Five reasons why self-publishing isn’t for me

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When you say you’ve written a novel, it’s common enough to be asked whether you’ve considered self-publishing. I usually mumble something non-committal about it being too much to take on, not the direction I want to take. But what is really holding me back?

Think of the pre-published author as a wannabe sailor. Actually want-to-be doesn’t cover it. This is someone who has dedicated years to developing their knowledge of sailing, they’ve bought all the gear, read all the books and bored everybody around them with their endless nautical talk. The only problem is they’ve never actually been out on the water.

Down at the harbour is the old respected yacht club. This is the gateway to sailing, the place where real sailors congregate. There are experts on hand, hot showers, a state-of-the art marina and opportunities to crew on fantastic yachts every day.

The sailing enthusiast grew up hearing about this yacht club and their only wish is to join the yacht club and become a real sailor. But the yacht club is exclusive. There is a long waiting list and the club selects only a handful of new members every year.

Why not just buy a little sailing dingy and launch it from the public slipway at the other end of the harbour? They’ll have to get the boat there themselves, carry it down to the water and drag it back up again. There may not be any wind the day they manage to get all this together but they will be sailing. They will have their place on the ocean. Why sit on the shore and wait when they might never get a chance to sail at all?

Here are five reasons why the single-handed option doesn’t appeal to me.

1. Drop in the ocean. Self-publishing has become hugely popular with close to 450,000 titles published per year! This massive democratisation of the sector has created legions of new readers and new writers and that’s a great thing. But it also means an incredibly crowded space for authors to be trying to catch a wind. Most of those little dinghies are still stuck inside the harbour and this is a frustrating place to be. Only a tiny minority make it out into the bay where they can pick up speed.

2. All hands on deck. Self-publishing requires strong project management and entrepreneurial skills and there is no avoiding the out-of-pocket costs, knowledgeably listed by Jann Alexander in this recent post:

Publishing is a teamwork-based business best navigated with the help of an agent. Do you really want to have to sort out the cover design, proofreading, printing and distribution on top of writing your next book? And I haven’t even mentioned marketing.

3. Pieces of eight. This is the part that gives me the shivers. The people I see who appear to be making a success of the self-publishing route have a big author platform and often a big personality to go with it. All their social media is strategic. They are manically engaging with people not based on any organic process of interaction but because they are pumping energy into an online presence that has to work for them – ALL THE TIME. Sometimes intelligent and interesting, sometimes inspiring but also a little bit scary.

4. Ship shape. No matter how much has changed in the publishing game in the past decade, having one’s work chosen by the industry as worthy of publication is still the most important measure of quality. It’s not that established publishing houses aren’t guilty of publishing poorly written books or that masterpieces can’t be found among the half a million. It’s just that self-publishing is an open door and that unavoidably lowers the value of the group.

5. Deep water. From what I’ve seen, self-published authors fall into two categories. There are the crusaders for whom self-publishing is a quasi-political movement and there are the pragmatists who have opted for self-publishing as the only viable way to get their book read, usually after trying and failing to go the traditional publishing route. The pragmatists are making the best of things and may even turn into crusaders in time but underneath it all you can sense the strain.

Obviously I’ve stretched the nautical analogy to the absolute limit at this point and probably managed to reveal how little I know about both sailing and publishing in one fell swoop. I’m aware that publishing your own work takes a lot of courage and dedication and that this discussion can be quite divisive. What are your thoughts? Is it possible to like one option without loathing the other?

(Please check out Marc Kuhn’s response to this post on his blog. A former radio journalist, Marc lives in Florida and is the author of two children’s novels and two adult novels.)

10 good things about not being published

Take a seat (© Clare O'Dea)
Take a seat (© Clare O’Dea)

Writing is a very private and personal affair; publishing is anything but. I seem to be hearing a lot lately about published writers living not so happily-ever-after once their first book is out there. They have to deal with changes they were pressured into making, a title or cover they don’t like, poor sales or reviews, stressful book promotion and the pressure to get the next book written or accepted.

On some level I must be taking this in and yet it has about the same effect as hearing about someone else’s unhappy marriage, when you and your chosen one are still love-struck and kissing on a park bench.

So just to celebrate the journey, here are ten great things about writing while it’s all about passion:

1. Just the Two of Us: You spend a lot of time together and you’ve been through a lot. The characters have become real people whose unfolding stories keep you from ever feeling bored. After that long process of building a relationship sentence by sentence, you are protective of your manuscript. Nobody who isn’t hand-picked by you will get to comment on your work. You’re slightly unhinged about the book but who cares, it’s mine, all mine!

