The Trials of Self-Publishing: Why I Consider It a Last Resort

Self-publishing feels so easy… It feels so safe.

The sad truth of writing is that the fun aspect of creation is only really 10 percent of the work. The rest is the difficult and time-consuming work of marketing and promoting the manuscript to the publishing world. Query letters, writing conferences, agent meetings; that is the real work, and self-publishing takes all of that away… Just leaving the author with their creation and then publication and none of the hassle of the mess in between.

It all sounds like bliss.

Yet, the easy path is not always the right one, and for self-publishing that is just as true. While there are a few self-publishing success stories, there are a thousand unsuccessful stories to each successful one of books that appear on amazon and disappear into the vacuum that is a search engine never to be seen again.

Frankly, if an author wants success for their book, and success for their own future as a writer, self-publishing should be a last resort, to be only considered when all of the other avenues have been tried. Why? Well, I’ll get to that…

Don’t Hope For Respect

Respect in the arts is earned.

When you read articles about authors, or let’s say any artist, it’s not about the product they are selling, it is about their journey to get to that moment. It is that journey with the light at the end that inspires a reader to learn more about the author as compared to the book.  Self-publishing is not really seen by the media as that great a journey, because one of the selling points for it is anyone can do it and it’s typically nothing more than a little transaction over the internet with a major credit card. We all know that is true, and that effects a lot of the respect authors get for going there.

Don’t believe me? Try getting a Creative Writing post at a college with a bunch of self-published books on your resume and get back to me.

Yet, this respect aspect goes beyond just the world of academia and media.

If you self-publish, you will have to work for every legitimate reviewer to read it and every bookstore to carry it, no matter how many free copies you send them or how local they are.

Booksellers want to stock their shelves with books that will sell, that people want to read, and self-published works haven’t reached that mainstream yet. They take up room, as I was told once.

With the publication of my last book (My Problem With Doors), which was published by small press by the way, I was told about one book reviewer that was interested in reading my book. Upon reaching out to this reviewer and asking if they wanted to read it, they asked for a payment.

Payment?

While for him that seemed like a legitimate transaction for me it felt a little dirty and should have been happening in a back alley someplace. He wanted me to buy his review!  There is actually a business market out there for this and that says a lot about the writing environment today.

The Roadblocks

In today’s market there are massive roadblocks to getting published legitimately. If it was a highway, there would be construction, and you would be forced off the highway to take a dirt path… with a cliff at the end like Rebel Without a Cause.

The fact of the matter is the writing market is congested.  Everyone feels they can write because, we all have learned the skills of constructing a sentence. But the difference between writing and “writing” is where art is created, and it is the art that is missing in a lot of work out there today (Self-publishing and otherwise).  This is not the article where I break down how you can tell a book is art, pulp, or crap; that will probably come later after I have had a few drinks and feel less concerned with angering other writers and readers.

How congested is the market you ask? Well, consider how many are graduating with English degrees each year. Add writing degrees and journalism as well. Okay, now consider everyone who didn’t go to college but instead chased their dream to becoming a writer. Then add the recent retirees who are dusting off those old notes they want to make into a book… I can go on, but you see what I mean. And this number grows each year.

Here is my favorite publisher story and it is from one of my old writing professors. A publisher asked for his book and he didn’t hear anything for a year. He, of course, assumed it was not going to happen and moved on… Well, he did hear from the publisher and they wanted to publish the book! But here is the kicker-  before they finally read the book they were using his manuscript to straighten the leg of a wobbly table. That’s how they found it one day. They were moving the table and found the typed pages under the leg! Until that moment they had forgotten about his book.

That story in many ways sums up how much less publishers need us than we need them.

Recently, I’ve begun pushing my novel A Jane Austen Daydream for publication. I’ve talked about it quite a bit in my blog, For the first year, I am focusing on finding an agent. If that is unsuccessful (I wrote about agents in the past here), I plan to look to smaller publishing houses. Why am I telling you this? Well, because agents are the first roadblock and I am witnessing firsthand how big this roadblock has grown since the last time I’ve played this game. Its such a roadblock now that agents feel they don’t even need to respond to every e-mail. Yes, we need to even earn their negative responses now! Fascinating and scary.

Agents are the gatekeepers to the major publishing houses, and many of the houses will not consider anything unless it came from an agent they respect or have dealt with in the past. Yet, here is the interesting fact about agents: While publishers like to have a few “literary” works on their records for awards and bragging rights, agents don’t. Representing a book is expensive and they are losing money on the prospect from the first moment they agree to handle a book. So while a publisher might consider supporting a more experimental or groundbreaking book, an agent will probably choose the young adult book with vampires instead every time.

Sadly, it is because of this that I think an entire generation of the next groundbreaking authors is being lost. I’m not saying these authors should go into self-publishing! No, not at all. I’m just saying this is one of the reasons people might choose that path. Let’s move on before this gets too depressing, and I get off my point further…

It’s All About You

So what benefit is there for going with a major publisher? Well, beyond respect (see above), you are working with a team that want the book to find success as much as you do.

It is their job to make you a success. A nice thought, isn’t it?

