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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Why I'm Going Indie: An Anti-Self-Publisher's Perspective

Longtime readers of this blog will be aware of my harsh opinions about self-publishing.  The title of this post is intentionally inflammatory to highlight a point which I hope will be clear by the end of this post.

I consider myself exceedingly critical of the concept of self-publishing, not because I think SPing is inherently wrong or improper, but because the field of self-publishing, if one can call it that, is flooded with people who lie or misrepresent traditional- and self-publishing.  This is not something you see on the other side of the scale; there are so many writers and authors and editors writing about how hard it is to be traditionally published, and what you have to go through to get there -- it's a gruesome process, after all.  I have a tag devoted to these issues.

Perhaps this is why some of you may be surprised that I am doing an indie/self-publishing project (namely, podcasting the rewritten version of The World in the Satin Bag and putting together an ebook version to be released later).  Why would I put my feet into the self-publishing bucket when I've been so critical of it in the past?

There are a number of reasons for why I've gone indie with WISB.  I've never been interested in sending it to a traditional publisher, for starters.  The book has been sitting on this blog for years, and traditional publishers are generally averse to blog novels, unless it's extraordinarily popular (some podcasters have had their books picked up, but you already know that).  But I also don't
want the novel to sit on this blog and fester, which is what it has been doing for the last four years.  In a lot of ways, letting it sit as long as I did was a good thing, because by going back to it now to rewrite it has taught me how far I've come as a writer.  If you look at the old version, it is absolutely dreadful; the new version, which I'm now podcasting, is a million times better and reflects more of what I think are my strengths as a 27-year-old writer.

But now that I can see how far I've come, I don't want WISB to sit; I want it to be more productive for me.  But that isn't a terribly good reason (in my mind) to self-publish.  After all, there are plenty of things I've written that I'll never publish in any form, either because they're terrible or they're too damned weird or "literary" to have much of a place.  Maybe I want those stories to be found in my attic one day...Here's looking at you, Kafka.

The reality is that I'm self-publishing WISB as a podcast and an ebook because the field really is changing.  The more I read about all the work the major publishers want me to do on my dime, the more I feel like I should try doing it on my own at least this once.  I've written about why I think publishers are shooting themselves in the foot.  The way publishers have been treating ebooks and authors (not exclusively, such as in the case of Angry Robot, who seem to approach ebooks intelligently) is one of the many reasons why so many self-published authors are doing remarkably well without needing major publishers at their back.  We've heard the names:  J. A. Konrath, Amanda Hocking, and so on.  Even Michael R. Hicks, who I have begun talking to on Twitter, is doing astonishingly well as an ebook author, so much so that he is quitting his day job of many years to pursue writing full time (see his sales figures here).  I certainly don't agree with everything Konrath says (he perpetuates falsehoods more than he does truths based on my limited experienced with his writing), but it's hard to ignore how ebooks have changed what is possible for self-published authors.

There are still hurtles (many of them, in fact), and there are still crappy books, bad authors, and shady practices (though I think it's safe to say that vanity publishers are going to get even more unethical in their business practices in order to hold onto their clients, in part because it's so damned easy to release ebooks on your own through major ebook retailers).  But the field is not the same as it was two years ago.  Some of the same problems from the old days still exist, but now the new problems are good problems to have (how to be a better writer, communicating with readers, formatting books, producing quality material and product, etc.).

Traditional publishing has changed some, but most of the good changes have been made by the smaller presses, rather than by the big guys.  Big publishers are slightly less interested these days in quality material than in the value customers will put on it by spending their money.  This is not true of all imprints, as some of the best ones (Tor, etc.) produce some amazing works of fiction, but the more you look at what is on the bestseller list, the more you see books that critics would have used as toilet paper 100 years ago, not because the critics are pretentious assholes, but because a lot of published books are like comparing a McDonald's cheeseburger to a real cheeseburger.  When someone like Sarah Palin can make millions from a book that would give a fact checker ten brain aneurysms in a row, you know the quality of the industry has taken a stab in the heart.

That doesn't mean that I am throwing WISB out there as a podcast and ebook in order to be famous and to make lots of money.  The podcast certainly has a financial hope attached to it, but the ebook side of things is really my attempt to test the waters and do something with a project I was otherwise going to let die.  I'm still writing short stories and publishing them the traditional way.  I'm still going to write science fiction and fantasy novels and send them to traditional publishers.  But I'm also going to experiment and play around and see what I can do with an indie/self-publishing project, in short and long form.  This is true of The Altern Compendium too, which is still on hold until I finish with WISB.

And why shouldn't I try this?  Will it destroy my career?  No, of course not.  If I write good stories, I'll have a career no matter how I publish some of my work.  It might mean that WISB will never see bookshelves, but I'm surprisingly okay with that.  What matters to me is that I get to try something new and share my experiences with friends and readers.  If I fail, then I fail.  So what?  If I succeed with flying colors, then I'll jump up and down and scream "yippee."  Either way, I'll have tried something new.  And that's really what all this digital publishing stuff is about, right?

If you've ever done an indie/self-publishing project, whether fiction or music or whatever, let me know why you went that route, how it worked out for you, and so on.  I'd like to hear from you.

