It’s almost Friday and in keeping with my new Tuesday / Friday blog update schedule, I’m here to throw a little wisdom your way, kids, because I am nothing if not informative.
The hullaballoo about the new Harlequin Horizons self-publishing imprint gave me an excuse to post some thoughts on self-publishing in general. You read right, gang. This isn’t a blog about Godzilla, board games, or the coolness of robots and cartoons. Although I’m not promising that one or more of those topics might rear their head along the way. They tend to do that in my internet postings, and I’ve just learned to live with that. But onto the topic at hand.
Self-publishing (or vanity publishing or whatever the hell you want to call it) is a tricky proposition. I’ll just go on record here and now and say that self-publishing is, in my own opinion, a lesser form of publishing. There’s no rule that says a self-published book has to be bad, but this is true more often than not if we’re honest with ourselves. But there’s also a hell of a lot of bad professionally published books out there too, so what does that really mean?
I’m not against self-publishing if you really, really, really want to get published. But there’s a lot of pitfalls to self-publishing, a lot of mistakes made by aspiring writers who seek to self-publish. We should lay those on the table right now.
If you want to publish so badly just to have a book in your hand that you can show people, maybe sell a few copies here and there, then self-publishing is fine. If, however, you think this will make you a “real” writer, think again. Most self-published books have a hell of a time achieving any kind of market penetration. No matter how good the sales pitch a self-publishing company will give you, a self-published book faces a variety of obstacles a professionally published novel won’t. And considering how hard it is for a professional published book to make an impression on the market, that should tell you something.
Booksellers know the difference between a self-published and a traditionally published book. And, whether you like it or not, they do hold it against you if your book is self-published. Space is limited in a brick-and-mortar store. If they can order ten more of the latest bestseller or one copy of your brilliant self-published book . . . well, do I really need to finish that sentence?
Vanity publishers will lie to you. They will tell you that your book will have every advantage a traditionally published book does. Do NOT believe them. They might even be sincere, but no matter how successful a vanity press is, it is and will always be a vanity press.
Maybe you don’t care about brick-and-mortar stores. Maybe you’re thinking I’ll sell on Amazon and the magical internet. No competition for shelf space there, right? Sorta true. Except that the internet is a ginormous marketplace, and in that marketplace, most everything except a fortunate few exist in shadowy darkened corners. Someone might discover your book about the history of Eskimos. But odds are good that there are likely about a dozen Eskimo history books available on the internet right now and they’ll probably all pop up on a search engine before yours does.
Promotion is key, and while authors have more power to reach out to their audience than ever before, this hasn’t leveled the playing field. Because EVERYONE gets to reach out to their audience now. It’s like wordprocessing programs and electronic submissions via internet. These have made the nuts and bolts of writing easier than ever before and creating more competition than ever before. So it is with the internet. A million voices are all shouting for attention, and between the porno ads and the snuggie pop ups, standing out ain’t all that easy.
Self-promotion is grueling, difficult, rarely rewarding work. I know several self-published authors, and I have tremendous respect for the hard work they do. I don’t work nearly as hard in that department, but I do outsell these folks. One ad in a magazine (paid for by my publisher) or one interview on a popular site (arranged usually by my publisher) will reach more people than I could ever on my own. Monster, my 6th novel, sold pretty well. I’d like to say that this was all because of my talent and hard work, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it has more to do with the fact that this was my first book to be put up front in the store. This was arranged entirely by my publisher influence. Without a publisher, this wouldn’t have happened.
Let’s just lay something out on the table here. Anyone can be a self-published writer. ANYONE. But if you’re writing a book, you don’t want to be just anyone. you want to be more than that. You want to stand out. You want respect. You want money. You want to reach people. And all those things are almost impossible to do as a self-published author. Hard truth. End of story. No arguments from the peanut gallery, please.
At this point, I’m sure all the self-publishing advocates will mention the few people who have been successful via the self-publishing path. Good for them. You will not be one of those people. Okay, you might be one of those people. But you also might wake up tomorrow to find the world has been consumed in nuclear fire and that you are a god worshipped by the new race of mutant snailmen. It might happen, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Every aspiring writer strives to be an anomaly. Getting paid as a professional writer is a small miracle. Getting self-published is just about writing a check. Getting that check to turn into a writing career isn’t just a small miracle. It’s parting the Red Sea level divine intervention. Almost.
And here’s another ugly truth. Vanity publishers might give you a big salespitch about how much they care about your book, how they believe in it, and how they’ll help you sell it. But, really, most of them just want your money. That’s the real difference between vanity press and professional publishing. Both are in this business to make money. One’s looking to make it from readers. The other is looking to make it from aspiring writers. Ask yourself before you self-publish. Are you a writer? Or a customer?
My agent has “The Gatekeeper” rule. It’s a great metaphor for the situation.
Imagine there are two guards at a gate. Both guards allow people into the city at their discretion. Guard A gets no money for letting people in. In fact, it costs Guard A $50 for every person he lets in. Then he gets a percentage of their earned income for the next year.
Guard B gets no percentage. He gets a flat $5 from everyone he lets into the city.
The metaphor is clumsy and obvious, but it illustrates the situation. Guard A has to be discrimating. Guard A probably is even willing to help everyone he lets in find a job because it’s in his best interests. Guard B, on the other hand, benefits from letting everyone in and then just forgetting about them. His best interest is just letling in as many people as possible. Once there inside though, he couldn’t care less. He might tell everyone how great the city is, how easy it is to make a living inside its walls, and how they’d be a sucker to pass up the opportunity for a mere $5. He might even be right. But that’s irrelevent to Guard B. All he cares about is his $5.
Now, not every vanity press is like this. I’m sure that there are honest, hard working self-publishing companies in existence, but I gotta figure that these companies are just as hard to find as a professional publishing house. So you might as well go for the real deal.
This is running a little long. I am not dead set against self-publishing, but I do think it is a decision that should not be taken lightly. The only thing worse than a constant stream of rejection from editors and agents is to have a published book in the market that fades away into obscurity without a real shot.
Vanity publishing will always have much harder time finding an audience.
Vanity publishing is rarely likely to make its writer any money.
Since these are the only two reasons I can imagine anyone wants to write a book, I think we should be up front about it. Still want to self-publish? That’s your call. I wish you all the luck in the world. Just don’t come cryin’ to me if it doesn’t work out.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,