Let’s start with a disclaimer. I think self-publishing is a viable form of publishing. There have been many cases where self-published authors have done amazingly well, and those stories seem to be growing at an exponential rate. And, I think there are certain circumstances where self-publishing might not be just a good alternative but actually a better alternative to traditional publishing.
So, let’s get that out of the way. This blog is not an anti-self-publishing piece. Instead, it’s a word of caution.
Articles describing the glories of self-publishing are popping up every day. Technology and infrastructure has advanced to the point where it’s perfectly possible for someone to present a book to the world and have it selling hundreds of thousands of copies in just a few months. This has happened, and it will continue to happen.
Combine that success with the woes of the traditional publishing routes. Disruptive technologies and waning readership have hurt both publishers and booksellers. The poor economy has made publishers skittish about accepting new, untested authors. Agents are more and more in demand. Contracts are harder and harder to get.
Looking at those last two paragraphs it seems like self-publishing might be the best way to go, right?
Here’s my worry:
Publishing has always been hard. It’s always been a struggle to rise through the slushpile, whether that slush was with an agent or a publisher. It’s always taken a long time, and it’s been a fight the entire time. Authors write and rewrite that first chapter, paragraph and sentence to get their submission seen.
And then it gets rejected anyway, so you write another book and you send that one out. And it gets rejected. Authors wore rejections as a badge of honor. At one time there was even an award (riffing off the Writers of the Future award) called Writers With No Future, where the winner was whoever could produce the most rejection letters, by weight.
This isn’t to say that rejections are wonderful. But rejections make you work harder. They make you go back to your manuscript and revise, or rewrite, or throw it away entirely and write something even better. The submission and rejection process is the fiery furnace that refines your writing, removing the impurities and leaving the gold.
While there are always stories like Stephenie Meyer, who sold her first novel, there are many many more stories like my friend Brandon Sanderson, who sold his sixth novel (and at that point he was already working on his thirteenth). My brother, Dan Wells, sold his sixth novel. One new author whose story I love is Brodi Ashton: she sold a three-book deal to Balzer and Bray for lots of money after only two days on submission! Of course, that was only after being rejected by 92 agents, after her first book with that agent didn’t sell, and after she got a new agent.
The moral of the story: success almost always comes after a long, hard fight.
Aspiring authors will inevitably think: but that sounds terrible! Why would I ever want to go through that? The answer is just what I said above: the struggle is valuable, because it makes you work harder, and it makes your writing better.
So, what does this have to do with self-publishing?
When you finish your first manuscript, you probably think it’s pretty good. Maybe it is. I’m not saying it’s impossible to create something great on the first try (though I am saying it’s really, really rare).
So, you take that first manuscript and you shop it around. You submit to agents, and you get some rejections and it really sucks. And then you turn to the internet, and you read that some other author has sold five hundred thousand ebooks by self-publishing! You read that another author made $200,000 in a single month! Man, screw this traditional publishing crap! Self-publishing is both easier and more lucrative!
And maybe you’ll make a million dollars. It’s definitely possible.
But unless you have gone through all the years of work and refinement and revisioning and rewriting, then odds are you won’t. Because it’s the work that makes your writing good, and good writing is what sells.
Again, I’m not anti-self-publishing. But to me it has all the dangers of a get-rich-quick scheme: It’s very tempting, because you see other people who have done it and made a lot of money; it’s easy to get into; it seems like an appealing alternative to a very difficult path. And, just like a get-rich-quick scheme, 99% of people who try it won’t get rich. Some will lose money. Some will get their name forever plastered on a poorly written book, and spend the rest of their career hiding their past.
So this is not a blog to tell you not to self-publish. It’s just to warn you:Be wary of the hype. If you’re going into self-publishing, you have to be a great writer—as good and polished as if you’d worked your way through years of rejections and rewrites. And you have to be a great businessperson, because you don’t have professional editors, marketers, salespeople, accountants, graphic designers, distributors and retailers in your corner. It’s all you.
If you can handle that, then dive right in. The changes to the industry really are amazing, and the right person with the right book can be very successful. Just know what you’re getting into, and make sure you’re ready before you do it.