Inflammatory, clickbait-y title? CHECK.
Reckless disregard for the consequences of my dubious advice? CHECK.
Narcissism Level set to PRINCE? CHECK.
The stigma involved with self-publishing has lessened in recent years, but it's still there, and for good reason. A lot of self-published writing is shit. Not even the high-fiber, solid, corn-studded kind either. I'm talking weeks of having consumed nothing but cheap whisky and ramen noodles.
Why would you want your masterpiece to swim in that sewer? Traditional publishing is where the money, the fame, and the integrity is, right? Fuck if I know. I'm self-published.
From the little bit of research I've done before writing this post, the general consensus is that the right reasons for self-publishing look something like this...
1. You're writing for an extremely small niche. Maybe the book you've written is something that only your family would be interested in, or your local community. Or maybe it's something for a wider geographical audience, but limited by extreme specificity. I would have thought 'people who want to fuck bears' would fit into that category, but I've been proven devastatingly wrong on that point.
2. You've only got a month to live, and you want to get your work out there by any means possible. Shit, that's depressing. Let's move on.
3. You don't care about the money. Whatever you want to tell the world, you're willing to put it out there for free. I read that one on a couple of blogs, but I don't really get it. Why not just write a blog?
Whatever. This post isn't about the right reasons to self-publish. As the title states, I'm going to cover some of the generally accepted wrong reasons.
1. I'll show those bastards who rejected me!
Let's face it. This is the big one. We've collected a stack of form rejection letters from stupid literary agents sitting in their stupid ivory towers representing stupid books written by stupid stupidheads. What do they know? We know our book is awesome. Our moms said so!
There are a whole list of possibilities that your book keeps getting rejected. You're competing with a seemingly infinite number of submissions to a very limited pool of agents and publishers.
Maybe the ones you submitted to have too much on their plates already. Maybe you write in a genre they don't represent, and you didn't do your homework before submitting. Maybe they felt the planets weren't aligned just right for your book at the moment. But maybe, just maybe, your book is a huge pile of shit.
Statistically speaking, if you pick a random self-published book out of the ether, the 'pile of shit' possibility is the most likely one. But your book isn't one of those, is it? How can you be sure? Self-publish it and see what happens.
This may seem like horribly irresponsible advice. Aren't you risking contributing to the ocean of shit that's already out there? Might you be shooting yourself in the foot by having your name associated with this potential literary turd? My response to those two questions...
1. There's no stuffing that genie back in the bottle. The shit icecaps have melted, and the shit sea level has risen. Your shitty book isn't going to make a whole lot of difference. Market yourself a bit, make a couple of bucks, and see what the first few reviewers have to say. If they're all one and two star reviews making similar comments about the quality of your book, it might be time to face a harsh truth.
2. You can always unpublish it if it's that bad. Yeah, your name might stick in the memories of a few people who will make it a point to never ever by anything else written by you. But it's not like you're now known around the world as a shitty writer. That's the nice thing about the shit sea. Your terrible book all but guarantees your name will remain sadly obscure. Take the lessons you've learned, write something better, and you'll still have the whole world (minus the five people who left those reviews) to sell your next book to.
Another possibility that I didn't mention earlier is that maybe you've written a good and salable book, but it's too big a gamble for a major publishing house to consider. A lot of manpower, time, and money goes into launching a book the traditional way. Maybe they're sticking with safer bets. Styles, themes, and genres with better track records. It makes sense for them. I can't say for sure, but I suspect the rejections I collected before self-publishing Critical Failures had at least a little to do with the excessive swearing and toilet humor. I can understand them being a little skittish. But the book was written. I had everything to gain and nothing to lose. And now, in spite of those rejections, thousands and thousands of people have experienced the joy of reading about a half-orc who constantly shits himself.
2. Those fucking query letters.
On second thought, maybe my rejections had nothing to do with the content of my books, because there's every possibility that none of the agents I submitted to ever got past my sad excuse for a query letter.
If you've gotten serious about getting into the writing business, you know that if you want to get your work read by a literary agent, you need to introduce yourself and your work with a sparkling query letter. People spend so much time and effort trying to perfect this stupid letter, submitting it in forums to be reviewed and critiqued. I would guess that a lot of people put more care and consideration into their query letters than they do the work they're trying to sell. It boggles my mind.
Fuck all that. If I'm going to put that much work and time into something I'm writing, it's going to be something I plan to sell.
The way I see it, the literary agent is an employee of the writer. I've been to very few job interviews where I've required my potential employer to figuratively lick my balls before I agreed to work for him.
This is something that gets under my skin. I understand it's a practical step to sort some of the less professional (and subsequently less likely to produce quality writing) people out of the slush pile, but fucking hell. If there's an alternative to that query letter hell, that's the train I'm hopping on.
