The Decision To Self-Publish, Part 2


I’m going to continue with the subject I began last month, but first I just have to lead off with this wonderful rant by Edward Gordon, posted in March on the Absolute Write self-publishing forum (reproduced with permission). Edward is editor of the TGC Gothic Novel Review.

In my opinion, it’s time to stop with the whole ‘I’m-going-to-get-an-agent-and-get-published’ idea. You might as well be playing the lottery.

Today, you have to self-publish. Small presses are useless rip-offs. Large publishers are a little better but still rip you off.

More and more books are being sold as e-books, especially in fiction. Today’s writer must know how to publish, just like eventually all writers had to learn to type.

It used to be like this: write a manuscript, submit to an agent, get accepted, agent gets you a publisher and an advance, book is edited, cover designed, then printed, then distributed to all the many independent and chain bookstores.

Today there are no independent bookstores and the only chain left, B & N, just doesn’t have the space for fiction that it used to. In five years they’ll probably be bankrupt, just like Borders.

In the world of e-books, the author is the primary marketer not the publisher. There is no distribution, no printing, so there just isn’t anything left for the traditional publisher to do–except steal your rights. And just forget about agents. They’re about as needed as buggy whip manufacturers.

Today’s author must be willing to invest in their work. They write it, revise it, edit it to the best of their ability. Then they hire an editor to edit and do a copy edit. They hire someone to do the book cover. They hire someone to format it for Kindle. Then they publish it to Kindle. And if they want paper copies, they find a POD printer and get some made up to distribute to whomever they want and to stock at Amazon. Then they start marketing that book.

They get it reviewed; they talk about it in groups like this; if they want, they can pay out and do some advertising on sites like this or on Amazon. They then become a dual kind of person: one is marketing their last book, the other is writing the next book. They become prolific. They build an audience.

One day they may land an agent who will sell the movie rights–but again that’s a lottery’s chance. Maybe one day they’ll write a book that sells so well that Simon and Schuster offers them a few million for all their titles–then they’ve won. But that’s also a lottery’s chance.

Today’s author no longer can wait on the Stephen King Dream: you know, where you write a horrid story like “Carrie” that you shit can, but your wife pulls it out and you finish it, and submit it and a publisher pays you for it and launches your life of wealth, fame, and glory. Those days have gone the way of the zeppelin, namely the Hindenburg.

As you might imagine, this fell like a bottle of gasoline into an online community where mention of traditional vs. self-publication is sure to set off a brawl.

And now, returning to our regularly scheduled pontifications:

Last month, I dealt with the two primary questions we should ask ourselves before making the decision to self-publish. First was the matter of patience. The traditional road to publication can take years and is always uncertain, while it’s possible to have a self-published print book or e-book on sale in a matter of hours.

Second was the issue of investment of time and money. With traditional publication, money, when it flows, should flow toward the author. When we self-publish, we have to be prepared to spend money, from a few dollars to thousands of dollars, with no certainty of recouping it.

I’m really committed to self-publishing, but what are my chances of success?

It depends a lot on how we define success. To a new writer, success may be little more than the smell of a new book that’s just arrived from the publisher, a year or more of our intellectual effort and sweat distilled to a ten-ounce, neatly trimmed trade paperback—with our name on the cover! A modestly ambitious goal might be to sell enough copies to earn out a publisher’s advance, plus a few royalty checks before the book is superceded by newer sensations. The golden dream is to have our book reach the best-seller list, remain there several months, and retire gracefully to the stacks in public libraries and used bookshops everywhere, its covers worn at the edges, the margins full of penciled notes, and pages falling from the binding.

Traditionally-published books must pass two great hurdles before reaching any of these definitions of success. First, a publisher has to comb through thousands of manuscripts, and choose yours to be worth the investment. No one has a good handle on the figures, but from the experience, it’s safe to say that, of a thousand novel manuscripts submitted by new authors to publishers or agents, fewer than ten will be selected.

Once published, our brainchild will face the next test, the full brutality of the marketplace. It will be given about sixty days to prove itself. At first it will join the other newcomers on the ‘Just Published’ tables, next to distracting stand-alone displays for Stephen King, Dan Brown, and John Grisham. It will be further crippled by the announcement—sometimes plastered across the cover—that it’s been written by a ‘debut author’. Somehow, that ‘debut author’ can’t help but look like an apology to prospective readers.

