Why I Don’t Generally Recommend Self-Publishing to Beginners
I am either the best possible choice as a judge for Mark Lawrence’s ‘The Great Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off’ or the worst choice. I should probably explain that, shouldn’t I?
When someone comes to me asking whether they should self-publish a book I almost always convince them that no, they should not. The process of convincing someone that self-publishing is generally not a good idea involves being rather blunt with them and coming across, initially, as a bit of a dick. Thankfully, after I give my reasons for why self-publishing isn’t a good idea for the average writer (i.e. 99 out of 100), and explain that it is for the good of the author I’m talking to and, indeed, the industry, I’m usually forgiven and am happy that the person who came to me has been set on a path to becoming a better writer.
So, why don’t I like self-publishing *as a rule* then?
Well, I don’t think that any aspiring author out there would turn down the chance to be published by the likes of Harper Voyager (who print books by Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin and Mark Lawrence) or Gollancz (home to Patrick Rothfuss and Brandon Sanderson).
Certainly, I’d love to have them as my colleagues or stable mates!
I also don’t think that any individual is egotistical enough to think that they can do the job of agent, editor, marketer, production manager, distribution manager, sales person, etc. all by themselves and to the high standards of trained, experienced professionals who have earned their jobs in the top publishing houses around the world.
Finally, there just isn’t good money in being a self-published author. Yes, there are exceptions, but if you want to take the chance that the next one of those will be you then you’re playing with odds not too far away from getting a good lottery win.
Once I’ve explained this reasoning I ask my writer friends why they are self-publishing. Generally, it takes quite a lot of teasing out of them because the reasons they give me are the ones they don’t really want to admit. Here are the primaries I’m given:
1. An Editor / Agent turned their book down.
I understand this one, totally. When you put hours into a book, you love the characters, you are proud of the story and you feel it deserves to be read, rejection is heartbreaking. How can you just give up on these people and places – their story? The prose that you’ve poured your soul into? In this case, the unfortunate truth is that by self-publishing you are choosing the easy option.
Why is this a bad idea and not quite as harmless as you might think? Well, in my eyes it stunts your progression as a writer. If you refuse to acknowledge that an editor or agent doesn’t feel your work is ready to be released upon the reading public and do it anyway you are robbing yourself of acting on professional feedback that will allow you to grow.
What should you do instead when a rejection occurs?
Go write your next novel or re-write your current one. Emma Newman and Brandon Sanderson have both told me about the books they have written and simply thrown or stored away upon finishing them. Imagine you want to be a professional football player, you don’t walk on the pitch and start playing for Manchester United. Imagine you want to be a movie star, you don’t automatically get cast in the next Avengers movie. Similarly, if you write a book there is no reason you should assume you deserve to be on shelves next to Trudi Canavan or Peter V. Brett, etc.; you need to put in some practice, allow yourself to fail a few times, get to a professional standard through hard work and dedication.
The thing to remember when tucking a book away is that this wasn’t all a waste of time. Get people to look at your work and critique the heck out of it. Put an editor’s/agent’s hat on and think about why it didn’t get snapped up. If you are finding it truly hard to give up on the tale you’ve already told then think about the authors I mentioned such as Brandon Sanderson. He had drafts of books stored in draws that weren’t publishable, but is in the process of re-writing them now that he has had more writing experience and time within the industry.
Note: He also had ideas for books that he felt he was not good enough to do justice and has only recently started working on them too.
After releasing the above picture on Twitter I got around 100 retweets and favourites. Most people agreed with me, but there were some who made some very good arguments. Some suggested you could self-publish and then write your next book. This is true, but why? I understand if you went straight to self-publishing as this had always been your goal. But, if you sent the book to an agent you obviously valued their opinion and wanted them to pick it up. It is no good once they reject it saying, “Well your opinion is bullshit, I don’t care what you think!” because you obviously did. The risk to me is that you spend months promoting and improving that book, convinced it is good enough to be on shelves, when you could be spending your time on writing another having analysed why an agent didn’t think it would sell.
Others suggested that this one book may help you build a following and then be picked up by a publisher. Again, it could, but you could just write another book/keep improving the first one after learning from the rejection. There is also a real danger that if you publish a book and it doesn’t sell then you are proving that your work isn’t selling and I can guarantee agents will take that into account. It is also mentally tough to have a book on a shelf that sells 10 copies, I’m told. You could always use a pseudonym if it didn’t work out said one tweet, but then you’d be doing that because you know your previous work wasn’t of the best quality and, therefore, probably shouldn’t have released it in the first place.
