As you can easily figure, through all the years of submissions and rejections, publishing a book was my ultimate goal. Or my pipe dream, as it seemed. I produced two full-length manuscripts of poetry, one of short stories and one of essays. I attended writers’ groups and book clubs. I wrote three novels, appealed to agents and editors, researched small presses (which always seemed to cut off submissions the week before I discovered them), and I paid tidy sums for critiques of my work and my query letters.
All to no avail.
One bright morning, sometime after my collection of rej slips topped 2000, I opened the manuscript drawer and started shoveling. All those pulped trees and heartfelt phrases that no one cared about (except me, who didn’t seem to count) weighed like an albatross around my neck. A ton of stuff that didn’t deserve to see the light of day went straight to recycling.
But as I wheeled the last bits—the best of my rejected work—down to the curb, a fresh thought dawned in my sorrowful brain.
Why not publish some of it myself?
Please bear in mind: self-publishing is not what I had ever wanted. Well, okay, here’s a true confession: for one minute, almost 20 years earlier, I did want to self-publish a book. My fervent desire to NEVER do so again is a direct result of that ill-fated experiment. I have spent nearly every day of the subsequent decades yearning for the other kind of publication: the knight-in-shining-armor kind, where my work, on its own stellar merits, attracts a caring agent who finds an intelligent editor at a major publishing house just dying to produce my work and promote it to all the world, which of course comes flocking to buy and read!
Oh, God—Farrar, Strauss & Giroux! Yes, yes—W. W. Norton! Don’t stop—Knopf, Penguin, Random House! Such was my fantasy life, year after year after year. (Dare I imply that these Great Houses f*ck their writers? Do writers delude themselves into believing traditional publishers offer the best arrangement since wine started coming in bottles?)
In short, after all that unrequited lust, you can imagine how hard it was to accept the new idea dawning upon me. I resisted furiously, drummed up excuses why self-publishing was wrong for me—even if other writers were embracing the process left and right. For example—
I hate e-books.
I don’t speak mobi and don’t intend to learn.
Arcane formatting makes me break out in a rash.
Don’t trust the term “creative team.” Don’t work well with others after years in that lonely garret.
Can’t find a competent copyeditor, proofreader, designer, illustrator, or other members of that team I don’t trust.
Can’t tell a shyster from a legit author’s services company.
And on and on.
But more compelling than any excuses, all the while I wallowed in my stalling tactics, the characters in my latest novel kept speaking in my ears. Their babble of voices told me, “You owe it to us to try! We want out to see the sunlight! You know people will love us if they only get the chance. We don’t care if it’s not Knopf—just publish us. We’ll do the rest.”
What could I possibly say to that?
Tell me what you think: Does corporate publishing make off with too much of the pie while writers starve in their garrets? Is it fair for the house to take the major cut even on low-overhead e-books? Please feel free to comment on these and related matters.
Anesa, I admit that I too once held that lustful dream of nabbing a big-name publisher—although I must also admit that before I started looking at the whole publishing gig seriously, I remained blissfully unaware of who published the books I enjoyed reading. When I decided I wanted a wider than-just-my-husband audience, I discovered not all publishers were viewed equally. And I never gave a second thought to the money end of it. I just wanted a publisher (or agent) to validate my writing, because I didn’t think anyone would take me seriously if I didn’t have a ‘real’ publisher.
Simultaneously—this was back around 2006—I learned about self-publishing. And since I have always had a do-it-yourself mentality, self-publishing appealed to me. But … what about the validation. I REALLY wanted that—craved it. I was about to give up on traditional publishing altogether (oh yeah, I had hundreds of rejection letters weighing against me) when I decided to submit to a small press publisher. Happily, I signed a contract—my stamp of validation. Again, I didn’t give much thought to the money end until some of my self-publishing friends talked about how much they were earning per book. When I submitted two more works, my publisher didn’t care for their controversial nature, and so, with trepidation, I published them myself. Then my publisher went under, and I regained rights to my initial book and published that, too.
