Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Why Not Self Publish?

In the comments to a recent post, a gentleman named Greg Christopher said:

"You are a fool for not self publishing. You would have money by now.
Sorry for the tough love, but you seem to be needlessly hurting yourself."
Now, we are not enemies of tough love here at the Zeppelin, and I'm not writing this post to shame or criticize anyone, but when I started to respond in the comments I ended up writing a post, so here it goes.

The thing is is that self-publishing a novel is basically a full-time job. Once you're done writing the novel, you need to do all the work of editing - and that includes finding people who are qualified to help you who are not yourself, since by the time you are done with your novel, you're going to need an outside perspective. Then you're going to need cover art and layout, which you probably don't know how to do yourself. Editors cost money, artists cost money, and layout experts cost money.

Then, you're going to need to settle down to some serious self-promotion. As a self-published author, you need to do everything yourself. If you want to get your book into a bookstore, you are going to need to go to that bookstore, get a meeting with that buyer, talk up your book, and hope she buys it. And if she doesn't, you just wasted time and gas money that you may or may not have to spare. Forget about getting your book into stores in another part of your state, let alone another part of the country.

On the other hand, with an agent and publisher backing you up, you've got somebody to do all that for you, and you don't pay for any of it, at least not directly. You pay in a cut of what your novel makes; if your novel doesn't sell, you don't pay.

On the third hand, e-publication is always a possibility. The self-promotion here is a bit less travel-intensive, since you can use the internet, but still takes a lot of time and energy. You need to email, post, pimp, and produce free content like a demon if you want to get anywhere. You need to do all the work of a publishing agency's marketing machine, all by your lonesome. Abigail Hilton, among others, has managed it, but I'm not sure how.

Now, that said, I'm mostly talking about short stories here, not novels. So, where is the benefit in traditionally publishing short stories?

Blogs (like this one) are good for building a base of fans. I suppose I could start releasing my stories for free here to build up a base for the eventual self-release of my novel. Again, though, we're talking a lot of work. I've been keeping this blog fairly regularly for about two years now, and I've got maybe thirty readers - probably more like twenty. The thing is, I don't need to reach you already - unless I lose you, I've got you. If I posted tomorrow with a sample chapter of my self-published e-reader friendly novel, I predict that most of you would read it.

There are other problems with self-publishing short stories on my blog. Let's say I just up and posted The Dead of Tetra Manna, a story I've been having a hard time finding a market for. For that post to net me new readers - which is what I'd need to do to use this blog as a platform to build my writing career - someone would need to read that story, like it, and then pass it along to a friend. That friend would then need to read the story and not only like it, but like it well enough to become a regular reader him or herself. This could happen - it probably has happened - but it isn't likely. There are too many intermediary steps between post and follower during which the signal can be lost. How many times have you heard, read, or heard of something interesting, thought to yourself "I should follow that dude's blog," and then failed to follow through? That's why after two years of fairly steady blogging, I'm still at only about thirty readers.

Compare this to The Dead of Tetra Manna finding a place in a traditional, online, or podcast magazine. Nearly every reader or listener is not already someone who follows my blog. Let's say Podcastle bought The Dead of Tetra Manna. Podcastle has at least several thousand listeners (possibly more), almost none of which already know who I am. If even one percent of them become followers of my blog, I'm golden.

I have data to back this up. When the Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine bought The Invisible Kingdom, my blog experienced the single largest boost since the Abigail started reading and my readership went from "zero" to "one." I started with about ten readers and ended with the thirty or so I have today, a 300% increase.

Add to this the fact that most magazines won't take a short story that has been posted for free, but you can always post something for free after it's been published, after a suitable delay, and you see why it's important to pursue external publication for short pieces. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that seeking external publication for short fiction is an important step in building the base for successful self-publishing.

Finally, podcasts.

Well done podcast magazines, braided anthologies, and novels attract a lot of attention very quickly. I could, in theory, begin a series of podcast stories or create a podcast version of Knights of the Land. I have frequently mention the excellent Guild of the Cowry Catchers, and I have listened to, enjoyed (and in some cases, posted about and reviewed, many others). I have great reverence for podcasters. I am not ready to be one.

In my other life (note that I didn't write "day job") I am a middle school science teacher. Teaching middle school isn't a job. It isn't even a career. Three jobs, two careers, and membership in a secret assassin clan just barely begins to scrape the surface of how much physical, mental, and emotional work this is. Physical, mental, and emotional giants like Chris Lester of Metamor City can manage teaching and podcasting at the same time - and even he's trailed off lately - but I know my limits. Perhaps there will be a day that I can teach all day, podcast all night, sleep while I drive, and write while I sleep. Until I figure out how to do that and not die (or, alternately, get better at teaching so it takes less of my time), though, podcasting is not for me.

So, where does all that leave me?

Hopefully, right where I am.

I know who I am and what I want. I am not a Mur Lafferty or an Abigail Hilton. I don't, at this point in my life, have that kind of drive or organization, and I don't want to be a full time writer. I have a more than full time career that I love. What I want is to keep slogging away, working on novels, writing short stories, and building my base. Some day, when I attract the attention of an agent and a publisher, I can pare off some of the time I already have for writing - weekends, vacations, the entire freakin' summer - for book tours and hardcore marketing. The rest of the time I can balance between the work I love and the work I also love.

I hope this post isn't too long or too vehement, but I spend a lot of time consuming I Should Be Writing, Dave Thompson's livejournal, and other writerly outlets. Being an loud opinionated person, I can't help but want to comment. And what is the Internet for if not conversation?

Well, porn. Conversation and porn.

Until next time, the Zeppelin lives and lets live, and you should, too.


Scattercat said...

Pers'nally, I don't see much good in self-publishing, because, son, I ain't gonna make any money at it and neither are you (the royal 'you' there.) It takes a sh'load of work and a double-sh'load of luck to make money self-publishing, and you basically have to be a complete self-promotion machine in order to even get the longshot chance of becoming successful. I have no interest in telling people how awesome I am and begging them to come buy my book. I'll put some stuff out for free, sure, and if people like it, they like it, and that's cool.

Frankly, the "you'd have money already" line pretty much explains why I wouldn't self-publish; if money was the goal, I'm in the wrong effing line of work. I'll go do something people want to pay for if I'm looking to make scratch. I write because I have to, and I submit the stories to 'zines because being noticed soothes my sad, lumpy ego, like patting a puppy on the head. Self-publishing would take time away from writing (due to all the promotional work I'd have to do) and would deny me the dirty little joy of feeling special when an Authority Figure approves of my output; it's like a lose-lose situation.

Pontifex said...

You need to listen to this interview with Seth Godin