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.

What Do You Do with Rejected Stories?

Quoth Don: How often do you approach the box where you keep your past works (I can hear the creaking of the chest as you open it) and revisit writing that was rejected to improve your writing now?

Good question, Don!

My general feeling with rejected stories is that once they’re gone, they’re gone.

By the time I’ve written something, sent it into the world, and received rejections for it, the emotional connection I had to it in the first place has long faded. Sometimes elements of that work sneak their way subconsciously into other stories, but I seldom reach into the trunk and try to resurrect them entirely.

As any good crime scene investigator will tell you, once there’s maggots, you ain’t bringing that one back.

I don’t really keep my rejected stories in trunks. Barrels work better.

I have only a few basic reactions to a story rejection:

  • Relief, because I’ve since realized that the story (at least that draft) deserved to be rejected and the editor saved me some embarrassment.
  • Chagrin, because I’d submitted it in the vague hope that I was wrong about how mediocre it was but the editor caught me.
  • Disappointment, because that story actually felt right and obviously didn’t connect with that particular editor or venue at this particular time.

Technically, you can choose to fix a story in any of those three scenarios but first, you need to ask yourself:

  • Do I want to? Is there something about this story that I still feel compelled to express? Does it still spark something in me? Do I still believe in it?
  • Is it worth fixing? By “worth,” I mean whether you think that you have the skill to fix it and a good place to sell it after you do.
  • Do I know how to fix it? Sometimes, you know exactly what’s wrong. Other times, you have no idea. Sometimes, a fix means changing a few words or a scene. Other times, it means starting a whole new document and salvaging the twenty good words from the last one.

For me personally, it’s fairly rare that a story meets all three of those criteria. A notable exception is the novella I just finished that started as a short story, became a novel draft, became an MFA thesis, became another novel draft, and finally became a novella after I started over from scratch.

In that case, I felt the idea was special to me and my experiences, and it seemed a waste to let it go for someone else to write.

(I have a suspicion that stories float around and find people to write them. If you let one pass by, it goes to someone else. I swear to God I was writing a short story about FBI agents investigating strange phenomena the year before The X-Files came out.)

The risk of picking over your rejected stories is that you’ll never stop. There’s a certain fantasy in refining a work over and over again that you can finally get it “right.” This fantasy is even stronger if a rejecting editor or workshop group gave you some vague and well-meaning advice on how to fix it. You can chase that around and around forever.

You make up for feeling bad about losing a single story by writing a lot more to take its place. Your chance to get it right comes with whatever’s next, not what came before.

Unless, of course, there’s that nagging idea that won’t let you go…