Two things are true if anything is: one, self-publishing is the future of the literary world. Two, the future is not yet here.
I’ve heard and read a lot about how the traditional method of publishing is collapsing under a weight of inflexibility and inertia. The traditional method of writers seeking agents and agents seeking publishers for writers just can’t work anymore, or perhaps shouldn’t be allowed to work. The writer is almost slave labor in this scenario. He does most of the work but is the last to be paid, and he is paid but a fraction of the worth of his sweat. Few artists can even enter into this program of servitude, for agents and publishers increasingly choose to minimize risk by sticking with already established artists. The literary world has become a closed club. It’s not how well you write that gets you published, it’s who you know. Or, that’s what I’ve heard and read.
I’ve also read that self-publishing is a superior model, a more democratic model, one that allows art to see the light of day and allows the artist to reap the rewards of his work. I’ve heard starry-eyed proponents tell us of a halcyon world in which writers learn all aspects of the publishing chain, not just their artistic niche of it. Artists publish their own works the way they think they should be published. Damn the publicist, full speed ahead! And the artist earns the lion’s share of profit from his work. And sells his work, and is in control of his reader base and how they are approached. The artist is no longer a cog in a machine. He has become the machine, and it is beautiful.
Both of these views are loads of crap.
The publishing industry is not evil. Publishers and agents do not enrich themselves on the blood of the common man. Unless the common man is an idiot, and then he deserves what he gets. Of course, that’s only the disreputable agents and publishers, the ones anyone with sense would avoid. Publishers and agents are in business for flowery reasons like love of art, but let’s face it, they’re really there to make a buck. They have bills to pay, just like anyone else. So, it isn’t in their interests to take chances. They have to call the ball as best they can and hope it flies smooth and straight. And if it doesn’t, does the writer take the financial heat? No, the writer has already been paid an advance. If the art falls short of expectations, the publisher takes the hit, loses the money. The agent takes it on the chin when the publisher starts looking askance at their recommendations. These are the guys who take all the risk. The artist risks only his pride, and maybe some fantasy residuals.
Self-publishing isn’t a party, either. When you self-publish, you do all the jobs somebody else used to do. You edit your book, or pay someone to. You design the book interior, or pay someone to. You design the cover, or pay someone to. You publish, you promote, you sell. So, be honest, where in all this do you get to write?
There’s a very good reason the writer has been segregated in the traditional system. If I have to clarify what that reason is after the last line of that last paragraph, then you aren’t paying attention.
I’m not a big fan of the writer as vertically integrated business model. Personally, I like to write. I want to spend my time creatively, not shoveling around in the ditches of business. I detest selling. I like the prospect of designing a book, but I detest selling.
You may roll your eyes and feel superior from reading those words, and I know those words mean I won’t be a best seller or even a writer who lives on his writing. I write pretty good stuff, but since I don’t promote it, I doubt many people will see it.
Self-publishing can be great. You can be successful at self-publishing. You just have to assemble the right mix of spending your life’s savings, ignoring your family, amassing widely differing skill sets, working yourself to death, and, most importantly, luck. Yes, luck is important, don’t fool yourself into thinking otherwise. You self-publish your great American novel and it goes plop! into the middle of a titanic sea of self-published books. It is impossible, just impossible, for your book to differentiate itself from the crowd without a big, heaping helping of pure, dumb luck. And that’s if your work is good. Most self-published work is poor work indeed, put out by authors with poor command of their chosen language and with barely an inkling of how to clearly express themselves. After all, what’s to stop them from publishing? Absolutely nothing. There are no guardians at the gate, no agents rejecting this or publishers rejecting that. Anyone who wants to publish, can, regardless of whether or not they can write.
And your book swims among them, one of hundreds of thousands, even millions, all indistinguishable on any of several web sites.
When luck strikes, or you make your luck by spending piles of money, or if you’re already famous and so a shoe-in, then success is a great thing. The problem is, only a few get to win the lottery. You can make a good push at that winning ticket, but the effort is enormous and assurance of winning isn’t even close to a given. But, hey, that’s the American way, right? Victory goes to those who work harder than everyone else. Except that isn’t true. It never was.
What am I getting at? Give up? Forget it? The odds are against you so don’t even try? No. Just this. Look on publishing with a clear head. Don’t quit your day job, even if you have some success. If you have a product that might attract the traditional publishers, go for it. That way, you can write more since you will be selling less. If the work you created is unsuitable for the conservative tastes of the traditional publishers, or time sensitive, self-publish it. You probably won’t gross dime one in either case. Or maybe you’ll become the next hot property.
Next, decide what you’re going to put into the product. How much money are you willing to spend (the smart answer here is pretty near to zero)? How much time are you willing to give up? How much is your time and your money worth? At what point does your art lose and your life win?
These are questions you need to ask yourself and need to find comfortable answers to. I know too many authors, good authors, who have shopped books for years to the traditionals, to no avail. I know too many authors of awful books who have spent thousands of dollars on editors and designers who are more than happy to take their money on a project that will never catch. I know too many writers with garages full of books, who pathetically travel from conference to convention to tent revival selling books out of their cars. They spent thousands of dollars for that garage full of books, and they’re just trying to make their money back.
As writers, we need to be realistic about the industry and realistic about ourselves. If we are, we increase the odds of success, though we can never, never manipulate our luck. If we are not realistic about our chances, our work, or ourselves, then we are just lining up to be victims of an industry that can either make us or eat us alive. And it doesn’t much care which one it does.