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You Take the High Road, I’ll Take the Higher Road…

A few days ago, a question came to the email group for the Northwest Independent Editors Guild, a network of professional freelance editors who are both thoughtful and have very good grammar.

A member asked the question that plagues many modern authors: should I self publish or seek a publisher? More specifically, this editor wanted to know why there was so much antagonism in the discussion.

“I have never heard anyone complain at all about self-publishing photographers or artists of any other kind. But the notion of a self-publishing author seems to make some blood boil: What’s behind that? What does a traditional book-publishing experience offer the writer, and ultimately the reader, that a self-publishing experience takes away?”

I thought her comparison of writers to “self publishing” photographers or artists was an interesting one, and it did cast a positive light over the discussion. The emails started to fly, based partly on this fabulous article about The Martian and author Andy Weir, written by Editor Extraordinaire Alan Rinzler (who worked with Toni Morrison and Hunter S. Thompson, and is now a freelancer to the few and the very lucky).

Of course, how an author gets from manuscript to published book is my passion, as well as my bread & butter, so when I sat down to write a reply the words flowed. What follows isn’t totally organized, but it sums up my take on the debate, and also answers a few of the most common questions and misconceptions about a writer’s choices.

Shameless plug: I teach a full-day class on this topic, The Guide to Getting Published, where I fully dissect a writer’s choices in traditional and self publishing, and the practical steps and considerations that are involved in each. The next class is Saturday, November 21, through the University of Washington in Seattle’s Experimental College. Click here for more information or to register. 

So here goes: some unstructured thoughts on the publishing crossroads, and what authors need to know in order to choose wisely.

Photo by Carson Tolkmit

Photo by Carson Tolkmit


Wow, there’s so much to say about a writer’s publishing choices. I’ve worked deeply on both sides of the fence, and I’ve published my own work on both sides of the fence. Here are a few quick notes based on what I’ve seen, in no particular order:

The stigma about self publishing largely comes from the time when a self-publishing author didn’t have the same opportunities for distribution (in bookstores) that a publisher did. Even ten years ago, we called self publishers “vanity publishers” with good reason, because prior to about 2008 there was almost no viable business model for an author, on their own, to get a book into enough readers’ hands to make it financially profitable. Now, of course, that’s changed. The advent of Print on Demand and ebook technology (and Amazon, though not exclusively) made the distribution playing field much more even, to the benefit of both small independent presses and self publishing authors.

There’s still a stigma that self-published books have an inferior quality, and that can be blamed on the absolute typhoon of really bad self-pub titles. No one is saying that ALL self-pub titles are bad, of course.  There are beautiful, well-written, carefully edited self-published stories out there, written by authors who are dedicated to both craft and business, and those rise to the top (The Martian being one recent example). Some of the most strategic, intentional, and smart writers out there right now are self publishing by choice, so that they can control their own careers. Amazon reported that last year more than 100 self-published authors had each made more than $100,000 from their sales. But there are also THOUSANDS of writers who were rejected by traditional publishers and agents for good reasons, or who rushed their first manuscript draft into a book, because they could. There is, plainly put, a lot of crap out there, and it’s a shame that the self-publishing authors who take their careers ad their craft seriously get lumped in with it.

Which brings me to:

If an author is getting rejected by agents or publishers, it’s important to know WHY before deciding to self publish. Yes, traditional publishers pass on many manuscripts that have potential.  But if a writer gets a lot of form rejections and no personal feedback, chances are that the book itself still needs work. If an agent loves the work, but passes because of business reasons or market concerns, they’ll probably say so.

Self publishing should be a choice that a writer makes because they understand the opportunities and are willing to take the risks, not because it’s a “fallback plan.”

Self publishers do a lot of work, and take a lot of risks, and sometimes they get really defensive about those choices. The outspoken ones tend to feel the need to defend against those old “vanity” stigmas (while also drawing attention to themselves and building their own sales). A few of them have built their entire platform, it seems, on vilifying traditional (i.e. “legacy”) publishing, and any author who makes choices that are different than their own. The self pub evangelists point to all of the places where traditional pubs aren’t innovating (fair point) and the places where they screwed up /disappointed/let down authors (more situational, but it happens).

There’s not much to say about that; we live in a polarized society, where even the way we print books creates enemies.

Which brings me to:

Your choice as an author should largely be based on what kind of business you want to launch.

Self publishing is deciding to launch a business all on your own. A self-pub author is an entrepreneur, not only developing the content, but also acting as the communications department (editing), art department (cover and interior design, marketing materials), the business department (choosing distributors, vendors, setting prices for maximum profit, managing finances and accounting), the marketing department (copy writing, visibility building), and the sales department. They either must wear those hats or (more often) negotiate contracts with those who do. In exchange, they hold all of the control over how the book is released, and they enjoy all of the financial rewards of success.

Traditional publishing, on the other hand, is like entering into a legal partnership for a business. Each party agrees to perform certain tasks, and to share in both the risks and the rewards. The author provides the content and the ongoing platform/marketing. The publisher handles the logistics of making and distributing a book. There are risks to this agreement, as well. The success of a book depends on both parties doing their jobs, not to mention the arbitrary market swings, and they both share the financial rewards. (Traditional agents and publishers are swamped with submissions, and generally accept only about 1% of what they receive.)

There’s not really any evidence for the ideas that “nonfiction is good for self publishing/for ebooks but fiction is not” (or the other way around; I’ve heard both). An author needs to do more specific market research into THEIR topic and THEIR audience than that. For instance, certain areas of genre fiction (romance, mystery, thriller) sell mostly through ebooks now, but literary fiction and the bigger contemporary tomes still sell better through print. Print books, generally (obviously), sell better in brick-and-mortar bookstores. Young adult is an interesting case. While at least one study shows that teenage readers prefer hard copies, studying the Amazon Kindle bestsellers shows that YA books are some of the best sellers on the site. This is probably connected to how many adults now read YA. 

For nonfiction, I haven’t seen a study that’s put much rhyme or reason to whether print/ebooks, or self-publishing/traditional publishing change things, and that’s partly because “nonfiction” is such a broad category. Cookbooks are not history books are not memoirs. It’s all about YOUR audience; if you choose one path or another, can you reach them where you want to publish?

And finally, the real soapbox:

Every author, regardless of whether they partner with a publisher or not, needs to market themselves and their work. Just because you’re working with a publisher to produce books, you’re not excused from the rigors of marketing. And just because you’re not putting together a book proposal and trying to win a publisher’s attention doesn’t mean that you don’t have to think about your platform. A traditional publisher will look for writers who not only have good books, but also know how to connect with their readers. A self-publishing author must know how to promote themselves.

Okay, rant over. Bottom line: I wish we could all be civil about an author’s choices, and I hope that authors can make their decisions with a clear view of what that means.

(I don’t advocate any choice, in case that’s not clear. I think different paths work for different writers. I just want writers to make informed decisions.)




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