This Will Probably Get Me Into Hot Water
Jared Bland, the editor at the Globe & Mail, recently asked what I thought was the biggest danger to emerging writers. Without hesitation I said, “Self-publishing.” He threw back his head and laughed and said it was the best answer he’d heard to date.
And, just as quickly, I thought — oh dear, here come the nasty letters.
This has always been a touchy subject, and I suspect it will be an even more contentious one now that the Writers Union of Canada is voting on whether to allow self-published writers into the union.
I’ve written about the subject before, here and here.
Jonathan Bennett has written an interesting blog on the subject. In it he says, “self-publishing deletes an essential component in the writing of important literary work: time. If no one shelves a rejected novel anymore (indeed, if there no longer is such a thing as a rejected novel), if small presses all die because the do-it-yourself-craze makes them redundant, the world will have fewer great, even half-decent, works of literature. And we already have so few.”
I agree with Jonathan. And I know some people will say this is easy for me to say, publishing as I do with a large publishing house, getting nominated for awards and being a best-seller and all. Don’t I give a tinker’s cuss for the plight of the struggling artist?? (Think of John Cleese here and that bit about sitting around on your spotty behinds. Snort.)
But it hasn’t always been that way. I was rejected for years, and then I published a bit and then was rejected again and didn’t publish for a long while and then I published again and I might or might not ever publish another book. That’s the writer’s life. I think Philip Roth had it right when he told a young writer, “I would quit while you’re ahead. Really. It’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and you write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.” Although, as I’ve said elsewhere, he had me a ‘torture’.
There are no short cuts, I’m afraid. I’m grateful I didn’t publish any of my early work. It was, frankly, pretty terrible, and people with excellent judgment told me so, although I didn’t much like it at the time. Only the space of years and what I’ve learned about writing since has taught me to look at the work objectively and see how dreadful it was. Had self-publishing been an option, however, I probably would have done it, filled with hubris and the desperation to publish as I was.
I would have sent my brilliant darlings out into the world, where they doubtless would have been smashed beneath the heel of an uncaring public and, broken-hearted, I doubt I would have kept on. Oh, I might have kept writing in my journals, might even have started a wee blog, but I do not think I would have stuck my face back in the publishing fan. Even with the support of good publishers and objective (by which I mean not-paid-by-me and therefore willing to be brutally honest) editors, publishing is a rough business. To go into the coliseum as an untried, unarmored youth, carrying a sword made of twigs rather than tempered steel, is suicide.
How many writers with the talent necessary to write fine books will publish too soon, before they’re ready, and be crushed or utterly ignored, which is much like being crushed? How many fine books will not be written as a result?
But the companies making money on the desperation of unpublished writers will go on making money, while small literary presses, which are the life blood of emerging writers, may very well go under.
You know, I spend a good deal of time with people trying to stay sober. When they first show up in those church basements where we hang out, they are desperate, and they want twenty years of sobriety and they want it NOW. I remember feeling like that myself. But someone takes them aside and tells them that the only way to get that twenty years – and the wisdom and clarity that comes with those years – is to do it one day at a time. You can’t rush it. If you do, the quality of your sobriety will suffer, and ultimately, you may not stay sober at all.
Publishing’s a lot like that.
Lauren, I understand this may be a sensitive subject, but you sure do make some good points. Your comment about newly sober people wanting 20 years sobriety overnight really hit the mark for me. Thanks, Donna
Thanks very much, Donna!
I can see why a professional may wish to self-publish to use their book as part of their business activities, but I tend to agree with you about the importance of good editing. We, the reading public, are inundated with new books on a weekly basis. If there aren’t some standards maintained it just brings down the overall reputation and value of books, and puts even more pressure on readers to be very selective in their reading choices.
Helen — you’re right about books professionals use as an adjunct to their work. And poetry, which has a long traditional of chapbook publishing. Thanks for commenting.
This comment was removed by a computer glitch, for which I apologize. It’s from Margaret Gunning . . .
