So, I decided to self-publish my book. But why? What benefit does it bring me?
It seems like the answer to this question should be complicated. And maybe it is, if you’re coming from a traditional publishing background and were taught the same things I was: I was always told that self-publishing could be a black mark on your record if you ever do want to publish with a bigger house later — after all, if you had to self-publish your work, was it good enough in the first place? If it was good, traditional publishers would have picked it up, right?
It’s a tiny bit more involved than that.
I want to preface all of this by saying that (of course), this is all simply my opinion. There are good takes and bad takes on both sides of the aisle. There is no “right way” to publish. In fact, that’s what I’m arguing against in this, for the most part. No two journeys are the same, and so the answers to this question sure as hell aren’t going to be the same. For some, traditional publishing works really well. For others, self-publishing is where they can shine. I don’t know if I’m doing any “shining,” but I have found a home in the Indie scene, and I’m excited for the future.
Indie publishing isn’t smol potatoes anymore
Let’s take a step back. We all know the “big five” traditional publishing houses, even if you don’t know you know: Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, Harper Collins, Macmillan, and Hachette. These are household names even if you’re not involved in the publishing industry. Most publishing business (around 90 percent) is done by these five companies, sometimes through smaller divisions (or ‘imprints’) within.
The sans-nuance take used to be that if your work wasn’t picked up by one of the big five, it probably wasn’t worth reading. Them’s the brakes.
However, the question of the quality of self-published works has become moot in the last several years (not to mention small-press publishing, which is the middle ground here and which I won’t spend a ton of time talking about). This is an entire industry — not a cottage industry — of folks with vibrant marketing plans, beautiful cover art, engaging narratives… folks who make real, tangible money (though I know it’s not all about that). It’s not just college kids making copies of their poetry-class chapbooks at the local print shop. The internet is full of stories about successful self-published authors. More than 300 million self-published books are sold each year, and that translates to over $1 billion worth of sales. This is a big business.
What does traditional publishing look like?
So, what am I talking about? What I am I doing differently with my decision to self-publish?
First, let’s talk about the publishing industry in general. The writing and publishing industry is simple, right? Not entirely.
(As a caveat, I am speaking in generals here. I know there are nuances, but I’m not going to do a deep dive. Other places can do that.)
- If you want to publish your work, you need an agent. An agent’s job is to shop around your work and get it in front of publishers. Submitting queries to agents takes time (and sometimes money).
- To get an agent, you often have to have a finished manuscript that has been edited and reviewed by professionals. This takes time and money.
- If you are talented (AND lucky) enough to score an agent, that person will probably also tell you to rewrite parts of your work. This also takes time and money (because then you should probably have it edited again).
- [Alternate small-press publishing step] If you don’t want to get an agent, you can open-submit your work. Some publishers don’t read unsolicited submissions, or only read them certain times of year. Small publishers are a great way to go if you don’t want to get an agent (or even if you do get an agent!), but the issue you’ll run into here is that these businesses are under-resourced and over-worked, and it’s a crapshoot on whether you will get a response in the next six months to a year. I have an unacknowledged submission in my Submittable account from 2013.
- If you snag a publishing deal (either with an agent or without) you will then be told to revise your work again. Again, time and money.
- Your book is published! Congrats! Now your job is promotion. The publisher will probably have some resources dedicated to promoting your book, but unless it’s the “next hot thing” (think Twilight or The Hunger Games or Gone Girl — all books that a million years ago heralded trends in their genres), there won’t be a lot of resources. It helps if you already have a huge social media following — which is something publishers definitely look at in Step 5 when deciding whether or not to contract with an author.
- Rinse, repeat.
Now, I’m sure this process can be fulfilling on its own. And you do come out with more resources for marketing and branding, maybe an advance, and the clout that a large publishing house can bestow! But even large publishing houses only have so many resources. They only have so much time and so much money to distribute among hundreds or thousands of writers and projects. Only so many hours to devote to reading submissions. Only so much patience for new authors and their questions. Only so much.
And if “it’s really hard” was the only deterrent, that would still be valid, but a little wimpy. But the fact of the matter is, the publishing industry has always been a boys’ club of who’s who, and the big houses are a study in capitalistic tradition. The further I get from graduate school and from the rose-colored glasses of youth, the more I don’t necessarily want to participate in this particular tenet of capitalism. I’m not interested in making money for companies that consistently seek to undermine the free distribution of information. I’m not interested in participating in the boys’ club. I enjoy rubbing elbows, but I’ve been practicing for some time (in my professional life), and I’m not good at it.
(Of course, there is a whole other slew of issues with putting energies into Amazon, and, after all, the e-commerce giant also does not need my money or support. This can certainly become a ‘choose your poison, no ethical consumption’ debate, and I’m not trying to obfuscate that.)
I used to want to work in publishing, thought that the love of reading and writing (and two degrees in words) was enough to propel me in that direction. Now, not so much. Now, I would just like to write my words and publish them if I feel like it. I enjoy the career and life that I’ve carved out for myself over here, and noveling is a nice side quest to turn to for creative sustenance.
How is self-publishing different?
Self-publishing is also a study in few resources — in a completely different direction. Your resources only have to accommodate your needs, instead of a big publishing house accommodating thousands of authors, but most folks who self-publish don’t necessarily have excess resources to dedicate to writing, editing, revising, designing, cover art, sometimes audio narration, and — the big one — marketing and advertising.
Self-publishing can be an independent activity, but there are ways to bring community into the process. For instance, I’ve joined several writing/publishing Discord servers, and the simple way of knowing that we’re not alone in taking on this endeavor is enough to give me hope. And there are so many tools out there for independent authors that didn’t exist even 10 years ago. It’s not just Amazon anymore, either. IngramSpark, Barnes&Noble, Draft2Digital, and many more companies are helping authors get their work in front of readers.
You get to do your own formatting, create your own eBooks, and design your own covers. You invest in ISBNs. You come up with your own marketing shenanigans. You make your own Tiktoks. You post your own Instagram stories. You’re your own agent — you contact booksellers to do readings and signings.
Why am I self-publishing?
It sounds like a lot of work, right? That’s because it is!
To me, though, it has also been liberating. I can put in exactly as much effort as I want to, without worrying about my schedule or mental health or earning out an advance. I will do exactly as well as the effort I am capable of putting into this thing.
I’m still learning! Something I’ve come to understand about myself is that I am better at something the second time around — and that’s okay. Lots of learning opportunities with this first book launch. I had a couple months’ runup to the big day, and could have done more to promote it to get preorders. I’ll know more of how to do that for next time. I also could be doing more to promote it now that it’s out (I’ve got some things up my sleeve, just stay tuned for that!). In one of the aforementioned Discord servers, someone posted a “general timeline” for self-publishing your work, aiming to give folks a rough estimate for when you should start promoting, and when you should have cover art done, and when you should set presales, et cetera.
I’m grateful for this opportunity. I’m grateful that people I love (and people I don’t even know!) have trusted me enough to let me tell them a story. So, if you made it this far, thank you. Thank you for giving me and my story a chance!