The Argument for Free Self-Publishing
Why publish yourself? Because nowadays, you can do it for free. Traditional publishing and the paths leading towards it are unfair, uneven, and generally inconsistent. But if we’re going to bash traditional publishing for its irregularity and unfairness, it only makes sense to be fair ourselves. You need to know what you get out of traditional publishing before postponing it. Or even outright rejecting it. So let’s begin by highlighting its advantages.
1. Buying You Time
Buying you time to write is arguably the most pronounced advantage of traditional publishing. Financial security for writers in their chosen vocation is notoriously uncommon. The Egyptian Nobel Laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, remained in his civil service position until the contemporary age of retirement. More recently, a few years ago, a published author whose books sold on multiple continents, wrote a blog post of which the gist was that despite preferring writing to editing, he’d love enough regular editing gigs so he wouldn’t have to deliver pizza in his old and unreliable car. If you’ve spent any time trying to get published, you already know this.
But there’s this magical thing about a book deal. So magical it keeps all of us chasing after it. You get a chunk of money in advance. five, ten, fifteen or twenty thousand dollars to keep a roof over your head and coffee in your pot for a few more months while you sit your ass down and churn out a few thousand more words. Because let’s be honest. You can read all the multi-tasking productivity guides in the world, and they’ve got some really helpful tips. But at the end of the day, you have a finite amount of energy, and a day job you can’t escape directs a lot of that energy away from writing. Some writers are blessed enough with ways around that, but for most writers with other jobs, it’s still pretty challenging. So the prospect of being able to wake up in the morning, go for a walk, have breakfast, then set up your workstation at home, or the library, or the local coffee shop and going at it for a few hours a day, every day, is extremely alluring. Whether or not you have the self-discipline to actually follow through with it.
Of course, infinite resources and time have been known to be uninspiring to some writers but that’s a topic for another day. The point is, a book deal offers you an advance payment. If it’s a non-fiction book, it usually means you have time to sit down and finish the project you queried. If it’s a fiction book, you’ve probably queried the whole thing, and apart from occasionally arguing with your editor, it gives you time to work on your next project. So yeah, that’s a pretty attractive idea.
2. Publicity and Distribution
The other immense advantage traditional publishing offers is the publicity and distribution that you get. Those are often made more likely when closing a book deal if you have a clever and well-connected literary agent, who has both the intelligence and the leverage to negotiate better terms with your publisher. However, this is not always strictly necessary. Some publishers specifically publish less books than their publishing house’s capacity to ensure more of their books are superb winners. This means those publishers are usually more than willing to offer favourable terms for the promotion and distribution of your book. All you, or your agent need/s to do is to successfully promote the book to said publisher.
I don’t need to tell you why publicity and distribution are crucial. Being a published but starving author or poet has its own kind of mystique when you’re hanging out in grubby, dimly-lit joints, trying to sell your unrecognised genius to attractive rookie reporters, but it gets old real fast when you need to pay your mortgage or feed your dog (or cat). The more time, effort, and money are dedicated to publicity and distribution, the more likely you are to find the readers who identify with your material. In effect, you’re more likely to get paid enough to make your living from writing, because more of the people willing to buy your book will notice it.
That’s it. These are all the advantages to traditional publishing. What’s that? You thought there was more? Fine… I guess you can brag about how some executive in a publishing house recognised your talents over the unpublished writer sitting next to you. See if you can make her or him a little jealous. And it might help get your parents off your case about your career. Heck, you can put it in your Tinder profile if you’re not married. But yes. Apart from that, this is it. These are all the advantages to traditional publishing. Now let’s look at the cons, shall we?
Traditional publishing is not fair. I said that already but I’m saying it again. Because this disadvantage alone covers about 20 other disadvantages. Subjectively speaking, talentless writers get published all the time. Some of them succeed too, due to trend sales and curiosity, or a host of other reasons. Some of them don’t. I’m not saying this out of resentment or suggesting that they shouldn’t get published. Kudos to them for getting their work out there. My opinion of their talent might be subjective, but what I’m objectively saying here, is that subjectivity is the name of the game since publishing began. There is a narrative in all our minds that if we’re truly talented, and we query enough literary agents and publishers, somebody somewhere will definitely notice and help us get a book deal. This narrative, is a myth. It’s possible, but there’s nothing definite about it. The reason there’s nothing definite about it is more than the subjectivity involved however.