Funny about The Lace Reader. I reviewed it for the Edmonton Journal in 2006. Published (in paper) by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins. My copy is on my office shelf. So I wonder what’s going on here. She must have a reason for re-publishing it, or does it go back prior to 2006 and William Morrow picked it up?
My understanding, Margaret, is that the author self-published it prior to being picked up by William Morrow. One of those exceptions that prove the rule. However, I also heard her on NPR saying she spent of $50,000 in publicity. Who HAS that kind of money? I know I don’t, and if I did I think I’d rather spend it sending someone through school or helping with someone’s medical bills (down here in the US). Did you like the book?
Well, it’s not that you don’t have good points. Because you certainly do. But I also think you are making statements about self publishing from a perspective of mainstream publishing. All I have to say is, indie films, indie music. . . why not indie books? Why isn’t self publishing considered an “artistic choice” instead of a default? No self published author is alike. I believe there is room for all. Sure some folks make mistakes with not hiring proper editors, etc. Some do a great job of assembling teams (some times without much cost because the people they assemble believe in the product). I do not think self published books are going to drive away small presses. I believe that there is room for all. Actually I think the world is changing and publishing is a reflection of that change.
Hannah, my greatest concern, as I said, was that people will publish before they’re ready, simply because it’s so easy, so DIY, and then be so disillusioned they’ll quit. Then we may lose wonderful books. Self-publishing is, at present, a very insular world. Self-published books are not reviewed widely, and are not eligible for any of the mainstream prizes. Sure, self-publishing prizes exit, as do venues for reviews, but as I say, very insular. In a few years things may change, but they haven’t yet. The market is awash is dreadful DIY books. Room for all? Sure but what’s the quality of that room?
For nearly 8 years, I have worked as a freelancer for one of (if not THE) major self-publishers out there. I write back cover copy for books – non-fiction and fiction – and have literally looked at hundreds and hundreds of book. Out of that vast majority, I have come across MAYBE 30-50 really good books that would make it in mainstream publishing and/or are ready to be published. The rest of them? *shudder* They are nowhere NEAR ready to be published. Authors get comments on their manuscripts and a lot of them don’t bother to follow them and change the book for the better. They think their work is perfect as it is and it will sell like hot cakes.
In the world of self-publishing, there is really no gatekeeper, no one to say, “You have a great idea, but it’s not quite ready yet. We need to revise this, and this, and this…” The author makes all the decisions, and more often than not, they do not want to do the work.
I say this as someone who has been in the business. HOWEVER, I absolutely DO see the value of self-publishing and I think it can be a wonderful thing. But I agree with you, Lauren, that too many publish their books before they’re ready. Part of this is because we live in a NOW NOW NOW world and don’t want to take the time to really do the work.
Thanks, M.A. It’s wonderful to have the perspective of someone from inside the industry. I’m grateful.
I do think you made some great points, but I have to add some best-sellers have started out as DIY’ers, including The Shack (no, I did not read it). There are some terrific writers out there, ready for publication of great stuff – I know, I’ve read some of it.
I do agree with you that good editing is essential before any submission of manuscripts or DIY publications, helping to guide the new writer and dispel any self-made myths and inflated egos before they put themselves in the spot light.
But we all have to start somewhere. Some of my earlier stuff that’s been collecting dust have been re-edited and re-used and enjoyed by my critique group. I won’t let this dream die.
I think there are so many crooks out there posing as agents and small-press publishers that people are weary of getting robbed. Thankfully a few know the flags to watch for and researching is essential, but many writer’s don’t know them.
Also, every writer knows how difficult it is to obtain an accredited agent these days.
I look forward to meeting you at the PWG this weekend.
I look forward to meeting you, too, Janice. (BTW, I think The Shack is an excellent argument against self-publishing.;-) )
I will be in your Novel Plotting class, and I teach a writing class at my town’s Community Center; plus I founded a writer’s group (several of the members will be there this weekend, including Jim, the registrar for PWG). Would love to converse further on this issue with you before the weekend is over; I have a few questions. Hope you won’t mind. 🙂
Happy to discuss, Janice. I’ll be around all Saturday afternoon, so perhaps we can grab a coffee? (Oh, Lord, what have I started? Snort.)
