I always assumed I would go the traditional-publishing route with my books. Until recently, after all, it’s been the only viable option. Yes, people self-published, but if you were writing fiction, it wasn’t considered a way to have a legitimate writing career. Now, though, things have changed. Not only is self-publishing is a valid means of putting your writing out into the world, I believe it’s the best option for me.
I came around to the idea of self-publishing gradually. As soon as I started looking into what it takes to be a professional writer, I heard all about why self-publishing was a terrible idea, and although this isn’t the same world it was back then, those prejudices are hard to overcome. At first I thought, “These people are naive and delusional.” Then, “Okay, this might make sense for other people, but not for me.” And then, “Well, why not? Why doesn’t this make sense for me?” And then I had to face the idea that maybe it was traditional publishing that didn’t make sense for me.
I started the querying process for The Torturer’s Daughter shortly before my hiatus from writing. The original plan was to essentially let the universe decide; I planned to send out a hundred query letters, and if by that point I still didn’t have representation, I would self-publish. And then my doubts started growing. With each new query, part of me started hoping not for an acceptance, but for another rejection to bring me closer to 100. I stopped when the doubts got too loud for me to ignore. It took a lot of time after that for me to decide – if you looked up the opposite of impulsive in the dictionary, I’m pretty sure my picture would be there – but a few months ago I made my decision. I won’t be pursuing traditional publishing with The Torturer’s Daughter; it will be self-published, as will – barring some huge shift in my thinking and/or the publishing landscape – my future novels.
I’m not trying to get rich here. I’m not looking for fame, either. If it happens, I’m not going to turn it down – who would? I think anyone out there would be thrilled to be the next J.K. Rowling. But that’s not what I’m aiming for, and that’s not what success looks like to me. What I want is a solid, established, long-term writing career. I want to spend my days writing, and I want to find readers for my books when I’m finished with them. I could get there by either publishing route, I think, but the way things stand now, I think self-publishing will get me there more effectively.
The average traditionally-published author (at least, one who is published by a major publisher; with a small press the lines blur a lot more) will get more readers than the average indie author. The book is out there in bookstores, and backed by a publisher, and those things are going to get more people to read it. And what author doesn’t want as many readers as possible? This is an advantage of traditional publishing.
But with traditional publishing, you’re under time pressure. You have to succeed in a certain amount of time, and maintain a certain amount of success, or your publisher will drop you. Or maybe just suggest that you write something different, something that will sell better. With self-publishing, there’s no time limit. If you publish a book, and a year later you’ve sold exactly one copy (to your mom), you’re exactly where you started. No more, no less. You haven’t lost anything except some confidence.
Traditional publishing also places less emphasis on finding the right readers, and more emphasis on appealing to as many readers as possible. It’s true that you have more of a chance of finding the right readers if your book is in front of more people – but in traditional publishing, finding the readers to whom your book is best suited isn’t the primary goal. Selling a lot of copies is the primary goal. Not that I would ever object to selling a lot of copies! But if there’s a conflict between finding a lot of readers and finding my readers, I know what I would choose. And this kind of conflict does exist; it comes up in how your book is edited, in how it’s marketed, in what you write next.
And then there’s the issue of selling the book before you write it. Before self-publishing was even on my radar, I knew that this part of publishing simply doesn’t work the way I work. In traditional publishing, although there are exceptions, after you’ve sold your first book you generally sell your next books before they’re written. You present your idea/proposal/outline to your agent, and your agent works with you on it, helps you figure out how to tweak it, and works on selling it to a publisher. I have serious doubts as to whether I could do that. I don’t even like to talk about my projects as I’m writing them, for the most part. It dissipates the creative tension, the energy that makes me want to write the story. If I worked with an agent and editor on a story concept before the book was even written, I suspect the project would be dead before I wrote the first word.
Self-publishing is a lot of work, and it takes a long time to get going. This is okay with me. I’m in this for the long haul, no matter which route I choose, and with the current state of both self-publishing and the publishing industry, self-publishing seems more designed for the long haul. I’m okay with working hard; this is what I want to do with my life, and if I wasn’t okay with working hard at that, something would be wrong. I’m okay with gradually building up momentum; I prefer that to being under pressure to succeed quickly, and giving someone else the power to end my career.
Choosing self-publishing isn’t about avoiding rejections. You still get rejections when you’re self-published, only now they’re in the form of reviews posted on Amazon for the whole world to see, and they’re usually a lot harsher than your standard form rejection. Besides, I’ve only gotten a handful of rejections on this project, plus a folder’s worth on another; it would take a lot more before I was ready to give up. (Who am I kidding? I would never be ready to give up. We writers are masochistic creatures.)
The prestige of traditional publishing does have an allure, I admit. If a publisher takes you on, your gains a sort of cultural legitimacy; it becomes official. You’re a published author. If you tell people you’re self-published, there’s a good chance the first thing they’ll think of is vanity publishing, and in any case, it just doesn’t have the same officialness to it. Do I want that officialness? Of course I do. I’m a writer, and I want to be recognized as one. But I’m not writing to “become a published author.” That’s never been the draw for me. I’m doing this to write, and to have my books read. That’s what comes first – how to accomplish that in the way that’s best for me and my books. Anything else is peripheral. Irrelevant.
I still have twinges of doubt, and I imagine I always will, just like I would always have twinges of doubt if I decided to go with traditional publishing. It’s not easy to walk away from an option without knowing where it would have taken you, and it’s not easy to take the path that is seen as the easy way out, the failure’s option, even if you know better. But I think I’m making the right choice. Underneath the doubt I feel the solid foundation of rightness.
I was at the bookstore the other day, browsing the YA books like I usually do, and it occurred to me that my book would never be there on the shelves with them. I expected to feel doubt or disappointment. I didn’t. I felt relief – because that life isn’t what I want after all. This is what I want. I’m doing the right thing.