anything wrong.

Hell, I did just as he did (though, erm, to far less success). My self-published writing advice? Coming to Writer’s Digest. Atlanta Burns? Coming to Skyscape Publishing.

The question for me is, does that make this approach automagically the best?

He certainly believes so. Which is not unreasonable given his success.

From kboards, Howey says:

It’s amazing that I’m being painted as an all-or-nothing Konrath disciple. Just because self-publishing is the best way to get started doesn’t mean it’s the only way. Signing away lifetime rights and control over works that could be available forever is always an option. Just an inferior one.

What I hope to see is that the changes hybrids are forcing on publishing houses will trickle down to the writers who despise us. They won’t even know it’s happening. Non-compete clauses will simply disappear. Finite terms of license will become the norm. Print and digital rights will be negotiated separately. And I won’t care one bit who causes this, only that it happens.

Some of this is pretty admirable stuff. Improving contract conditions for writers is a noble goal and — fuck yeah, let’s see that happen. Though, it should also be clear that some of this is already happening and a good agent will help ensure non-exploitative clauses. (I don’t think any agent worth the salt would allow the author to give over rights forever.) I’m also not sure what he means by “the writers who despise us” — I may be misreading but that seems to lend itself further to the Us Versus Them tribal problem in publishing. Regardless, what I want to talk about today are those two particular words above (italics his, not mine): best and inferior.

I have trouble with absolutes. They’re rarely true outside of, say, math and science. Calling something the best smacks of One True Wayism and does a good job at making authors feel stupid for choosing a path other than the superior one. It’s doubly troubling in the realm of publishing, where so many options exist right now. Which is awesome. Authors have a variety of ways to get their work “out there” — and I don’t just mean trad-pub versus self-pub. I mean, Kickstarter to query letters to slush pile to Amazon KDP to a recommendation from another author to… well, hell, my path began in freelancing pen-and-paper games and took a weird alleyway into screenwriting. Here I am now with over a dozen novels coming out.

My way was pretty rad. Totally worked for me.

Miiiight not work for you. For a whole lotta reasons.

“Worked for me” is not equivalent to “best way for all.”

So: just on the theoretical level, best and inferior sit unsettled in my tummy.

But I promised someone on Twitter that I’d write a blog post detailing specific situations where “indie first!” was not automagically going to be the best way forward — so, let’s detail it.

Here, then, are some reasons that going “indie first” is not necessarily the “best.”

First, genre can be a problem. Not every genre is doing fireworks in the self-publishing realm. Literary work? Crime? Books published in those realms sometimes go kerplunk. Consider, too, that age range is a consideration. YA (Young Adult) is not a “genre,” but studies show that while adults will read YA e-books, teens remain reluctant (though this may be changing as e-readers become cheaper or are passed along as hand-me-downs). Further, YA tends to offer larger advances than the adult market — so, going straight to traditional can pay off.

Second, not every agent or publisher is interested in your self-published book. You think you can just self-publish and start querying. And you can. But some agents and some publishers don’t want to see it. To their minds, you’ve already gone and published. This is doubly true if the self-publishing effort isn’t in some way a successful one: great cover, many good reviews, lots of sales. It looks like whatever audience you had, you burned through them already. If your book doesn’t land in the digital marketplace with energy behind it, with momentum, querying after that will not likely be successful. To clarify, it means you can self-publish a very good book that traditional publishing might have picked up had it not been for a less-than-stellar showing on, say, the Kindle marketplace.

Third, you don’t have the audience. That first Salon article was by a guy who basically tip-toed into a dark and empty room, left his book on the mantlepiece like some kind of Author Elf, and then wandered back out wondering why he didn’t become a millionaire. If you don’t have the audience and don’t have time to spend earning that audience, traditional publishing may be a smarter first step. By dint of being tradtionally published you tend to get a little energy and momentum and audience via the so-called “prestige” of that path.

Fourth, some authors have found success doing the reverse, which is to say, they use traditional publishing to build audience and then leap into that audience with self-published efforts. Not to say this is the “best” way either — but it’s one option, and for many, it’s worked.

Fifth, you’re not going to be a capable or interested self-publisher. Not everybody wants to self-publish. Not everybody is going to be good at it. Despite claims to the contrary, the skill-sets necessary to do traditional and to do DIY are not mirror images (I’ve done both, trust me, it ain’t the same enchilada). Self-publishing is equivalent to running a small business. You’re an entrepreneur as much as an author. Some authors are going to take to this like a monkey to a banana. Some authors won’t be good at it or just find the idea of hiring editors and designers abhorrent. Best for someone? Most definitely. Best for everyone? Most certainly not.

Sixth, you’re going to be a great self-publisher. Self-publishing can be its own reward. “Indie first” presupposes that now self-publishing is a gate into traditional, but some folks just want to do it all themselves. For them, “indie first” also means “indie last, too.”

Seventh, because you’re uncomfortable with the financial risk. Writing and publishing is always a risk, but self-pub and trad-pub offer different flavors of risk. Self-pub is largely financial: you might spend $500 on cover, editing, design, marketing. And it is possible you will never see that money back. Despite what some have suggested, the traditional path is more a risk to time than it is directly to money — there’s little to no money actually put out, and so the risk of losing that money is nil. The result of the traditional process is either “I spend no money and get no money,” or, “I spend no money and I get somewhere north of $5000.” This is not to say going traditional first is best, but it may be ideal for the risk averse.

Eighth, because you want to be traditionally-published first and only. Preference matters. The parameters of happiness and satisfaction are not universal across all of authordom. When you say something is best, you’re speaking in terms so simplistic they’re meaningless. Best how? Best for money? Readership? Respect? Happiness? Everybody has a different metric and so, if your goal is to get the agent, go to a publisher and get on some bookshelves, well, then go that way. Go that way first. Don’t dick around with self-publishing. Chase the dream you want to chase, not the dream other people tell you is best. It’s your life, not theirs. Really, at the end of the day, “because it’s what I fucking want, goddamnit,” is the best metric of them all.

We’re possibly on the cusp of a golden age for writers. We have so many paths up the mountain. Let’s celebrate that. Let’s cheerlead not one option but all the options — and let’s embrace the fact that each path has strengths and weaknesses that’ll suit some authors and repel others. We don’t need to shut down or shout down options. We don’t need to suggest one way is superior. Or that others should feel inferior for their choices.

We can walk the middle road on this. We can take the nuanced, moderate approach and reject solipsism and tribalism and realize that what works for one is not a guarantee for all and that anybody who digs their way into the industry and follows their goals using the tools that suit them should be celebrated. Are you writing? Are you telling the stories you want to tell? Have you studied your options and found the path that suits you? Then high-five yourself, go eat some ice cream, and don’t let anybody tell you that you’re doing it wrong.

As always:

Art harder, motherfuckers.

Play nice in the comments or I’ll bring out the orbital laser. This is not a Cheerocracy.