I know there is a lot of controversy out there about the big publishers and the relatively small royalties they pay. To be honest, I read about all that with some indifference just because I love self-publishing. I love designing my own covers, I enjoy editing my own work—with the help of astute beta readers. I have fun with formatting. But it took years to cultivate those skills and connections. And I have adjusted my aspirations and expectations. I’m a little-known author who operates with only fringy social networking skills. To me, it’s way better that we put our work out there, than having it sit in a drawer! I think it just takes time to find a “creative team” you are comfortable with.
Our journeys have so much in common, particularly that craving for validation as you so aptly put it. Unfortunately, a segment of readers today still looks for the publisher’s imprint to validate the work. I think this tends to be the case among those I’m pursuing: readers of literary fiction. Those who favor other genres seem a bit more open-minded toward self-published work! Such is my impression, in any case.
I’m so happy for you, finding a niche that brings satisfaction and provides encouragement for you to keep up your creativity. I certainly agree that income has little or nothing to do with it. A small percentage of writers do manage to make a profit, but I would’ve gone into some other endeavor if earnings had been my prime motivator.
Fear not for me! I go on about discouragement in the interests of self-expression. It was very hard to first step foot on the path, but now I AM moving forward with publishing my novel.
Thanks so much for stopping by and weighing in!
I guess I never thought about readers of literary fiction being more publisher conscious. Forgive my naïveté, but don’t small house publishers tend more toward literary than the big publishing houses? At any rate, venturing out on any path to publication is a bit harrowing! Even when your literature is well received, it remains scary—at least for me!
There certainly are small presses that specialize in literary fiction & poetry, or in regional literature, or special types of experimental work. Quite a few of them consider new work only through annual contests (with fees). Many have restricted reading periods–a few weeks or months–and then close to submissions for the rest of the year, which is what I meant by saying I always discovered them the week after they had closed (story of my life!). Of course, I understand that these presses have limited funds and shoulder much of the workload as volunteers. They do provide unique opportunities for a select group of writers. They rarely offer much in the way of promotion, although distribution channels can be a plus.
As for readers of literary fiction, I have no statistics but remain convinced that they are swayed by a publisher’s name more than the aficionados of romance or thriller. They know the more prestigious small presses (Coffeehouse Press, BOA, Copper Canyon) and academic presses–those are all fine. But the literary imprints of the big 5, or the few remaining independents, are even better!
How do I know? This was my own attitude for years. Self-publishing was and remains frowned upon. That’s part of why I resisted for so long. But NO MORE!
Please tell me there is a warehouse of minions ready and willing to read my work? Beta readers?
Virgilia–thanks for coming to “The Drawer” with your question. I think I speak for most visitors when I say we understand your desire to be heard.
I don’t know where you stand on your writing journey, but as you may know, joining or starting a writers’ group is often recommended. Such groups may meet in person or online. A dozen people or so exchange manuscripts and discussion/critique, perhaps once a month. I personally know several writers—some of them traditionally published professionals—who praise the benefit they’ve gotten from their writers’ group.
As for myself, this route to feedback has never worked out for various reasons. It is difficult for people to make the commitment, in terms of time and attention, to keep up the exchange of work over the long term required for each member to get responses.
Like you say, another way to get feedback on unpublished work is to recruit beta readers. I’ve done this a couple of times on Google plus. Quite a few people signed up—which is gratifying!—although few followed through with comments. Other writers may have a different experience. Reaching out for beta readers is often seen as a way to motivate early reviewers, rather than getting responses that may assist in revisions.
So what about a low residency MFA program? Or some other option for taking classes where fellow writers are obligated to read and respond? These are good ways to grow your skills and begin sharing work with experienced readers.
Or did I misunderstand your location on the path? Maybe what you’re struggling with is how to find readers to buy your book. In that case, I would recommend one of the forums on LinkedIn: Book Marketing, or Independent Authors, or others. Group members love it when you post a question they can help with!
Very best wishes with all of this—and keep us posted. Thanks very much!
