Craft and Practice with Jeff Bowles – To Self-Publish or not to Self-PublishPosted: June 17, 2020
The third Wednesday of each month, writer Jeff Bowles offers practical tips for improving, sharpening, and selling your writing. Welcome to your monthly discussion on Craft and Practice.
To Self-Publish or not to Self-Publish
I guess I’m a bit of a dreamer when it comes down to it. Head in the clouds much of the time, projecting myself right out of reality because, well, I take more comfort in worlds inside my mind than the world as it really is. I’ve always been that way, and it’s helped me enormously as a creative individual. Has it helped me much in life? That’s a conversation for another time. Or, you know, maybe never.
For me, the dream was always the most important thing, because I understood dreams become reality with startling frequency. I mean, that’s essentially what storytelling is, right? Making something whole, tangible, expressive, from nothing at all. It’s something I have to believe in order to do what I do. If I didn’t think anything and everything was possible, how could I convince you?
I like self-publishing. It’s a good speed for me. I made great efforts to publish short fiction in the traditional form for more than ten years, and I wouldn’t change anything about that time. But then I went off to earn an MFA in Creative Writing, and it slowly dawned on me that recognition, fans, and even money will only get you so far. If you’re dedicated to your craft, you can do it penniless. In no way does it make or break your enjoyment of the act of writing. In fact, achieving something like the ever-ubiquitous yet disappointing “best-seller” status often throws unsuspecting authors into a rut, one that can be difficult to climb out of. With success so comes stress and an urgent need to produce. I’m not good with stress, suffer from some anxiety and other mental health issues, and I somehow knew about myself that if I wanted to put my books out, I’d have to do it in a manner congruent with my everyday tolerance levels.
So when it came time to publish my first novel, I did it myself. I got the most amazing help from a friend of mine to render a cover and some gorgeous chapter-to-chapter artwork, I set the date, released it through Amazon, and then plugged it as best I could, also knowing I’m not a natural salesman. The truth is I would’ve made far more money if I’d snagged a traditional publisher. The truth also happens to be that I don’t care all that much either way, because I’m still the writer guy doing his writer thing, albeit at a somewhat reduced level.
I like controlling the whole process from beginning to end. The product I end up with, for better or worse, is all on me. The people who’ve read my first novel have enjoyed it immensely. Living the kind of life that’s cool and confident and down for lower-case “success”, simply because I’m not sure the upper-case kind is actually all that much fun, well it works for me right now. Maybe a few years down the line I’ll really push for the traditional publishing route. I’m not sure. What price success?
Given the choice, most writers would opt for more sales over fewer. I don’t think I’ve used the word “duh” since I was thirteen years old, but duh. The point is, you can write as much or as little as you want, and you can shoot for the stars or just keep your work on the down-low, but the real question is what fuels you? What keeps you satisfied? Is it money in the bank or pure creative expression? A happy mix of both? What do you want? What do you want? WHAT DO YOU WANT?!
If you’re working on a book or have recently completed one, first of all, congratulate yourself. You’ve done something most people on the planet want to do but never seem to get around to doing. Secondly, ask yourself the question in capital letters up in that last paragraph there. It’s harder to find sponsorship than to put it out yourself. That’s true no matter what you do, so consider it numero uno. Are you willing to risk rejection aplenty and month after month of waiting for an agent to reach out and tell you your work is magnificent (or abhorrent)? Or do you want to produce your book on the fly and handle all the publicity yourself later on? Know that for the vast majority of self-publishers, a hundred lifetime sales is considered superb. That’s a slow lunchtime minute in February for one of the major houses.
Work the traditional route, you’re likely to feel under-the-gun and underappreciated by your publisher. DIY it, and you’ll probably feel like you’re grinding your gears, working your butt off just to make a few lousy sales. Release your work through an established house, and perhaps struggle to earn out your advance and start bringing in those royalties. Put it out yourself, and claim your dividends immediately, meager though they may be.
See? Plusses and minuses for both. Nice work if you can get it, but look, your best bet is to keep producing and put your work out however you can, whenever you can. That’s the shotgun method, and it works. I know what’s been right for me in the past several years, but I also claim the right to change my mind someday. In the grand scheme of things, it’s all benefit and no loss. Just keep doing your thing, and if you get the opportunity to publish your work in a major way, absolutely go for it. If you can’t, however, or you simply would rather not, don’t sweat it, because magnificent career legacies have been built on less. Just don’t sell yourself short, and whatever you do, remain true to your vision and your goals.
Now for a little practical advice. You knew it had to be buried in here somewhere, right? If you’re in the market for an agent, find yourself a good searchable database like AgentQuery.com, or if you’re so inclined, think about picking up the 2020 edition of the Guide to Literary Agents, which many writers throughout the years have found great success with. Your manuscript must be in tip-top shape before you send it to anyone. I know that seems like common sense, but you’d be surprised how often people mess this up. Tip-top means thoroughly revised, edited, and proofread. If you can make it any better, you’re not done with it. Remember to remain professional and courteous, even when you get shot down. Especially when you get shot down.
On the flip-side of the publishing coin, the final state of your book is just as important in self-release, perhaps more so, because you won’t get an assigned editor to walk you through the process. If you can afford one, hire the services of an independent editor, and if you’re not super artistic, hire someone to do the cover and book layout, too. A lot of people, like yours truly, release their stuff through Amazon and call it good, but this is by no means your only option. Vanity publishing, independent print-on-demand, and independent ebook distributors all exist, though do your homework, because some are more attractive than others. Vanity publishing, by the way, try to eschew it if you can. I like Amazon because it’s one-stop shopping, and their KDP publishing system is easy to use, but your mileage may vary, and you may have bigger plans for your work than I’ve had for mine.
Regardless of how you publish, just remember it’s incredibly important to put out the best work you can. You want words you can feel proud of. In the end, your writing legacy is completely in your hands. That’s it for this post, everybody. I’ve got an overdue book to edit, and you’ve got more awesome Writing to Be Read articles to peruse. See ya next time.
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