A while back, I read an article in The Millions about why you shouldn’t self publish your book. Being too busy with the details of self publishing my new book, Secrets and Lies, I didn’t have time to respond. But now that it’s out, I wanted to offer some counter thoughts and to address some the glaring problems I saw in the article, so that maybe you’ll decide this is the year you will finally self publish.
Let’s start with some big picture stuff.
1. Big Publishing Houses Probably Won’t Publish You
Publishers are bleeding money and that means they’re looking for books that will sell themselves. The truth is that often has less to do with the book than it does with the author. The best way to sell books is to be on TV, meaning the best way to be an author is to be a TV personality. Chances are, you are not a TV personality. And while you certainly could devote your time to becoming one, that’s time spent not writing books.
Don’t believe me? Here’s a piece of an email I got from literary agent Michael Murphy of the Max Lit Agency on the subject.
Our whole business is based upon opinions. Somebody thought it was a good idea to pay Joe the Plumber $250,000 to write his memoir about a life he made up and in which no one gave a rat’s ass two weeks after he became an instant and totally forgettable celebrity. As a Publisher, I turned down Who Moved My Cheese? and I still think it’s a crappy book and those 15 million people who bought it are going to be deeply disappointed.
But wait, you can just go through an agent you say. Well, if you’d like to spend months of your life writing cover letters and waiting for responses, be my guest. Here’s some I’ve received.
I’ve sold books with fewer words (one of them is in the sig line below) but I’ve also dropped anvils from Acme on my head and I’m not doing that again either.
Three cheers for professionalism. But what else would you expect from Miss Snark, the literary Simon Cowell. Instead, let’s look at the opposite end of the spectrum.
Dear Mr. Gross:
Thank you for sending the most interesting query letter I’ve read today. Sorry it’s not a match, but I’m grateful for the laugh.Best wishes,Tina Wexler
I enjoyed reading the sample from Madness of Method. I especially appreciated the attention to detail and your imaginative mind- I don’t think I’ll ever forget a disco hot dog stand.
If you can’t interest an agent with the most interesting letter they’ve received all day, or imaginative details they will never forget, then what can you interest them with?
Perhaps this amalgamation of standard replies gives you the answer. “For whatever reasons, this book didn’t curl my toes and I don’t want to take on a project I don’t identify with personally.”
Well good luck finding that soulmate of an agent. And at an average wait time for a response of three to six months to query all of them, your book should hit stands approximately half past never.
What big publishing houses want are authors who are already known. Agents also want a book that sells itself, so they don’t have to do the work, but they’re willing to settle for what they’re convinced will be a prize-winning work of art.
The belief in rags to riches, that you will be plucked from obscurity and taken to the heights of stardom, is called the Horatio Alger myth. And let me tell you, you ain’t no Horatio Alger. If you’re reading this, you’re not famous enough for big houses to care, and let’s be honest, your book is probably not the next great novel that will define a generation. But I’m willing to bet it’s a pretty good read that will entertain your demographic audience, and might even earn some repeat business or an independent film adaptation. But only if you get it out there.
How to do that without publishers or agents? Self-publish my pretties.
2. Small Publishers May Be Even Less Help
So right about now, you’re probably smirking to yourself and thinking something like this: “Yup. Big publishing houses are dinosaurs and agents are dicks. But what you fail to understand is that I’m an artist, and I wouldn’t want a big press anyhow. Not when there’s so many fantastic small presses out there who will understand my special genius.”
That’s certainly the tach Edan Lepucki took in a section of that article in The Millions, called “I’d Prefer a Small Press to a Vanity Press.”
A year ago, I published my novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me with a tiny press called Flatmancrooked, and I consider it the highlight of my career so far. Not only did I get to work with a sharp and talented editor, Deena Drewis, and have my book designed by the press’s risk-taking founder Elijah Jenkins, I also had so much fun participating in the press’s LAUNCH program, where the limited first-edition went on pre-order for just a week. My book sold out in three days, and getting that first paycheck was exhilarating. My tiny book got me on a panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a few awesome readings, and it even found its way to two different editors at larger houses. It became my literary calling card. When readers received my book in the mail, it was signed and numbered by me. It also came with a condom.
Sounds great, right? But wait for it, wait for it, wait for it…
Flatmancrooked, sadly, closed its doors earlier this year.
And there you go. First off, if they can even keep the doors open, small presses generally lack the resources to really get your book out there from a marketing perspective. They may not even have a distribution network any better than what you can assemble yourself. Heck, they may just put it on Amazon the same as you could on your own. You will end up doing just as much work as if you put it out yourself, and for a smaller cut. And, to get a book to a small press, you will likely have to penetrate a wall of pretension and nepotism comparable to the Gates of Mordor. But you will get to be really cool for being on that independent press, which one could make the argument is a fantastic way of appealing to one’s vanity.
