Diary of a First-Time Author #5 – But what about self-publishing?

I’m aware that my last piece rests on the assumption that you are looking for a publisher to publish your work. Some would argue that, in the age of self-publishing, this is no longer necessary.  Can you not just publish yourself and skip this entire hassle of jumping through hoops to get an agent or publisher to like your work?

Possibly.  It’s not an avenue I explored personally (for reasons that’ll become clear as you read this), and I won’t pretend to be a self-publishing guru, but I do think there are certain things to bear in mind before considering the self-publishing route.

Self-publishing is, in theory, a great thing.  It opens up chances for writers who choose to work outside the publishing industry, allows  writers more control over their work and, especially if you’re a hobbyist writer who just wants to make something available for people to read without the stress and the hassle of finding a publisher, there’s certainly some merit in that.  And anything that makes it easier for a new writer to get their work to an audience has to be welcomed.

If you’re self-publishing in the hope of ultimately making a living as a writer, I feel there are a few things to bear in mind.

Firstly, self-publishing tends to work best for people who work within specific genres – wonderful though the internet is for getting your work out there, it still needs people to search for it and find it and they’ll mostly do that by searching by genre or by “people who liked this also like this” recommendations.  So, if you write a strong crime novel or romance and enough people like it, then there’s a good chance other people searching for crime novels or romances will find it too.  However if you’re writing something that doesn’t fit in with what anyone else is writing, you’ll find it much harder to garner attention.  (The flip side of this, of course, is that you can also succeed by writing a book that is so niche that people looking for a book on a subject will only find yours!)  One of the things that large publishing houses can do – and often will do – is take a book that might have otherwise struggled to find an audience due to its subject matter and turn it into a hit once people realise how good it is.  I find it hard to imagine The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Life of Pi or The Kite Runner, for example, would have garnered a huge amount of attention had they been self-published.

What’s more, it’s important to realise that self-publishing doesn’t remove the business and publicity aspect from you’re doing but rather makes you responsible for selling and marketing your work.  To self-publish and succeed, you need to not only be a strong writer but also be your own agent, publisher, salesperson and marketing team and I would confidently guess that the people who’ve done well out of self-publishing have done so based on business acumen and self-publicity just as much as their writing skills.  (That’s not a dig by the way – business acumen is a fantastic thing for a writer to have and I really wish I had some myself!)

More importantly, you need to be your own editor too – or find someone else who can do it for you.  You might be able to put out a book without needing clearance and approval from editors, proofreaders and fact-checkers but that does not mean facts don’t need to be checked, errors don’t need to be corrected or large sections of your book won’t need rewriting and rewriting and rewriting to make them as good as they can possibly be.  (Just ignore the fact that, when it comes to my own work, I’m the world’s worst proof-reader and am doubtless showing up my own hypocrisy in this blog!)

Related to this, if self-publishing is to gain as strong a reputation as ‘industry’ publishing then it has to do so because it’s populated by people writing high-quality work that doesn’t quite fit in with the expectations of the conventional book world.  This could be by aiming for niches that the mainstream book industry is too large to creep into or by being populated by writers who are confident, self-sufficient and feel they want to be free to work without commercial considerations, rather than people who really want to be published conventionally but are self-publishing because their work has been continually rejected by the mainstream publishing industry.

Tough though it is too take manuscripts are generally rejected for a reason and, much as people cite famous misjudgements like Decca Records turning down the Beatles or the Life of Pi being rejected by 5 major publishers, these tend to be famous precisely because they are exceptions rather than the norm.   And even then the Beatles ultimately did get a record label Yann Martel found a publisher so the lesson there is more that it can take a lot of work and a lot of knockbacks to find the agent or publisher who sees the value in your work rather than that someone who’s been rejected by the entire industry is likely to prove everyone wrong.   If you do find your work is being rejected then it’s far better to look at the reasons why – whether it’s that you haven’t approached the right people yet or whether it’s because you’re work needs to be improved – rather than simply assuming everyone is wrong and carrying on anyway.

There are potentially good motives for choosing to self-publish – and these motives will only get stronger as self-publishing develops over time – but I think this has to be a choice you make, rather than one you’re forced into due to a lack of options and I honestly believe that anyone who writes well enough and gets their approach right can ultimately get that choice for themselves.  Self-publishing can be a way to market yourself to publishers but only if you make sure your work is strong enough to act as a selling point.

Ultimately putting out something that is not good enough will only serve to damage your reputation as a writer.  Like independent music, self-publishing can only be at its best when it’s populated by people who really believe in the value of independent working outside of industry conventions, rather than simply becoming a home for rejected manuscripts by authors who crave mainstream success but are either too cocksure or too unwilling to objectively assess their work and make improvements.   Whatever form you choose for publishing your work, there is never an excuse for not doing everything you can to make something as brilliant as it can possibly be!

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