New writers and the lure of self-publishing

Sure, we hear a great deal about self-publishing from established writers, agents, and editors. Most tend to agree that it’s not the most brilliant idea to go bandying your first ever work about. At least if you intend to make a career out of it later. (For a good idea of when it is/isn’t a good idea, you can check out Christina Baker Kline’s “To Self-Publish or to Not Self-Publish“)

But I think, however, much of this information goes unheeded because, from my experience, new writers are the most susceptible to this trend. Surely you don’t see Stephen King uploading his latest. But why is this? Here’s a few reasons I think might contribute to why new writers are so tempted by self-publishing.

The afterglow is strong. Finishing that first book is a trippy experience; it’s like a drug. You’re on top of the world, you feel accomplished and incredible, and you’re ready to present your case to posterity. But, wait. Hold on a second… Sure, writing a book is a great accomplishment, and certainly not something that everyone is able to do in a lifetime. But lots of other writers well, um, write books. And many first novels never see the light of day, for good reason. Some new writers, however, just want to get the ball rolling. After leafing through the lastest writer’s guide they’re just too overwhelmed to know where to start, so they bypass the middleman and go straight to print.

The vanity of the printed word. They don’t call them vanity presses for nothing. In an age of digital media, perhaps this is losing its luster a bit, but I think plenty of new writers have that soft, romantic view of seeing their book “in print” for the first time. And rather than shop the book around and wait for the publishing business to catch up, they just go all-in. They’ve been waiting years to see the looks on the faces of their families when they open that book and, well, now they can do it, and are willing to compromise a lot to get a little.

Everyone’s heard of somebody who… got a book deal/was rejected 100 times and is now a Bestseller/made it big/spoke at the White House… because they self-published. Yes, sometimes it can happen. But what most of these people who “made it” after self-publishing have in common is either very good writing or unique approach. And, sad to say, but much of what is being self-published is neither.

They think they’re being badass. Sure, there’s something almost subversive about the self-publishing movement, especially for those who have had bad experiences with the publishing industry. But, well, it is a business. And like any business, writers who want to be successful have to learn to sink or swim–or find smaller tributaries that might get them in the right general direction but, chances are, will just end up causing erosion along the way… I agree with Jeff VanderMeer that, in a decade or so there’s a high liklihood that self-publishing will be more like indie record labels (which makes me wonder what small presses will be…). But until then, the best way to get a book published remains the same: be a professional, play the game, get ‘er done. Unless you don’t care what happens to your book. In which case, you’re not really being subersive just… well, kinda dumb.

They think that publishing is a lottery. And that if their book is “out there” somewhere, it’ll get picked up. The hard truth is that the publishing industry is nothing like a lottery. It’s a biased, trend-based, complex business where dozens of people make decisions that most often, don’t include you. Sure, it may seem like publication is a crap shoot. But most published writers will tell you it’s damned hard work, waiting, stubbornness, and a handful of luck tossed in. Being self-published, in most cases, won’t endear you to publishers or agents.

Many new writers are just plain impatient and/or ignorant. Instead of getting on with writing, they are continuing to flaunt their one draft. They feel entitled and special, and they’ve spent so much time writing that one book that they can’t even consider waiting more for the whole publishing machine to deal with the book. (For a great insight into a writer’s timeline, check out John Scalzi’s recent post: “Why New Novelists are Kind of Old, or Hey Publishing is Slow“) New writers are sometimes just not ready to accept that.

All that said, “self-publishing” means a lot of different things to different people. I’ve podcasted The Aldersgate over at Alderpod for a little more than a year, presenting the draft in hopes that people would respond, comment, critique. What ended up happening? People have treated it much  more like a final piece than I ever would have considered. There’s something very permanent about that approach, that I, as a new writer to the internet at the time I started, really didn’t anticipate.

Having writing available is a good thing, almost always. I’ve had more hits to the short story on my site, “Castledeck and the Arabella” than most of my other pages. It even inspired someone to do a recording of it themselves! It was a story I wrote specifically for the site–a giveaway. I had thought about doing that with the entirety of The Aldersgate, but decided against it after some consideration. That too, would have been another type of self-publishing, and even more permanent than a podcast, where listeners only have access to audio.

No, I’m not published yet. But I’m not rushing in with guns blazing. I’m not worried about rocking the short story market mostly because I write novels, primarily. I spend my time doing that, getting better, and kind of waiting. Yeah, really exciting, right? In the meantime, I’m celebrating the little victories along the way, and meeting awesome (and some not-so-awesome) people and just learning about the industry.

Inevitably people have asked me (knowing that I’ve written three novels in the past year) if I will self-publish. Even non-book people seem to think this is a logical next step. My answer? Give me a decade. I’m only 28! If nothing happens by the time I’m in my 40s, maybe it’s time to look for a new career. But in the mean time I’m doing my damnedest to do it right…

  • http://Www.wickermanstudios.com Park Cooper

    Isn’t the reason Steven King isn’t doing it because he tried it some years ago and it flopped rather badly because the culture wasn’t used to such things yet?

