Self Publishing Thoughts

23 Aug

A week or so ago, an article popped up in my Facebook entitled ‘Why I don’t generally recommend self-publishing for beginners,’ by Marc Aplin. I made a note of the article with the intention of returning to comment on it at a later date. When I read through the article and the comments today, I discovered that I’d been name-checked in the very first comment. So I thought I’d write a short response to the article here.

Anyway, there’s some good advice in the article and some misconceptions.

One of the problems facing Big Publishing is that they can’t publish everyone. A large company with an open submission policy (like Baen) may receive upwards of 1000 submissions per month. These can then be divided into the following subcategories;

-Absolute Trash/Writer Didn’t Follow Submission Guidelines (500). The latter can range from forgetting to do even a basic spell-check to leaving editing marks all over the manuscript. I once saw a honest-to-god submission that was entirely composed of edits. Slush readers will take one look at anything that doesn’t follow basic guidelines and throw it out.

-This Writer Has Promise (300). The slush reader didn’t like the manuscript or thought it lacked polish, but figured the writer has potential and should be encouraged.

-This Book Needs Revised (150). The slush reader liked the story, but figured it needed some changes before it could be reconsidered. If you’re lucky enough to reach this point, you might actually get some decent feedback.

-This Book Is Worth Considering (50). The slush reader not only liked the story, but figured it could be published after a solid edit.

The problem with this is that sorting through all the slush can take years. I’ve met a number of writers who absolutely HATE agents, but agents serve a vital purpose for publishers in sorting the gems from the dross. It can take so long to comb through 1000 submissions that publishers prefer to pass the task to agents, knowing that the agents won’t try to submit anything that doesn’t fit into the final category.

However, there’s another hitch. I’ve noted there are 50 books per 1000 submissions that might be worth publishing. However, any publisher will only have a limited number of publishing slots. They may only be able to produce 10 books per month. If there were no other considerations, 10 of the 50 submissions might be published. BUT … any established publisher will have a stable of writers who already have an established following. They would be grossly unwise to give one of those slots to an untried newcomer when they have a book lined up from an established author.

What this tends to mean is that the odds of getting published, even by a relatively small press, are very low … even if you happen to write a great book.

In a sense, a publisher is investing in a writer; they pay an advance, find editors and cover designers and do a great deal of promotion. (There’s a considerable amount of cachet in being published by a major publisher, even if the financial rewards are lower.) You, the writer, has to justify that investment in you … and you have to compete to win one of a VERY low number of publishing slots.

Ark Royal is actually quite an interesting case. I was unable to get solid figures on how much it costs one of the big publishers to publish a book, but I received educated guesses that ran up as high as $30’000. If that’s the case, Ark Royal earned itself out within the first month; everything after that, if the book had been published traditionally, would have been pure profit. However, it made more sense for me to go the self-publishing route.

Why? I would have had to wait months, if I was lucky, before I knew if the book was publishable. (This is one of the reasons agents are useful; a manuscript submitted by an agent has a better chance of being looked at quickly.) And, as most publishers have rules against simultaneous submissions, I would not be able to send it to a second publisher until I’d heard back from the first one. I had reached a point in my career when trying to win one of those coveted slots seemed both futile and unnecessary.

TL/DR: the odds of being published traditionally, even if you’re a brilliant writer, are very low unless you bring something else to the party. Hillary Clinton and Pippa Middleton both received publishing contracts and staggering advances (in Hillary’s case, the advance might well have been a disguised campaign contribution) because they were famous. Indie writers like myself hope we can build up a following that makes us seem a good investment to big publishing’s beancounters.

Having said all that, would I recommend self-publishing to beginners?

Well, the short answer is yes … provided the beginner approached self-publishing with open eyes.

The article is quite correct to say that authors cannot edit their own work. I’ve been writing since 2004 and, even now, my beta-readers send me corrections that would be easily noticeable, if I didn’t already know what I meant to say. Sometimes this is fairly simple – substituting ‘their’ for ‘there’ – and sometimes it’s a great deal more serious. The best authors are the ones who admit they need an editor, find someone they can work with and stick with him or her.

The worst thing that can happen to a new author or, for that matter, an established author is to believe himself editor-proof. I’m sure anyone with a serious interest in writing can name a dozen once-great authors whose writing has declined, once they became so famous that their publishers lost the nerve to tell them that changes had to be made. For a new author, this is disastrous; their book is either roundly mocked or simply ignored. As the article notes, agents and publishers will check your sales figures.

So … if you’re serious, this is what I advise.

Write your first manuscript. (Make sure it stands on its own. One of my pet peeves is getting through a book and discovering that it’s the first part of a story, without hitting a reasonable stopping point.) Then get an editor. You will probably have to pay something for a professional piece of work – see my article for details. This editor, if he or she is any good, will tell you in great detail what’s wrong with the manuscript. (In the unlikely event of you producing a publishable manuscript in the first draft, they will tell you that too.) You will probably be quite upset with what they have to say, because the best editors are ruthless as well as constructive. (If you’re serious, grow a thick skin. You’ll need it.)

