In last Friday’s newsletter I stated pretty emphatically that self-publishing was, both artistically and commercially, the right choice. Long-time reader and valued curmudgeon Ed Teja took a different view. He made good points, which he’s allowing me to share here. Please, tell him what you think because we’d both like to know how this resonates with y’all. And Ed, thanks for nudging me to reconsider this topic.)
When Joel presented a case for self-publishing über alle it struck a chord in me, yet simultaneously resonated with my automatic “ain’t necessarily so” response. The problem I have with the idea is that it suggests a fish-or-cut-bait approach, presenting a false dichotomy (as writers we get to use words like that. Enjoy). between self-publishing and everything else. The truth is, it’s worth considering a mix of strategies.
Let me say one thing clearly upfront: You will likely, probably, almost certainly, make more money publishing your own work than by working with any publisher. I’ll even suggest that doing things yourself, you stand a better chance of publishing the book you want, not one someone else thinks it should be.
Now give me a bit of room to swing my arms while I explain why, even if making money is the goal, excluding other options is an over-simplification.
Regardless of how you publish, writers struggle to find their audience. It ain’t easy, kids. You put your wonderful novel on Amazon, watch your story rise to a ranking of 1,599,365 (thanks, Mom) and then sink.
By now, we all realize you need to promote your book for it to gain that elusive traction, but what if you aren’t rich or marketing savvy? Then maybe it makes sense to let others share the burden of making you famous. Publishing with a small press can provide promotion for all your books that can earn you money as well.
Now I suppose you want to know how that works. Here is one (my) technique. Find small publishers (not one-person operations), carefully avoiding anyone demanding the “standard” NYC no-compete clauses and your firstborn child. There are a lot and the publisher’s websites often list calls for submissions (or check out Duotrope or other market listings) for themed series, anthologies or seasonal promotions (Christmas stories, for instance). Read the requirements and get writing. Working to an idea someone else came up with can be a challenge and great fun. Meeting the challenge of writing a romantic thriller about futuristic left-handed pigmies in 3500 words opened new doors in my mind (I made that one up, in case you were wondering). Writing to a spec helps you grow as a writer. Best of all, if they don’t want the story, guess what? Amazon awaits and you’ve got a 99-cent short story, a candidate for a collection, or a story to give away to people who sign up for your mailing list.
But why? After all, having someone publish your novella or short story in an anthology is not the path to riches. The fact is that you benefit, sometimes significantly, from the work the publisher and other authors do. Here’s how that works (with the odd why tossed in).
A good publisher (caveat emptor and all that) has a larger mailing list than you, as well as other resources to reach readers in their genres. Many publishers give you an author page on their site that links to your books on Amazon. I call that continuous free advertising. They also have publicity departments that, unlike those in NYC, sometimes contact you to write a guest blog or take advantage of some other promotional opportunity. They have established relationships with reviewers too. Every time I self-publish, I spend hours trying to find reviewers. All of this gets your name out. There is something nice about having other people promoting you. A cachet.
Okay, at this point my argument shrieks out for anecdotal evidence, so… a recently published anthology (in print) includes a story of mine I wrote under a pen name. I’ve published a number of stories under that name on my own. (Being two-faced has advantages in this business.) The publisher paid $50 (plus two copies) for nonexclusive rights to the story, which means I can publish it myself—and do it on a full stomach. Meantime the book is getting great reviews. Linking my (pen-name appropriate) author central page to the book means those reviews and sales push up my author rank, which helps my other books.
I’ve also gotten contracts with other small presses (under various names) that take the rights to a short story or novella for three to six years and pay royalties. Last year I started this program, collecting submission deadlines and writing to meet the ones I liked. I submitted nine stories (102,000 words). Six stories were published this year, one is coming out later, and one is scheduled for release in spring 2015. The ninth story was rejected. Two days later I published it. Now it’s on Amazon in ebook and audiobook formats and getting five star ratings.
I don’t suggest making working with publishers your focus unless you like being poor—all things in moderation, as Confucius said, and while he hasn’t sold as many books as Nora Roberts, he was a smart guy. Just exploit your niche(s) by writing for a few other folks who want to help the world get their hands on your prose. As a bonus, it gives you the chance to work with a variety of editors and house styles—a great (free) learning experience.
Ultimately, the results of this approach aren’t much different than plowing your hard-earned royalties back into promotion, but it works to my strength—writing (fun). I’m not recommending this as the career path, just a marketing activity. And I know I enjoy writing more than marketing, just as I enjoy slamming my head into the wall more than marketing, so I choose to use stories as my marketing tool. Yes Virginia, there is a coattail effect… if readers are pointed to one story of mine, they have a better chance of noticing them all (under that name).
And I get paid for this.
If you look at that narrow path ahead of you, and take off the blinders, you’ll see a cool mix of side roads and opportunities. And writing is all about nuance, after all.
What do you think? Are the potential learning and commercial benefits worth the extra effort?