Those who know me know that I write novels. Given the time it takes to complete a novel when working a full-time job, I’m pleased that I usually succeed in completing one within 12 months.
I’m used to responding to questions from friends about the latest novel and what I aim to do with with it now that it’s as good as I feel I can make it. I tell them, as briefly as possible so as not to bore them, about researching literary agents, about choosing those who may both be interested in representing the novel and best able to get a publisher interested, and why it’s standard practice to only send the first three chapters and wait to see if the agent wants to read the rest.
If the friend is interested, perhaps because they’d like to write a novel someday, I point them in the direction of Slushkiller and explain why rejection letters are all part of the process.
But not this year. This year I get a new question.
I recently completed a novel, one that I’m proud of. One that is a huge jump in quality and concept compared to my previous attempts. One that is buzzing with a potential I haven’t felt before. But this year I don’t have the same conversations described above, now I get…
“You thought about self-publishing it?”
“Why don’t you put it up onto Amazon? You can do that now.”
“Just put it online yourself.”
“You should do what [insert name of recent self-published author on current bestseller lists] did.”
Hoo boy. If I get into the differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing, the advantages and disadvantages, then this post will be a lot longer than I planned. Instead, I’m going to cut down to the basics and give a direct answer to the “Why don’t you self-publish?” question. I’ll attempt to do this without going off on tangents.
But before I do that. A tangent…
I’m not against self-publishing. I’ve experimented with placing my work online for free on and off for several years now. I’ve used Kindle Direct Publishing, Smashwords, etc for both long and short works (two short stories are still available). I enjoyed the process. Especially designing my own covers. I believe self-publishing has a chance of someday becoming just as effective, if not more so, than traditional publishing. I am certain it will continue to get easier, bigger, more popular. But for my current novel, right here and now, no, self-publishing doesn’t hold any interest for me. For a simple reason. (This is where I end the tangent…)
Let’s say I self-publish this novel as an ebook. I format the novel myself. I copy-edit the novel myself. I design the cover myself. Or I can pay for some or all of those services if I’m willing to spend money I may not make back (I’m not). I send it out the the world’s kindles and nooks and kobos. I hope people who have never met me will buy it. I can self-market the novel and those who I don’t piss off with email spam and dull promotional tweets may even buy it too. If I’m lucky, maybe thirty strangers who have never met me will pay to read the novel. I’ll even get a little bit of money for that. Enough for a whisky and a bowl of pork scratchings.
If I continue to be lucky, and the novel is good enough, some of those who buy it will really like it. They’ll tell their friends. Another bunch of people will buy it. If I’m even luckier, the strangers’ friends will buy it. After a few months, who knows, 200 or 300 people might’ve bought it. That’ll take a lot of luck though, even if the novel is super-amazing-awesome.
And so on.
Now, let’s say I go down the traditional publishing route. I edit the novel as best I can and send it to thirty literary agents who might be interested. Not all at once. I send it to five, and each time one rejects me, I send it to another agent.
See what’s happening here? By self-publishing I can hope thirty strangers might read it. By sending it to agents I’m guaranteeing thirty strangers will read it. But I’m choosing the strangers. And if one of these strangers likes it, they know other strangers in publishing companies. All it takes is one of those other strangers to like it enough to buy the rights.
I get paid an advance. The book is professionally copy-edited, designed, and marketed. The book can not only be found on ebook readers, but in physical bookstores. The novel reaches both a wider audience and a better targeted audience.
Now, I understand the appeal of self-publishing. There’s no rejection. Your novel is out there. Attempting to get an agent and then a traditional publisher interested in your work invites rejection. And you will get a lot of it. For years. For this novel, your next novel, maybe the one after that. But doesn’t that tell you something? It told me something. It told me my writing wasn’t quite good enough. Not yet. That’s okay. I’ll keep writing, keep getting better, until it is good enough.
The TL;DR version? Self-publishing is hoping thirty strangers read your novel and like it enough that a couple of their friends buy it. Attempting traditional publishing is guaranteeing thirty strangers will read your novel, but if they recommend it, hundreds if not thousands buy it.