Yes, there have been some self-published books that have emerged as bestsellers. But it is a fraction of what is available in the self-pub world. The self-pub I worked for had, I think, one or two out of thousands of titles that were picked up by traditional publishers in the years I worked there. Those aren’t very good odds.
M.A. I can’t help but wonder if those authors whose books were picked up by traditional publishers wouldn’t have done just as well, if not better, putting their efforts into getting an agent (and yes, I know that’s hard — I’d published 3 books to critical acclaim and was still rejected by 37 agents before Inkwell took me on) and a publishing deal. I still think I should be paid FOR my writing, not have to pay to publish.
As for the rest of the books, which never rose above the waterline, do you think they were satisfied with the experience? And how much do you estimate they paid for the privilege of publishing?
Frankly, I have yet to meet an author who wasn’t told by the self-publishing outfit that their book was MUCH better than the other books and deserved the augmented/advanced editing/marketing/design package for $X of extra dollars. Preying on the desperate and delusional like that really ticks me off.
I really think it depends on the person as to whether or not they were satisfied. Some people just want to see their book in print – regardless of how they get there. That is enough for them. For those folks, self-publishing is great. They don’t care about marketing or sales or making money. They just want their stuff available.
For those who thought their books would become mega bestsellers…part of that is due to self-delusion and part is due to self-publishers preying on that delusion. Let’s face it – EVERY book needs an editor to look at it. But there are simply some authors who refuse to do it either because of 1) cost or 2) because they think they DON’T need an editor.
There’s not a lot of honesty in the self-publishing business because they make it look like if you self-publish, you’ll be right up there with the traditionally published authors when that is not the case at all. Our authors found that just getting their books in a bookstore like Barnes and Noble was incredibly hard, if not impossible. Those are things they don’t tell you up front in the sales process, either.
Cost? Depends on the package. Very basic ones used to go for around $200 – template cover, etc., no editing or back cover copy or marketing or anything involved. Just the book. But even that cost has since gone up. You could literally pour thousands of dollars into this venture if you want to do all the services they offer, and they’re betting on that.
Write on, M.A. (Snort) Thanks for saying what needs to be said.
Oh, this pretty much says it all: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/05/john-green-self-publishing_n_3390143.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000003&utm_hp_ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false
At the risk of being the lone heretic Lauren, may I gently suggest that I think you are conflating arguments and missing the point of self-publishing. Nobody would disagree that books don’t need editing and that thought should go into writing, although having spoken to a number of traditionally published authors, the amount of editing that is done by publishers is frankly highly overstated, once you know what you are doing. Ah, knowing what you are doing…
Just imagine that self-pubbing had been a viable option when you were starting out and you had published your early not-very-good works. What would have happened? Not much. They wouldn’t have sold and you would have had to decide to quit or learn from your mistakes and improve. If they were truly awful, nobody much would have read them. Problem solved. End result? You’d probably be in the same place you are now (only you would have learnt the publishing side of writing as well as the writing side.) I find we tend to learn how to write and publish, by, er, writing and publishing.
Have a little faith that readers can figure out what’s good stuff and what’s not, and please don’t advise writers that the best thing they can do is not write and bow to the tired assumptions of an industry that is struggling to realise that unless it changes, it will be irrelevant.
The biggest threat to newbie writers is not self-publishing but legacy publishing. Or put it another way, the biggest threat to publishers is self-publishing. Writers? They are free to make their own mistakes. And successes.
Hi Patrick, Thanks for your comment.
I’ve had great editing from my publishers, and value it highly, not necessarily for the suggestions they make to improve the work (although sometimes there) but because they are excellent readers, with vast experience, and point out things I’ve missed, or where something might not be working. That’s as true with my most recent book as it was with my first, so I can’t agree that it’s without value to those of us who know what we’re doing.
