This is America, for Christ’s Sake. Why Shouldn’t I Self-Publish My Work?

Quoth Entrepreneurial Spirit: “Given all I’ve heard and read about how horrible traditional publishing is with shitty odds and no support, why shouldn’t I just self-publish my book and take control of the process myself? I’ve got some experience in marketing that might help.”

Thanks, Entrepreneurial Spirit, for the opportunity to offend hundreds (okay, dozens) of potential readers by saying that self-publishers might as well scream their work into a toilet to reach about the same audience.

I kid, I kid. Sorta.

A big issue we all face as creators today is signal-to-noise ratio: how can you make your work stand out so an agent will notice it, so a publisher will buy it, and a reader will read it when you are competing with a cacophony of other media.

Another self-published author dials in the frequency to transmit an Amazon single to his mom in Poughkeepsie. Photo courtesy of Shorpy.com.

I can understand the temptation to skip those middlemen and strike out with good old American ingenuity to blaze your own trail. If you can do anything well in our culture – bake cookies, sculpt gnomes in ice, smell death in the wind – someone will suggest you do it for money. That’s not always a terrible thing…just a challenging one when everyone else is doing it, too.

The odds are terrible regardless of how you publish. Media of all kinds gets cranked out, tossed to the pack of ravenous dogs, and then quickly forgotten. That applies no matter who does the delivery of the content.

…but if you could increase your odds by 0.000004% with traditional publishing, isn’t it worth trying?

Why scream into that toilet alone?

Once you find an agent for your book and your agent finds a publisher and the marketing department decides your book is worth the investment, there is at least a chance that the publisher will do at least SOMETHING to help promote the book.

As a self-publisher, you do all of that yourself, mostly from a box in the trunk of your car as you drive to bookstore after bookstore where each owner chases you away with an umbrella raised like a cudgel.

Things a traditional publisher can help you do with varying degrees of commitment and success:

  • Edit and proofread the manuscript to a professional level.
  • Hire and pay for a professional cover artist instead of going to Shutterstock.
  • Drive your book into the bizarre distribution system so that it will actually appear in real bookstores and be easy to order.
  • Provide some support for special displays or book tours if it is especially noteworthy or timely or you’re really good looking.

And the most important thing traditional publishing can do:

  • Dissuade you from publishing something crappy that will embarrass you for the rest of your living days.

I’ve been published professionally now for twenty years and received hundreds of rejections. How many of those do I regret?

Zero.

Why? Because every rejection is either a mismatch with the wrong venue (good to know) or an indication that the work isn’t special enough yet for an audience (even better to know). I’m thankful for editors who said – usually politely – “Yeah, no.” They caught me trying to get away with lesser work.

Are there any circumstances when self-publishing is a good idea? Sure.

  • You have a large built-in audience beyond your family that will buy your work.
  • You have a large catalog of previously published work that hasn’t appeared lately but still has fans.
  • You’ve written something so niche that no publisher exists that can or would handle it (your monograph on, say, scrimshaw-carved sex toys).
  • You’ve written something so extraordinarily bizarre and revolutionary that no corporation would risk the damage to its own reputation or the stability of capitalism to publish it.

There are success stories among self-published writers, just as every week, some redneck wins the lottery. Of course, those rednecks usually end up going broke or getting murdered for their bejeweled Cadillac Escalades.

The publishing world isn’t always great, and yes, they often fail to find or promote great talent.

But they can still do it better than you can, and it’s worth giving them a shot so you can complain from bitter experience like the rest of us.

How Do I Get Back into a Story?

Quoth Anonymous: “I know I should write every day, but with my job and life, I just can’t. It’s hard to get back into whatever I was writing if I’m away for a few days. How can I dive in again?”

Mermaid at Weeki-Watchee, photographed by Toni Frissell for Harper's Bazaar, December 1947
Photo by Toni Frissell, published in Harper’s Bazaar, December 1947

I was about to start this reply by saying, “Yes, in a perfect world, you’d be able to work on that story every day,” but the more I’m thinking about it, I’m not sure that really is a perfect world. There’s something to be said for taking a step back for your subconscious to do some work…but not for too long.

My best stories seem to come to me as a kind of dream, a state of absorption where I write quickly and instinctively without much doubt. Some people call that a “flow” state, and it’s easy to begin believing that anything written OUTSIDE that state is too difficult or not going well.

To me, the issue is really how to return to the fictive dream of your story, sinking back in so that distractions go away and you are able to once again feel what the next reasonable story moment should be.

I’m not great at doing that, but here are some things that have worked for me:

  • Expect some amount of gear-grinding when returning to a story and be patient with it. The first couple of days are likely to feel a little rough, but they’re only going to feel worse if you pause the project again.
  • Commit to one project at a time. I once thought that I could write several stories at once and just dive into the one I “felt” the most at a given moment, but that generates a lot of fragments that never quite get finished. Tell yourself that one way or another, you’re going to finish this story, even if it’s lousy.
  • Use physical cues to get back into the mindset of working: a certain place, a certain time, a certain desk, a certain word processing program. It’s possible to get TOO attached to the tools as an excuse not to write when they aren’t available, but you need something that tricks your brain into shutting out the world and getting to work.
  • I’ve found setting a timer to be useful, telling myself that I can do nothing but work on the story during that time.
  • Meditation has helped me as well, believe it or not. Take a few moments with your eyes closed and mentally immerse yourself into a creative space. I even have a mantra of keywords to remember in my work, like “Immersion. Performance. Voice. Specificity. Detail.”
  • Sooner or later, you’re going to have to open the document or notebook where the moribund story lives. This is a great time to read through as much of it as you can to get back into the sound of its voice and the rhythm of its sentences. Reading it aloud can help with this, and so can retyping a few paragraphs of the story or re-writing them out by hand.
  • One trick that almost always works for me at the beginning of a session is to write, “So what the fuck is going on?” at the top of a page and answer my own question: summarizing the story so far, mulling through any challenges, talking through where to go next. It sounds silly, but I think you fix writing problems by writing AROUND them.

A lot of that probably sounds self-indulgent, the kind of thing that whiskey-drinking real authors would say is too precious, but for me, the key to creating a good story is feeling it, role-playing my way through it, committing to it with total absorption.

I think the number one thing to remember is not to expect to dive into a story in thirty seconds, whether you worked on it yesterday or a month ago. Imagine yourself settling deep into the pool of your work, letting it surround you and become your reality for as long as you can.