Don’t believe me? Well friend, my novel The Madness of Method was picked for publication by a small press. How did that happen? The press was started by my friend during his masters in publishing program. I donated the novel as text he could for his design final. Afterwards, he decided he liked the book enough to press it. That was nearly two years ago and the book has yet to come out. There you have it, nepotism and lack of getting shit done, the small press at its finest.
In the time since I was sent a contract and a check for $100, I took a Word document for a different manuscript and took it all the way to being a published book that is selling quite nicely online and in select stores.
Want to be like me? Self-publish. Remember, no one calls DIY punk rock vanity music. And soon, it won’t be called vanity publishing, or even independent publishing, anymore either. It will just be publishing.
3: Do you really want to wait until the publishing industry sorts itself out to publish?
These problems I bring up are not the end, but the turbulence may last awhile. And until it’s sorted out, the penny-counters in publishing aren’t going to be taking a lot of chances. Do you really want to wait until then to publish? It could potentially be decades. Dunno about you, but I’m not that patient. Especially not when a piece of writing is timely.
So again I say, self-publish.
4. The Real Money is in Film, So Give a Filmmaker a Book Instead of a Three-Ring Binder Full of Scribbles
Very few books are bestsellers. That’s just the math of the situation. So don’t count on retiring from the sales of your book. The real money is in film adaptations anyhow, something you probably think you need a publishing house for.
Thanks to the wave of technology that is empowering independent publishing, independent film adaptations are more achievable than ever. All you have to do is get your book into the hands of a filmmaker. I did it.
As part of the fundraising campaign to press my book, I sold the film rights to The Dog House, one of the stories in it, to a very talented filmmaker who took a shining to my project. That film will be shot in spring and come out shortly after, serving to even further promote my book and boost my sales.
However, had I not had a legit book to take these steps with, it probably wouldn’t have happened.
So what do I say to that? Self-publish.
And now some direct responses…
Lepucki says not to self-publish because A. she writes literary fiction (genre fiction does much better in the e-reader market), B. she values the publishing community, C. she doesn’t want to be Amazon’s bitch, and D. she’s busy writing.
A: As Lepucki points out in her own article, e-reader sales and e-book sales are up. More e-readers were shipped this holiday season than ever before. Early adopters are by stereotype the sort predisposed to sci-fi and fantasy. But with the introduction of the Kindle Fire, we’re reaching the tipping point. Soon the markets will balance and literary fiction will be burning up the e-book charts.
But, I would also point out that self-publishing isn’t limited to e-books. Upload your book to a Print on Demand service, order a few hundred and take it on tour, just like any other author would.
B: Fuck the Gatekeepers. I believe in expertise, especially in art. And to become one of the editors or literary agents that make up the publishing community, one typically has some. But that doesn’t mean editors or buyers are remotely in touch. Those on the top rarely are. And while you’re free to beat your head against the wall trying to get them to pay attention, the best way to get their attention is in the sales charts. If a book is already selling, then you don’t have to feel pathetic trying sell them on it.
C: Unless you’re deluded enough to think that the waves of book store closures bode well for brick and mortar, you already are “Amazon’s bitch.” Like it or not, the future of retail is online and it is the largest online retailer, especially for books. Not being on Amazon may make you feel pretty righteous, but it isn’t going to do wonders for your sales.
Plus, if you don’t want to be Amazon’s bitch, then don’t. Upload your book to a different Print on Demand service like Book Baby, or set up a download through your own website. Record it as an audio book and sell it via iTunes. Or just hire a printer to press it for you and do things old school.
D: On this, I agree completely with Lepucki. You should be busy writing. But you should be busy writing your book, not endless stacks of cover letters. So write a book, send the manuscript to a designer you hire, and then start writing another while they’re putting it together. Then keep working on that book while a copy editor has the document. Finally, hire someone to do PR for you and keep writing your new book while you’re out on the road promoting the one you just self-published.
Or stay home endlessly writing generic cover letters as your book remains unpublished. Your choice. I think by now you you know what I choose.
Look, I’m not against publishing houses. If one of them came along and offered me a deal, I’d probably take it. And I’ll admit there are reasons not to self-publish. A few of them are even legitimate. But most of them are elitist bullshit predicated on the idea that you couldn’t possibly do it on your own without mucking things up. And that’s just wrong. Workshop the shit out your book until is perfect. Then hire a professional designer and editor—they’re happy to work freelance. Hire a fantastic artist to do the cover. Those are the same things a publishing house would do. If you take yourself seriously, and hold your book to the same standard that a publishing house would, then there is no reason your book can’t come out just as good as it would with a traditional imprint. And the most important part of that is that your book will come out. The same may not be said if you insist on going through the traditional publishing process.