This post is for everyone, but it's aimed specifically at writers out there who are seriously considering self-publishing, and who are holding back because they're uncertain. I've been exactly where you are, and these are the things I wish someone had told me then.
I've been at this for five years now and I still see an assortment of people bad-mouthing self-publishing. There's the typical snooty set who swear that it ruins the publishing industry; the agents and editors worried they're losing necessary status in the industry; the bloggers getting free books and kickbacks from trad pub folks; and then, without any malice, the hopeful authors who are worried, based on what they've heard, that trad publishing is the only way to become a "real" author.
Firstly - yes, there are some really crappy self-published books out there. There are also some really crappy traditionally-published books out there.
Secondly, self-publishing is in no way going to ruin the industry. The industry, like all industries, is changing. Cellphones are mini computers now, cars can run off electric power, and thanks to the magic of self-publishing, some really talented, hardworking folks have been able to reach out and connect with audiences who love their stories, who would have otherwise never had the chance because the industry denied them.
I know so many aspiring writers 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 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!
~ Lisa Genova
Pretty great advice, no? And it comes from a well-respected bestseller.
I self-published my first book five years ago, and I'm still self-published today, despite offers from publishing houses to reprint my books. Why? Because it's amazing. If you're reading this, and you want to pull the trigger, but you're on the fence, please know that you aren't alone. Please know that there is no one "right" way to be an author. I want to tell you the things no one told me, and I hope they can offer you, if nothing else, a little peace of mind:
1) Self-published authors are REAL authors. Is a zucchini still a zucchini whether you bought it at Whole Foods or Kroger? Or grew it in your own backyard? It's not a zucchini at the store, but a pretend-zucchini when it comes from your own garden. In fact, in your own garden, you know exactly which fertilizers and pesticides have been used. If you write and publish books, you're an author, plain and simple. Just because there isn't a big five publishing house on my checks, it doesn't make the money any less real. Which brings me to...
2) Getting a deal with a publishing house doesn't automatically guarantee success. This is a myth of which I was quickly disabused. When I was younger, I thought that once you signed on the dotted line with a publishing house, that was it. You'd made it. Turns out, that's not the case at all. While some truly brilliant manuscripts lead to six-figure deals for debut authors, whirlwind book tours, and seeming overnight success, the reality for most is this: no advance, or a small advance, royalties only, and the brunt of the marketing burden is placed on the author. I've been offered some truly insulting deals by small-print presses who think I'll jump on the chance to sign with somebody, anybody. The problem with that is, one, I'm making more than that on my own, and also, sometimes, you sign over the rights to your book to the publisher, meaning you no longer own them. And it's common to be dropped from a label if the books underperform. Because...
3) The industry is about making money. As all industries are. That's just the way the world turns. Publishing houses are trying to minimize costs while maximizing income, which means they: a) try to reduce page count on mid-list books to reduce the cost of printing them, b) play it safe by saturating a trope or sub-genre with books that they feel sure will sell because they closely resemble books that have already sold well, and c) don't take chances on more original concepts. If you're writing something that doesn't fit tidily into a particular box, or isn't "hot" and "trendy," there's a good chance agents will pass on your manuscript. Or will try to change it heavily. This doesn't mean your manuscript isn't good or won't sell. The industry banks on the idea that audiences want more of the same, and won't take a financial risk. But audiences, let me tell you, are smarter and more demanding than that, and they will eat up the stories the industry passes on.
4) It's a marathon, not a sprint. Oh boy, is it ever. Writers become frustrated when they hold up certain smash-hit, literary-phenom examples as a standard and then become frustrated when they fail to measure up. Here's the thing: those mega-million-dollar earning phenoms? That's the exception, not the rule. It's easy to look at the wild success of Twilight or Fifty Shades and think, well I suck because that isn't happening to me. But please know that you shouldn't expect to sell at that level.
I always say that it's important to aspire to be the best, while accepting that getting there takes time. For instance: some of my favorite authors of all time are Tana French, Stephen King, Tami Hoag, Jane Austen, and Michael Chabon, to name only a few. I strive to learn from them, and dream of some day writing with their clarity, thoughtfulness, and sensitivity. But do I expect to sell like they do? No. They're brilliant. Don't set yourself up for disappointment, is what I'm saying. The writing journey is a long, slow one. A process of perfecting craft again, and again, and again. Chances are good that you won't leap out of the gate as a wildly successful international bestseller.
Don't compare your success to that of others. All sorts of things go on behind the scenes in the writing world - buying reviews, buying Insta followers, all sorts of shady practices - so you shouldn't be looking at the daily figures and comparing that way. Try to be the best writer you can be, learn about craft, and try harder the next day.
5) Do what works for you. I'm an independent, self-reliant person. I blame my horse life. I was lucky enough, as a little girl, to have an instructor who taught me how to think for myself, and look out for my horse above all. It's a legacy that served me well as a trainer, and it's one that serves me even now, as a writer. I've owned two amazing, talented, incredibly intelligent horses in my life, both the progeny of championship parents, one the son of an Olympic stallion, both of which I obtained because no one understood just how special they were, and was willing to put the time and effort into drawing that specialness out of them.
There are people in the book business, no matter their role, who will tell you that the most important part of "succeeding" - and I put that in quotes because "success" means different things for different people - is to "network" and "make friends." I'm not discounting the value of networking and making friends, but I'm here to tell you that, as an author, that isn't the most important thing. The most important thing is that you write the best book you possibly can. And you write the best book you possibly can again, and again, and again. You read all the great works, all the classics. And you study, study, study. You take English courses. You learn at home, under dim desk lamps. You read, and read, and read...and then you write, write, write. With the right connections and a few gifts given to the right people, you can be "buzzed-about." But if you have dedicated yourself to writing a good damn book, that's a better advertisement than any blog hop or email campaign.
Self-publishing works for me because it allows me to write exactly what I want to, when I want to, without interference from those who would change me for the sake of uniformity.
Once upon a time, I thought that the only way to be an author was to do it the traditional way. I've since learned that, not only is that not the case, but it's not the option that best suits my needs as an artist. It's silly to let others determine what you do. If no one likes your books, then you'll fade away, yes. But if people do, and they take hold...then slowly, slowly, you will have affected the lives of readers who would otherwise have been denied your words.
For me, it wasn't a brave decision, because I've never fit in anywhere, and I sure as heck wasn't going to wait on anyone's approval before I did what I needed to. It turned out to be the best decision of my life.
No matter what anyone says, writing is an art. And it's your art. Don't let anyone take that from you. What's the worst that could happen? No one reads you? That's already the case. I started with none, and I'm happily writing my 20th book. I love being in total control of every part of the process. Art isn't brain surgery - no one dies if you miss the mark. And you never know who might really need or want to hear what you have to say.
When people try to insult me for being self-published, I laugh. Joke's on them: I'm doing exactly what I want to.
I'm thinking of getting a FB group going, so I would love to hear from any of you who'd like to chat. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or message me on my author FB page if you'd like. If there's enough interest, I'd be happy to put together a page.