Dear Anisa – I wish you well as you continue your writing journey. Digital reading is emerging and as an owner of both Nooks and Kindles, I appreciate the ease of use. May you find your voice as a digital contributor and author. – Jackie
Note – The eBook market is young and working through fair pricing and standards. For example, the following lawsuit: http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html/?nodeId=201046060
I’m very grateful for your encouragement. An amusing anecdote: my husband asked me to get him a Kindle for his last birthday. I did so, of course, per his request. Guess which of us has used it—! Yes, I have now downloaded and read several books, so I do recognize the time- and resource-saving virtues of e-readers.
You also make an important point that the publishing revolution is ongoing with rights and winners/losers still getting sorted out. So the old ways that I “lusted” after are no longer what they were when I got into the game.
Thanks very much! I hope you’ll visit me again.
Great post. I tried to trad publish my first book and had about 8 rejection letters. I then got busy with work and nothing more happened. Two years ago I made the decision to write full-time. I also released my first e-book – yes, the one which had been rejected – on Amazon. I released my second and third books directly via Amazon’s KDP programme without ever considering sending them to agents/publishers. I liked the immediacy of it all. I loved that my readers were asking for more and I could decide everything about the process. The third book has done the best of all. Don’t get me wrong, should someone come and option my next book, or the one after that, great, but in the meantime, I am happy to self-publish and I would only trad publish if I could see the advantage. Apart from for a rare few, the days of big advances have gone. So, unless you are getting a lot of marketing dollars spent on you, it’s difficult to see the advantage.
You have really made tracks! It’s great how quickly you’ve been able to move into the new publishing paradigm. It is certainly more gratifying to put up a book on Amazon and see it available in 24 hours, as compared to the years it takes to work through the traditional system. Or so I hope!
Please feel free to include your web address in a future comment, if you would like. Thanks very much for stopping by and sharing your experience. It’s very enlightening.
I’m in the same camp with Susan. I love the immediacy of self-publishing. And unless a traditional publisher was willing to sink a lot of time and money into marketing one of my books, I just don’t see an advantage, aside from a shot at being placed on the front table of a chain bookstore, but that’s a long shot! No matter which publishing route you pursue, marketing and promotion falls to the author these days. Of course, you also have to forfeit the “validation” we crave, but it’s amazing how that becomes very relative once you have garnered a few readers.
Thoughtful post, Anesa. (And I do appreciate the cartoon!) 🙂 I applaud your tenacity and heart. I appreciate the perspectives of the comments as well. I am working on a novel now, outside of other writing (and a full-time job), and have been watching the publishing arena evolve over the years by leaps and bounds. I plan to finish my novel by the end of the year- still not sure which road to travel from there…By any means necessary, I suppose! 😉 Best to you all. The talent out there is amazing, and the voices and stories need to be heard.
I’m so glad you stopped by, Laurel! Congratulations on getting your novel underway–as we know from participants’ struggles with NaNoWriMo–that is an accomplishment in itself. As you and Jackie C point out, publishing is certainly still evolving, so by the time your book is ready there are bound (no pun intended!) to be new considerations in play. I hope you can visit again and keep us posted. I wish you much luck, although you won’t need it!
Thank you! I am at 50K words, and counting every precious one. First draft, though, so lots of editing ahead— Yes, who knows what the future holds. But I have faith that the audience will still be out there for substantive stories. I will definitely visit again. Thanks for your words of encouragement. The saying of ‘strength in numbers’ is definitely true- we are all in this together!
