On self-publishing

Anyone who has spent any amount of time on this “being an author” idea quickly realizes that the path to traditional publishing is LONG.  Assuming your real life doesn’t demand the majority of your time and you have a brilliant idea and can write a great book the first time out the gate, you’re still probably looking at six months to write that first book.

(At this point, about ten people are rolling on the floor laughing because it took them years to write that first book.  Or definitely more than six months.  There’s one person out there thinking, “Six months?  Try six weeks.”)

So, you write a book.  Now you have to query it.  And, again, let’s assume you are brilliant and amazing and have the idea of the century, so your first batch of queries triggers interest.  (And I’ve seen a few of these stories, so it does happen.)  So, you send a query, the agent sees it that day and requests a full.  (It’s the book of the century, no wasting time on partials here).  The agent is so excited by the idea that they read it that very weekend and you get a call with an offer of representation Sunday night.  (This is the writing world, there are no weekends.)

Now, the agent has to find a publisher willing to buy it.  Again, let’s say that you’ve written an amazing book and your agent has fantastic contacts so knows exactly who to go to and they love it and offer on it right away.  Give that a month to happen.  (Of course, I saw an author’s story of the “auction” for their book and the auction took place over a period of about three months.)  But you’re AMAZING, so there’s a massive preempt by that first publishing house and you have a contract within a month.

And they want to publish you right away.  They really do.  BUT.  The world did not just spring into existence and they have fantastic, amazing books that were written before yours that are already slated for publication.  And there’s that whole editing, cover art, marketing, etc. process that books go through.  But they really want to publish your book.  So, they schedule your for about eighteen months from now.  (Probably more like two years, but this is the optimistic as hell scenario.  And it’s a fiction scenario.  Topical non-fiction, probably a different story.)

So, where are we: 6 months writing + 1 month querying + 1 month on submission + 18 months to publication = 26 months from the time you decided to write a novel to getting published.

Of course, that was the BEST CASE SCENARIO.  I had a first draft within that six months, but not a novel I would want anyone to see.  That took about a year.  And querying can take ages (and fail).  And then you can be on submission for well over a year (and fail).

And that whole time you’re not earning a penny for this novel of yours.  And even after you get a contract, you may not be earning that much from it.  $5K advance anyone?

Which creates the temptation to self publish.  But that’s its own can of worms.  First, are you really, really sure that novel you wrote should see the light of day?

(I think most authors are neurotic freaks, so on Monday my answer to that question is “Yes!”  On Tuesday I think, “Well, Chapter 5 is really good.”  On Wednesday I think, “Oh God, no.  It sucks.  No one will like it will they?”  On Thursday I think, “At least I still have my day job.”  And on Friday I think, “But I don’t want to do my day job for fifty more years, damn it.  How can we fix this?  Do we need to fix this?”)

(Some days it’s fun to live in my head.)

So, let’s say that masterpiece you wrote really is a masterpiece.  It’s brilliant.  It will bring you success.  People will read it and love it.  Great.  Question two: How good are you at selling things?

Me, I suck at it.  It’s why I’m bad at dating.  It’s why the year I took off from college was only a year.  (Honest salespeople are not really successful salespeople.  Prospective client: “How old are you?” “Twenty”  “And you want to tell me how to invest my money?”  “Yeah, kinda crazy, huh?”  “You could say that.”)

Question three: How good are you at presentation?  Covers matter.  Can you either create or find someone who can create a good one?

That part I could probably handle.  I have a little background in that general design field, so I can at least recognize it when others do it well.

Question four: How much time do you want to spend on writing and how much time do you want to spend on other stuff?

Because to make it work with self-publishing you need to write a killer book, get other people to read it, and then get them to tell others about it.  That probably requires a hell of a lot of leg work that has nothing to do with writing your book.

I’m not saying don’t do it.  I’m just saying that for me, personally, I’m probably more likely to tear my current book to little pieces or to write a brand new novel than to try the whole self-publishing route.  (I may still go that route for the book about my dad, but that’s because that’s just a labor of love, not something I think will be commercially successful.)

To each his own.  And you’re going to find the folks out there who argue about the margins on self-pubbed books vs. traditional publishing and how much more you make per book if you self-pub.  (I can give you that same argument for self-employment vs. working for a large company.  Let me tell you, some days I miss that whole steady paycheck/benefits thing.  For me the working in pajamas and from wherever I feel like makes up for it, but getting all the profits also requires putting in all the effort and taking all the risks.)

If you want to use self-pubbing as an alternative to traditional pubbing, fine.  But if you want to use it as a path to traditional pubbing, I think you need to be very careful.

What prompted this post is a post by Janet Reid (a/k/a Query Shark) some hard numbers.  If you are going to go the self-pubbed route with the intention of getting traditionally published some day, READ THIS POST.

And read the comments, too.  It’s not black and white.  And it’s constantly changing.  And we’ll all reach different conclusions.  The best thing you can do is stay informed.

(Oh, and I thought this post was so long it needed a picture.  Enjoy!)

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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