Self-Publishing Truism Bingo

*slams back a shot of ink*

“I remember the Publishing Wars of 2014. Hard times, man. Rough times. I saw… *clears throat* I saw this… shit, I don’t know if he was an editor or an agent, but he got up in the town square on his rickety soapbox and he started saying these things about self-published authors, and I don’t even remember what he said, probably some bloviating clap-trap, and then next thing I know, this… this mob came out of nowhere. Grabbed him from his box. Tore his clothes off. Beat him with Createspace Bibles — their Bibles, not the Christian one but the one with all their proverbs and maxims — and then they ate him alive. Just bit the meat right off his damn bones, left his skeleton wriggling, flopping, screaming there in the square. Then they turned on each other, too. Little micro-cults broken off from the big religion. Someone said something about Kickstarter. Another one got outed as a ‘hybrid’ author — they called her a ‘race traitor’ and a ‘mutant’ — and from there the knives came out and I heard shots and I ducked back into the remains of an old Apple Store where the iOS AI (Glad-iOS) came up and gave me a place to hide. When I finally poked my head back out it was just corpses. A sea of corpses. And then came the Amazon Roomba, big as a couple M1 tanks stacked atop each other. Came up, scooping up the bodies into its metal maw, clang, clang, clang, tagging them with their Author Rank as they hit the belly. Of course now we know why they were doing that. Taking them bodies. Mining the brains for their stories. Selling them at a cut rate, cut royalty. You know, I hear the Big Three just nuked New York…”

Hello, Goodbye

This is going to be my last post about publishing for a while.

In part because I’d much rather get back to talking about writing and storytelling, which is — for me — the more important aspect of what we do, and certainly the more interesting aspect. Talking about publishing feels productive — and it is, in a way, because it’s important we know our options and we consider them with great care. But it’s also secondary to the work, because no matter how you choose to publish, you still gotta finish your shit. Which means taking that story that lives inside the Yoda Hut that is your heart and telling it so hard you can lift an X-Wing out of the mire with its power and beauty. Or something. It’s early and I require more coffee.

The other reason is because, I find it all very tiring and occasionally more than a little ugly. Ugly on both sides of the fence, to be clear, though from a personal standpoint it’s been a lot of ugliness from self-published side of things. Not just from the standard sources (kboards, the comment section at any blog advocating self-publishing, etc) but aimed at me directly. Normally I don’t get very many angry e-mails, but for some reason my most recent post — what I thought was a fairly even-keeled yay-for-everybody’s choices kind of post– generated some testy mails from folks. And I know that the truth is, haters gonna hate and all that but it really is a little tiring just the same. (Tiring and also surprisingly smug and self-superior. We continue on this trend, the persecuted will fast become the persecutors.)

A lot of the recent emails (and comments here at the blog) parroted what I feel are a lot of not-really-true-truisms within self-publishing. It’s getting to be like a game of bingo.

So, as my last effort before I go back to drinking and masturb… uhh, I mean, before I go back to talking about writing and storytelling again, I’m going to tackle some of these oft-parroted lines.

“Self-Publishing Is The Only Real Choice…”

This usually sounds something like “The only real choice is either self-publishing your work or submitting to the gatekeepers,” where the gist is, understandably, that self-publishing is like getting to jump right onto your flight and go wherever you want to go, and traditional publishing means submitting to an invasive colonic cavity search before you’re even allowed near the gate.

This is true-ish, in that I can literally write the word “fart” 100,000 times and slap a cover of baboon urinating into his own mouth, then upload that cool motherfucker right to Amazon. Nobody would stop me. Whereas, at the Kept Gates, a dozen editors and agents would slap my Baboon Fart Story to the ground like an errant badminton birdie.

(“Baboon Fart Story” is my favorite anime, by the way.)

What this shorthand misses, though, is that the actual goal of publishing in either format is not merely being published, but in fact, finding success (where success is most likely some variant of “getting paid and finding an audience”). And in this, neither publishing path offers an easy guarantee. I am fond of describing both of these ways to publishing as paths, and an author can choose to walk either path. One path is theoretically easier, whereas the other path has more obstacles built in — but sometimes, we choose paths with more obstacles for a variety of reasons (we like the challenge, we’re masochists, the end result feels more earned, better payoff, etc.).

