A few years ago, when I was relentlessly querying anything that moved trying to find a literary agent, a woman I hardly knew asked me a simple question: Why? As in what can an agent get you? What advantage do you imagine professional publication offers over self-publication?
At the time, the questions seemed a bit naïve, maybe even disingenuous. Publication had to mean something. It meant getting past the gatekeepers of the industry. It meant acceptance. It also meant professionalism. How could that not be better than self-publishing? One was rolling out a sleek new model on a showroom floor; the other was stuffing a note in a bottle and throwing it over Niagara Falls.
And yeah. Part of me still feels that way. I have been professionally published (and will be again soon) and I have self-published and let me tell you, there ain’t as much difference as you might think.
My first book, Spark, was published by Lycaon Press. It was professionally edited by the staff at Lycaon. Victoria Miller produced a first-rate professional cover. With the book’s release, I was launched on a blog-tour (six blogs? four blogs? I don’t remember) with interviews and excerpts and a couple of guest blog pieces. It felt so professional. I was part of a stable of authors. I received royalties and quarterly reports.
Well…yeah, technically. Although actually it took a long time before I got paid my first royalties. And—kaching!—let’s just say they didn’t exactly pay for dinner that night. And I don’t mean dinner at a nice restaurant, I mean dinner. Like whatever we happened to be having for dinner that night, my quarterly royalties probably didn’t cover it. And I don’t think my sales results were exceptionally bad. During March, the paperback of Spark was featured for 25% off at the Lycaon website. It sold eight copies, and the owner congratulated me on having a good month.
Just before publishing my second book, Lycaon folded up their tents and got out of town. So there I was. Two books with all the professional trimmings and no publisher. So, I self-published. You know the routine: Kindle, Createspace, etc, etc. I had an advantage, of course, in that I didn’t need to hire and editor or cover artist, but otherwise, I was right back at square one.
And that’s exactly how it felt. I blogged, and I tweeted, and I maintained a Facebook presence, but I was pretty much just a lonely little bottle floating in an ocean, with countless other little bottles all bobbing around with me.
When I first contemplated self-publishing, that is precisely what killed my enthusiasm for the idea. According to Amazon’s own figures, there are over 3.7 million books available in the Kindle Store. If you spent a brief 5 seconds on each title, it would take you over seven months (no sleeping) to browse the entire stock—and by that time, there would be several hundred thousand new titles to look over. While this is a boon for readers (maybe), for authors it’s horrifying. The odds of being plucked—even once—from this vast sea are, well, staggering.
As far as self-pubbing versus traditional, there are some differences. Free editing and artwork are very nice perks, and it does feel like more of a thing—you are professionally and officially published. But as for the rest of it, I haven’t seen significantly better sales from one approach or the other. Either way, it’s a long, hard journey. There are some advantages to self-publishing, too. For one, you can set your own prices (I was never happy with how much Lycaon was charging) and collect a greater percentage of royalties. This also comes in handy when trying to run a promotion or offer a discount. Or when handing out review copies—most publishers will make a number of Advanced Reading Copies available, but if you’re your own publisher, you can decide this stuff for yourself.
But it’s the ways in which the two approaches are the same that tells the real tale. Either way, you will be primarily responsible for spreading the word about your book, for having a platform of some sort, for social media stuff. And (sorry to be a wet blanket) either way the odds are not in your favor. Success requires luck and perseverance. And perspective. These days, success might require setting very modest goals and giving yourself a lot of time to achieve them.
And really, there’s nothing wrong with that. You wanted to write? So write. No one said it was going to be easy.
In case you missed it, yeah, I’m mostly talking to myself here.