Which Road To Take?
When it comes to publishing these days, there are really two viable alternatives: going the traditional route, and the self-published route. (I will ignore vanity publishing, because that means the author has to pony up a lot of bucks up front.)
A lot has been written across the wild, wild internet about which road is better. You’ll find two types of authors behind these missives: the diehard traditionalists who still believe in gatekeepers, agents, and the old editor/publisher/author relationships, and the self-published adherents who maintain the DIY approach is the only way to free a writer from the rather arbitrary shackles imposed on the industry by the big publishing houses. Both camps make excellent points in their favor, and from time to time, even regard each other with something approaching respect.
Or at least diminished hostility.
But for me, it was an easy choice to make. I’d been plugging away for years at the traditional route, obtaining an agent here, another there, writing, rewriting, rejigging stories that I’d thought were locked and loaded to suit the seemingly arbitrary tastes of an individual who could “sell” me. But after some years where the only noticeable change in my circumstances were that I now have the fingers of Arnold Schwarzenegger from all the typing workouts, a creeping sense of dissatisfaction set in. Was this how it would always be? Would I always be reaching for the brass ring, only to have it dangle just outside of my reach?
We’ve all been there before. On the job, it’s always the sycophantic numbnuts who gets the promotion, gets the raise, gets the glory–even if you’re the one who’s done all the work. We’ve all pined for the one gorgeous gal (or guy, depending on your circumstances) only to see that person ride off into the sunset with someone else. Life is not a level playing field, and it never will be. It’s up to us as individuals to break out of the rather desultory mold circumstance often bequeathes us, and that comes with its own set of stressors–will I fail? Will I somehow ruin everything? What if I’m not good enough? What if I’m not smart enough? What if, what if, what if?
I’d had my fill of that for years. Even the most confident person can suffer from debilitating rounds of self-doubt, especially if we depend on others to provide our validation. And when those folks–let’s call them “gatekeepers”, for want of a better word–are automatically preconditioned to say no, then self-doubt could eventually morph into suicidal tendencies. Or make you give up, which is pretty much the same thing.
I was in a high orbit around the whole publishing thing, getting nothing done despite working on it almost ceaselessly. I’d gone the distance, traveled the road I was told would be my best shot to score a publishing deal. I have drawers full of rejections, covering everything from novels, short stories, movie scripts, comic scripts, even two non-fiction books. I went through those rejections over the weekend, and found that I’d started in 1981! That’s thirty years without any tangible success. Thirty years. Holy fuck! I used to view these rejections as something like badges of accomplishment, kind of like a series of Army commendation medals or something, only without the specific meaning. As I went through them, I was struck by the general lack of information each rejection carried. Not for us, but good luck. This was a great read, but it doesn’t fit what we’re looking for at this time. I reviewed your manuscript [insert title here] very carefully, and have decided not to pursue it at this time. Best of luck.
Best of luck? I would have preferred Go fuck yourself. At least it’s not hard to divine the true meaning behind a response like that. (I tossed those rejection slips on Sunday.)
Through the forums at Absolute Write, I found a link to Dean Wesley Smith’s blog discussing self-publishing. I followed it and spent days at the site, reading his ruminations on agents, publishers, the change landscape the writer was confronted with. His postings led me to visit his wife’s blog as well, where her message was even more pointed: Never trust agents. They hold your money, and many of them embezzle. From there, I went to Konrath’s blog, and while Joe takes a lot of shit for his straight talk, he posts his actual numbers. Once I saw the serious bank he was laying claim to, the refrigerator door to my mind popped open and the light came on. I didn’t need the agents, the editors, the publishers, the marketing folks I’d been told were absolutely, positively instrumental in my finding success.
I could so it all myself, and what I couldn’t do on my own? I could hire any number of professionals to help me on the way, for a flat fee, without them owning part of my product for the rest of my life.
Damn. (Now I finally understand the lamentation I was born too soon in its fullest.)
So what does this new-found freedom mean for the hopeful writer? Well, it certainly means publication is more accessible. At the same time, it means we all have to bring our A Game–the only person responsible for your success is yourself, and that means a lot of work. It means you have to develop a hardset discipline and maintain a steady, substantial pace. It means you have to be tough on yourself–hell, you have to be merciless. Because if you aren’t, your stuff won’t sell, you’ll wind up with a flotilla of one and two star reviews, and your bank account will be a cold, drafty place. And the odds of runaway success are still quite long. I’ve been pretty free about posting my numbers, and while folks tell me I’m incredibly successful given that I’ve only been at it for nine months of so, I remain dissatisfied. I can do better. And I will.
