Over the past few weeks, I’ve encountered several essays in which authors have enumerated reasons not to “self-publish.” I think that their use of the phrase implies some prejudice already–no lesser a source than Hachette (one of the big 6 publishers) notes in a leaked document that “Self-publishing is a misnomer.” When one major corporation acknowledges the phrase is misleading, another is tries to pawn off vanity services as “assisted self-publishing,” and more writers are discussing all the reasons not to do it, one possible implication is that it has become more viable.
That’s because it has.
Which means the big question is whether or not you should do it.
Unfortunately, it’s one no one can answer for you. Least of all corporate publishers and other writers associated with them.
That’s part of the point.
But to answer that question, I think you have to break writing down at the beginning (not after “The End” is written). Which is a more complex thing than “HEY HERE’S FIVE REASONS NOT TO SELF-PUBLISH IN CONVENIENT LIST FORM.” It’s probably more worthwhile to consider why you write than it is to wonder if you should publish your work independently.
So: why do you write?
You don’t have to pretend I just asked. I really just did. Before you read on, take a moment to consider that question, and all its implications and nuances. It’s a huge question, after all.
For many years, I wrote because I wanted a bookdeal.
That was it. I wanted to get paid for making a book. I wanted my name on the cover, and on bestseller lists. I had aspirations to Dean Koontz-dom.
I’m not sure when that began to change. I’d argue it was recently, especially because one of my major motivations for going to USC was to get published.
No lie. One of the best educational institutions in the world, a huge campus full of grass and brick and more than its fair quota of sunshine. I packed my car up and drove across the country in the hope of getting a corporate contract, a big fat bookdeal worth six figures and royalties and a fun author tour and
I think maybe it started to change before I realized it. I published Entrekin in March 2007, because I had some stories I thought were pretty terrific but, after doing research, was unimpressed by the marketplace for said stories. When it came down to work I was proud of, work I legit thought was good, I didn’t want to send it to some magazine only writers submitting to it had ever heard of. I thought about telling my family and friends that they might be able to find the literary magazine in question, if they were lucky, at the local Barnes & Noble, or they could order it there, or through the magazine’s website, and I hated the idea. I wanted people to read it. Not agents and editors looking for submission prospects. Not other MFA students hoping to emulate a style that might earn them a spot in a future issue. Not publishing industry insiders.
Now, one could argue whether publishing that collection via Lulu helped me reach readers. I know I sold more copies than I expected, and over the years, continue to. From what I’ve read, short story collections don’t usually sell many copies, but I don’t know what “many” means. I know that thousands of people have downloaded that book. Which may not be the circulation of a small literary magazine, but I wasn’t thinking about that.
There was no sudden shift: I continued querying agents for several years thereafter. But again, I think it’s worthwhile to consider the reasons for doing so. I didn’t query agents because I wanted to work with one; I queried agents because the corporate publishers with whom I wanted to work didn’t accept unagented manuscripts.
As I started to research agents more, I started to wonder if having one was really worthwhile for any other reason. A lot of writers seem to think that having an agent (and a corporate publisher) frees them up so they can “just write.” Me, I never wanted to “just write.” I’ve never been one to; if you don’t get out there, into the world, laughing and crying and hurting and feeling, how can you propose to write about it? How can you write convincing experiences without having had them? This isn’t so much a “Write what you know” thought–shudder–as it is one concerning depth and breadth of experience and expression. Beyond that “just writing” thing, the two reasons people seem to go to agents concern business and law, but to be candid, I’ve yet to see an agent with an MBA or a JD. I’m sure they exist, mind you. But I’m also pretty sure they’re exceptions to the truth.
Along the way, in an email exchange with the always fabulous and temporarily embiggened Raych (congratulations, Raych, you crazy awesome bloddess!) of Books I Done Read, in discussing Entrekin, I tripped myself up. I was talking about how my collection meant well and was enthusiastic and showed promise, but I knew I had way better in me (basically, it’s my very own “Tales from the Jazz Age,” just like Meets Girl is my personal This Side of Paradise. Not, like, in terms of quality. Evolution of style and career, I mean).
And I said “I ain’t a great literary writer.”
But hold up.
Because, you know, I may not be, but do I want to be one? I think that moment was my tipping point, when everything finally caught up to me, when my talent finally caught up to my ego and basically beat the shit out of it once and for all. Because suddenly I realized, maybe I wasn’t, but didn’t I want to be?
And the answer–one I’m not sure I ever admitted to myself–was yes. Maybe I’d thought one can’t control that, because maybe I’d thought that writing a great book was ultimately up to readers’ opinions.
And maybe it is. I don’t know.
But I remember I stared down my two novels, both written to get agents, both written hoping for a book deal, both written with an aspiration to six figures, and I finally sat down and said, “No, wait, fuck that shit. These could be better. These could be good. Can I make them great?”
Hemingway talked about fighting the greats. I’ve begun to aspire to them. Maybe the greats I aspire to aren’t the greats everyone else recognizes and idolizes, but I know what my favorite books have been, and finally, finally, I started writing because I wanted a book like those. I wanted to write books the kinds of books I effused about to friends.
And then came Kindle.
Kindle changed everything: if that desire change had been a tipping point, Kindle put the nail in the coffin of holding out hope for six figures from Rupert Murdoch.
My collection was already on it.
I’d been pursuing agent representation through the spring and summer, at least, and made more progress. Comments like “It’s a good idea, and you’re a great writer, but time travel is a difficult market” and “I like the style but feel it’s just too meta for me.”
I knew Meets Girl wasn’t bad; enough readers had already read it and enjoyed it I was pretty certain. Including one reader who sent me a few emails noting how much she loved it but then flipped over the ending she was totally right about. Thank Shakespeare for my editrix’s guidance through that final act. And I rewrote it and realized I had something special, and then I came up with a plan for releasing it and a strategy for promoting it, hearkening back to the serialization of days of yore, and I figured, you know, if the prose itself could probably be considered experimental, why not go for it.
So I did. I published it independently because one of the themes of the novel is that it’s about a young writer who gets so wrapped up in trying to get published he forgets about telling stories and writing well, and finally even the method of the novel’s distribution is the choices one makes.
I fell in love with stories again, and telling them, and here was a way to make them available. And maybe I never got a huge advance, and maybe I don’t make my living from Amazon royalty checks, and maybe I don’t have access to the retail distribution system that would get my book to Walmart and Target and Powell’s.
But I’m telling stories and people are finding them, and enjoying them.
I can’t tell you why you should learn formatting and design and go to Kindle and Nook with your book. I can’t tell you how much your story or novel should cost.
I can tell you that the path is clear for you to explore it, should you choose to do so. Really, all the reasons to “self-publish” come down solely to one:
It’s the most important reason there is, and the only one that counts.