Choosing to Self-Publish

I mentioned last week that have I chosen to self-publish rather than pursue traditional publishing, and that I would talk about why later. Well, this is the why.

I have certainly been aware of self-publishing for a long time, perhaps as long as a decade. Back then the options were hiring out your own printer, doing chapbooks, or perhaps using a service like XLibris. Lulu came along a little later, but even then, self-publishing was a struggle that did not appeal to me. Unless you had a way of getting your name and book in front of readers, self-publishing seemed like a way to either print your book nicely for Aunt June or fill your garage with books you’d never sell. There were rare exceptions, of course, but I saw no reason to think I would be one of them.

No, traditional publishing with its gatekeepers and bookstores seemed to be the way to go, and I was starting to pursue it in 2009 and early 2010. I had a completed novel and ideas for more. I was a regular at various SF/F conventions, and I was starting to check out the writer conferences. I had met a number of editors and agents – mostly casually but one at a pitch session – and they definitely filled my head with the way it was done. Find an agent, let them sell it to one of the big six New York publishers, and be glad your agent was getting you such a great deal.

Then in the spring of 2010, an agent asked me the question she asks all new writers she meets. “Why do you want to be published?” That’s a very different question than why I want to write. I write because it’s the only way to get these stories out of my head. It’s half creation, half exorcism. But that’s not about publishing.

So why did I want to publish? When she asked it, I did not have a particularly good answer. I could not even articulate it at the time, but my real answer was, “because it’s the next logical step.” Frankly, that did not seem good enough for me. It’s a frightening amount of work, and “just because” was not enough of a reason.

So I did some slow-motion navel-gazing for about a year. Why did I want it? Was it for the approval of the gatekeepers? Was it for the money? Was it just to see my name on a bookshelf? By the fall of 2011, I had found reasons that were good enough for me to pursue publishing, but I’d also realized some fears about getting into publishing.

Let’s start with my reasons for getting published – note: this is to get published at all, not necessarily with the big six vs. self-publishing:

1. I wanted to tell stories to readers, not just write them to get them out of my head. I have read a lot of books that I’ve loved, and I realized that I wanted to experience that transaction from the other side, to create something for someone else to read and love. Posting stories for free on the web does not seem practical to me, mostly because I hate reading on the screen. (See my earlier essay on switching to e-books and my love of light-reflective media.) So getting my stories out in print seemed to be the only way to go.

2. I want to make money at it. Yeah, I know. It’s art, and art is supposed to be pure and all that stuff, but I have bills to pay. I can do other work – work that usually pays a lot better than writing – but it would be a most excellent thing to get that money for writing instead. Mind you, this wasn’t an easy thing for me to accept, because I was pretty worried that transforming writing from a hobby into a profession would taint it. It would lose the ecstatic joy and turn into a soul-sucking grind. But I don’t think that’s going to happen, as long as I can write the stories I want to write.

3. I want to do the marketing. I know that sounds pretty strange, especially if you knew me back in my early software days, but this is a very different business. I see the authors hanging out on blogs, going to cons, talking about their books… and it looks FUN to me. Maybe that will turn out to be a grind after all, but from the outside it looks like a blast.

But like I said, I also had some fears:

1. Publishing takes forever, except when it goes too fast. While I’m patient enough to know that building a career in writing takes a long time and several books, I was not too keen on having the pace between books set by someone else. While I might not complain about a fast schedule, I knew I would have hated a slow schedule. “Ah, yes, we’ll publish your trilogy over five years. So, run along and we’ll talk after.” I worried I wouldn’t have enough control over when my stories got out to the readers. I don’t know what I would have considered “enough” control, but that’s what I worried about.

2. I worried about getting pigeon-holed into a specific genre. I heard tales from authors who wanted to branch out and write mystery instead of horror or fantasy instead of sci-fi, but they ran into roadblocks. “No, your readers don’t want that. Just give us another slasher novel.” I guess it’s the equivalent of actors being typecast as the funny guy or the villain. I figured that the easiest way around that was to branch out early, alternating between at least two genres, but I feared that no publishing company would be interested in that. In the past, authors did this via pen names, but since most readers buy their next book based on it being an author they know, why would you waste the value you’d built up in your original name?

3. I worried that I would get two books into a trilogy or maybe four books into a five-book series and have it be abandoned by the publisher. With all the shuffling that’s happened in the last few years in New York, that has happened to several authors I know. It doesn’t seem to matter that the previous books earned out their advances or that the fans are asking the author for the next book. A decision was made without the author’s input, and now the publisher doesn’t want any more. I don’t question a publisher’s right to make that decision, but it leaves both the author and the fans in the lurch. I didn’t want that to happen to me.

