Firstly — I’m nobody, but I’m one of those guys who just a few months ago would never take self-publishing seriously (I think I wrote a post about it, and I have half a mind to take it down (I probably will)). But after keeping tabs on it for a while and just researching on it whenever I can, my views have changed from “Self-publishing is what you do when you can’t get an agent, just a Plan B” to “Self-publish ASAP.” For anyone who doesn’t know much about it or is perhaps undecided, this post is for you.
So I’m going to assume that anyone reading this knows at least the basic differences between trade publishing and self-publishing; and if you do, let me just ask you one question: why are you still not self-publishing? Because honestly, once I understood the pros and cons of each to a respectable extent, there wasn’t much doubt in my mind which road is the better one.
Here are the differences — Time. Effort. Money. Let’s go through them.
So say you’ve just spent a few months (or a few years depending on how meticulous you are) perfecting your book. Great. After you type “The End”, you’re probably going to have to wait a week or two at the least before you can start editing it with a proper eye. So yeah, that’s a giant time investment right there. Now say you take the trade publishing approach, because you want to see your book picked up by a real publisher. And that’s fair. You send your query letter to as many agents as you can find who would likely represent you, then they’ll probably take 3-5 weeks to get back to you on average. There are actually a few popular agents you can follow on Twitter (whom I don’t want to name) that Tweet as they go through their slush pile of query letters. Most query letters will get rejected. Most. Only a very few ever get a reply for a follow-up, requesting a part of the manuscript. And that’s not a surprise — there’s a lot of crap out there, but we’re assuming that you’re not one of the crap authors.
So let’s say you get through this slush pile. You get a reply from the agent asking for a partial or a full copy of your manuscript, and you — still an undiscovered gold nugget in a mound full of crud — squeal in joy, thinking you’ve made it. You send your manuscript, however much was asked, and you wait. You wait and you wait and you wait and you wait. Go sign up on writer forums or Google “How long does it take an agent to reply?” Sure, there are cases where people were replied to in a few weeks or a month or two, but there are absolute horror stories out there. You could wind up waiting a quarter of a year, half a year, an entire year. And what’s worse? You could be waiting all that time just to get rejected.
But of course, we’re assuming you’re good enough. So let’s say after a few months the agent replies and decides to take you on. That’s great. Now you’re going to get published, right? No. Now your agent is going to decide to start talking to the bigger guys in your name — publishers. This again could take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to a year. And of course, there are cases where no matter how much an agent may love your work, he or she just won’t be able to find a publisher willing to take you on. Now I don’t know about other people, but I think something like that would drive me so deep into depression that I’d never be able to recover. You write the book, you fight through the slush pile, you wait months and months for the agent to like you, and then after all that you get a call one day saying, “We’re going to have to part ways.”
But yea, let’s say you get an average publisher. You’re so absolutely enlivened with excitement that you piss your pants the morning you see the email. After all of this time, months or years, after writing the book, perfecting it, writing a query letter and perfecting it, finding agents and sending them letters, fighting through the slush pile and getting a reply, waiting for the agents to reply to you again, waiting for a publisher to look at you, you finally, finally, finally get the opportunity you’ve been dreaming about for so long. You’re going to get published.
Time to celebrate, right?
As long as your wine isn’t that expensive. See, as a first-time author and with an average publisher, you’re going to get an advance with four digits. You also have a very small chance to make anything more than that advance; most books don’t. Of course, there’s a tiny chance that your book is going to explode or you’re going to get picked up by one of the Big Six (or is it Big Five now? There’s a merger planned, no?), and you’ll get an advance maybe around $20 grand, since you’re still a first-time author, then you might get royalties after that advance is paid for since your book is so insanely good. Remember this, I’ll get back to it later.
So after all that work and effort and time spent, you’re going to make <$10k. Now, of course a few of you are going to react to this and say, “It’s not about the money, man! We write because we love the craft, because we’re artists!” Yea, I love writing too, that’s why I do it. But I love it to the point that I don’t want to do anything else. I love it so much that I want to live off of it; I want to make it my main source of income.
“So become a best-seller! Sell hundreds of thousands of books! Become the next JK Rowling!” Let’s be realistic. The chances are low, so incredibly low. The truth about published writers is that most of them have day jobs, even NYT bestsellers. JK Rowling is so far an outlier that it’d be like comparing the size of this next period to the sun. Don’t believe me? Google how much a NYT Bestseller makes, and you’ll see how bothersome it is. Why is it bothersome? Because if you never look into it, you just naturally assume that an NYT bestseller is a millionaire! Why wouldn’t he be? But that’s not true. As much as all writers love writing for the sake of writing, we also love the possibility that there’s something else at the end of the road, a reward that’ll at the very least help us continue writing. But even at the end of the road, most esteemed bestsellers don’t make that much. This may sound materialistic, and I know there will be a few readers who think all I think about is the money, but that’s only really half-true: we all have bills to pay and we all want to write full time. We all need to eat and live, and unless we’re one of the very very very very very few writers who MAKE IT, writing full-time while trying to keep a decent lifestyle will always be a dream.