After a week or two, our masterwork will be moved to the general shelving, to live out its two-month period of grace. If sales are weak, the copies will be returned to the publisher for credit and shredded, to rise again in the humbler form of grocery bags and newsprint. But the small number of novels that sell briskly will remain, to go on to successive printings where they may earn their authors a living that will range from hardscrabble to the literary vie en rose. What’s more, the proven authors of money-earning books can expect to hear from the publisher, asking what the next book will be, and when to expect it. If we’re among the talented—and lucky—few who reach this happy place, we can legitimately say that our writing career has been launched, for better or worse.

Self-published books don’t face the first hurdle, the agent/publisher gauntlet. Any person, regardless of talent or even literacy, can have a book published and made available to the public. Even money is not an object. With a smidgin of study and effort, we can take care of all the logistics needed to create a book and cover at no charge. Only if we want a paper or download copy of the book, does money have to change hands.

But now that our book is published, it still faces the most intimidating hurdle of all—getting people to read it.

The absence of the agent/publisher gatekeepers in self-publication means that the field is crowded with books that are poorly written and poorly produced. Our creative light, no matter how brightly it shines, will be instantly swallowed up in the Boring Sea. Any search-and-rescue pilot will tell you that spotting a single bright light on the surface of a vast ocean is difficult and risky, even under the best conditions. So when you are the only person in the world who cares about your little life raft, you have a send up flares in order to be noticed, the more the better. You have to become a promoter of your own work—a salesman, a carnival barker, a busker, a streetcorner evangelist—whatever it takes to draw attention to your work.

But I’m an artist, not a salesman

Too bad. One of the burdens of the self-publishing route is that we’ve taken on the whole job, which includes sales and promotion. In addition to writing our next novel, we have a second, full-time job, to push those novels we’ve already launched.

Entrepreneurs have sprung up to help us with this work, but it’s a dodgy, Wild West industry populated by experienced professionals, sincere but inept amateurs, and scam artists. Personal references are the only reliable way of getting return on investment. As with all these ancillary, time-consuming tasks, we’ll have to be prepared to pay handsomely for what we can’t or won’t do ourselves.

For a new author, the Internet is our friend. An author website or blog is a must. We should haunt forums on sites where our books are sold as well as sites where the subject of our book is discussed (and not just those forums populated by other writers). We campaign to have our book reviewed by online review sites (but not the sites where you pay for reviews!). We post sample chapters on others’ blogs and forums where it’s allowed. We write content for popular websites in return for a mention of our book.

The return on marketing efforts is in direct proportion to the energy we invest, and it never ends. As one marketing guru said, “Marketing is like a bump-em car. Once you take your foot off the pedal, it stops.”

For what it’s worth, self-published authors aren’t the only ones left adrift when it comes to promotion. Chances are, our traditional publisher won’t have a dime of promotion budget left over for us. The industry is dominated by the ‘blockbuster’ business model, in which vast sums are spent promoting a small number of books. Some are not even very good, but enough expensive and energetic promotion could turn the Income Tax Code into a runaway best seller overnight. So-called ‘mid-list’ authors, those who make just enough money to pay for their keep, are trapped on a bleak treadmill where their time is split between writing and promotion, no to mention the day job that most must have.

I read on a forum that if I self-publish, I’m forever shut out of traditional publication.

Certain things seem to be true: If our book is self-published, some agents or publishing houses are less likely to consider it, since they cannot buy ‘first publication rights’. It’s also true that there’s a prejudice against authors who self-publish, but that seems to exist less among publishers than among writers who’ve already broken in. No one looks down on the poor more than the newly rich.

On the other hand, as individual writers, self-publishers aren’t necessarily pariahs in the publishing world. Some forward-thinking publishers even claim that self-published writers who can successfully promote their own work will be more experienced in marketing. Successful sales of a self-published book, given the difficulties of doing it all on our own, imply a degree of talent worth exploring.

As the stories multiply of self-published authors who move up to traditional publication, it’s getting harder to maintain the illusion that self-publication poisons us, or our books, forever.

Next month, I’ll discuss some of the basics of print on demand: how it works and how to use it.

William Gaius
April 2011

“Kill Electrons, Not Trees” © 2011 William Gaius. All rights reserved.

Pin It on Pinterest