THAT Question

The one that every unpublished writer in search of an agent or publisher fields repeatedly:

“Have you considered self-publishing?”

This is sort of like asking a woman desperate to have a child if she’s considered sex.

YES. We know you mean well. We appreciate your interest in our work. And we’ve considered it. Some of us have even TRIED it. My brother, for example, who has the best self-deprecating sense of humor of anyone I’ve ever known, self-published a first draft as a kind of tongue-in-cheek experiment to see what, exactly, would become of a hastily thrown-together novel. His book did reasonably well until someone posted a negative review. He refuses to tell me his pen name for fear I’ll read the book.

This is not to say that self-published novels are necessarily rough drafts or poorly-written, and I imagine that the vast majority of them are not in any way jokes. They’re like any category of anything, from pie to politicians–some exceptional, some abysmal, most probably somewhere on a spectrum in between the two extremes.

The thing is, if an author is querying agents–an intensive and multi-step process involving a great deal of research, thought, writing, and general angst–she has already put a great deal of thought into the process. In order to send her work out into the world to face the judgment of professionals in their field, she has to want it. She has to have weighed all the options.

I’ve weighed them myself, and come down firmly on the side of traditional publishing–not because it’s the only or best way, but because it is the way that feels right for me:

  • stink at self-promotion. Published authors have to do this, but when their work is agented and bought by major publishing houses, they have extra resources and energy at their disposal–people who are experts in getting books to readers.
  • love literary agents. They work largely behind-the-scenes, without the name-recognition of writers, to make sure that books get to readers–because they believe in the power of stories. Anybody who feels strongly enough about this to make it her career is someone I want to know.
  • I want my books to find their audienceThis can happen with self-publishing, and the publishing landscape is changing. Some authors, like J. K. Rowling, are ditching their agents in favor of striking out alone. From what I’ve seen, though, self-publishing works best when the writer has already established a reputation and a readership. Yes, there are exceptions. Fifty Shades of Grey comes to mind. Do I want to be the next E. L. James? Fifty Shades of NO WAY.
  • I’m a LudditeThere’s a lot to be said for tradition. Despite e-books and self-publishing (which is largely electronic, with print-on-demand options) the vast majority of books you read are agented and traditionally published. Plus, I love actual physical books–the heft of a volume in my hand, the smell of paper, the breath’s-space of anticipation between one page and the next.
  • I’m a snob. Well, not really, but I believe in the process by which agents and publishers vet acquisitions. It means something to me to know that my work has succeeded among professionals who know their stuff.
  • I want to make a living as a writerThe best way to make a living from novels is to publish traditionally. Plus you don’t have to worry as much about having your work stolen and resold. I don’t want to deal with electronic theft. I want to write books.

I know traditional publishing isn’t the only legitimate way to be a writer. But I don’t need anyone to tell me that. I get it. I’m in the trenches. And I’m slogging my way through on the journey that’s right for me.

love when people are interested. I love when they ask questions. But this one, as well-intentioned as it may be, can easily come off as patronizing.

What do writers actually want to be asked? I’ll tackle that one next week.

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10 thoughts on “THAT Question

    1. Good point–it is very individual! I’ve seen it work and fail spectacularly both ways. In the end, it’s just something we have to decide for ourselves as artists.

  1. Bravo! Yes. I agree! I am not a luddite, but I do feel echoes of my own reasoning for pursuing traditional publishing in what you’ve said. My additional reasons?

    Well, one is validation. If I self-publish, then I never get a real person who really knows books saying that my work is worthwhile. I know myself enough to admit that I still need it.

    The other is this: I’m a professional marketer. I’ve done scrappy small-biz marketing (as a self-pubbed author would indeed be) and it is HARD and time consuming. It would mean I’d never have time to write (let alone my day-job). I’ve also done marketing for a big ol’ household name brand. And I know that having brand-weight and brand-experience and brand-teams makes a huge difference in how marketing works.

    Honestly, I pretty much intend to be a hybrid author. I will self-publish AFTER I get traditionally published. Because the best way to sell a book is to have it appear at the end of the book the reader just read / reviewed – “also by this author”.

    1. Excellent points, A. K.! I can’t imagine self-promoting–it’s a full-time job. I’ve read posts by traditionally published authors who’ve found simply maintaining a big social media presence to be exhausting, let alone book tours, signings, etc. It seems like the hybrid model works really well–make a name for yourself, find your readers, and then take control of your own publishing. I can’t imagine how difficult it is to become successful on your own & starting from scratch.

  2. Agreed. And it’s really important to make the distinction that one way of publishing is not better than the other, but there definitely is a better option for each individual.

    1. Exactly! Thanks for reading and responding, Olivia. 🙂 I think we’re going to see more and more hybrid models as time goes on, too, so for many writers, the question will cease to become an either/or. Now if we could just figure out how to become the next J. K. Rowlings…..

  3. If memory serves we may have made some such noises at you in the past. Our sincere apologies. We have just read so many caveats and horror stories of traditional publishing these days. Authors naively signing away far too much for far too long with no protection against publisher or agent simply defrauding them. But your path is, of course, your choice and we do apologize if we came/come across as at all patronizing.

    1. Oh, dear beekeepers, I trust that any questions you may have posed come from a place of genuine concern, and you’re absolutely right–there are a number of shady agents and publishers out there who prey on writers. The general rule of thumb is not to trust an agent who charges a reading fee, as this is a sure sign they’re not legit. There’s an excellent website called Preditors and Editors where writers can check up on agents and publishers before submitting. You’re wise to note the problems traditional publishing can pose, and my issue is not with that at all. I could have been clearer about that–it’s not the people who express genuine concern that I’m thinking of, but those who seem to like to trap writers with this question so that they can then deliver “expert advice.” When one is a writer, everyone else is an expert; as a writer friend noted elsewhere, I would never tell a surgeon, “I’m going to do open-heart surgery someday,” but many people feel that they could do what writers do regardless of whether they have any experience.

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