I do take your point that perhaps not much would have happened to me if I’d self-published my early dreadful writing. Maybe, but I certainly wouldn’t have received the support and nurturing I received from my publishers. And what I learned about publishing I learned from being published and seeing how the pros marketed, publicized, edited, designed and produced my work. Self-publishing companies might be as good as, say, Harper Collins, but I doubt it. I’m not sure, though, that I would be in the same place I am now. A lack of sales doesn’t necessarily teach the writer what’s wrong with his or her work. I have, however, seen it make writers bitter and self-justifying and stubborn. I also think writers fork out too much money to self-publishing companies. When one is published by a traditional publisher, not only does one get marketing, distribution, editing and publicity, but one gets paid.
You can also see from M.A.’s comments what someone inside the self-publishing industry says.
I do have faith that readers know what good writing it, although perhaps the success of Dan Brown snaps the neck of that argument ( http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/tomchiversscience/100216857/dan-browns-eight-worst-sentences-in-inferno/ ) and does indeed demand the question, where was HIS editor? Snort. Still, who wants to see the market awash is bad books?
You ask me not to advise writers the best thing they can do is not write. I would never do that. You may have misunderstood me quoting Philip Roth. I, and others, believe that wonderful, snarky gentleman was using a Talmudic argumentative device — ironic and challenging the listener to rise to the occasion. If you read the blog I link to, and the subsequent New Yorker article, you’ll understand the context. So. . . Writers should write. It’s a fantastic way to live your life. So I never advise anyone not to write. I do, however, advise them not to self-publish, expect perhaps under certain circumstances. What circumstances? Poetry. A non-fiction book that supports a product you’re trying to sell or expounds on a subject you’re lecturing on. A family memoir that is of most interest to your friends and family, who will probably be the only people who buy it.
Publishers are not threatened by self-publishing — it just gets rid of the slush pile. They are not the writer’s enemy. They are our best partner.
But, if you disagree you are, of course, free to self-publish; free, as you say, to make your own mistakes. And you might just be part of the miniscule percent that has success. Who knows? Good luck to you. Honestly.
I apologise, of course you are not saying writers shouldn’t write, more accurately you are saying writers shouldn’t publish without approval from publishers, this is what I take issue with, but as you say, each to their own. If you have had a positive experience from the trad world, I’m happy for you. Honestly.
I don’t mean to sound patronising, but you really should find out what self-publishing actually is before warning the world of the evils of publishing your own work, because you are conflating it with vanity publishing, which is a terrible rip-off. There is no such thing as “paying a self-publishing company.”
Self-publishing means doing it yourself (or subcontracting to folk to help you do it, such as proof readers, editors etc). Put it another way, in self-publishing the reader pays for the book, the author does not pay a penny. If the author is paying that is vanity press and is reprehensible.
Self-pubbing works on print on demand or increasingly digital. You provide the manuscript, you have it edited, you format it yourself (takes about a day the first time) and you, as self-publisher, typically keep 70% of the royalties, the rest going to the distributor (Amazon, Kobo, Sony or Smashwords, whoever). You do the work, you keep the vast majority of the royalties. If the work isn’t up to snuff, it won’t sell. You learn the ropes. No-one sufffers (certainly not the readers) except the big publishers who are missing their cut.
And one other thing, defenders of the status quo often compare the best of trad pubbing with the worst of self-pubbing “Look at the rubbish being published compared to this Philip Roth hardback!” But that negates the reality for most writers: being completely shut out by the trad publishers, vs having a modest success (couple of hundered bucks) self-pubbing. And I’m sorry, publishers guaranteeing quality? Have you seen what awful celeb rubbish and self-help book get published… but that’s another argument. Taste is subjective. Some people even like poetry, perish the thought.
I appreciate you have worked hard learning the legacy business and that worked for you, but I think you might want to consider that that’s not the only game in town, or even the best option for most people anymore. Certainly not for newbie writers.
I do know how digital publishing works. Of course people pay vanity presses, but think they’re self-publishing. There are reams of these guys out there praying on the desperate. In fact, for friends of mine who insist on self-publishing I tell them NOT to go to places that charge for their services (apart, perhaps from someone who will probably convert to digital files if the author isn’t tech-savvy). But one must, if one is self-publishing, pay a good, objective editor, and that costs. So does excellent book cover design (so many of them are awful). Then there’s publicity and marketing, which you either do as a full time job or else you hire a publicity firm with is expensive, in the tens of thousands.