The reason the profession of literary agents evolved is because publishers were flooded, daily, with torrential rivers of manuscripts. As a result, publishers mostly only consider manuscripts recommended by literary agents. People they trust to know what they’re looking for as a publishing house, based on their ability to distribute and the demographics they have or want to build a connection with. Manuscripts sent to publishers without representation are commonly sent to the “slush pile”. A stupendously large volume of manuscripts of which rarely anything is seriously inspected. When something is, hardly any of it makes it past a senior editor for publishing approval.
However, since the global population boomed, so did the world’s writers. Ironically, literary agents now have to sort through their own colossal piles of manuscripts before presenting them to publishing houses. Literary agents commonly set unique requirements for their queries to make sorting through the piles easier but even still, they’re overwhelmed. Which brings us to another disadvantage.
2. Slim Chances
It’s like winning a lottery. But in a really roundabout way. Not necessarily a gigantic lottery, but it’s still a miniscule chance. Only instead of just costing you money, it costs you effort as well. The chance that your manuscript will be given the proper consideration before acceptance or rejection is often less than 1%. And that’s being about a hundred times too generous, if not more. Because both publishers and literary agents are inundated with manuscripts, you’re one of thousands of people that a single person has to screen within a very short time period. Hundreds of people that one person screens within a day. Be that person a literary agent, or a literary agent’s assistant, or an aspiring intern. In the end, the first stage of your screening, depends on someone who has to screen far more than they should be screening alone within a day. This isn’t a conspiracy against your talent. Literary agents and publishing houses don’t have the money to hire enough people to reliably screen all the manuscripts they get. Some reputable literary agents promise to respond within the space of a few weeks or even a few months, then simply never respond.
Now let’s imagine you win the lottery. You don’t get paid right away. Your literary agent has to score a publisher for you. A book deal. They may or may not be able to do that. Once the book deal comes through, the terms may not be favourable enough for you to succeed. You may flop. You may flop so badly, no other publisher will ever want to touch you again, let alone advance you money. But you get even luckier. Powerball lucky now. You get a $100,000 advance, you get the most favourable financial commitment for promotion and distribution from your publishers, you’re so talented you make Charles Dickens look like an angsty 14-year-old… And you still flop. Best case scenario, it’s like winning the lottery but you still have to go to work. Which is an aspect of the next disadvantage.
3. It’s A Lot More Work
If your book doesn’t sell, you’re essentially promising to do a tremendous amount of work promoting it, and (if it’s non-fiction), a tremendous amount of work finishing it, as well as taking about a hundred stressful meetings with your editor (along with phone calls, emails and messages), and you still might get paid very little. Particularly if your book deal included a much smaller advance. If your ideal reward is more about sentiment then you can go the self-publishing route, build a small but dedicated readership, AND expend only as much effort, money, and time as you can spare. In some cases, you might not need to expend money at all. But this brings us to the advantages of free self-publishing, so…Let’s move on to the meat of the matter.
Again, why self-publish and what’s in it for you? Free self-publishing is distinct from vanity publishing. You don’t pay someone to publish your work on a free self-publishing platform. Free self-publishing for physical books means they’re printed on demand. If a customer orders your book, the platform you use prints it for a cut of the revenue, and you get yours in pure profit. Digital versions are even easier. They’re simply downloaded. Like traditional publishing, self-publishing has its own advantages and disadvantages as well. But the list of advantages has been growing in recent years and continues to grow…The list of disadvantages has been doing the exact opposite. Since the aforementioned advantages speak to the heart of this post, let’s start with the pros.
1. It’s Free
Plenty of platforms offer you opportunities to self-publish without paying anything. Some traditional publishers and literary agents require significant printed portions of your manuscript to be physically mailed to them. One literary agent I queried required 50 printed pages, printed to very specific directions. This not only cost me expensive printer ink and paper, along with re-prints, but also cost me quite a bit more than a regular letter to mail. When you’re self-publishing for free, you needn’t pay a dime more than your electric and internet bills. You can spend money on self-promotion but you can choose precisely how to self-promote and how much to spend.
2. Success Pays More
You keep a lot more of your profits. Since many of those platforms are not contractually bound to heavily promote you, you also owe them much less. You make a lot more every time someone buys your self-published book than you would have when someone buys your traditionally published book at the same price.
