Self-Publishing is for Failures, Said Ignorant Teenage Me

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“Have you thought about self-publishing?”

Years ago, I took that question as an insult.

Self-publishing, I thought, was for wannabes who were arrogant enough to reject the professional judgment of the Great Guardians of Literary Quality and put their drivel out there anyway.  If my book was not worthy of traditional publishing, I thought, I would rather let it rot than shove it in the world’s face in all its worthlessness. Better to accept my work’s inferiority than delude myself, was my reasoning.

To suggest self-publishing to me back then was tantamount to saying, “Your book won’t make it. It belongs in the realm of failures.”

Yeah.  Lovely, right?

In my defense, back then I knew self-publishing as “vanity publishing.”  In other words, it was assumed that people did it for their vanity, and self-publishing companies were flattering gullible writers into thinking their books were good.  I don’t think it was just me; there was a general stigma against that publishing model in the industry as a whole.

I have learned many things since then.

“Traditional Publishing” Does Not Equal Quality

The ability to “make it” in big-name publishing says little about the true quality of a book.  In fact, it might not say anything about book’s enduring value!  Big companies put out a lot of poor literature every year for every truly excellent book that comes from them.  Thumbs-up from a large publishing house doesn’t guarantee a book’s goodness.

“Untraditional Publishing” Does Not Equal Poor Quality

Large presses are big businesses.  They have to turn a good-size profit to survive.  That means they aren’t judging your book only on its merit as a story, but also its ability to stand out in the constantly-shifting trends of the marketplace, how successfully they can market this concept, and whether it will engage its target audience.  A lot of factors have to be in place before a big company will take a risk on your story.  Failure to make it into a traditional publishing house does not automatically mean “this book is bad.”

There is a big difference between, “Silly publishers don’t understand my genius – I’ll do this by myself!” and the more thoughtful, calculated approach to self-publishing that I have actually seen among my writer friends.  Most self-published authors, I’ve learned, don’t do it because they got bruised by rejection and don’t bother to improve their craft, but because they know their stories have value, they have worked hard on them, and they want to share them with the world regardless of whether a publisher thinks they are hugely profitable.

Which brings me to my next point…

Self-Confidence Is Necessary

Writers have to simultaneously believe the following two things:

The story I am now working on is the greatest work of genius ever written in English.

The story I am now working on is worthless drivel.

– Orson Scott Card

Writers need to be teachable.  Most importantly we need to be humble, and recognize that when somebody says, “This needs work,” it probably needs work.  Some concepts and stories simply aren’t any good and should be shelved, not widely shared.  Some struggle with prose, some struggle with plot or character development.  Most writers need several years (I’ve heard four years, minimally) of learning the craft before producing anything that is generally considered publishable.  All this learning can make us assume over time that we shouldn’t be able to have confidence in our own projects, or ever look at them and say, “Yes, this works!  This is good!”

Even recently, I’ve said, “I can’t self-publish, personally, because I want that stamp of approval.  I need someone professional to tell me, ‘Yes, this story is worth sharing.’ ”

But think about it!

The first step in writing is taking the best ideas out of my brain and putting them on paper.  I have to determine whether to do that myself.  I then have to decide if those ideas are worth improving, editing, pouring out days, months, maybe years of my life to make them the best they can be.  I have to invest that time.  No one else is going to give me the thumbs-up for that, or tell me if it will be worth it.  I have to love my story that much.  For the author, just like a publishing house, each new story is a “risk.”

After confirming to themselves so many times, “Yes, this book is worth it,” can’t an author make that call when it comes time to publish the story, too?

I’ve already taken that risk.  For my trilogy, I have put in 8 years’ worth of love and counting.  Am I going to believe that if persistence fails and the traditional publishing door slams in my face, that’s God telling me my work has no value and it should rot in my computer forever?

God Gave Us These Books

All creativity comes from Him.  He put these wild adventures, people, and plot lines in my head.  I don’t mean I am divinely inspired, but He gave me the capacity for a head full of stories.  We all have our individual gifts, and I firmly believe that a mind full of teeming worlds is a gift.  If you have that, it needs to be used to His glory!

If I don’t tell the world these stories, no one will!  No one else ever can.  They come from my mind alone, and I think God means for me to share them, when they’re ready.