A dream unless you self-publish.
Stay with me here — self-publishing in its current form is what writers have always needed. It takes out the middleman between writers and readers. It takes out the waiting time of months and years for the entire process, the skirting through hoops and the effort to please agents and publishers, the incredibly low royalty rate that writers are traditionally given. All of that disappears. It gives writers complete control over what they publish, and while there are tens of thousands of people who are completely unqualified to ever be published, there are also thousands of writers who are carving out the middle-class writing niche that never existed before. I’m not talking about your Hugh Howeys (WOOL is amazing by the way for anyone who hasn’t read it) and Amanda Hockings. I’m talking about writers who are relatively unknown, writers nobody would know if you asked a room full of people, but are making 5-digit, 6-digit salaries per year from self-publishing. More and more ebooks are being sold every year, more and more readers are switching to e-reading. This is the time to jump on board.
What’s frustrating is that there still seems to be a stigma attached to self-publishing. I was guilty of it just a few months ago, and I speak to people on a daily basis who still think self-publishing is for the crap writers who could never make it anywhere, people who were rejected by agents and too bitter to fix their mistakes. For full-disclosure, I only ever submitted to an agent one time, and I was greener back then than a garden in spring. The agent rejected my query, but no matter how amazing my query letter was (or wasn’t), I’d never had a chance to receive a positive reply: my manuscript was 180,000 words, in a business where agents usually just stretch to 120,000 words at most. I know that sounds like an excuse, and it might be, but I don’t know what would’ve happened had the book been 80,000 words shorter, so I feel no reason to dwell on it.
The stigma comes from bad writers. The stigma comes from people who don’t get it, and you just have to make sure that you get it. It comes from people who were just never meant to write, people who aren’t willing to fix the glaring errors in their book or buy a decent-looking cover. People who refuse to sit back and really criticize themselves, really try to see if they are good writers. And that’s natural, that’s going to happen when you have a market that’s open to anyone. But it can be horrifying, because everybody thinks they “get it”; I think I got it, but I could be wrong, just how all of these tens of thousands of people who never sold more than five copies of their ebook were wrong. Or maybe they weren’t wrong, maybe there are tons of undiscovered talents out there who were just never given the chance.
But you never know until you try. You’re never going to make one single dollar until you get your stuff out there, not a single person is going to know your name or the stories in your head until you put it in their hands. And after reading all this, which method is easier to get it in their hands? I would say self-publishing. If you decide to start writing a book right now, and if you’re absolutely amazing, you could probably expect your book to come out in 2015 if you go through publishers. Your reward? <$10k or a break-out success. Or you could self-publish on Amazon and see it in a few months. Your reward? Nothing, a sustainable middle-income, or a break-out success; all with much less time spent, much less effort spent, and much more freedom. How is this even a choice?
And the funny thing is? While so many writers are snubbing self-publishing, more and more new writers are breaking out on Amazon every single day. There are books that came out two weeks ago FROM UNKNOWN WRITERS that have already made their writers tens of thousands of dollars (Google RULE, Jay Crownover).
And let’s say your book doesn’t succeed. Let’s say the books I’m self-publishing before the end of this month fall flat. Do I look back at this and regret it? No. I look back at this and smile to myself, with the Word document to my next book staring before me while I type madly away. I look back and realize that I’ve increased the number of books people will buy if I ever do shoot one out that skyrockets. Hugh Howey had been self-publishing for a year or two before he became widely noticed, and when he wrote the book that made people love him, all of his other books were pushed up as well. And he nor any other successful self-publisher had to wait 1-2 years for each book to come out, because they’re in control.
So that’s your choice. You can trade publish, take a year or two to get your book on shelves after smiling while people make your baby’s decisions for you, then receive a few grand and a tiny chance that you’ll be a breakthrough success, OR you can self-publish, where it’ll take a few months to get it out there, where you control the decisions, where you command a 70% royalty rate (compared to a ~15% royalty rate with trade) that gives writers a realistic chance to have enough to write full-time (even if they aren’t breakthrough successes), and where you still have that same tiny chance to be the next millionaire bestseller.
Is this really still a question? That’s why I’m self-publishing and you should too.