3. Published is Published
It still counts. The advent of free self-publishing caused an earthquake shock in the world of writing and publishing. Self-published books sell on the world’s largest virtual store, alongside traditionally published books. A significant portion of financially successful authors today are self-published authors who have never been traditionally published, and that portion is growing. The old-guard snobs of the writing world can no longer exclusively refer to “being published” for it to be understood in the traditional sense. If somebody asks you “Oh, have you been published?”, the answer is “yes” whether you’re with Harper Collins or Kindle Direct Publishing. And whether you’re with Harper Collins or KDP, they can get your books from the same place.
If a writing snob feels the need to ever elaborate that you’re not “traditionally” published, they need to do just that. Elaborate. Explain themselves. Expose their falsity, pretence, and pettiness for what they are. They have to explain that their definition of “being published”, is approval by some nameless face with a subjective opinion in an office somewhere. Since self-published authors have proved that their financial success can regularly exceed the financial success of traditionally published authors, not just as the exception to the rule, it’s become apparent that “published is published.”
4. It’ll Get Your Foot in the Door
Getting self-published doesn’t mean you can never get traditionally published. Au contraire. Self-publication can actually help your traditional publication. If you prove you can put in the work to write and edit your own book, build a solid readership and efficiently promote yourself at a lower cost, even moderate success as a self-published writer might get literary agents and traditional publishers interested in your work. You don’t rob yourself of one by doing the other. The bigger your following, the more interested publishers are to market your work. Consider war criminals like George Bush or Hillary Clinton. They’re not particularly good writers but they have a big following. So the publishing houses were willing to hire them ghost writers, assign promotion and distribution budgets to them, and generally, use them to sell books. Because that’s all we are to traditional publishers. People they can use to sell books. This isn’t a venomous statement or one made derisively. It is what it is. Writing snobs might define the literary world by the decisions of publishing houses, but good publishing house executives and literary agents are the least uppity members of the literary world. If they can sell you, they want you. You make a profit, they make a profit, you get promotion, distribution, professional editing… Everybody wins. So self-publishing doesn’t hurt your chances to get traditionally published. It might even help them. Speaking of editing…
5. No fighting with your editor.
A writer and his editor are natural enemies. That’s just the way it goes. You learn to love your editor if they’re really good but ultimately, good editors are an even greater scarcity than good writers, and initially, you’ll still hate them. Some editors are great writers themselves, and believe it or not, they initially hated (or permanently hate) their own editors. It’s kind of like driving and walking. When I walk, I hate drivers and when I drive, I hate pedestrians. But when you’re self-publishing, getting an editor is purely optional. Something you might choose to do to improve your book and your chances of demographic or financial success. If you don’t like your editor’s edits, you can bin them. You’re not contractually bound to take their advice. They’re not an imposition on you. That’s huge, psychologically. This makes for a lot more constructive conversation.
There are actually other pros to being self-published. No deadlines, complete creative freedom, an obnoxious gift to give someone whenever you don’t know what to buy, etc. But this list can drag on forever. Now we address the cons of free self-publishing.
1. Making Time
When you’re a self-published writer with no previous traditional publishing, you don’t get paid a book advance. Assuming you’re not rich, you presumably have to work for a living (Not shaming you if you don’t). Finding the time and energy to put in the actual work on your book, let alone to promote it, can be really challenging. And now that I mention promotion…
2. You Market Yourself
If you’re like me, you find self-promotion boring, and can’t shake the feeling that it’s a little pretentious. I started my own fan page on Facebook. That felt like a really icky thing to do. Ultimately, you’ll have to get over that if you want to succeed financially in your chosen vocation. Aside from that, learning how to do it and actually doing it is serious effort and time. And any costs you undertake initially until you financially succeed, are costs out-of-pocket. Until your investment in your own writing pays off, you’re a liability.
That’s it. That’s everything. Oh no, I guess some professional critics and a few literary snobs might disapprove of you or something. Hopefully you can survive that. Critics particularly. After all, if a critic generally disapproves of “your type of publishing” without reading your work, the critic doesn’t matter enough. If he disapproves of your work specifically well…That means he read it. That means you were important enough to read.
Keep Writing Words.