We walk the paths as a choice. One path is not an inflatable slide into a big Moon Bounce full of money, and nor is the other path a cruel, merciless slog through lamprey-infested hell-swamps. It’s hard to make your way through both. Hell, think of it this way: choice of publishing is like any personal or business choice. When someone tells you what they’ve chosen, high-five them, wish them the best, and offer any positive and constructive advice you can offer that gets them in the direction they desire. In other words: be cool, and don’t be a dick.

“You’re Leaving Money On The Table!”

I don’t even know what this means, but it sounds like something someone would say to convince me to buy a timeshare, or a lottery ticket, or a bridge over bad water. It sounds like you’re a prognosticator of great fortune and that your psychic ability — which is to see the shimmering Possibility Threads of every universe — has shown you how the myriad permutations of publishing a book. It neglects the realities of this thing which is that it’s a crap-shoot either way, and that some genres would seem to do well in self-publishing (romance, erotica, thriller, some subgenres of SFF) while other genres and age ranges do not (YA, middle-grade, crime, literary, other SFF). It neglects to figure in print, foreign sales, film and TV. It fails to understand that every book has its own challenges to overcome and strengths to play to on each path.

It’s shorthand that says, again, “YOU CHOSE POORLY.” As if every moment my book sits unpublished or in the hands of an agent or editor it’s vacuuming dollars from my wallet, foooomp.

It also fails to realize that some books are better off unpublished. Both for writer and for reader.

Saying the above usually also leads to…

“You Should’ve Self-Published Your Book.”

Oh, man, this one really chafes my yam-bag. Saying this to me is like telling me I married the wrong woman or had the wrong child. This comes from a crass place of smug self-superiority (a miasmic cloud that those in traditional are not immune to spewing, either, I’ll note), and if you ever say this to me please gently ease your feet apart so that I may kick you very hard in your crotchal valley. Hard enough where I’ll be able to tickle your uvula with my toesy-woesies.

From the Author Earnings site, you’ll find phrases like: “Our data suggests that even stellar manuscripts are better off self-published.” Or “Genre writers are financially better off self-publishing, no matter the potential of their manuscripts.”

These conclusions are based on extrapolated half-data that is rife with limitations:

a) It’s data from Amazon, for Amazon, and by Amazon.

b) It’s a snapshot of a single day’s worth of Amazon Rankings.

c) Those Amazon Rankings are arbitrary and weird and while we chastise the Big Five publishers for not being open with data we should also chastise Amazon for offering us an occulted ranking system that is based on — shit, I dunno what, sales and clicks and likes and stars and the whims of some mad artificial intelligence living on a server farm in Sacramento. Again: extrapolated data, not actual data. It’s guesswork. Interesting, compelling, useful guesswork. But still guesswork.

d) The snapshot is predominantly e-books.

e) Recent attempts to look at print via Bookscan is flawed (Bookscan captures a notoriously inaccurate fraction of one’s accurate print sales).

Given that my books do better in print than e-books, and given that my self-published releases do not stack up monetarily to my traditionally-published releases, it’s a little jerky to tell me that my books would have done better for me in the self-published environment. Uh, maybe? But I’m happy where I’m at, you dig? Happy and, by the way, well-paid for it.

“Isn’t A Little Money Better Than No Money?”

This is the new line of thought. It keeps popping up, the essence being that making enough money on your book to buy a dinner at Red Flobster or Crapplebee’s is better than not being published and earning nothing at all. If this works for you, then hey, it works for you. But it’s an odd suggestion, and one that wouldn’t fly in nearly any other discipline. It comes from a place of assuming that writing is cheap, that it has little value to the creator or the audience, that we should be so fortunate just to be allowed to create. Writing a book is a Herculean (or occasionally Sisphyean) effort. To be happy you got paid $43 instead of $4300 is… puzzling, at best.

And I don’t say this because I think self-publishing has no financial value. It can be lucrative, plainly, and for many authors it’s actually the best financial decision. But that’s not the same as being satisfied that it buys your bus fare. The time and effort and equipment it takes to write a book and then to publish it has to have some value, doesn’t it? To you? To readers? No?

“This is a Hobby.”

The natural follow-up to the former statement.

Writing can be a hobby.

Storytelling, also a hobby.

Both some combination of art and a craft.

But a hobbyist, by definition, is an amateur. And choosing to make money on your work — through publishing — means you’re a professional. An entrepreneur with a a small business.

That means it is no longer your hobby. Full stop.

“Readers Are Our Gatekeepers.”

Mmmyeah. Nope.

“Don’t Sell Direct.”

