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The one that every unpublished writer in search of an agent or publisher fields repeatedly: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