If you self-publish all of that burden is on your pretty shoulders.

How many self-published authors simply think that readers will just find their work on amazon and maybe it will catch on? I don’t want to even guess. It doesn’t happen, people.

A few writing editorials ago, I got criticized in quite a few e-mails because I called the world of self-publishing a cult.  The fact is I still don’t know a better word to describe the world of it.  It’s outside the mainstream, they all support each other, and make each other feel important and with a purpose. Everyone who is part of that clique feels like they are all part of some grand literary adventure together;  how real that may be is the question.  I still think that all that is missing is a secret handshake and special robes.

It’s like they are all drinking from the same kool-aide and it gives them all the illusion of success.  And you see it from reviews they do of each other (which makes everything seem wonderful, you won’t find a negative review in the bunch) to twitter accounts where everyone has 5000 followers, and they are following 5000 as well.  The fact is the reviewers, the interviews, the twitter accounts is all part of that illusionary circle of success.  And unless there is some financial return I am not seeing, I would not want to go down that road unless I had no choice.

Here is my hard fact that I have said to numerous struggling authors I have spoken to about this option:  I have yet to find a reader that has purchased or read a self-published book by someone they don’t know or have some connection to.

History Will Prove Me Wrong, But We Aren’t There Yet…

History is on the side of the self-published author. I’m not saying that to cheer anyone on, I just think it is a fact. As it gets easier and easier to do and readers and the world get more and more used to it, it will become a norm.

And, as most self-publishers will point out in their marketing material, there is a long-standing history for self-publishing, it’s only really in the last century that the business world took it over so completely.

Personally, I think the change will be good and bad for the art. Good because there will be less between an author and his audience, bad because the market will go from congested with wannabees with manuscripts to wannabees with actual books in hand.  The hard truth is not every book should be published, and that hard truth will be thrown out the window by everyone else who doesn’t care I think that way.

Good storytelling is an art, just like music, painting, and dance. I can draw a nice little picture of a tree, but I don’t think it should be in a museum. I can’t sing, so I am not going to get up on a major stage to sing. So to flip that, while some can tell a good yarn in a classroom setting or can put something together in 200 pages, it doesn’t mean it should be celebrated. There should be something there more there than a page count and words. Yes, I am arguing that a filtering system will be needed in the future. But again, this all future stuff.

For the time being the world is not ready to embrace the self-published author, no matter how much the writer wants the hug.

If you liked reading my article, why not check out some of my books? I had two novels published in the last few years, My Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my amazon.com author page here. Thanks for reading!

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13 responses

  1. I agree with everything you say here. Books published the traditional way are the equivalent of buying a stadium ticket to see your favourite international band. A lot of self-published books are like watching a gig in your local pub.
    There’s a place and an audience for both, but you get what you pay for!

    • Well, like most things in life, really you get out of it what you put into it. But if you want a long-standing career as a writer, it does start you off with some blocks in front of you (other publishers, careers in writing, etc.). I usually recommend, giving yourself a few years to try the normal beaten path to publication. If then you don’t have success and you really want to move on in your writing, maybe then consider it, but go in with your eyes open about the experience. With a little work on the Web or in your area, you might be able to make back the money you spent on the publication… and your book will be out there for all to read and not just sitting on your desktop. That can be a relief as well… Oh, yeah, and do a lot of editing before you go to print. The editors in self-publishing aren’t that thorough (if you hire one) and self-published books are usually riddled with spelling, grammar and even major writing mistakes.

  2. Pingback: Writing About Writing About Writing About Writing « The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard

  3. Pingback: Self Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing: The Reader’s Perspective | Jack Woe

  4. “Here is my hard fact that I have said to numerous struggling authors I have spoken to about this option: I have yet to find a reader that has purchased or read a self-published book by someone they don’t know or have some connection to.”

    Well, I would like to introduce myself. I have a lot of books on my Kindle and I have purchased quite a few that are self-published by authors that I do not know. In fact, I would say that, in general, self-published books are a better value–I am much more likely to buy a book from an author I don’t know for 2.99 than for 12.99.

    What’s more, I don’t think that I am exceptional in that.

    • Hi Misha,

      Good to hear from you! And thanks for writing!

      I guess my counter-argument would be that you are a self-published writer and you would see the enterprise differently because of that. That is your book via createspace, correct? Most people outside that world, I believe, would need some convincing, just like the bookstores that won’t put them on their shelves and the libraries that won’t order them. That hasn’t changed. It’s an uphill battle. I wish it wasn’t the case, but its a congested market and libraries and bookstores have limited space.

      Whatever the case, this is an old post and I haven’t shared it via twitter or on my site in a long time (I’ve been debating whether to take it down); and I am actually planning to self-publish one of my books in the next month because of how many self-published writers talk to me about the experience (I’m planning to use CreateSpace myself). I’m actually documenting the experience on this site. You can find those editorials under Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare.

      Thanks for writing! It’s a brave new world in writing today…

      • I followed a link, and then followed another link–you know how it goes. I didn’t realize the post was that old. I’d actually suggest that you leave it up, it might be interesting to go back and look at how your experiences as you self-publish compare with the expectations of the process that you have here.

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