Reflections on a Path

A few weeks ago, at Readercon, I mentioned offhandedly to my agent that I had originally planned to self-publish.

It wasn’t an entirely out-of-the-blue remark; we had just attended a panel on trade publishing, and had been discussing it over lunch. The conversation turned to other things, and it wasn’t until later that I realized I’d only expressed half my thought: that I had originally planned to self-publish, and that it would have been, for me, a mistake.

Self-publishing is a term that carries baggage, positive and negative, for some people; but from an objective standpoint, it’s just another publishing method, albeit one with a very different structure and support system than trade publishing. Some authors go one way or another, but an awful lot these days use both. The value of each method depends on the project, the goals and expectations, and what the author is able to put into it.

What I was considering was the new-author, minimal-platform, I-do-or-pay-for-everything model of self-publishing. This model has exploded in recent years, largely because technology has made it ridiculously easy. If you can cope with Microsoft Word, you can publish your novel, and you can do it really, really quickly. When I first looked at CreateSpace, they claimed it would be about three days from upload to listing.

It is easy, as an aspiring author, to look at months and years of querying, submission, and revisions with no guarantees on the other end, and think three days makes a whole lot more sense.

(And here’s where I’ll interject my personal opinion: three days does not make a whole lot more sense unless you’ve already spent the months and years before those three days doing the necessary prep work. There are good reasons to self-publish, but in my opinion because it’s fast should never be at the top of the list. I am glad I didn’t have a finished manuscript when I first encountered CreateSpace, because it does seem like crack when you’ve been dreaming about being published all your life; and I’ve seen enough now to believe it’s not a good idea to jump into it without taking the time to understand what you’re getting into.)

The existence of self-publishing cheered me – and actually gave me confidence – because it meant I didn’t have to put myself through the query process unless I wanted to. I could skip all that, and sell a few copies to my friends and family, and even hold a physical copy in my hands. My words, available to the world, even if the world never bought them.

Of course, I fantasized that I might sell to some strangers, maybe even acquire something of a following; but I was daunted by the prospect of self-marketing. Marketing in general is not my strong suit. Even now, when people ask me what my book is about, I say “Um, it’s a science fiction story.” Which is sort of like a sommelier saying “It’s liquid” when you ask about the house red. For me, self-marketing would have been like trying to run a marathon when I’d never trained past two miles.

But I didn’t dip my toe into the query pool because I was afraid of learning how to market. I did it because, as it turns out, I wanted to know if I could be successful at the model I had seen my entire life. My dreams grew out of paperbacks on bookstore shelves, and publishers I could identify by logos, fonts, and colors of spines. Self-publishing was easy, sure; but it wasn’t the dream I had grown up with. It wasn’t, ultimately, what I really wanted to do.

If you’re thinking that it’s easy for me, from the position I’m in now, to recognize that I was wise not to self-publish, you’re absolutely right; but there’s no way I could truly have seen what the trade publishing path was going to get me until I was here in the middle of it. So, for the curious, here are some things that the old-fashioned method has done for me so far that I could not have done for myself:

Editing. There is nothing like working with someone who edits for a living. I have been fortunate to have three editors work on this book, including my agent (who, like me, has one particular chapter burned into her brain because we went over it so many times, and no, I’m not telling anyone which one it is). Writing improves in fits and starts, and a writer requires different types of feedback at different stages. By the time I was thinking of exposing my work to the world, I was itching for the attention of a professional editor, someone who had experience seeing the flaws and inconsistencies that I couldn’t see. Seeing my work through the eyes of professional editors has educated me about my own process of writing, which for the most part had gone unexamined. I learn more and more about what comes easily to me and what I need to fight through; and each of these insights helps me to plan and structure my revisions more efficiently. My editors have made my work better – even the work they haven’t seen.

Cover art. I will have a whole post about the cover once it’s finished. For now, I will only say that I am stunned and amazed and in love with what’s been done so far. My imagination alone could never have produced this.

Marketing. I know very little (so far) about what sort of marketing my publisher does, but I can say this: I had to approve author bio copy for the sales people. There are sales people who have an author blurb about me. I am pretty sure all of my awkward self-marketing efforts would have paled in the face of this.

Money. Okay, let’s be crass about it, because the money is a big, big difference. Yes, it’s possible I would somehow have hit it big in Self-Pub Land and managed to sell a bunch of copies of this book; but realistically – especially given my self-marketing clumsiness – it’s extremely unlikely I could have earned even a fraction of my advance in any reasonable timeframe. On top of that – I would have hired a freelance editor, and I would have paid for a professional cover, and having done the research I can tell you I have champagne tastes in both areas. It would have taken me an awful lot of Self-Pub Land sales to make back what I would have spent there. Instead, I have a publisher who has written me a check, and, if I keep writing stuff they like, will write me some more checks. And yes, I know they get a big cut of what happens next, and you know? They’re the ones gambling here. They’re the ones providing me with a beautiful cover and amazing editors and sales people that have my author blurb. They are providing goods and services and actual cash, hoping that my book sells. Yes, I busted my backside to produce the book, and am similarly busting to write more; but my big risk here is my ego. I write; they give me money. How is this a bad deal?

Community. Being part of a team of people looking after the well-being of your book is an amazing thing. There is nothing quite like getting a message from your agent, who has seen all of your early garbage drafts and has heard all of your hand-wringing insecurities and still says This is an amazing book and the next one will be amazing as well; or reading a comment your editor has put on a paragraph you hadn’t even thought about that makes you realize wow, here is someone who completely understands what I’m trying to say. I am not writing on my own anymore, and it’s like rain in the desert.

With self-publishing out there as a legitimate, inexpensive, low-friction option, trade publishing gets a lot of flak these days. It’s slow. It’s hard to break in. It’s resistant to change. Good authors are missed/excluded. From what little I’ve seen…it’s all true, and it’s all false, just like most generalizations. It is just another industry, with all the good and bad that goes with it.

And so far? I’m pretty happy with it.