I had a long, involved email exchange recently with some writer friends scattered around the world: print authors, digital authors, authors working for commercial contracts, authors who’ve gone almost exclusively to self-publishing. We all came to mostly the same conclusion:
We think the future, or at least the near-future to five or ten years out, is hybrid.
Commercial AND self-published. Digital, print, and multimedia. A mix of genres and platforms, opening up new opportunities and responsibilities. Some of us are more ready than others, I think.
In the commercial publishing industry, there’s been a knee-jerk loathing of self-publishing for at least the last thirty years, often equating it with vanity (author pays all costs) publishing. With the high-profile successes of some self-published and small-press-published authors, there’s a new awareness of self-publishing’s validity. Platforms like Amazon Kindle/Createspace, Smashwords, D2D, and others have made self-publishing far easier and cheaper than when I started writing in 1987.
Even formerly conservative, pro-commercial online writing sites are now showing real insight and efforts to include useful self-publishing information.
Self-publishing done right can be an incredible boost for a writer, and far more lucrative per-copy than many commercial contracts could ever be. It can be a faster process than most commercial publishing. But, just as in commercial publishing, there are no guarantees.
Self-publishing’s main downsides: market readiness and effective marketing.
This first part will discuss a manuscript’s readiness to be published.
I’ve written about this before, but it needs repeating for emphasis:
A lot of self-published writing is crap. It’s just math, folks: more stuff being published + ease of publishing = a large proportion of substandard products.
A staggering amount of text and imagery is self-published every day on many different platforms, especially as digital e-books. A great deal of it would probably have never survived the slush pile at a major literary agency or a commercial publisher. I dare you to read lots of sample chapters on Kindle or Smashwords, and tell me differently! I frequent half-a-dozen online writing sites, and I’m always saddened whenever I hear some version of ‘Down with the gatekeepers! Down with the haters! They couldn’t see my genius! I’ll show them and self-publish!’
In my personal experience, those claims usually are not backed up by genius. The claimants are often floundering in both Golden Word and Dunning-Kruger Syndromes, with an added dose of paranoid outrage that keeps them locked in the bubble of their own delusions.
When writers publish too early, without useful information on how various forms of publishing work, they tend to do several things that might ultimately swamp their writing career. They rely on readers to be editors who point out mistakes via reviews, after which the writers publish new editions. (No, please don’t do this. Your readers will give up on you when you keep waffling through the same book.)
Such writers tend to pick unprofessional cover art and fonts, further eroding reader interest. (No matter how much you love them, script fonts are not always your friend.)
If they don’t self-publish, they tend to pick low-quality small publishing houses on the theory that ‘they’re the only ones who will take me’ and ‘at least the work will be out there’.
When called out in bad or neutral reviews, unprepared authors can lash out in the most spectacularly career-damaging ways. (Not all publicity is good publicity.)
I can’t post snippets from it, but I just read an honest and fearless discussion from one author who realized what she’d done wrong and how it negatively impacted her writing sales. Being a literal sort, she took the advice ‘Build a backlist and make money from it’ without analyzing a personal strategy. Over five or six years, she published dozens of self-admittedly substandard works with small publishers who had abysmal track records in editing, cover art, marketing, and sales histories. She grew as a writer, but found those early books were giving her a lackluster rep in the market. She was making less and less money on new sales and her backlist. The only solution was to regain rights for the oldest books, ruthlessly edit them, and self-publish them while aiming new work at the best possible commercial houses. Time will tell if she can pull her writing – and its income – out of its disastrous stall.
Writing for publication means editing for publication. Most of us are not immediately qualified to know when we’ve effectively polished a first draft, let alone edit it. Those skills take time to learn, hubris to outgrow, and money to outsource.
I can give my own boring example.
In December of 2013 I was ready to self-publish a 17K fantasy novella. I’d signed up with Amazon, Omnilit, and other platforms. I’d mucked around with a potential cover. I knew I needed editing, so I contacted a very skilled and legendary editor familiar with the genre (based on a contact I’d made through a writing contest years earlier). She gave me a sample read and a great price break, along with a gentle warning about some of my writing. It wasn’t ready for a final edit. It needed structural work first, and I probably couldn’t afford her help on that.
I backed off from self-publishing, did a partial rewrite, and sent the piece out to two commercial markets. This was sneaky and horrible, because I had a feeling neither would take the piece – but I wanted more information. Both editors said no. Both gave me what I really wanted: short but personalized crits that told me I was on the right path, just not ‘there’ yet. (I don’t advise this as a constant or early strategy. Do this enough times and editors will begin to remember you as a pest.)
I contacted two very strong beta readers, who told me the same thing in more detail. I contacted my agent, because a major SFF publisher had just launched a novella imprint that might make it worth her time. My agent read my work and concurred with the beta readers and the two magazine editors. Even better, she gave me precise areas where I needed improvement. Too much telling, not enough showing, not enough emotion, not enough worldbuilding and too much infodumping of what was there…the list was brutal but accurate.
That novella is now nearly finished at 48K, and far stronger than the piece I would have self-published last year. Even if it goes nowhere in the commercial market, it will be a much better self-published piece for the extra time I’ve spent on it.
And yet, I see so many self-published authors avoiding that same work and publishing things too soon, then wailing about bad reviews and low (or no) sales. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say in IT coding. Start out with the best manuscript (and cover, and marketing plan) you possibly can.
If you can’t tell what that is, enlist qualified, experienced help…and please learn from them. Be honest about your strengths and weaknesses. Be suspicious of cheerleaders on both sides of the self-pub/commercial debate (they often have their own agendas which may not involve helping you!) There are no guarantees in this business, but your best efforts can help you far more than no effort at all.