Read what they have to say, take it to heart and then write your next manuscript.

Unless you start at a higher level than I did, your first manuscript will probably not be worth revising (again, your agent will tell you if it is.) Write something completely different, at least in basic outline, and try to incorporate what you’ve learned. If you do this properly, your second manuscript will be a great deal more readable than your first. Go back to the editor, get another list of what’s wrong with the manuscript and write your third manuscript. By then, you should be getting closer to writing something publishable.

You’ll notice I didn’t suggest putting either of the first two manuscripts online. That’s good – like the article notes, a bad reputation will follow you. Keep them for later; you can either look back at them and wonder what you were drinking at the time, or rewrite them when you’re more confident in your abilities. (Note that this is true of slush piles too; I have a feeling that a few would-be authors have submitted so many duds that editors are routinely ignoring them.)

Ok … by now, you should have a reasonable piece of work. Time for the next step.

It is a point of fact that books should not be judged by their covers – but they almost always are. You will need a good cover – and, unless you can do a reasonable one for yourself, you’ll need a cover artist. (I have a feeling that most of the covers featured on Lousy Book Covers come from authors who think they can design a cover themselves.) Make sure you check your work with someone else – the editor, perhaps – if you think you can do it yourself.

Now, you can start publishing online.

There’s a lot more that I could say here, particularly about promotion, but I don’t have the time.

What I will say is that you need to be mature.

There isn’t a single writer in the entire world who can please everyone. Not one. You will get some reviewers who absolutely hate your book and write a scathing one-star review for all to see. You will get comments that will make you want to reach through the computer screen and strangle the troll who’s just insulted your wonderful piece of work. (Or, at the very least, write an angry response that will leave him in no doubt that you utterly reject his views.)

Well, don’t. There is nothing to be gained by slamming critical reviewers. You’ll just make yourself look an ass.

I think this is worse, in some ways, for self-published authors. A traditionally-published author has the vindication of knowing that someone actually invested in his work. It’s a great deal easier to shrug off a particularly annoying review when it’s clear that people who know the business have faith in you. (Given the twin flops of Hard Choices and Celebrate, one might argue that they don’t, but I digress.) The point is that you need to brace yourself for some nasty comments …

You’re trying to build a brand here, as well as selling books. The last thing you need is a nasty reputation. It’ll haunt you for far longer than any lousy review. Read the review, consider if it raises any valid points and then dismiss it.

Writing is a great job. Being a self-published author is immensely rewarding. But it’s a job and you have to treat it as such. Think carefully before you start and never lose sight of your goal. 

Good luck.

5 Responses to “Self Publishing Thoughts”

  1. Barb Caffrey August 24, 2015 at 9:27 am #

    Well said, Chris.

  2. Anarchymedes August 24, 2015 at 11:27 am #

    The bottom line is: don’t ever do what you love professionally. Because whatever it is that you do, from software development (yours truly) to arts or creative writing (or even sex), once you start doing it for a living, it’ll always be somebody else’s way. Customer is always right.
    BTW, I wonder: how do sex workers, ahem… improve professionally? Do they collect feedback and take in constructive criticism? 🙂

  3. robinsvoyage August 24, 2015 at 2:07 pm #

    It seems to have become a trend on Amazon for readers, particularly the ones you refer to as “critical,” to writing negative reviews with such tedious detail, and in some cases libelous intent, that it seems to convey the notion that they just want attention. Am I wrong? I read these types of reviews about books which I have truly enjoyed, and I am a well-read man, and truly a critical thinker, and I can’t even be bothered to write a compelling review; mainly because it would simply be destroying the nay-Sayers reviews with vitriolic fury at their self important expression. I wonder if it boils down to jealously. They used to think o themselves as writers but were turned down one time and their dreams of grandeur were shattered, and so all they have left was to tell established or rather successful authors that they are no good. I for one prefer to stick to the positive aspects of an author’s work.

    • chrishanger August 24, 2015 at 8:00 pm #

      I don’t know, to be honest. Amazon, like most online forums, provides a venue for anonymous attacks. A certain percentage of troll reviews is probably inevitable. My general policy is simply to take note of any sensible comments, even if I don’t agree with them, and otherwise ignore the review.

      There probably is some truth in your suggestion. Watching writers get book contracts despite their writing having declined sharply is immensely frustrating, particularly when you know – or think – that you can do better. Jealously probably does spur them on. Frankly, it all depends on the reasonableness of the comments.


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  4. Kristen Steele September 23, 2015 at 4:12 pm #

    You make a great point in regards to the odds of getting your book published through traditional publishing. You also make a very important point in that sometimes it doesn’t even matter how good your book is. Self-publishing is a great option for first-time authors who are just looking to publish their work, and keep creative control in the process.

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