3. The sweet, sweet money.
If I publish my books on my own, I'll get to keep %70 of the royalties, rather than the piddly %15 - %25 I'd keep by going with a traditional publisher! Holy shit! %70 is, like, way more!
Put your hand down. I already know the argument. Big 5 publishers will sell more of your books than you can on your own. I've seen the condescending little equations.
(%70 x (very small number)) < (%15 x (very large number))
I'm not convinced. The "very small number" and "very large number" variables are what I have a problem with. There's really no guarantee of each.
I've done pretty well so far with my books. But am I doing as well as I would be if I had been picked up by a Big 5 publisher in the beginning? There's no way to know for sure, but I'm almost certain I wouldn't be doing nearly as well if that were the case.
When I decided to self-publish, I went into it whole hog. I got out there and pimped my shit out. I experimented with promotions, giveaways, whatever goofy ideas I could think of to get my books in front of readers' faces. Some things worked. Some didn't. That's the nature of experimentation.
If I'd gotten picked up by a "real" publisher early on, I might have just sat back and let them take care of it, trusting that they know how to market my book better than I could. I'd collect my $500 advance, which may never have paid out, and never seen another dime from my book.
Or maybe I'd be swimming in gold-plated hookers by now. Who knows?
My point is that the decision to self-publish actually gave me the motivation to get to where I am now. I couldn't be complacent, satisfied with the vindication of a publishing contract. I was going to learn the ropes, and take advantage of those higher percentages. I was going to change the equation.
(%70 x (very large number)) > (%15 x (very large number))
Am I up there with King, Rowling, Patterson, Cline? Of course not. But if you take a look at the average, mid-list Big 5 published author, I think I'm holding my own against them.
Was it luck? Maybe a bit. But most of the success I've enjoyed has come from pigheaded determination and clever use of the tools Amazon has provided me.
Whoa... getting a little full of myself there.
Resetting Narcissism Level to CHARLIE SHEEN.
4. What can those fancy-pants publishers do for my books that I can't do myself?
They can get your books into bookstores. That's about it. I make the lion's share of my sales via ebooks, and I'm fine with that. If anyone wants a paper copy, they're available. And my audiobooks have been pretty popular with listeners. If a bookstore wanted to sell my books, I'd be cool with that, but I'm doing just fine without them.
But a "real" publisher will pick up the cost of hiring editors, book cover designers, and all of that shit.
Yeah, and that's cool I guess. But I'd rather be in control of my own covers. I've read that there's a science to book cover design, and that you really shouldn't do it yourself unless you really know what you're doing.
I'd agree that there's a science to making the sorts of covers that have already proven effective at making books recognizable as belonging to certain genres, but I don't believe that the gamut of possibilities has been fully explored. Simple as they are, thought went into the design of my covers, as I've already discussed here and here. And I think they serve their intended purpose quite well.
As for editing, I kind of play it fast and loose. Perhaps more than I should. I do my best to self-edit, and I have a beta reader who does a much more thorough job than I do. But some mistakes fall through the cracks here and there. I haven't gotten a lot of complaints about it. I want to give my readers the best experience that I can, but I've found they're more concerned with the stories and the farting than they are with an occasional misplaced apostrophe.
I imagine this is the entry most of you will disagree with me the most strongly about. And you're right that editing and cover design are probably not things you want to take too lightly, but when I was starting out, I couldn't afford to pay professional prices for either of these services, so I just did my best. So far, I've been satisfied with the results.
5. Fuck it. Why not?
There's actually a very good answer to that question. First rights.
If you collect a stack of rejections from agents and publishers after trying to get your book traditionally published, you can fall back on self-publishing, as I discussed in the first entry.
However, if you self-publish first, and then change your mind, then you've kinda shot yourself in the foot. Most publishers don't want anything to do with your book if it's already been published somewhere else. Even if you unpublish it, you've already used up the "first rights". Unless your self-published book turns out to be a runaway indie success (in which case you're doing just fine without them), then no publisher is going to want to touch it.
But there's a flip side to that coin. Once you've signed on with a big publisher, your work belongs to them for the terms of the contract, as does most of the money it earns.
On second thought, I don't think "Fuck it. Why not?" belongs on this list. If you're trying to make a living at this writing thing, choices like these are ones you'll want to think long and hard about.
Let's not lose sight of the bigger picture, though. If you've written a shitty book that nobody wants to read (and statistically speaking, that's highly likely), then it won't matter what path you attempt to travel. Both ultimately lead to never being able to tell your boss that you'll have those reports on his desk as soon as he EATS YOUR ASS!
So keep reading. Keep writing. Keep improving your craft.