For a long time now, a rift has divided authors that choose to seek traditional publication for their work and those that independently publish. The Internet has made the latter abundantly easier than in the past, and in spite of that (or most probably because of that) an independent author is still branded with a certain stigma for self-publishing their work. As a self-published author, I have not been immune to criticism for choosing that route. What fascinates me most about the criticism is how closely it resembles prejudice or discrimination in the way it’s presented.
I recall one Internet user on my Reddit AMA who asked if I had merely “self-published.” After I provided a lengthy explanation as to my thought processes behind the decision, the user rebutted simply with something akin to “you’re still just self-published.” No logic or reason followed. The user was simply repulsed by the idea that I did not query an agent, submit my prose for review, and get picked up by one of the many publishing houses. While I certainly don’t feel the need to justify myself to anyone (my interest in this is purely academic), I do feel like imparting a bit of insight on the time and research that went into my decision to be an independent author. It was not a decision I made lightly, I assure you.
First, I’d like to point out that my original intention at the onset of writing NANO was to submit the work to Tor for traditional publication. Tor accepts submissions without an agent, so I was excited to take my changes at not getting put into their slush pile. Without any knowledge or facts, I stuck by my guns and proudly boasted my desire to publish on with Tor everywhere I went… for almost a year.
At around the halfway point, when I realized I would actually be able to finish the NANO series (if you’re an author yourself, you probably know what I mean by being “able to finish” something), I took an active interest in the publication process and dug into the research myself. I wanted to know what to expect when it came to submission, acceptance, launch, and beyond. Confident in my work, I operated under the assumption that it would be accepted and published. Besides, operating under the assumption that it would not be accepted kind of defeated the need to dig any deeper, eh? So dig I did, and I found quite a few interesting things. I’m going to take this time to highlight the important ones; the research and personal experiences I encountered that ultimately led to my decision to self-publish.
The Contract – Assuming a publisher picked up my work, the next step in the process would be a contract drawn up between us. This contract would include everything from my advance to royalties to which rights I signed over to their company. And let me tell you, as an emerging/debuting author… my prospects were bleak. I could hope for a meager advance, royalties far lower than the ones I would make self-publishing (assuming I ever saw any royalties– book sales may never have covered my advance), and the publishers would gain exclusive rights to every form of my story you could imagine. Multimedia (movie and video game), audiobook, ebook, paperback, hard cover, all of it.
In addition, a publishing house usually locks you into a segment of their contract called “the right of first refusal.” This means that any work you write from that day forward MUST be sent to that publishing house first so long as your contract is valid, even if the work is not part of their normally published genre. Only after they review and refuse your work can you submit it to a new publishing house.
Creative Control – Believe it or not, once your publisher takes on your work, they gain more than just a little control over the content of your story before it’s released. If a section, character, or plot point clashes with that particular publishing house’s interests, they are within their rights (according to your contract) to ask you to alter those things pending publication. While typically this is more a means for a publishing house to protect itself and less of a tyrant’s dominion over your creative project, it is worth noting that such a clause exists.
Marketing – Perhaps the only real benefit I encountered to signing on with a publishing house is the name associated with it. Publishing houses have established followers, and their company acts like a brand name. Many readers that would otherwise never look twice at my book may have actually picked it up and become an avid fan if Tor had slapped their sticker on it.
That being said, however, I think I should note that there is a common misconception that a publishing house will pick your book up and handle all the advertising, promotion, and marketing you need to be successful. My research indicated otherwise, much to the lamentations of fellow authors that traditionally published, who wrote that they put in an immense amount of time and effort self-promoting and advertising, just like any independent author.
With the Internet, social media, and word of mouth as I mentioned earlier, it’s become too easy to spread the word to all corners of the globe about your product all by yourself, anyway. Marketing as an independent author is possible in ways our predecessors could never have dreamed of.
Quality of Work – At first glance, it would seem that a publishing house, at the very least, creates a filter which keeps poorly edited, nonsensical dribble from hitting the intellectual market. I’ll refrain from mentioning that any English major who has read the 50 Shades trilogy might disagree with that notion (or does that count as mentioning it?) But I will say that, from a personal perspective, quality of work is not determined solely by a publishing house. Each author knows what they put into their work, and most sales mediums offer enough of a look into a work that a reader can easily distinguish the author who approaches writing seriously versus the author who does not before they ever make a purchase.
Lack of any Reason – To put it simply, as an author there’s just no reason not to try your hand at self-publishing before you ever submit to a house. If, for whatever reason, your book fails to take off at launch, or you regret not submitting to a publishing house shortly after you release it, you can always query later. “But Jason, you might have sold 1,000 copies and cut into a publishing house’s market. They’re not going to want you!”
This could not be further from the truth, according to my research. If anything, a substantial number of sales shows a publishing house that you worked hard to generate awareness about your book, and they can expect you to continue working hard when they take it on. Working hard means more sales for them, more sales for them means more money. Trust me, unless you become the next G.R.R. Martin, your independent sales are not going to put a dent in their market.
But say you succeed on your own? Should you stay the independent course, run the race, and manage to accumulate a good 5,000 plus sales on your own? Well, that’s when some real magic happens. According to other authors’ testimonies and comments on research pages, 5,000 sales is about the time the publishing houses start coming to you. And when the houses come to you, guess what? The contracts get negotiated far more in your favor. You keep more of the rights, control more of the final product, and negotiate on your terms.
Given the above-mentioned factors, you might be thinking, at this point, that I am championing the cause of self-publication in an attempt to strike down the evil dominion of traditional publishing… You might be right about that, in certain ways. At the very least, anyone who approached me and asked which route I recommended would almost assuredly receive an earful of persuasive arguments about the boons of independently publishing.
I believe there is still merit in traditional publishing. I believe that with it comes a sense of security, professionalism, and prestige. After all, someone calling themselves a business person and qualified in judging prose has deemed your manuscript worthy enough to sell on the market under their company’s acclaimed name brand. That sense of pride is something that cannot be taken away; but for many people, this science fiction author included, the price to pay is too steep.
As one researcher put it, the biggest boon of a publication company is that they can tackle all the things an author hates about the process. For me, that turned out to be… nada. That’s right, nothing. In my experience so far, with all the hustle and bustle I’ve gone through, with as busy as my PR, other distribution formats, future releases, and research has kept me, I have never once felt the process to be tedious or mundane. I have never felt more fulfilled by work than when I do anything related to my writing, including all things marketing and publishing.
I should point out that most of the research I did is almost a year old; the logic is sound, but it’s still my logic. It’s based off the research I did and my personal experiences. This is my blog; you won’t find me citing numbers and throwing up a hundred pages for this post, because I wanted this post to reflect my own personal thought processes. In the end, this is my opinion, not the wise words of a guru. So if you want to traditionally publish and you think I’m the most idiotic author you’ve ever seen, then all the power to you.
But if you’re like me at all, and you enjoy controlling every facet of your novel’s launch from its creation to its production and distribution, then do as I did and break tradition. Self-publish your book like there’s no tomorrow. Self-publish the hell out of it. Just remember that as an independent publisher, you are in charge of your success and failure in a larger way than you ever imagined. No one can help shoulder the burden of failure with you, but likewise, no one can take away the pride of success, either. The experience, in its entirety, is all yours.
As always, thank you for your continued support.