Carrie Slager has asked me to offer my thoughts about self-publishing, why I chose that route for my series The Bow of Heaven, and what I think about the self-publishing industry in general.
If you were an author trying to get your novel published the old-fashioned way around 2005, but wound up instead going the self-publishing route, then it’s almost a certainty you had been rejected by every traditional agent and publisher on the planet. How do I know this? From experience. The stigma clinging to the word “self-published,” much of it warranted, was palpable.
Times changed, from the publishing industry’s perspective, almost overnight. So much so that now, I don’t think it matters what Carrie or I or anyone else thinks about the rise of self-publishing. (Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, network television was up-in-arms over something called cable and pay-per-view. What? Pay for TV when you can get it for free? Yeah, like that will ever catch on.) There is no stopping this tidal wave of words, and ultimately, I think it’s a good thing.
My Dad used to tell me, “Look, son, I know you’re scared to pick up the phone to ask Peggy to the movies, but think of it this way: if you ask 100 girls for a date and 90% of them tell you no with a capital “Are you nuts?” you’ll still have dates with 10 different girls.” 100 girls? I knew Peggy. What was my father thinking? Plus, he was a charming cross between Ronald Reagan and Dean Martin. I was a cross between Woody Allen and another Woody Allen. You see my point: there may be tons more worthless words yakking for our attention, but there will also be more worthy, entertaining offerings of eloquence by authors who otherwise would have had the mahogany double doors of traditional publishing slammed in their faces.
Self-publishing has given the old chestnut “power to the people” brand new relevance. Until very recently, traditional publishers hoarded that power like Scrooge hoarded farthings. They’d peer over their pince-nez glasses and with a Dickensian sneer be very pleased to tell the rest of us just what we ought to be reading. Those days, in my opinion, are almost over. For good.
True, we are going to be wading through fields of chaff to find a few grains of wheat, and as readers, we’re going to need help sorting it all out. Traditional critics have their hands full just keeping up with those New York Review of Books titles, and I can guarantee you they will sniff and turn their backs on 99% of everything else. 89% of the time, they’re probably making the right decision. Twisted analogy coming up: but what about those ten worthy girls stamping their feet out in the cold? At least for the time being, we have to rely on all of the rest of us to know what to read and what to leave sitting on the virtual or print-on-demand shelf. Whether you hate a book or love it, review it! If there are more writers, there need to be more critics. Book bloggers and just plain old readers will see us through these new and wondrous times.
Carrie caught about 15 typos in The Other Alexander. I was appalled. Because before she got her hands on a copy, I had
picked through that final manuscript like a hungry mother chimp grooming her baby for snacks. And I had two other people do the same thing! We owe it to our readers to be as grammatically, typographically perfect as possible. Having said that, I don’t think it’s quite as big a deal as Carrie does. I’ll give a book three typos before I start grumbling. But here’s the best part – self-publishers can go on taking corrections from their readers forever. It doesn’t cost a thing to upload a revised, error-free version of their oeuvre. Just don’t let as many nits slip through your comb as I did.
A word about cover art. I have heard from a smattering of readers and reviewers, Carrie included, who found the original cover (on the left), to quote one critic who otherwise loved the book, “bizarrely hideous.” I hear and I obey. Very shortly, new versions of both the ebook and paperback editions will be released with professionally designed covers. Unless you’re a graphic designer, get help. (The fine artist whose work you are admiring on the right is Lynnette Shelley. Go to her website; you will find a little of the bizarre, but nothing remotely hideous.)
Proofreading, it must be said, is not editing. The original version of The Other Alexander was so far removed from the copy you’re going to rush out and buy when you finish reading this it would be unrecognizable as the same novel. I had a lot of help. I needed a lot of help. I would love to have gained from the wisdom of a professional editor holding my hand throughout the entire process, but then I would have had to type much more slowly. And it wasn’t in the budget. But I did have several people whose opinion I trust tell me the many places I had gone wrong. The first book in the series has been out almost a year and they’re still telling me. Here it is in a laptop case: if you haven’t revised your novel from top to bottom at least three times, odds are you’re at least two times shy of getting it right.
I’m afraid I do not agree with Carrie that aspiring authors ought to go the traditional route. It is no small thing to have control over your work and to earn a far greater percentage than you ever will with the big houses. The trick is to recognize you cannot go it alone. Other eyes, preferably trained, need to vet your writing. Of course, if the main reason you’re sequestering yourself for hours at a time over the span of any number of years is to be able to go to a bookstore, point with pride to a display window full of hardcover copies of your bestseller and say, “I did that,” start polishing those query letters. And good luck with that.
For the rest of us, and by that I mean everyone minus nineteen, write the best book you possibly can, self-publish and see what happens. If it’s as good as you think it is, it will get noticed. And if the big houses come knocking, you can decide if their advance is worth the loss of control. We should all be so lucky.
One last thought: whatever you do, be sure to publish an ebook edition. Here are some stats from publisher Robin Sullivan. In May of 2011, Amazon sold more Kindle ebooks than paperback and hardcover combined. At the end of 2010, ebooks accounted for 8.3% of total trade sales; by February of last year, ebooks constituted 29.5% of the total, higher than any other category (hardcover, mass market or trade paperback).
Whether you decide to self-publish or go the traditional route, it’s a great time to be a writer … and a reader.