You’ve written a novel, edited it, shared it with beta readers and edited some more. As far as you can tell, it’s good to go. Now what?
You sure don’t stick it in a drawer. Novels want to be read; that’s their nature. So you have two basic choices: look for a publisher, which in the U.S. starts with a search for a literary agent, or publish it yourself. If you’re like a lot of other aspiring novelists, you turn to the internet for guidance.
And what you find is an awful lot of people talking trash about mainstream publishers. Messianic advocates of self-publishing predict the industry’s imminent demise and rail against bloodsucking agents and publishers. Writer and industry critic Barry Eisler recently tweeted that “The primary function of the AAR [Association of Authors Representatives] and the Authors Guild is to defend the legacy publishing industry,” and said of Scott Turow, president of the Authors Guild, “His real concern seems to be protecting legacy publishers at the expense of the authors whose interests he claims to represent.” Successful self-published writers who sign contracts with major publishers are excoriated as traitors to the cause. Michael Stackpole, another self-publishing advocate, recently called writers in mainstream houses “house slaves.” As “indie” publishing grows more popular, companies designed to profit from the frustration and impatience of aspiring writers jump on the bandwagon. “Cast off your publishers and be free! Control your own fate! Pay us and we’ll show you the way!”
It gets old. One sad thing about all that overheated rhetoric is that it obscures whatever valid criticisms analysts like Eisler have about the industry. People tend to stop listening when you call them house slaves or bloodsucking goons. I myself have been called a dinosaur for suggesting that novelists try to sell their work to established publishers before considering self-publishing, even though the goal of most (not all) self-publishers is to land such a contract.
For people who work in publishing, the invective is just bizarre. I’ve known hundreds of agents, editors, writers and publishers, and I promise you most of them could earn a better, easier living in another business. The bottom line matters in mainstream publishing, as it does in any business; but people really are drawn to this industry for love of books and in the hope of discovering and facilitating wonderful new voices.
What worries me is that writers who don’t really know publishing are being misled, often by companies with a financial interest in doing so.
I should say right up front that I’m not unbiased. I spent my career working in mainstream (aka trade or commercial) publishing: the type that pays writers for the right to publish their work. I’ve also been published by mainstream publishers, including Simon & Schuster and Viking/Penguin, who are publishing my upcoming novel in 2013. I came up in this industry at a time when the only self-publishing was called vanity publishing and disdained by professionals.
But times change. As President Obama used to say about gay marriage, my views on self-publishing are evolving. As a writer, I’m thrilled that the option exists. Self-publishing offers writers choices and flexibility they never had before. As models for success emerge, the phenomenon may eventually effect the balance of power between publishers and writers, which right now is titled heavily toward publishers. It’s already ideal for certain applications, including niche non-fiction and the reissuing of authors’ backlists. For fiction writers like Amanda Hocking, who produce good genre books at a prodigious rate, self-publishing can be very profitable. Traditionally published, well-established writers have also made profitable transitions to self-publishing. Right now, though, these writers are outliers.
Some of my writing students have gone on to publish with mainstream publishers, and others have self-published, and the former group was certainly happier with the outcome than the latter. This is admittedly a small sampling, but a recent survey, conducted by Dave Cornford and Steven Lewis for Taleist and published under the title NO GOLD RUSH, suggests that it’s fairly typical. According to the survey, 75% of all royalties generated by self-published books went to the top 10% of writers; and half of all self-published writers earned less than $500 a year. Of course, it’s not all or even primarily about money. As one of my students pointed out, if a self-published writer sells only 50 copies, that’s 50 more readers than she’d have had if she hadn’t published at all. It’s a valid argument. Nevertheless, for most fiction writers trying to break into print, self-publishing has serious disadvantages that its most fervent advocates (including many who are hawking services) fail to disclose. These include:
- Gatekeeping. There is none in self-published books, and for me, as a prodigious buyer of books, that’s a big problem. Anyone with a few dollars in his pocket can upload a book onto Amazon, regardless of quality. I’m not saying that good books aren’t occasionally self-published, or bad books commercially published, but unless you’ve read through an agent’s slush pile, you have no idea how sloppy and amateurish books can be. Agents and editors serve a very useful winnowing function for which there is no equivalent in the self-publishing industry.
- Editing. I’ve published eight novels, and every one of them is significantly better than it would have been without the skilled help of an editor. Most published writers would say the same. Yes, self-published writers can hire editors, but the good ones are expensive. Relatively few writers can afford to pay thousands of dollars for professional editing.
- Professional book design and cover art. Writers can hire freelancers and may be well advised to do so. According to the survey cited above, self-published writers who hire professional editors and designers sell more than those who did not. Of course, that adds to the expense. Mainstream-published writers get the services of top professionals for free.
- Marketing, public relations, and advertising. If you have a vigorous online presence, a popular blog, twitter following, etc., you’re in a good position to help your book, whether it is mainstream or self-published. But if you were publishing your own book, how would you like the services of a Simon & Schuster marketing specialist or a Viking book publicist? What would that be worth? Traditionally published writers receive their services as part of the deal. All writers these days are expected to help promote themselves, but having professionals on your team is a huge multiplier.
- 5. Distribution and Sales. Distribution used to be the single biggest problem with self-publishing, but now Amazon, Barnes & Noble’s and other online stores have made it possible for any writer to upload e-book versions of their work. However, self-published writers still find it nearly impossible to get into brick and mortar stores, including Walmart and Costco, which sell a growing percentage of print books. Getting published (as opposed to self-published) doesn’t guarantee big sales, but in addition to print sales, a certain level of library sales is common and, for the major houses, almost automatic. Library sales alone represent more books sold than most self-publishers will ever attain. Being published also positions you for other good things to happen: reviews in mainstream and industry publications, most of which do not review self-published work, nominations for awards, foreign and other subsidiary rights sales.
Self-publishing offers instant gratification. You write a book, and a month or so later it’s in your hands or on your Kindle. The process of selling to a mainstream publisher takes much longer and usually requires repeated goes at the work. When J.K. Rowling first started writing the Harry Potter novels, self-publishing was not an option. The first book was rejected by numerous agents and a dozen publishers. Throughout that period, she continued to work on the book and improve it. After Bloomsbury bought the novel for £1500, it underwent further editing. The book so many of us came to love, which launched a series and an empire, was a much improved version of the book Rowling had finished two years earlier. What if she’d published that first draft straight to Kindle?
Most published writers have an unpublished early book or two in their drawers, and they’ve lived to tell the tale. My first novel was never published, and though it hurt at the time, I learned from the experience. My second and much better novel sold to publishers in three countries. Writing’s like any craft: it takes lots of practice to get good at it, and there’s usually a period of apprenticeship. Instant gratification is, well, gratifying…but it comes at a cost.