Monday, May 11, 2009

(More) Thoughts on Self-Publishing

I've been giving a lot of thought lately to the arguments and obstacles involved with publishing your own work. Having undergone the equivalent of self-publishing boot camp for the past half year I felt it was time to stop and re-evaluate what I have done, and reflect on what I've learned.

The foremost factor is that publishing yourself is an enormous amount of work, and frankly I'm exhausted from it. I've spent the past few weeks wandering around the house in something of a muddled haze, attempting to regain some sense of perspective on the issue. I often do this when I'm formulating writing ideas. I put on some mellow music and sit staring out the window at the clouds for hours, waiting for the clarity to come. Sometimes it does. Sometimes not. Just as with clouds, sometimes you get brilliant beams of light, and sometimes you get rain.

The fact is that first and foremost I'm a writer. Authors write because they enjoy it, because they have a story they need or want to tell, or simply because they're good with words (but hopefully all three). The greatest single lesson I've learned over the past six months is that authors also have to be first-rate salesmen. I think this is the better part of why most writers prefer to turn their work over someone else once it's done. It's just easier to let a big publishing house take on all the work of getting a book to market - even if it's still up to the author to promote it. This is, of course, why the publisher takes the majority of the profits as well.

And although I've met with some success with my first novel, I had begun to wonder if that trade-off wasn't worth the cost. The truth is that I would much rather have spent the past six months working on another book, instead of making promo videos and managing an ad campaign. The second greatest lesson, then, is that self-publishing - for all the talk of authors using it as an easy route to seeing their work in print - is vastly harder that following the traditional path to publication. My sense is that with trade publishing persistence will eventually pay off, since its very much a numbers game, and sooner or later someone is bound to like your work - that is, so long as it's commercially viable. With self-publishing, however, it's entirely up to you to get your book out there before the readers' eyes, and up to them to determine whether it has merit. Every good review by an actual reader builds up an author's credibility, and it doesn't take a million dollar ad budget to get a good review if your work deserves it.

Still, I'd begun to wonder lately if I shouldn't resume the process of sending out queries to agents and editors, if only so that I can get my novel into brick-and-mortar stores. Because another thing I've come to see is that visibility is key to getting your book into readers' hands, and most readers like to browse the book store aisles, even if they buy their books online. I rarely buy a book at Barnes & Noble, but I still go there anyway, just to see what's on the shelf. Maybe it's the smell of all that paper. Maybe it's the neatly ordered ranks of glossy art. Maybe it's just hanging out with people I don't know, but who I know are just like me at least one significant way: we love to read. Either way, you can't deny the stimulative value of a store stocked full of the very thing you love, whether you're the buyer or the seller.

