Wednesday, December 23, 2009

To Self-Publish or Not: That is the Question

So, tomorrow is Christmas Eve; a time of alleged peace and goodwill toward men, and I just got my shorts in a knot over this post. Now, I know Harlequin's decision to start a self-publishing branch sent its authors into a tailspin and had the internet and industry at large buzzing like a disturbed hornet's nest, and all for good reason. I've been quite interested, having resided on both sides of the fence, so to speak; now, after reading this post and its underhanded stab at agents, I have an opinion to express.

I must start out by saying I just love it when self-publishing companies boast about how much they're helping out writers because they offer a service we can take or leave; they are so forward-thinking they're on the edge of a life-shattering industry-wide change; and, my all time favorite, among their thousands of paying clients lies a trove of unrecognized talent which ended up in the slushpile. Every time I hear such declarations, heralding the dawn of a new age for writers everywhere, I shudder and think how much more self-serving can they get? Well, this guy hits a new high, and while I can't pretend to know if he's sincere or not, I do think I can speak for the every-day writer he stands to make money on, regardless of whether said writer ever sells a single book.

When I first started writing, I was always of the mind that I wrote to be read. For me, the act of writing is incomplete without the reader. I am a novelist; that is my trade. So, being published was my ultimate goal; but after years of rejection I had no other choice than to look into the alternative. It was either that or stop writing. I therefore approached independent publishing in a wary fashion, much as you might approach a potentially dangerous beast. I spent a year researching every aspect and method, and spent countless hours on a forum attended by perhaps the largest gathering of self publishers and independent publishers on the planet. Through them, I learned a lot, not enough to not make mistakes, but enough to know that if I wanted to give my work some semblance of integrity, I should never sign with one of the large self-publishing companies. Indeed, I must avoid them at all costs. This was my impression; evidently, many other writers would beg to differ.

Instead, after months of networking, I published for no advance (and a $99 set-up fee) with a micro start-up press in San Francisco. It was self publishing but without the accumulative extras; for $99, they did a nice job getting the book ready. But distribution issues were a nightmare and when the press eventually went belly-up, to keep my then modest-selling book in print, I entered into a venture with two other partners to establish an independent press using POD. One of my partners decided to eschew the stigma of POD by printing a offset run of her books; to date, I believe a quantity of them remain in boxes in a warehouse. Her intentions were sound; but as we soon discovered, independently published authors, no matter how well dressed, rarely get invited to bookstores. I , in turn, cleaved to POD. I never expected to secure bookstore distribution and was therefore unwilling to shell out the thousands of dollars required for a print run; and frankly, all of this made me feel faintly humiliated. While I was proud of what I'd accomplished (my sales had by then risen to a few thousand copies), I must admit I was not at all willing to look booksellers in the eye and negotiate consignment deals. Like most writers, I dreamed of my book appearing on shelves, not hand-delivering copies for a 50/50 split.

I once read an article where a self-published author who'd secured a mainstream publishing contract said: "I self-published to escape self-publishing." Looking back, while I cannot say I did it deliberately, for me the end result was the same. I eventually got an agent who believed in me; she got editors interested. There was an auction; I sold two books; and I never looked back. Not once. Having an agent I adore, who fights for me every step in the way, has helped me establish a fledgling career and made me more money via one traditional book deal, let alone all the foreign rights, than I ever made in five years of dedicated independent publishing. Agents fight for their clients because everything they decide to represent they take on faith and on commission: if you don't get paid (or, in this case, acquired) they don't. The above linked post makes a stab at agents when in fact without them, we writers would truly be at the mercy of people like him. And while self-publishing companies may be a "disruptive force", mainly they're disruptive to the would-be author's bank account, because most of the time they're profit-driven operations disguised as altruism, designed to lure the uninformed writer into the belief that his or her dream can come true. Whether or not the work has merit or sales potential beyond family and friends is secondary, if ever considered. The goal is to make money off the writer, not the reader. This alleged new pardigam in self-publishing may tout itself as the missing link between vanity and traditional, but in the end the company always make money – they charge a fee, remember? - while the author in the majority of the cases does not.