I still don’t plan to self-publish, for a variety of reasons.  It does cost a lot of upfront, especially if you are paying professionals to format your book, design a cover, and so forth.  I’m also not much of an entrepreneur.  And what can I say?  I’d love the thrill of being “picked” by an agent or publisher!  Nothing wrong with that.  Getting into a traditional large press is my goal, though I’d also consider reputable small presses.  If none of those bite, I’d probably try to get my foot in the door with another book, saving the trilogy for later in my career – or, knowing what I do now, I might self-publish that one!  It’s a little unusual and may not be right for any large presses.

But before my stories go anywhere, I have to cement myself in the knowledge that my gifts are from God and I need to hone them to His glory, and devote my efforts fully to Him.  If I have done that, and I love my books and know in my heart that they have value, why should the opinion of the traditional publishing world determine whether my story is a failure?

So the next time someone says to me, “Have you thought about self-publishing?”, instead of being offended, I’m going to take it as a compliment:

“Your book is important and the world needs to read it, no matter what it takes for that to happen.”

That’s a much nicer translation, wouldn’t you say?

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Writers out there – why did you publish the way you did, or why do you plan to publish that way, Lord willing?  Readers – does the publishing model of a book make a difference to you as a reader?

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6 Comments

  1. Kessie

     /  July 3, 2014

    I can’t afford an editor at the moment, so I have a crafty plan. I have one series for self publishing and one I want to small press. All edits I receive can be applied to both series (since I make the same mistakes both places). Eventually I’ll be trained enough to do more on my own, with confidence. Every short story I get out there, the editing process improves my novels.

    It’s a beautiful plan!

    Reply
  2. I go back and forth…so I keep writing. I have also changed my goals a few times and that’s put me behind on publishing. For my children’s stories, I’m probably going to go with a small Christian publisher. For my fairy tales, I’d like to go a little broader. But there’s still so much writing to be done that I’ll wait a little longer to decide. I’m thankful for self-publishing. It’s made the publishing world one of choosing to do this or that instead of a world of being published or unpublished…which has it’s own pitfalls…but I thankful for the wiggle room!

    Reply
    • I agree, Abby! It’s nice to have the options. The downfall is that there ARE books out there that are not great, and authors who go straight to self-publishing before they are ready might never go anywhere if they don’t have an editor, or constructive criticism, to help their books get better. Rejection does tell you things, especially if the editor who rejects you is nice enough to tell you why. (I’ve never had that happen, sadly. All my rejections have been form rejections.)

      So I’m really thankful for the “preview” feature on Amazon and other websites. I can tell pretty quickly whether a story is going to be good, by reading the first few pages. 🙂

      Reply
  3. Hey Bethany, just a quick note on your thoughts: “I still don’t plan to self-publish, for a variety of reasons. It does cost a lot of upfront, especially if you are paying professionals to format your book, design a cover, and so forth.”

    You may already know this, but there is a difference (or what some claim is a difference) between vanity press (and do cost a lot) and self-publishing. Meaning, you can self publish at places like lulu.com and createspace.com. Neither cost anything, but possibly one proof copy of your work. I originally found lulu.com in 2006 (it has templates you can use), when I first started writing but have found createspace.com to be a better “deal” (cheaper). Also, createspace.com is a department of Amazon, so your book(s) automatically get posted to amazon.com with your permission. I also self publish my ebooks to Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Amazon also has a yearly contest.

    What I have chosen to do with my books is, I get a handful of people to read them for errors, critiques, etc. Sometimes it is better than others, because often people you know are scared to tell you what is wrong. ha! Then I read them again, but never seem to catch everything. Is it bad that I feel better when I see errors in “real” published books I have read? ha! Also, I have used fotolia.com for my covers, using Paint Shop Pro to edited them to my liking.

    I’ve heard, the more you write, the more books you have out there, the better chance you have being seen and picked up by a “real” publisher. I am hopeful, as I usually put more work into writing my books than trying to get someone to buy them.

    Here’s my publishing info if interested: http://www.pordlawlarue.com/publishing.html

    Reply
    • Thank you for all the info, Pordlaw! That’s good to know that self-publishing is generally cheaper than publishing with a vanity press. And that is a good point that often writer friends will edit and critique you for free – that is nice, especially when you’re plugged in to a good writer community (I have a couple, plus other writing friends). Thanks!

      Reply

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