Ruminations and Meandering Thoughts on Self-Publishing

I know I’m about to open up a whole can of worms here, but this is a subject, an important subject, that affects all writers of fiction. These are just ruminations and meandering thoughts of things I’ve observed in the last couple of years since I started in the business and the art of writing for money.

First of all, you may ask what makes me so qualified to express an opinion since I don’t have a novel on the bestseller list? I don’t have an academic degree in anything, other than the PhD I have acquired in the School of Hard Knocks. I am just a working writer hack. Just who do I think I am, really?

I have been reading since I was three years old. This old brain is stuffed full of stories of every kind, and this old heart overflows with the love of the written word. Couple that with an observant nature and an insatiable thirst for learning, and although I may not be a product of formal education, I have been around the block a time or two, and have learned a bit in the process. I might not be able to diagram a sentence in the tradition of Mrs. Outhouse, my high school English teacher (and yes, that is her real name, bless her heart!) but there’s one thing I know intimately, and that is story. Plus, I have been earning a living through writing, editing, and renting my soul to the devil for years. (Not really. If that were the case I’d rent my soul for a lot more than what I’m making. Heh. But earning a living from writing and editing is true.)

What I have observed lately is the world of publishing has cracked wide open, especially in the last couple of years. We can discuss for hours the implications of this to writers, but that’s not really the point of this post. In other words, I’m not going to get into a philosophical discussion about “art” vs “business” here.

Self-publishing is not new. Consider this who’s who list of self-publishers: Mark Twain, Margaret Atwood, L. Frank Baum, Ernest Hemingway, Benjamin Franklin, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Rudyard Kipling, Walt Whitman….those are but a few. However, self-publishing has never become a respected vehicle for writers, and there’s some good reasons for that. For one, there are no gatekeepers. Say what you want about traditional publishing, but they get it right more than they get it wrong (Paris Hilton aside) and that’s because there are gatekeepers. Sure, it’s a crapshoot when you pick up the latest on the shelves, but chances are the material is in decent condition.

But self-publishing books? Well, there are no gatekeepers of any kind, and the only thing you really have to go on by buying and reading material from a self-publisher are reviews, if available, or word-of-mouth, which can be unreliable. And writers who opt to self-publish run the risk of a publishing stigma that maintains if you self-publish, it has to suck. Thankfully, I see that trend starting to change, although I suspect it will be a long row to hoe.

I have mixed feelings, and I’m sure a lot of other writers do, too. The thing that many writers fail to realize is this whole clusterfark is not about art. It’s about business (I can hear the wailing already — save it. I’m not listening, because I know I’m right and in your heart of hearts, you do too). Wail all you want, but the truth is the truth. If you can’t handle it, maybe you should be doing something else. Just sayin’.

Consider these points, if you will:

1. Whether going the route of traditional publishing as opposed to self-publishing, you are going to have to take on a bigger role in self-promoting. It is now a fact of writing life. No longer will you be able to “just” write and send in your material to a publisher and have it magically appear on the book shelves with no more effort from you. It’s not going to work that way. “Write it and they will come” does not apply. Sorry. You’re going to have to roll up your sleeves and sweat some more. Self-pubbers know this — have known it forever. Traditional publishers are going to expect you to do your part to get the word out about your book. Is it fair? Don’t care. It is what it is.

2. When is self-publishing a viable option? Well, there are a few reasons I can think of. For one, it is a smart business move to put together a small volume of shorter works and self-publish to get a buzz going about your novel. If it does well, you have something besides a smokin’ story to show a prospective publisher without compromising your material. Establish an audience — you’re going to need that, anyway.

3. For two, there is some excellent fiction that just won’t find a publisher. Why? Because it is not mainstream enough — meaning, the target audience (and if you don’t know who your target audience is, you have more problems than I can help you with) is not big enough for a publisher to make any money. The novel you’ve just written about the mating habits of the tse-tse fly is not going to appeal to more than a very small and very specialized market, no matter how well-written it is. Remember, this is a business — and this is not personal, so get your panties out of a bunch.

4. With the advent of electronic reading devices and of course, the Internet, a self-publisher has a better chance of reaching a larger audience than ever before. Not to mention opportunities afforded by digital publishing (known as “weblit” to some) in which some authors have found much success due to hard work and innovative marketing ideas.

5. Traditional publishers have a larger distribution and more resources than self-publishers. Again, this is the truth and why being published by a big house seems like the Brass Ring. But is it right for you?

So, what’s a writer to do? Stay tuned for the next post, in which I will give you my opinion of what a writer needs to think about before choosing which way to jump.

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