By the time I’d finished my introspection, it was 2011, and I had another draft working its way through the edit queue. Also, the talk of the e-book revolution was getting ever louder, and much of it was centered on self-publishing. Just to assure myself that my original plan to pursue traditional publishing was the correct path, I started reading up on the current state of self-publishing. Within a few weeks, I wasn’t so sure my original plan still held up, especially in light of the hopes and fears I had finally nailed down.

I set myself a task of making a decision by the end of 2011, and when it was all said and done, I had opted to pursue self-publishing, at least for the 2012-2013 timeframe. I’ll spare you a summary of all the arguments I read for and against, but I will tell you the few that really nailed it down for me.

1. Traditional publishers have lost their lock on the distribution channels, and that means it’s actually possible now to reach the readers. With the death of Borders, a larger and larger percentage of print books are being sold by Amazon. With the increasingly rapid adoption of e-readers, e-books have a much larger audience. Those two put together means that a self-published book going to Amazon and various e-readers can now reach half to two-thirds of the potential buyers. Ten years ago, a potential buyer would have had to hunt you down through back channels to buy your book. In short, I could actually do this now.

2. Prolific authors sell more books. Saying it like that makes it sound like a simple truism, but there’s data to back it up. I read some recent studies on how people choose their next book purchases, and the top three reasons were: it’s the next book in a series, it’s a new book by a favorite author, and a friend recommended it. Not only does a new book have a good chance with existing readers, but it’s one more chance for a reader to recommend you to a friend. So for me, that means get a book out, and then get the next book, and the next, and so on. That’s good advice for any publishing path, but I knew if I went the traditional path, it wouldn’t matter how many books I wrote, because they wouldn’t publish more than one every year or two.

3. I didn’t like the royalty structure of traditional publishing. There has been a lot written about the 70% vs. 17.5% rates of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing for e-books, and I confess that is a lot of what bugs me, but I’m also not too happy about the rates in paper books either. Yes, the publisher takes a risk with every book, paying money up front for editing, cover design, copy editing, promotion, printing, and so on, and they have the right to recoup that investment. But it strikes me that if I believe in my work, I should be willing to make that fixed cost investment myself and hope to collect it back myself.

4. This was the clincher. I don’t feel that right now I can trust the big publishing companies. I look at some of the clauses coming out in publishing contracts these days, and I think writers are getting screwed. In particular, the non-compete clauses are a nightmare – see what happened to Kiana Davenport.  I don’t think I would ever sign a contract with a clause like that, and as a new writer, I have zero confidence I would be able to negotiate that clause away. It would seem to be a deal-breaker for both sides, and that makes it a non-starter.

So the bottom line is that I fear traditional publishing won’t let me write the books I want to write at the pace I want to write them. Even if I try to work both traditional and self publishing, they’ll shut me down. In the end, that leaves me with really only one choice: to self-publish. And what do you know? Suddenly that option isn’t looking so bad after all.

Do I expect to be the next Amanda Hocking or John Locke? Maybe a Joseph Konrath? No, I don’t. For starters, they all have the letter K in their names, and I don’t. I’m sure there are other reasons as well, but I’m not going to dwell on them today. What I do expect is to be able to get my books in front of readers, and I hope that enough of them will be sufficiently entertained to think about another one.

Would I ever consider traditional publishing? Yes, but only when I have the clout to say no to contract terms I don’t like. They might very well laugh me out of the building, but then I’m just back to where I am now, doing it on my own.

Now, I have a lot of work to do in the coming weeks and months, but it looks like it’ll be fun.

3 thoughts on “Choosing to Self-Publish

  1. Pingback: Monday’s Top 5 (Better Late than Never) | The Happy Logophile

  2. Don’t forget that there are clauses in the contract when you sell on Amazon as well. I can’t remember where I saw it, but a self-publishing author put their book out there and Amazon lowered the price to $0 because they said it was available on another website for free (even though it wasn’t). Just be careful. I’d hate to see a fellow aspiring author get screwed.

    • Yeah, I read about that case. I think the way it turned out was that he had a version up somewhere that was only the first few chapters and had it listed for free. Alas, his title didn’t make it clear that it was not the full book, so Amazon’s price-checking bot thought he had posted it elsewhere for free.

      Certainly, Amazon is hardly a collection of saints, though, so I plan to be careful.

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