I’ve spent some time in the last couple weeks catching up with people I haven’t gotten the chance to speak to in the past decade or so. When they ask about my writing, one question has come up more than any other, and because of that, I thought I’d go ahead and ruminate on it here. The question is: “Have you considered self-publishing?” It’s come up from other writers, curious relatives who have started hearing about it, and random strangers. Here’s my answer.
Setting out to get published is a lot like stepping out onto a rickety rope bridge suspended a mile above a rocky, white-capped river that’s home to dragons and piranhas.
Which is to say, stepping on a rotten board can send you plummeting to your doom faster than you can curse Mark Twain for making you snortle into your chocolate milk.
I’ve always been a huge fan of the traditional publishing industry, warts and all. I know it’s not perfect, and I know that the idea of Random House and Penguin merging has left in its wake a sea of genuine nervous rashes and over-caffeinated twitching under the surface jokes about Random Penguins. I know that it’s hard — like magically hearing the winning lottery numbers in a loud burp hard — to become a super-successful author.
But let’s face the gimme-a-paper-hyperventilation-bag truth: that’s not any less true with self-publishing.
Here are my reasons for looking at New York and saying, “I choo-choo-chooooooooose you!”
1. I love the traditional publishing houses. I do. They’ve given me most of my favourite books over the years. Yes, they are businesses concerned with making a profit, and yes, they also tend to move at the speed of snail. But I love bound books and shelves and paper. Yes, sometimes crappy books make it through the gates when great books founder on the sandbar of the agent-hunt. But there are great books from every major house. Books that have shaped who I am, how I think, and what I see inside my head.
2. I want to work with a literary agent, and not only because they can lead me to the publishers. Call me strange, but I’ve always been fascinated with the agent-author relationship. An agent is a business partner, and a good relationship with an agent can last decades. It’s the business equivalent of a marriage, and I want that partnership.
I want to work with someone who feels passionately about me and my work, who wants to work with me for the long haul. The nature of symbiosis is that both parties benefit. I’ll commit to writing better books each time around and to keep writing. And writing. And writing.
3. Self-publishing is, in essentials, an entrepreneurial affair, and that requires start-up capital. If your goal is to make a living by doing the writing thing, there are many costs involved when you choose the self-publishing route. Your responsibility is to provide compelling stories and polished packages. If you expect readers to pay for it, they need to be getting quality.
Most people are not capable of writing, editing, polishing, proofreading, formatting, designing, promoting, and marketing a book. Those who are successful at self-publishing manage to do all those things — and that means paying for a lot of it. You need a cover design that catches people’s eyes. And you need to make sure that your discerning readers don’t find a comma splice in the first sentence of your book. Good editorial services cost money. A lot of it. So do good designers.
I don’t have the ability to pay for those things. Many self-published authors I know have other income (and often a spouse’s income) that allows them to pay for these things or at least have the safety net in place so they are not dependent on getting a return on their investment. I don’t have that luxury. And while some people may chime in with “affordable” services, keep in mind that for people like me, my available budget for such things is zero. Even $100 is a lot for my family.
The outcome of the above reason is that I want to sell my book to an advance-paying, royalty-earning publisher, knowing full well that the average advance for first time novelists is rapidly becoming as elusive as snarks and boojums.
4. Finally, I’m a closet optimist. I have a lot of that weird, squidgy quality called hope. In the words of Freddie Mercury, “I’ve paid my dues time after time. I’ve done my sentence, but committed no crime. And bad mistakes, I’ve made a few. I’ve had my share of sand kicked in my face, but I’ve come through…”
I believed Chris Baty at the Writer’s Digest Conference in January when he said that somebody, somewhere, has been waiting their entire life to read the books I have in me.
So where does all that leave me? It leaves me knowing that I’m querying a solid book with a strong hook. It leaves me knowing that that book as been requested and is in the hands of three agents for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect and with whom I would jump at the chance to work and build a career. It leaves me knowing that I’ve got other projects and no shortage of ideas. It’s just a matter of time and persistence, and I’ve always been good at both. There’s an agent out there for me, and an editor too.
So it leaves me with one little question, which I’ll defer to Freddie. 😉
PS: I’d be happy to be a Random Penguin author. (I know, I know, it’s Penguin Random House, but I love penguins. And Penguin books. And I love randomness. And Random House. So I’ll personally be your Random Penguin.)