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…