    • http://www.aldersgatecycle.com Natania

      @park Actually, I had no idea. I used Mr. King as a random example, I suppose. Just making the point that most established writers aren’t jumping to get their books into Lulu…

  • http://www.scottmarlowe.com Scott Marlowe

    I think in many ways the traditional route to getting published is changing. Look at Amazon with their Kindle reader and growing publishing arm. They already own the book retail market, so how long before they begin dictating conditions to the publishers (as Walmart did to their suppliers). The fact that a hardcover costs $25 or so is ridiculous. Amazon can drive that cost down to near zero via electronic distribution. Sure, for now, not everyone wants to read on a digital reader, but given time (and as older generations die off), digital readers will become more and more mainstream. I’ll even go so far as to predict a time when children grow up in a world without paper books! OK, that’s a bit off-topic… anyway, I think the route of self-publishing is losing some of the negativity. JA Konrath has been blogging a lot lately about the Kindle and how it has the potential to break down the traditional publishing paradigm. I have, too, but he’s a published writer, so his words carry more weight than mine. ;-)

    • http://www.aldersgatecycle.com Natania

      @scottmarlowe Oh, absolutely! I agree with you. It is changing, and there’s a lot of really exciting things happening in the way of publishing–especially in the digital aspect (not to mention things like Creative Commons, etc). I think my point is that new writers, unpublished writers, are often too quick to self-publish and, in the end, it can be detrimental to their careers. If we move from paper to digital, publishing will still be a business, no matter what. New writers often have big dreams and yet are resistant to the work involved getting those dreams realized, and the short of it is: self-publishing isn’t a cure-all! :)

      • http://www.scottmarlowe.com Scott Marlowe

        Agreed! We still have to maintain quality, and I could see how self-publishing could essentially jump over some of the hard work it takes to achieve that quality.

  • http://www.christinabakerkline.com bakerkline

    Hi Natania — I’m so glad you saw the conversation on self-publishing on my blog. I would be really thrilled if you’d consider adding any of this as a comment — or even as an additional post — to the conversation on A Writing Year.

  • http://www.marchbooks.com marchbooks

    You raise some valid points, but I think you have overlooked the upside to self-publishing. First of all, new technology has brought self-publishing options to a new level.

    Contrary to popular belief, self-publishing is not necessarily the easy option, but it can be the best option, for a number of reasons.

    One of those reasons is control, control, control. If you want to retain control of your baby: title, cover, format and even content, the only way you can do this is by self-publishing.

    Another reason is compensation. This book is your creation. You labored for six months, a year or more to bring your story to life. Now you are going to step back, with your hat in your hand, accepting the 5% that the publisher is willing to give you. For most first time authors, any advance will probably be meager and there will likely be little if any budget for promoting your book.

    So who, I need to ask, is publishing out of vanity?

    There is, without question, a lot of bad prose out there – books that should never have seen a printing press. But, you should judge each project on its own merits. Condemning all self-published books is like condemning all cars because there are some bad drivers.

    The new technology that is available is a tool, nothing more. Some will use it with skill and others will chop off some fingers. I’m not, nor would I ever, argue that self-publication is for everyone, but it is a viable option that merits consideration.

    http://marchbooks.wordpress.com/2009/07/20/pod-the-greener-side-of-publishing/

    http://www.marchbooks.com

    • http://www.aldersgatecycle.com Natania

      @marchbooks I believe it can be a good idea. I’m just not convinced it’s “there” yet, if you know what I mean. And the post was really more for new writers, totally unpublished writers, who feel the need to run to LuLu the second their book is finished. I feel that the life of the book, in some ways, really starts when it’s done. And for people looking for a quick buck, self-publishing isn’t the way. Not unless you want to tirelessly champion your cause, and sink a good amount of time and money into it.

      The publishing industry has a lot of room to grow, and I do see self-publishing as a threat–especially in a few years. The way publishing works, for instance, with its huge losses, destroyed copies, etc, is just a broken practice. Technologies with total print on demand, for instance, are already in practice in some areas! I just worry that new writers feel like they can slight the (admittedly flawed) system by self-publishing, when in some cases, it actually diminishes their chances for future publishing-house publication.

      Anyway! I’m not a control freak, and so it doesn’t bother me. But again, I’m just starting out, myself, wading out into the fray and dangling my books around hoping to get a bite. Sometimes it really is like fishing…

      • http://www.marchbooks.com marchbooks

        I agree with you. What it comes down to is this – no matter what stage you are at or which path you take, you have to do the work. The overnight success is a fantasy.

        I went through the whole process. I didn’t stay in the submission stage for very long though. For me, my decision was based on the thought that if I was going to put this much time and effort into getting someone else to publish my books, then I might just put that effort into furthering my goals for myself.

        I don’t regret that time. I learned a lot about the business and some of the conferences I went to provided me with some invaluable knowledge and experience. The turning point for me was when I found writing.com and started posting my writing there. The sheer volume of positive feedback I got there convinced me that the people I was really interested in reaching (the common guy, not the literary agents) were enthusiastic about my writing. So, it was off to the races.

        What I find exciting about the self-publishing field today is that it can conform to any need or energy level. You can stay totally hands off and let someone else do everything for you (not my choice, because these are my babies and where they are concerned, I am a total control freak) or you can essentially become a small publisher, in every sense of the word. These are doors that were not open to us only a few short years ago.

        It is an exciting time to be a writer, but that does not absolve us of the duty to write the best and cleanest prose we can. Sadly, a lot of people don’t take that part of the commitment seriously and that, in my opinion, is what gives self-publishing a bad rep.