2. Dream a Little Dream: If you haven’t tried to get published yet, you haven’t tasted failure and this is the time when you can still dream big. On your first query letter, the agent will instantly get back to you asking for more and it will be love at first sight for him or her. This will be followed by a bidding war, a fabulous launch party, the big reaction, the prizes, translations, interviews. Who will play your lead character in the hit movie?

3. Sitting on the Dock of the Bay: There has to be a certain self-imposed pressure or you would never have got as far as finishing the book, but it is self-imposed and therefore adapted to your reality and routine, and, well, if you keep extending your deadline, no one minds but you.

4. Wild World: This may not apply if you have started submitting your novel but before that phase, you are delightfully naïve about the whole publishing business. That innocence is something you’ll probably miss someday.

5. All By Myself: You know the argument, partly because successful self-published authors are very vocal about it. Agents are the gatekeepers to a moribund publishing industry that excludes good books from reaching the audience they deserve. You can spend your life crying over your forty rejection slips or take matters into your own hands and bring out your own book. Better still, don’t even bother submitting to agents and publishers, put your energy into self-publishing and reap the rewards.
When you are still writing you can ignore this whole debate, as it’s only academic – for now.

6. It Had to Be You: Somewhere out there is someone who will like your work, believe in what you do and put their heart and soul into getting your book off the ground. You haven’t met them yet, but when you do find the one, it will all have been worthwhile. In the meantime, you can dream about getting the call.

7. You’re So Vain: If you haven’t had the good fortune of having your book chosen by an agent or a publisher then you won’t have experienced the begrudgery backlash that inevitably comes with success. Even writing buddies you laboured uphill with may not be immune from thinking sour thoughts about you.

8. Learning to Fly: Writing your first novel is special because it’s an intense learning process, and that makes it very interesting. You can do the learning in advance or learn as you go about point-of-view, antagonists, show-don’t-tell, foreshadowing, revising. Either way it’s a pleasure.

9. With a Little Help from My Friends: Since I started writing two years ago I have met many wonderful people – some in person and some through social media – who have been bitten by the same bug. Some I now count as friends, whose support and understanding light the way on this sometimes lonely journey.

10. When I Wish Upon a Star: Before you write a book, there has usually been a long period of carrying around that wish and doubting your ability ever to achieve it. That fantastic feeling of satisfaction when you get to the last page is for keeps, and it is independent of the publishing outcome.

Did I miss anything folks?

Aspiring writers in a ‘holding pattern’

Permission to land?
Permission to land?

I’ll be posting a review of Lisa Genova’s remarkable first novel Still Alice over the weekend. In the meantime, some interesting advice from the author.

‘I know so many aspiring writers who are sitting in a holding pattern, with a work completed, waiting to find a literary agent. They’re stuck, unable to give themselves permission to write the next book because they’re waiting to find out if their work is “good enough”, waiting to find out if they’re a “real writer”. This state of waiting, of not writing and self-doubt, is the worst state any writer can be in.

My advice is this: If you don’t find a literary agent falling into your lap quickly enough, if you feel like your work is done and is ready to be shared with the world, self-publish. Give your work to the world. Let it go. And keep writing. Freedom!’

Genova’s powerful novel about Alzheimer’s was a special case, which followed a unique path to publication. Before the book was published, the Harvard neuroscientist contacted the marketing department of the Alzheimer’s Association, thinking they might be interested in some way, “perhaps endorsing it or providing a link to it from their website”. She sent them the link to the book’s website, which she’d created before the book was published. The marketing rep got in touch, asking for a copy of the manuscript. Even though they didn’t normally considering “partnering” books, they loved it and wanted to give it their stamp of approval. The association asked Genova to write the blog for an awareness campaign they were launching at the end of that month.

“Realising that I’d created something that the Alzheimer’s Association thought was valuable, that could help educate and reassure the millions of people trying to navigate the world with Alzheimer’s, I felt an urgent responsibility to get the book out immediately.” She said yes to the blog and yes to the affiliation and went ahead and self-published Still Alice in 2007, which went on to become a New York Times bestseller.

Two books later, you can find out what Lisa Genova is up to now on her website:
http://lisagenova.com/