2. An honest belief that the author can do all the work required to a professional standard and obtain the sales figures to make it all worthwhile.
I hesitate to kill a person’s belief when they say this to me, because it is an incredible amount of self-belief to have. The thing is, self-publishing isn’t as easy as writing a book, putting it on Amazon and watching your bank get tasty little bonuses. The worst thing I see is when an author truly believes they don’t need an editor, that they can do all the refining of the manuscript themselves. They go right ahead and publish a book without having a professional edit it. I mean, Lynch, Le Guin, Abercrombie, Pratchett, they all had editors because you need an editor. Not only does an editor fix your prose, they have years of experience approaching a book as a reader and letting you know what a reader will raise their eyebrows at in disbelief, disgust, etc. and also where you’ll leave them yawning or lost in terms of what is going on.
I feel much better when people hire an editor, but it’s not cheap to secure the services of a good one and even the best editor can only do so much with a book. I guess there is a polishing a diamond vs polishing a rock metaphor here, but if you are reading this you are probably a creative person and I’ll let you make up your own. 🙂
The next problem, potentially an even bigger problem, is that if you write a book and self-publish it you get people like me who instantly approach your book with suspicion. Why is this book self-published? Has it undergone editing? Will there be a sequel/completion to the series once this author realises how little money there is to be made?
It’s incredibly cruel and I hate myself every time these thoughts enter my head, but, being honest with you again, the days where I gladly accepted review copies of self-published books from authors setting out on the self-pub trail are behind me. The reason is: I accept the book, it is awful, the author gets in touch and asks me what I thought. Do I be point blank honest hurting their feelings in a hope I can help them or do I lie and say it was good but not for me and risk leaving them oblivious to the practice they still need? Despite this evil post I like to think of myself as a nice person and breaking the heart of writers or angering them is not something I enjoy doing.
Final note on this one: some people tell me that they do not care about sales figures. That’s fair enough. Vanity Presses existed in the past where writers would pay to print their books with the potential to make their money back through royalties or selling them themselves. Rarely did an author make ANY money (in fact, they usually lost a fair amount), but, you know what: most didn’t care. They could tell their friends and family they were an author who had a published book with their name on the front and everything and this was good enough for them.
Amazon, really, has become like a giant, super-cheap vanity press. You may not care about making money, but you should. The number of readers you get is a good indication of how good your book is. If your book is truly good enough to sell to the masses and yet you’ve only sold 20 – 30 copies you are robbing yourself and robbing readers too. Not only that, but the dream of every writer should be to do it full-time so that they can become a full creative and indulge themselves within their worlds and provide the reading public with as many works that have had as much of their time as possible, surely?
By this point I imagine the vast majority of you are feeling, “Why the bloody heck is this evil, self-published author hating sod taking part in Mark Lawrence’s Self Published Fantasy Blog-Off then?”
Well, if you’ve read all this, are in the Blog-Off (or not) and think, “F*** you, Marc, I’m going to release my self-published novel and it is going to sell because although agents didn’t fully appreciate it I’ve had it professionally edited, I have a clear marketing strategy, I’ve researched my distribution networks, I’ve got a cover that is going to drop jaws and am ready to fully engage myself with the SFF community” then you might just be the next Michael J. Sullivan or Anthony Ryan that this competition set out to find.
Authors do fall through the net, there are authors who don’t appear to be what the market is looking for – perhaps they call upon tropes from a time passed or are so far ahead of where traditional publishing is at that they are overlooked or maybe the sub-genre they are writing in is believed to be too obscure. In the case of Michael I think he was calling upon tropes thought to be out of fashion (which were, evidently, not) and in Anthony’s case I feel that his work was felt to be too similar to what was already out there (whereas, in reality, the reading public REALLY wanted more of that kind of thing).
Whilst this blog post has been a harsh one and quite a difficult one to write, I do believe that there will be more authors who choose to self-publish who will go on to sell as many books as Mark Lawrence, Brent Weeks, Kameron Hurley, Wesley Chu, etc. It would be an absolute honour to find them and if one of them can convince me that self-published novels can be as good quality as traditionally published books I would welcome that change in opinion. It truly would.
My opinion is though that for every one person who does become a success thanks to the increase and ease of self-publishing, hundreds upon hundreds will choose it as the easy opinion and not learn the correct way of responding to rejection – picking yourself up and refining what you tried before or trying something new to achieve the original goal. This is sad because it means some writers who were destined to write great novels that they were going to sell to hundreds of thousands of readers will instead self-publish, get discouraged at a lack of sales and give up writing.