I know lots of would-be writers who still scoff at the self-publishing paradigm. “It’s too hard,” they say. “All the self-published stuff sucks.” “If you have to self-publish, there’s a reason for that.”
To the first: Yes, it’s tough. Yes, you have to give up some things so you can get your shot at glory. You can’t sit in front of the TV watching House Hunters International and The Walking Dead all night long. You can’t run out for a night of drunken debauchery with the boys. You can’t play with your pet rock collection. You have to give up a lot on the front end for a chance at things playing out really well on the back end. Just like life as usual. No surprises there.
To the second, about self-pubbed works sucking balls: A lot of it does, and that’s undeniable. But that doesn’t mean your work has to suck balls. If it does, you’re not working hard enough. You’re not serious about it. You’re what I call a Hobby Writer, which means you don’t have a clue, and if you’re my age, you likely never will. To reiterate, a lot of self-pub projects are absolutely horrible. Yours doesn’t have to be, and if you’re smart and actually finish what you write, have it read by trusted, objective sources, and then pay to have it edited by a professional, you’re well on your way to avoiding the SuckFest 2011/2012 tour. And then after you’ve gotten this far, you need to go the entire distance and get a worthwhile cover figured out, create and vet a compelling product description, and make the work as accessible as you can. That means Amazon, B&N, and yes, Smashwords. The process for submitting works to Smashwords is a pain in the ass, but Smashwords is becoming a very powerful product aggregator. I don’t want to run out and buy a Macintosh just so I can post to iTunes; it’s much more efficient to figure out how to get a product submitted through Smashwords and let them do the rest of the heavy lifting on my behalf.
And for there being a reason one absolutely has to self-publish: In the old days–and I’m harkening back to those halcyon days of, oh, 2008–self-pub meant going to a vanity press and paying bloodsuckers who were not (surprise!) agents to present your work to the public. Oftentimes–hell, I don’t know of any other way it happened–these con artists fleeced the writer for cash every step of the way. The product was almost always miserable, the costs were through the roof, and there was just no satisfaction to be had–not to mention sales. Associating with a vanity press was about as helpful to a writing career as a fashion model receiving a shotgun blast to the face. Yeah, there’s a minute chance things could go well, but your chances of drawing the winning PowerBall ticket are substantially higher. And given the odds, probably a smarter investment.
Flash forward to 4Q 2011.
There are people out there who make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year publishing their own work. And there are people out there making millions of dollars publishing their own work, too. And they get to keep upwards of 70% of the profits. No publishers taking out their costs for phantom expenses, no meaningful number of returns, no remainders, no agency in the middle who may or may not be taking your money and buying gold-plated windlasses for 55+-foot yachts. Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, iTunes, Kobo, etc. are not publishers, they’re distributors. They take a percentage of every sale, and the rest is yours to do with what you will. You spend $500-$1,200 on production costs, and after that, the rest of the process only makes money. You might not hit one out of the park your first time at bat, but this is a forever war, you just need to keep putting product out there, as often as you can, as professional as you can. I never read anything by Bob Mayer or Joe Konrath when they were in print with any of the big houses; didn’t even know they existed. Both guys make over half a million a year now. Never read a word written by Blake Crouch before 2011, and now I’ve read pretty much all of his stuff. These guys would be lucky to make $20,000-$50,000 a year in 2008. In 2011? Not singing the praises of the publishing industry, you can bet.
So for me, the career path is clear. I’m a DIY kind of guy anyway, so it wasn’t as horrible a transition as I’d feared. I made mistakes generated from inexperience, not laziness, but it is shaping up and I’m now up to speed on the process. I don’t wear a scarlet letter, people don’t deride me in public, and little kids don’t run up and boot me in the balls on Lower Manhattan’s Maiden Lane because I self-published. I’ve made four times the usual advance I could have expected in nine months, and God willing, I’ll keep pulling in the dough as time marches on. And I’ve developed a keen form of self-governance that ensures I meet my targets and keeps the career marching forward.
Never had any of this in the past while assaulting the gatekeepers. I never had the opportunities I have now. And I’m capitalizing on these opportunities as quickly as possible. Wherever they pop up, I’m on-station in plus or minus thirty seconds, ready to rumble. It’s no longer a lottery game.
It’s a profession.