I’ve made a few submissions in the past and had a bit of interest from agents but ultimately no offer of representation. With my latest book I’m trying again; I’ve published 6 novels and a collection of short stories on Amazon but after two and a half years of solid hard work I am getting so weary of trying to just become visible to a wider audience – which is why I’ve submitted again. I’m currently waiting on a decision but am not expecting anyone to leap at me and say “yes, yes, we’ll have it just as it is, we want you NOW!”. But the reason I want to be traditionally published is the scope it gives – and the validation to possible readers, even though you have to do nearly as much of your own publicity even if you’re trad pubbed, these days. I am confident from the reaction of agents in the past that what I do is of the required standard; now it’s just a matter of finding an agent who likes what I’ve done enough to go with it! I do agree with what others have said – the immediacy of self-publishing is the great thing. I’ve had lots of regular readers asking me when this new one will be available (when I say ‘lots’ I mean about ten!!!), and I don’t want to say, um… when I’ve been rejected by loads of agents!!
Incidentally, if you’re looking for a good proofreader, I must recommend @ProofreadJulia. She’s got a really good client list, including a couple of traditionally published writers, as well as a few who’ve wasted money on cowboys in the past! Also, @Clive_SJohnson can do formatting, or @eBookBuilders.
I do know what you mean about ‘not speaking mobi’ – it did take me a while and I still prefer real books!
Hi, Terry–I’m so happy to hear from you. Your remarks have been on my mind since I read them early this morning. Once I gave up on my dreams of FSG and Knopf, once I decided it was self-publish or bust, I’ve found myself drawn into a rah-rah type of attitude that is not the whole story of how I feel about bringing out my books. Yes, being an INDIE AUTHOR has its upsides, and many people manage to make it work nicely. At the same time, I entirely understand your inclination to go the other way and hand off some of the work to a traditional publisher.
For me, one of the most alluring factors would be to see my work in bookstores. As I’ve said, I’m a bit of a Luddite, and I still love the atmosphere of a good bookstore as a retreat and a place to discover. Many great authors have come into my hands by chance from getting picked up off a bookstore shelf. Perhaps at some point, self-publishers or authors’ services companies will create a way to compensate for (what I perceive as) this gap in the Kindle/CreateSpace system. Yes, I know there’s Lightning Source, but then my head starts to swim. Can’t someone just figure this out and handle it for me? Oh, right–a traditional publisher!
You are so accomplished with your many titles and well-established platform. I can’t imagine the agents won’t be ready for you this time around. Will be interested to follow your progress. Very best–
PS– Also meant to mention: I find most of my editors, proofers, etc., at Writer.ly which is an online marketplace. It is open to new talent, so I think Julia and Clive could list their services there and bid on jobs, if interested. Just a thought.
Let me preface this by apologizing in advance if this becomes a preaching to the choir post…
Anesa, at the moment I’m not an author, so I can’t imagine all you’ve experienced in regards to rejection slips and the voices of your beloved characters wanting to be heard. I do, however, see the flip side of self publishing from a reviewer’s point of view. The majority of what I review is within the Kindle Worlds program, a wonderful opportunity set up by Amazon for new writers to self publish.
From my experience I’ve determined that you can be incredibly successful with self publishing or you can dig yourself an early grave. It comes down to the team you surround yourself with. In actuality, self publishing is a misnomer because publishing is a team effort no matter how you get there. You should have a handful of trusted first readers and at least one person you’d trust to tell you the truth at all costs as they edit. Believe me when I tell you I’ve seen the results of authors who don’t do this and they destroy their careers before they’ve even started.
I wish you the best of luck and look forward to reading one of your books soon!
I am very thankful for your comment, Sandra. You highlight a crucial factor in the publishing process. I have done early reading for fellow writers from time to time, and your post comes as a powerful reminder to me that being “nice” is not necessarily the best thing one can do for another. Artists must be honest about quality and effectiveness.
I’d like to say “Don’t worry about me!” since my novel, OUR ORBIT, began life as my MFA thesis and was subjected to the ruthless (heartless!) workshopping of that institution. Then, before giving up my dream of finding a literary agent, I recruited 17 readers—several also with MFAs and all of them well-read—to identify problems and, specifically, to advise me if the ms was too long…
But, of course, any errors in judgment that remain are entirely my own responsibility. I will check into the Kindle Worlds program—would love to send you a review copy of OUR ORBIT. Then, I feel confident, you’ll let me know how close I came to succeeding!