Taking No For An Answer: Some New Thoughts on Self-Publishing

Posted by @ 3:00 pm on March 22nd, 2011

Lately, a number of  writers have chosen to self-publish their work. Self-publishing isn’t new but with all the e-publishing options becoming available, there’s far more democracy to publishing and self-publishing than ever before. It doesn’t take much to get a book listed on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or the Apple Bookstore and with a few clicks of the mouse, you are your own publisher. Some of these self publishing writers say that they’re circumventing mainstream publishing as if they are self-publishing by choice, not because they couldn’t get their work published any other way. Sometimes that is actually the case. Sometimes it is not. I have no problem with self-publishing. It is not an option I would choose for myself, mostly because I don’t have the time to do the work required of someone who self publishes. However, I don’t begrudge writers who do avail themselves of the self-publishing route and it can be a really interesting way of challenging the publishing establishment and getting your work out there without having to deal with some of the more problematic aspects of mainstream publishing. At the same time, just because you can do something does not mean you should.

I read this excerpted interview between Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler (full interview here), the latter who turned down a $500K deal with St. Martin’s to self-publish his book and I had a few thoughts: 1) Wait, what?; 2) He must be able to afford turning down half a million dollars; 3) I am not familiar with Barry Eisler; 4) I admire that kind of confidence; 5) He must have the reputation (the talent being implied by the size of the deal) to make more money publishing his book himself; and 6) Neat, ballsy. The interview itself was really interesting but man, I really think there are some writers who underestimate the power of a traditional publisher. I wonder about the direness of publishing implied by some of the comments. I wonder, wonder, wonder.

I have also been thinking about Amanda Hocking who has achieved some measure of success self-publishing her books and now stands to earn more than $1 million from a deal, at auction, with a major publishing house. Her success is the kind people who self-publish strive for, hope for, and rarely achieve. She circumvented mainstream publishing, established a market for herself and even without the major book deal that’s rumored, is doing quite well (though not as well as some of the hysterical, inaccurate reporting surrounding her success suggests.) She is now being held up as a model for self publishing without acknowledging that there were a lot of different factors contributing to her success beyond sheer will.

The argument can certainly be made that there is very little distinction between self-publishing and publishing with a micropress, for example, save that you don’t have to spend your own money. There is, however, even with a micropress, a certain level of vetting or curation that takes place. A manuscript is chosen and someone believes in that manuscript enough to put some money behind it and do their best to get that book out into the world. That micropress might only get fifty copies of your book out in the world but that’s still something. Hocking herself noted on her blog that, “Self-publishing and traditional publishing really aren’t that different. One is easier to get into but harder to maintain. But neither come with guarantees. Some books will sell, some won’t.” That’s a fairly accurate statement. Whether a book is published via self-publishing, a micropress, a small press or a mainstream publisher, people are trying to do the same thing–get books out there, find audiences for those books, and make money. The real difference between the various levels of publishing is a matter of scale or scope.

I recently bought a few self-published books via Amazon and other means because I have always been curious about the quality of self-published writing, particularly the writing of writers who claim they are forging this new path because their writing is simply unable to be appreciated or understood by mainstream publishing, because their writing is falling through the cracks. Only one of these books, No Shelter, by Z. Constance Frost, was excellent—memorable and something I’ll read more than once. The book is genre fiction, not a perfect book, but I really loved it and the story totally kept me engaged. The writing was solid and it certainly held up to similar books I’ve read from mainstream publishers. Additionally, female assassins are awesome. Quality is certainly very subjective but even with that, given the self-published work I’ve read (admittedly not an adequate sample to really draw broader conclusions) there’s a reason most of those self-published books were not picked up by publishers great or small. There was no misunderstood genius in these novels. These books fell through the proverbial cracks for a reason. As an editor it was painfully easy to identify the weaknesses in plot, characterization, tone, dialogue, pacing and all the other elements that comprise a good book. Some of these books were adequately written but boring. Some of these books were plain terrible and filled with sloppy writing, making the very strong case for the value of a competent copyeditor and the value of a gatekeeper to say, “no,” this book should not be published, at least not in its current state. These were not books that could be published by anyone but the writer themselves.

