Don’t Let Anyone Tell You No

Upton Sinclair: Self-published "The Millennium" in 1924.

It was surprising to see such a resurgence of the “Self-publishing isn’t valid” meme in 2010. We thought that particular dinosaur was extinct by now, didn’t you? In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been such a shock considering the advent of the iPad and the Kindle. It makes sense that the sudden removal of production and inventory management as obstacles to self-publishers would scare up some defensive posturing from traditional publishers. What we want to say, unequivocally, before the madness keeps stirring, is twofold:

  • Publishers, never fear! You are necessary (for certain things)
  • Self-publishers, never fear! Your process is totally legitimate (for certain things)

We’ll get more into those two ideas in a minute but first, we would love to see an immediate end to the defensive posturing. You don’t have to tear down the concept of self-publishing in order to justify the need for traditional publishing. And self-publishers don’t have to keep insisting that they are on a track to “real” publishing. The book is the thing, not the means of connecting the book to its audience. The world hasn’t ended; it has just changed. Before, authors had to wait to get noticed by someone else. Now, authors have choices to make. Here’s what we think they are.

Anais Nin: Self-Published "Under a Glass Bell" in 1944

The first step towards making a publishing decision is to be clear about what you need in order to publish anything. All books require two things to be artistically successful:

  • An Editor
  • A Designer

Your editor and designer can’t be yourself and they can’t be your mom, but they also don’t have to be employed by a big publishing house. They just have to be good and come with recommendations and credentials. Editors and designers are everywhere – literally! I stumbled over three or four on the way to the supermarket this morning and I found a couple more under the couch cushions when I got home.

All books require two further things to be commercially successful:

  • Dedicated marketing
  • Dedicated retail support

Though these things can be done yourself if you have the know-how, you can also find marketing managers and sales reps and consultants on your walk to the supermarket.

With those facts out of the way, you’re ready for the quiz!

1. Do I want my book to be an artistic success?

        • If answer is “No” proceed to Quiz Result A.
        • If answer is “Yes” proceed to Question 2

2.  Do I have the resources to find and hire professionals who can manage the creative work needed to turn my manuscript into a book?

        • If answer is “No” proceed to Quiz Result B
        • If answer is “Yes” proceed to Question 3

3.  Do I want my book to be a commercial success?

        • If answer is “No” proceed to Quiz Result C
        • If answer is “Yes” proceed to Question 4

4.  Do I have the time and patience and experience to take on the full-time job of marketing and sales?

        • If answer is “No” proceed to Quiz Result B
        • If answer is “Yes” proceed to Quiz Result C

QUIZ RESULT A: Congratulations! You don’t have to publish your book at all! You are a true artist making art for the pleasure of making art. You won’t suffer any of the unnecessary pain that other artists have to suffer when trying to turn their art into consumer products. We envy you.

QUIZ RESULT B: Looks like your project requires a traditional publishing house. You recognize the value of your book as a sellable product but you can’t or simply don’t want to do it yourself. A good literary agency and a traditional publishing house will offer you all of these services for a relatively modest percentage of the earnings. You can focus on writing your next book while a trained staff takes care of the hard stuff for you.

QUIZ RESULT C: You’re a self-publisher! Welcome to the family. You have a fantastic book in your hands and you want to get it out there, business considerations be damned! You’re ready to hire some trusted partners to polish it up before you deliver it directly to your audience. You either don’t care how many people buy it or you want it to be a bestseller and you have the business resources to make that happen. You rule.

Thomas Paine: Self-Published "Common Sense" in 1776

And that’s about it! No moral judgments, no artistic validation; just a choice between two equally viable options for finding your audience that, like all decisions, depends on your circumstances at the moment.

No matter which path you choose, the fact that you have a choice means a golden age of reading is upon us. Big publishing companies by their nature have to lean towards the kinds of books that already work well for them. You, however, already care about your work and have the passion to make it a success. The current renaissance of self-publishing widens the opportunity for the new and exciting and different, for the kinds of books that previously wouldn’t have existed if they were not found by a publisher. More books in existence means more potentially fantastic books. More fantastic books raise the bar, which means even more fantastic books will follow. New genres will be created. New readers will be discovered. New trends will become successful, widening the field even more. Successful authors may move from doing it themselves to doing it with help, adding even more audience and more income to the bigger houses.

William Blake: Self-Published everything

In the next few years, people will settle into their chairs with a book (digital or otherwise) as often as they settle into their chairs to watch TV when they get home from work. They will have an easier way of finding books they like and will have to spend less money to get them. It’s going to be awesome, and you can be one of their favorite writers.

The defensive posturing says that we need limitations on art, that only a select few can adequately decide what comes into being. But we all know that no art has ever benefitted from limitation. The limits on literature are gone. Now we can have fun with it.

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