As for undiscovered talent, it's doubtlessly true, and very sad, that many gifted writers never see publication. But how much of it is publishers' lack of foresight and how much is that many gifted writers, after having been knocked about for years in the marathon combat arena that is submissions, toss their manuscript into a drawer and take up rock climbing? An editor in NY who read my work fourteen years ago but was unable to offer at the time called me up to tell me: "You have talent. But that alone doesn't mean much. It's the writers who keep trying who make it. Never give up." As harsh as it is, talent isn't necessarily going to make the cut and neither is perseverance; but armed with both, a writer does stand a chance as long as publishers are acquiring books. Not every writer, and not for years for many, but in the final round some editor, somewhere, is going to recognize the talent and take the chance, if stars are in alignment and the marketplace right.

The above-mentioned post states: "Many would-be authors don’t need a traditional publishing house. That’s the dirty little secret. They already have access to an audience and can reach it without the help of a traditional publisher." Excuse my French, but this is merde. It is true that a few writers have "built-in" audiences before they start, but by and large they are specialists with already-established reputations in related fields, like speakers with a following, gurus, self-help workshop leaders, cult figures, etc. The rest of us usually just start out being famous at home at dinnertime and so we need publishers to recognize our work, just as publishers need us so they can publish new voices and sell books. The real dirty secret is that self-publishing companies since time began have dangled this particular parcel of lies as bait to reel in desperate writers who need to believe their work has enough merit to make it, New York be damned. While the sentiment is admirable, indeed commendable, these writers often find themselves in for a very rude surprise. The long-anticipated revolution in self-published books that sell a fraction of what the average NY Times bestseller does has thus far failed to materialize. Nevertheless, if you approach self-publishing fully cognizant that every odd in the industry is stacked against you and unless you hustle hard and often, you'll most likely never sell enough to compensate what you paid to see your book in print , then you're "informed" and entering it with your eyes wide open. Even so, in my experience, the resultant disappointment can be crushing. Very few writers relish failing to find readers. It's just not in our nature.

Publishers take the risk on unknown writers and it's a gamble they sometimes lose: that has always been the name of game. Traditional publishers pay an advance and offer a royalty structure; they edit the manuscript (more or less); design and typeset the book; print it; promote it (again, more or less) and, most importantly, get it into stores where readers can find it at no additional cost to you, the author.

Not too long ago, after I spoke at an event about my marketing efforts, a writer came up to me to ask how spending my money on marketing was any different from spending money to self-publish. After all, it's my money and it's going toward my book, right? The truth is, building a successful career has more and more in recent years fallen upon the author's shoulders. While never stated openly by the publisher, most of us are fully aware that if we're going to keep publishing books, we must promote and market diligently, using our own money, to augment the publisher's efforts because in this age of dwindling readership and marketing dollars, publishers still have thousands of titles to sell, while we, on the other hand, just have ours. But I see a crucial difference. I get an advance and elect to use a percentage of it to market my work; it's voluntary on my part. I put my hard-earned advance dollars to work for my book, which is very different from paying my hard-earned day job's money to a self-publishing company, which in turn will do nothing for my book.

Do I think every writer should have the choice to self-publish? Of course, I do. I’m certainly glad I did. I might never have attracted the attention of my agent without it. Was it my first choice? Never. It was my last choice, after all else failed; and it only worked for me because one lone agent found my book online paired in a Better Buy Together with a current client of hers (who pointed me out to her, by the way) and she took the time and effort to locate me. I know how incredibly fortunate I am. If approximately 400,000 new titles were published last year and almost half were self-published, just calculate the odds.

But of course, self publishing companies are hoping you won't.


Sarah said...

Excellent post. I also found the comments in the article very self-serving.

Another interesting point: WestBow used to be the company's fiction imprint; Stephen Lawhead was one of many well-known authors whose books were published by that imprint. Now, it signifies that the books were vanity published. Confusing? Absolutely. I hadn't realized that this had changed until recently.

tjpfau said...

Of course it's a lie, but it's a really sweet lie compared to the one aspiring writers get from the "legitimate" publishing industry.

Self Publishing actually puts a book into the author's hands.