There is also the matter of price which seems a little out of control for self publishers. Particularly where e-books are concerned, many self published writers are basically giving their writing away for $.99-$2.99. Lincoln Michel wrote a really great article for the Faster Times about e-book pricing. The $.99 price point is a terrible, terrible idea and it sets a terrible, terrible precedent. It makes no sense to sell a 300 page book for the same price as a three minute song. If we as writers don’t value our craft enough to price our work appropriately, how can we expect readers to want to pay appropriate prices? If you have to basically give your writing away, what does that tell you? It feels like we’re avoiding some of the really difficult questions about self publishing to worship at the altar of empowering ourselves and challenging the status quo. I could see myself selling a short story for a buck or two but a book, a whole book? My work is worth more than that. Your work is worth more than that.  If I cannot sell my books at a ore reasonable $8-$10 price point, perhaps the market is telling me something about my writing. Humbling? Perhaps.

We live in an age of entitlement. We want therefore we must (and should) have. We are encouraged not to take “no” for an answer. Writing, or publishing really, is primarily an endeavor where we must learn to appreciate rejection or at least accept rejection. As writers we will always hear “no” more than we will hear “yes,” because taste is so subjective, because for many publishers, there are a finite number of books they can publish because they have finite resources, even if they are some of the largest publishers in the world. Persistence is an important quality in a writer. Some of my greatest writing successes have come from being persistent in the face of constant rejection. And yet, I wonder if there comes a point when we should take no for an answer, when we should use rejection to reassess why we keep meeting with rejection. At what point does faith become foolish or even delusional?

Writers ask me if they should self-publish and I struggle to find the right answer. On the one hand, why not? If that’s a choice you would like to make, there is ample evidence that self publishing is a viable option and in some cases you can do better for yourself than someone else can. On the other hand, I sense a certain impatience when I am asked this question, a certain need for instant gratification. Often when a writer is asking this question they are saying, “I wrote a book, and I want it to be published immediately and rather than wait, I’m going to go it alone.” I suffer from this delusion. It’s awkward and I am constantly reminded that this is not always how it works. I also sense that these writers want to have a book, any book, even a mediocre book, rather than wait for the right agent, publishing opportunity or even the right book from their arsenal as if we each only have one book in us. While publishers have finite resources, writers, generally do not have a finite number of words they can write. If you write one book, you can probably write another. What’s more important—publishing a book or publishing a good book?

I remain fairly optimistic about publishing even now. I continue to believe that if you have the goods, you will get a book deal. That deal might not be at your first choice or second or third choice but I feel confident in saying that good writers end up with good presses. There are lots of good writers and a glance at Amazon or a stroll through any bookstore bears this out. We are inundated by books.  Forgive this one shred of optimism but getting published seems to be well within the realm of possibility for good writers, great writers, and even mediocre writers.

The publishing industry cannot always the problem when a writer cannot get their book published.  Maybe sometimes we must face the fact that it’s not them, it’s us. That’s an uncomfortable thing to talk about and it’s even more uncomfortable to confront in ourselves. I believe everyone is extraordinary. I have yet to meet someone who wasn’t interesting in some way even if the most interesting thing about a person is their utter lack of personality. But are we all special? Does every writer deserve to be published? I am reminded of Stephen Elliott’s series of Daily Rumpus e-mails where he talked about genius, about being special. In one of these messages, he wrote, “But the first thing is that their are many great writers. I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s kind of nullifying. Even if the great writers are swamped by the intentional mediocrity of lazy artists and greedy executives, there’s still a lot of great writers. So here we are, putting our work into the world, begging for attention, and yet nobody owes us anything. We’re not special, not really. I don’t think I believe in talent. I think if you write every day for years and years, ten at the minimum, and you’re willing to be honest with yourself, then you’ll probably become a good writer.” I’ve thought about those statements since I first read them and there’s something there. There’s something to accepting that we’re not as special as we think we are. Just because we want a book doesn’t mean we will (or should) have a book. Maybe sometimes, “no,” is the final answer and we should learn to be okay with that.