This is something I’ve heard not as a criticism or a line of defense but I’ve long held that selling your e-books direct to readers is a win/win, and it seems that some author-publishers are not on board. Hugh Howey said in a comment here the other day:

“Keep in mind that direct sales have no impact on a book’s ranking on bestseller lists, which can be crucial for fledgling writers. At our level, it’s a good service to our customers. Concentrating on direct sales early on could really harm a writer’s chances of working in his underwear one day.”

I’ll have him know that I work in my underwear often in part due to the direct sales.

That’s right, you’re all funding my General State of Pantslessness.

More to the point, he’s right that if you’re really trying to game the Amazon ecosystem, you probably want to stay there. But a not insignificant portion of readers would rather a) avoid giving $$ to Amazon and/or b) would prefer to give money direct to authors. And selling direct affords the author the choicest cut of “royalty” per sale, since you’re essentially donating a part only to Paypal and the delivery service. (I use Payhip, thanks to a tip from Matt Wallace — a powerfully good example of an author-publisher, whose next book, Slingers, is coming out soon.)

Diversity of distribution is a plus for writers and a plus for readers. Just as you might wanna consider publishing at B&N, or Kobo, or Smashwords, I also recommend publishing direct.

But you do as your own gods demand.

“All Publishers –“

I know, all publishers are bad and they do bad things but that’s not accurate. Some publishers offer terrible boilerplate contracts. Some publishers don’t wanna budge from those boilerplates. Others offer more equitable contracts and better royalties, and, and, and. Publishers are not a single-faced entity, though I understand the inclination to see them that way. (They certainly don’t help themselves sometimes in this.) Just the same, it’s important to realize that each publisher is different, and each is filled with people who really love books and writers. Further, their margins are often very thin — and a good publisher partners with the author to maximize the book’s potential. Painting them as some kind of soul-crushing Evil Empire is simplistic thinking at best. Which leads me to…

“It’s A Revolution!”

Self-publishing is not a revolution.

I know, calling it a “revolution” is exciting and speaks to our natural inclination as storytellers to create a kind of us-versus-them narrative, an overturning of corruption, and it’s nice to feel a part of that kind of passionate, anarchic narrative.

But it’s a little melodramatic.

It is, at best, a disruption. And disruptions are neither good, nor bad. They just are.

It has disrupted old models and has done so, in my mind, to the benefit of authors.

This is an excellent time to be an author precisely because we now have multiple ways of bringing our books to readers. Whether we do so ourselves or with the help of publishers big and small.

“Self-Publishers Make More Money!”

From Author Earnings, again: “Indie authors outnumber traditionally published authors in every earnings bracket but one, and the difference increases as you leave the highest-paid outliers.”

Again, weird data, extrapolated. A bold statement if true, but not only is it flawed by the limitations listed above, but it’s also predicated purely on royalties and seems to miss, entirely, the aspect of advances and other avenues of income available to most traditionally-published authors. If I had to predict how the data shakes out in reality, I’d suspect it’ll go like this:

Few authors make a lot of money.

Many authors make okay money.

A lot of authors make piss-poor money.

Oh, and to the cankerous ass-badger who over Facebook mail the other day parroted that quote above and thought he was throwing some kind of gotcha bullshit in my face: shut up. I looked at your books, sir, and they look like something that would disappoint the artistic sensibilities of an 11-year-old. Your Amazon ranking was somewhere between ‘Broken Robot Toilet’ and ‘Muskrat Balls Preserved In Cider Vinegar.’ I sincerely doubt that you’re making more money than me. I sincerely doubt you’re making more money than homeless people.

In Conclusion

The Publishing Wars bit was a joke.

We’re all on the same side, or, at least, we should be.

We should want as many options for as many authors.

We should be respectful toward the choices of all authors while simultaneously be critical of the systems and cultures surrounding all forms of publishing in order to aim for the betterment of all.

We should love our readers and want to give them the very best of us in the form of stories that are written with passion and published with wisdom.

We should demand the best and most beautiful of one another. Not encourage the worst and ugliest.

It doesn’t matter how you publish. It matters, though, that we’re all together in this, and not shitty toward each other, and not hunkering down into our little cults and camps, our factions and followings. It matters that we can all do better and that we strive for that, with every day, every word, every story, every iteration of publication that we choose to embrace.

And that is the last I’ll speak about publishing for a while.

Comments closed, this time, if you don’t mind. If you wanna engage on this subject, I might turn you toward social media or the various forums and posting receptacles of the Weird Wide Internet.

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