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  1. Anonymous5:04 PM

    One comment. "Indie" and "self-pub" are two different things. See Lynn Price's blog, for a thorough explanation of all the publishing terms.

    I still need to get her book, but her blog is just excellent.

  2. Thanks for the link. I'll check it out. I know there's a difference, but I used both terms for my own diabolical purposes.

  3. Anonymous5:46 PM

    Haha, ok ;) I thought after I hit the 'publish' button my comment might have sounded a little short and snippy, but honestly I didn't mean it that way! Maybe I'm spending too much time on Twitter, I'm starting to think in 140 character blocks :D

  4. No harm done. It's useful to know there are differences between the two terms. I'll have to figure out if I'm really indie or an SPer. I'm leaning towards indie, but that's just because it sounds nice.

  5. Wow, the world is definitely changing! Good luck with your new ventures.

    Love the Lynn Price post! There is so much confusion in the industry right now, much of it sown by the vanity/subsidy publishers.

  6. Hey Sheila! Thanks for the happy wishes. I hope it works out. We'll see. Either way, I'm going to try!

  7. Hi Shaun,

    For the sake of being snippy-snappy, I think "indie" is the term self-published authors used to sound more hip. I've self-published two e-books, although I'm happy to use the terms interchangeably - since I like being hip, and everything.

    That said, I think your reasons to self-/indie-/e-pub are sound. Simply the knowledge I've gained from publishing two little short stories (that were - sob-story here - rejected by any and all comers) is worth the fact that I haven't sold a one of them. Personally, I still hedge my bets on the traditional scheme and favour it in my professional strategy/goal-making (if nothing else, it's made me a lot more money so far; though obviously there's a lot more considerations, too). But no matter how you dice it, the ability to self-publish has become a powerful force: it's free, it's not too hard, and you can put out whatever you like - no gatekeepers allowed. That's something any budding author ought to take note of.

  8. Hey Ben. Thanks for the comment. I still like the gatekeepers, in all honesty. I think we need ways to ensure quality material gets to the consumer. I fear that gatekeeping is falling to the wayside, though, what with all kinds of books being published these days that damn well don't deserve the publisher's label on them. The problem with SPing, for me (still), is that the burden is placed on the consumer to find the good books, which is not how I want people to discover great fiction. I'm hoping a podcast will alleviate some of those concerns over WISB. Maybe not.

    But perhaps ebooks are changing the field well enough that more and more good books are reaching readers than bad?

  9. One of the major things which attracted me to self-publishing was control.

    An author going through a publisher has little to no control over cover, publishing timeframe, issues such as DRM for ebooks, or whether their next book in a series will go forward. I love having the final say over all those things.

    I have overall very positive reviews, and get a kick out of reading them. One of my self-published novels was a finalist for the Aurealis Awards for best fantasy novel 2010 (beating out a solid number of traditionally published books).

    I can't pretend to be a self-publishing success story in terms of sales, but it allowed me to leave behind the tremendous negativity of the submission process. It allows me to finish a series without worrying whether a group of accountants will judge it not profitable enough. It lets me have my books on my own bookshelf, and see the reaction of others reading and enjoying them.

    I'm tremendously happy to have self-published.

  10. Andrea: I've heard a lot of SPers say they went that route because they wanted to control. I happen to like that too, though I wouldn't say it would be my top reason for SPing. It might be as I publish more, but I'm sort of new to all this in any realistic sense.

    I'm also less concerned with the submission process. I have my issues with it, and in a lot of ways I think it's a good system, but I try to distance myself from incorporating that into my rationale for SPing anything.

  11. The submission process is a good system in that no-one's ever come up with a better one. I had some pretty awful experiences with it, so was glad to leave it behind, but I certainly haven't been able to suggest a more efficient system.

    Going a few years in the submission process is generally a good move. The time it takes gives many writers a chance to mature in the craft, and impersonal rejection letters are likely easier to take than scathing reviews out there in public. For those who can do it, putting out a few books with a publisher first, before making the step into self-publishing, is a win/win situation - you bring yourself up to 'commercial publication quality', the publishers establish your reputation with readers, and then self-publication becomes a very viable prospect if that's what you want to do.

    But remaining eternally in submission is not a good thing. Publishers simply cannot publish every 'good' book, especially when they have to balance difficult market factors. Too often writers are told that if the book is publishable, it will be picked up eventually, and all they need to do is stick with submitting.

    And, of course, writers are told that if it's not picked up, it's not "good enough". I was fortunate in my own self-publishing efforts to have the validation of being an Aurealis finalist, which I can point to and say: "See! Not that bad!".

    Still, self-publishing is just another option. Taking an advantage of all options can't be a bad thing.

  12. I don't think there's anything wrong with the submission process. I think the problem is that a lot of what is getting picked up shouldn't be published at all, while a lot of really great works of art or left to fester or the authors are sent on their way to try new avenues. Publisher are adapting to the sensationalist model, which is unsustainable in any realistic sense. They're simply losing their way with readers. That's not universal, though. Some publishers do just fine, but others...are only doing fine because they are publishing garbage. This has become more apparent to me in the last few years.