A lot of the rhetoric around self-publishing confuses me. I wonder when publishers became the enemy.  All too often, the rhetoric of self-publishing sounds like writers who are trying to convince themselves that going it alone is the best option because they don’t want to wait or re-evaluate their work or take no for an answer. This is not to say I think publishers are magical and benevolent entities who always have a writer’s best interests at heart. I know how the world works but I do not believe publishers are hell bent on being evil either. Publishing is not that simple. We cannot make sense of who gets published and who doesn’t by reducing the process to a writer believing they are talented and having that faith somehow translate into a book deal. There are any number of factors involved including confidence, timing, and the right people at the right publishers seeing in your writing what you, as the writer, see in your writing. It’s amazing that anything gets published when you think of all the small miracles required to get published. Or, of course, you could go on a reality television show on MTV, wear a lot of spray tan and say ridiculous things. There are all kinds of options when you think about it.

I suppose part of my attitude toward self publishing involves laziness. I want to write the books. I don’t want to have to do all the work of publishing them too. That’s old-fashioned of me but I’m in my thirties. I don’t feel that DIY drive I might have felt in my twenties. The majority of my work is done once I have written the book. I understand that writers have to hustle and do all kinds of work to promote their books even when they are published, and I am totally down for that, but the idea of having to be solely responsible for the design, copyediting, layout, distribution and marketing of my book is not terribly appealing. The idea that I would have to pay to publish my own book is even even less appealing than having to handle all the production and distribution. I believe in my writing, I do,  but if I had to choose between self-publishing a book to get my work out there or never having a book published, I’d choose to never have a book published. My life will go on. Writing is what I love. Publishing is an awesome side effect. I also confess that my ego plays a part in my reluctance to self publish. It isn’t enough to think my writing is “good enough.”  I could be delusional. I wrote  a good chunk of a “novel” and lots of stories during my twenties I thought were amazing and reading most of that writing now, I am absolutely mortified. I wouldn’t want to embarrass myself like that on a much bigger scale by self publishing a book. I want someone else to say my writing is good enough. Most writers want that validation. We are human.

Many years ago, while I was living in Nebraska, I interviewed for a position at iUniverse which was, at the time, headquartered there. The company was brand new and I had a really good interview, lasted a couple hours. Great people worked there–genuinely enthusiastic about helping writers to publish their work themselves and there wasn’t a predatory vibe about the place that you see in similar ventures. Their bread and butter was people publishing projects like cookbooks, genealogy-related books, memoirs and what have you. I read a few sample books and they were quite terrible but there was no harm in those books being published. What I couldn’t help but realize, though, is that iUniverse was, as Hocking noted, doing the exact same thing traditional publishers were doing–trying to make money. Their fees were fairly reasonable if you have that kind of money, but there were fees for every little thing from cover design to layout to acquiring an ISBN to printing the book, distributing the book, etc. They have packages now but the packages range from $600 to more than $4,000. When you look at the services offered at each price point, those services are not really the kind of efforts that will get your book the attention needed to sell. Most people reading this  know there are more cost-effective ways of self publishing but there are all kinds of writers out there who don’t know better, who think that handing over thousands of dollars is the only way to get your writing published, who are willing to forget that money should flow to the writer. If you believe in your writing enough to invest that kind of money, I wonder why you don’t believe in your writing enough to pursue more traditional alternatives or, in the face of rejection, revise your work such that it will, eventually be published.

For writers who have established a good reputation for themselves, it might very well make sense to go the self-publishing route. Steve Almond has certainly met with a great deal of success recently doing so but the success he is having self-publishing his work was likely made possible from first going the traditional publishing route. He also has boundless energy. You have to have the personality for it.  Stephen King could self publish his grocery lists in a collected volume and use the proceeds to buy a small island in the Caribbean because he is Stephen King. Writers like Almond or King or Joe Konrath or Barry Eisler, writers who choose self-publishing and succeed or are likely to succeed, these people are by far the exceptions to the rule. When they evangelize about self publishing it’s like watching a Jennifer Hudson Weight Watchers commercial and believing that all it takes is following the program to look as amazing as she looks right now. For every writer like these bigger hitters there are, literally thousands of writers who will never do more than sell a handful of their self-published books. There’s nothing wrong with that. Success is a personal measure but it’s important to acknowledge that there are just as many small miracles required to succeed via self publishing.

I keep coming back to having faith in our writing and learning to take no for an answer. These ideas are not antithetical. A case could be made for learning to take “no” for an answer, to learning what that “no” means without attaching some kind of conspiracy theory to it, and having enough faith in our writing to wait for the right opportunity and to do something more productive with the “no” than believe our only or best option is to go it alone.

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