But back to the search for perspective. Ultimately I decided to make a list of the reasons why I opted for self-publishing in the first place, sort of a pros-and-cons of publishing from an independent author's point of view.
1. Self-dependence. It's the foundation of the American way of life. Ironically, while small business owners are admired and esteemed for their hard-working, independent values, self-published authors tend to be reviled and mocked as somehow failing to succeed, as if the corporate publishing model were the only one.
2. Self-control. As an independent publisher, I retain all rights and control over my work. Every aspect of its creation and production is up to me. Again, this is a two-edged sword, since it also means I have to do all the work. But as I enjoy doing it, and can, that's all the more reason why I should. Trade publishing requires turning over nearly all the decisions - creative or otherwise - to businessmen. Some of these they may be better suited to deal with than I, but certainly not all, and particularly with regard to the artistic choices which drew me to writing in the first place. Those I won't give up for any money. And speaking of money...
3. Higher profit margin. With literally hundreds - if not thousands - of middlemen inserted between the author and the reader throughout the traditional publication process, each of whom are paid or take a cut, there is very little left out of the final retail price for the author of the book. Standard royalties hover around 4-7% (with 14% begin about the upper end the biggest authors can expect), and the majority of books never earn out their royalty at all, meaning that authors tend to live from one advance to the next and never see another dime, since the book will likely be out of print within a year, and in the bookstore for even less. In contrast, I keep every penny my book brings in, and I decide how many pennies that will be.
4. Quicker publication time. Once you finish writing your masterpiece you want to see it into print as soon as possible, if not right away. But first you have to find an agent, and to do that you have to write up queries and send submissions, a process that at best will take many months, and more likely several years, and may never meet with success at all. Then, once you acquire an agent, they'll start the process all over with the publishers. Again, this will take many months at best, and could go on for years, and again result in nothing. But if it does, and you achieve that lofty goal and sign a trade contract, another year to eighteen months will pass before you see your book in print. Then, two years after you finished writing it (and hopefully have two more done by then) you go back mentally several years to where you were when it was first completed, and talk it up to anyone you can. Meanwhile, your mind is now entirely on another project which you will, of course, gladly interrupt or abandon at this point. After this, of course, the road will hopefully get easier, and the cycle of writing and publishing will more closely coincide. But that will only happen if your first book is a significant success. Otherwise, you'll have to undergo the process all over with the next one, because your agent may or may not deign to continue their association, and the publisher will be far less interested in losing money on you yet again. None of this, of course, applies to self-published authors, who can see their book in print within a month, and spend their time promoting it as they see fit before they move on to the next project, which has just as much chance as the one before.
5. Pride of ownership. Self-publishers are often derided as being driven by vanity. Firstly I would say that having struggled and succeeded in producing a finished novel they have every right to be proud of what they've achieved. Do onlookers mock the marathon runner who comes in last? Just to have finished is something. But I would also say that the very concept that drives the thought of self-publishing as somehow inferior is itself driven by vanity. After all, the motivation behind an author's claim to being published by "X" major trade is a statement of pride. It is my contention that half the reason authors want a contract with a trade publisher is so that they can boast about it to their friends. And more power to them. But self-publishing is about engaging readers, not editors. Which brings me to my next point...
6. Even if you get a major trade contract it doesn't mean you'll sell a single book, or in fact that your book is any good. It only means one reader thought it commercially viable, which is not the same thing at all. More and more these days commercial success equates to mediocre: easy enough for anyone to read and comprehend, and falling within a fairly narrow range of subjects for which the largest number of people show some interest, such as murder, suspense, and romance. Broad, general, vague. Which doesn't mean it isn't good. But unless it fits in this commercial niche it probably won't be published by the trades. And if it is it won't get a nickel for marketing. Which bring me to my most important point...
7. You still have to sell the book yourself. Unless you've got a fluke on your hands that will somehow beat the odds to become that one-in-a-trillion bestseller that somehow goes viral - which you can never plan or prepare for, let alone count on - you're going to have to get out there and peddle your wares yourself. The bigger platform you have the easier this will be, and the more success you're likely to have, but the vast majority of us just have to find a way to get our book into the reader's hands, and then keep at it. Therefore, the more venues an author can find to get their work in front of readers the better chance they'll have.
Now, this last is also an argument for approaching the major trades, since they potentially provide a lot of outlets - but you have to weigh that against all the other points just given. Is giving up control and profits worth getting a publisher imprint on the jacket spine? Will this get you any more exposure than you might get yourself? The truth is probably not. All a trade contract will get you is a listing in the quarterly catalogue (probably at the very back) and a little bit of clout when you go out to press the case yourself. The publisher might be able to get your book into B&N for three months, but it's up to you to keep it there.

The whole point is that either way it's a gamble and a lot of work. But with trade publishing the process is dependent on a lot of factors the author has no control over, and reliant on a lot of other people to get it done. This may be a good thing, depending on your outlook and your abilities. Frankly, I'd rather have a batch of lackeys do the grunt work for me. But I'm not Tom Clancy, nor will I ever be. The fact is that I prefer to do things myself, and always have. Sometimes there's a steep learning curve involved, and this is one of them. After pondering the matter, however, I'm more driven to continue than before.