The Self-Publishing Exceptions

After yesterday’s post about why I won’t self-publish, there was such a variety of responses from you lovely readers that I wanted to look at self-publishing some more.

Today I did a Google search for self publishing successes. Of course, that gives about 64 million results—literally—which is funny, since self-publishing success is the exception, not the rule.

According to the Wall Street Journal, citing publishing business tracker R. R. Bowker,  the number of self-published titles rose 160% between 2006 and 2010, from 51,237 to 133,036 titles.

That is, in technical terms, a crap-ton.

On the other hand, though, a USA Today article from earlier this month says 15 authors only have gotten a book into the top 150 titles on the USA Today Bestselling Books list in the last year. The “only” is my addition: while the USA Today article says those folks are “threatening to change the face of publishing,” 15 authors is just a drop in the bucket.

Let me ask you this: Have you read a self-published book? I haven’t.

Who springs to mind as a self-publishing success? Christopher Paolini and Amanda Hocking, sure: but they both took the opportunity when it arose and signed with traditional publishers. Other writers, like Barry Eisler, have turned down huge traditional contracts in order “to cut out an expensive middleman.”

That’s a deep divide. New writers jumping at the chance for a traditional contract, and established writers turning down contracts because they feel they can make better money working for themselves and self-publishing.

For new writers (like me and like most of you who read this blog), it makes sense to snatch at the big-name leg-up and marketing power that a large publisher has, while an established writer can bank on her existing sales record and fanbase to continue selling her novels on her own.

The comments on yesterday’s post were pretty evenly split between self-publishing and the traditional route. I maintain that I want the traditional contract, but it does look like the industry is changing at least a little, right at the time when I need to start considering my options.

Here’s the trouble, though, with saying that the industry is changing: If the number of titles self-published has grown 160% in the last five years, how many more people are going to start self-publishing in the next five years? It’s an easy fallback, too easy, making it possible to get work out there that should never have seen the light of day. The nice thing about those tough agents and publishers is that they act as gatekeepers, separating the wheat from the chaff even as they do overlook some titles that perhaps deserve more attention.

If everyone who can’t get a contract jumps into self-publishing, readers are going to be inundated with mediocre titles. Yes, word of mouth will tell us what we might like, and the worst of the unedited works will filter out of our options, but if we all jump into self-publishing, we’re making it harder to become one of those drops in the bucket that actually succeeds.

Please don’t think I’m advocating for one route over another, or even that I’m trashing those who choose to self-publish. I don’t have the answers. I’m just trying to work this out as I go along.

I guess my concern boils down to this: Will we self-publish ourselves into obscurity?

Why I (Probably) Won’t Self-Publish

Never say never and all that, but I don’t want to self publish.

A certain member of my family frequently asks, “So when are you going to get that thing published?” Like publishing my book is an errand I’m putting off and if I weren’t so lazy, I could just walk it over to, say, Tor, ask them to design me a cover and print out a couple of hundred copies of the whole bound book.

I could do something akin to that. I have talented artist friends who could paint a cover. I could mosey over to one of the many vanity presses online or—heck—the big one across the highway from my apartment complex that’s made the Writer Beware bad guys list and pay to print out my book. I could then persuade some local booksellers or even the store where I work to sell those copies.

Even better, I could just upload that puppy to the Kindle store, charge 99 cents for it, and call it done.

I don’t want to do that, though.

I think of myself kind of like a monkey that juggles flaming batons. That’s a pretty cool monkey, and maybe even a talented one, but that monkey needs some help getting going. Sure, she could juggle flaming batons on street corners, but she’s pretty likely to get arrested and thrown in the zoo when she accidentally lights someone on fire.

Of course, in the self publishing scenario, I’m more likely to set myself on fire than anyone else. I don’t want to ruin my career by pushing a book full of typos and plot errors into the hands of someone who will publicly (and rightly) flame me. The point is that the juggling monkey needs some sort of handler to help her choose her engagements and tell her where it’s safe to throw fiery batons.

Kristen Lamb’s post for today got me thinking about this yet again. She says,

I’ve met writers who proudly paid to have beautiful covers designed and build web sites for their self-pubbed book, and yet, when I got a look at their first pages, I wish I could have stopped them. That’s the problem with being new. When we are really new, we are too dumb to know what we don’t know.

So before we make a decision to self-publish, we must make sure we get a professional to look at our book and let us know the hard truth, even if it hurts. It is way easier to have an editor send a private e-mail telling us that our book is a disaster than for a book reviewer to do it on a blog or for readers to blast us on Amazon. Also the BEST way to positively impact sales is to write excellent books. No amount of social media can help a bad book.

I don’t want to be that writer, the one who spends time and effort and even money on a flawed product. I know there are people out there who are smarter than me about plotting, about publishing, about marketing, and about almost everything to do with writing books. I know my stories. My job right now is to write a damned good book that someone will want to read.

But when I’m ready, I want to hire those smarter people to help me help myself. (And by “hire,” I mean I want them to publish my book.)

Still, I have to plan for the not-best-case scenarios. I need to learn to market myself well, to build a sturdy social media platform, and to convince people out there who don’t even like reading to read my book. To that end, I’ve signed up for Kristen Lamb’s class. I’m reaching out to other bloggers. And I’m editing the crap out of my manuscripts. Literally. By the time I’m done, they will contain no more crap. I hope.

All of these skills should help me convince some of those smart, professional people to join my team down the road. And if, knock on wood, I can’t manage to go the traditional route and win over a juggling-monkey-coach/editor, then I’ll be all the more prepared to help myself self-publish. Even though I don’t want to do that.

What’s your worst-case-scenario plan? Will you self-publish if you just can’t get your foot in the door?