Most people who try the route of "legitimate" publishers put long hours into marketing themselves to publishers and agents, short hours of actually writing, and the few who make it into print are paid a bit more than minimum wage.

In either case, the punch line to the old joke applies. "Lady, you knew I was a rattlesnake when you picked me up."

I don't need the money and the time is precious to me. Since the audiences I have in local readings and writer's groups adequately stroke my ego, I'll probably never publish a novel, no matter how fine a story I tell.

For those who self-publish, everyone in the transaction knows what is being bought and sold is a fantasy.

The days of paying by-the-word farm teams for aspiring writers are long gone. But there are hearts that still burn to tell the story, usually badly.

Why not just leave them alone with their dreams?

N. Gemini Sasson said...

Thank you for such an enlightening, thoughtful post and for sharing your own experience here. I was at one of the HNS panel sessions where you mentioned how many years it took before you were able to break into traditional publishing. You've provided another example of how talent, perseverance and luck combine to make things happen. And when it comes to exploring all the options, wary is a good thing.

MargaretD said...

An extremely helpful post from someone who has been there and knows what he's talking about. The Last Queen is a well-written, exciting novel - thus its success when you finally did find an agent and a traditional commercial publisher for it. It probably also didn't hurt that you had learned the hard way how much effort an author needs to put into marketing. But the vast majority of self-published novels are not polished enough to appeal to readers (glowing Amazon reviews by friends notwithstanding).

When I first set up my website, I began receiving floods of self-published novels and read with an open mind because I wanted books to review. It quickly became clear that there was a reason why most of these authors were unable to attract a publisher. I can no longer approach self-published novels with an open mind, because the odds of finding one that is enjoyable to read are so very low. Novelists considering self-publishing should keep this in mind - even if a novel is stupendously good, if it is self-published, the first thing potential reviewers are going to know about it is that it is in the same category with a lot of novels that are simply painful to read. The reviewer might glance at the back cover copy and the first few paragraphs, but unless the book's opening is exciting and skillfully written with prose that doesn't hit any false notes, the book is not going to land at the top of the reviewer's TBR pile.

Of course, if a writer's primary goal is simply to have a few bound, printed copies of his/her novel to give to friends and relatives, self-publishing with a POD company is the easy way to go.

Also, the situation is very different for someone like a motivational speaker who offers books for sale following lectures, or if a book lends itself to sales outside the context of bookstores - for example, a specialized book on gardening in a local climate that can be sold locally in garden stores. In this context, self-publishing could be an excellent option, especially if the book fills a niche that is not bestseller potential but appeals to a specialized market the author is uniquely qualified to reach.

Anonymous said...

C.W., this was an excellent post. Like you, I finally self-published "To the Ends of the Earth" after shopping it around forever with an agent. I knew the book was good and decided to take a chance. We went with an offset print run; it worked out well because we were able to tap into the library market with a good review in Library Journal.

Nothing in the publishing industry had changed in our favor three years later, so we're going the same route with The Fairest Portion of the Globe, due out next month. Hopefully we will have similar (modest but real) success.

You are right -- it's a route for people who can afford to finance their own project, who are willing to do all the promotion and marketing themselves, and who are not under any illusions about becoming a smashing success. It'd be wonderful to have a "real" publisher to handle printing and distribution.

Thanks for the good and thought-provoking post.

C.W. Gortner said...

I'm glad this post provoked some debate and that some of you found it useful. I must admit, it was tough for me to write. I do want writers to feel empowered; yet while I fully support self publishing, particularly under the circumstances described by me and by Frances (thank you for sharing your story)I also strongly feel that as writers, we must be fully informed about both the pros and the cons of such a time-consuming and potentially expensive venture. Self-marketing has become so essential for traditionally published writers, it does tend to narrow the gap a bit between traditional and self-publishing; however, as I point out, traditional publishing still holds significant advantages as far as distribution and overall earnings, not to mention production of the book itself. However, for the enterprising author with a well-planned strategy that takes into account the inherent limitations, self publishing can be quite exciting. I certainly do not regret it at all; it got me where I wanted to go, even if I didn't know it at the time :)