And one has to ask why writers are shut out by traditional publishers, particularly, as you say, with the glut of Snooki-style nonsense published by traditional publishers for mysterious reasons. Look, I get that. Only one of my books has, thus far, sold outside my native Canada. NYC publishers send my agent delightful, praise-filled rejection letters, but they don’t pick up my work. Fine. I don’t know why. Market? Fewer publishers? I don’t write what the people in NYC think will sell? I have no idea. Thus, those books of mine that are not available in the US I’ve published digitally on all the regular sites myself. Easy, and modestly profitable. Maybe one day an American publisher will pick up my work, but in the meantime, people with e-readers can at least sample the wares. But I wouldn’t have done that without having the books edited (which I don’t pay for) and, frankly, reviewed. And I already have something of a small fan base.
Still, and I won’t keep going back and forth on this, I counsel emerging writers to be patient, to seek out perhaps a smaller traditional press to get a foot in the door. I think it’s better for psychologically, and better for their careers in the long run. That’s just me, though. No one is forced to take my advice. People will always make choices they think are best for them, and it sounds like you’re committed to a path that works for you. Excellent. Onward ho!
Hi Lauren, I agree with much of what you say; but as a pretty awful writer who put a lot of effort into writing a book, it was nice to finally get it self-published after years of rejection. Having something to show for all my hard work made me very happy.
Excellent! It should make you happy. And if it keeps you writing, all the better.
Hello Lauren. i did not see this post when you wrote it as shortly after, I was in the middle of the Southern Alberta flood, now labelled “the worst disaster in Canadian history”! I love your blog and am catching up on posts I missed. I understand your perspective and having self-published my novel last year, after trying for six years to find a publisher, I can speak from experience when I say that many of your points are valid. However, I think we have to realize that the industry has changed, and it is becoming impossible to be published if the book is not “marketable”: the term the last publisher to reject my book used, after holding on to the manuscript for a year! This means that it must appeal to the masses, not likely for a Canadian historical novel! Two companies who accepted my book went bankrupt in the interim, and many independent publishing companies and bookstores are struggling or have closed. After paying my agent for several years, with no results, I finally gave up, as I am getting too old to wait to see my book in print. I decided I would go ahead, so that I could share it with the people I love, and see how the wider world reacted to it. I printed 500 copies and have had a great response from readers. It is a lot of work and expense though, and I too would caution anyone who is not prepared to “sell” themselves, to print only a few copies for family and friends. I have enjoyed the process and have met so many interesting people as I do signings at bookstores and markets. I am encouraged by stories like that of Eckhart Tolle who self-published and sold books out of the trunk of his car, for years. I don’t expect to be discovered by Oprah, but I am happy that I have a book out, and readers have encouraged me to write a sequel. All that said, I won’t do it again. I will try to find a publisher for the next book, and if I don’t I will probably share it in e-book form. I do have patience, but also, “Life is short, and so am I!”
Love your blog!
I’m sorry you had a hard time getting published, Lise and wish you every success on your novel.
A question: you were paying an agent to represent you??? What on earth for? A reputable agent is ONLY paid a percentage (say 15%) of proceeds from the book sales that occur as a result of their efforts. In other words, the agent sells the book to a publisher, you get an advance of, let’s say, $1,000, of which the agent takes a $150 slice. If you were paying your agent in any other way, I’m sorry to say you’ve been robbed by an unethical agent, in my opinion.
As for Eckhart Tolle, I have always said I think if you want a book as part of a “product-package”, as is common with non-fiction writers such as Tolle, then go right ahead. A book is a useful thing to sell, like a t-shirt or a candle or a CD, to augment whatever speaking engagements, weekend workshops, seminars, etc., you’re doing. Tolle sells a spiritual package (sorry to be so blunt about it — I’m not saying it’s not useful and worthwhile), a package which is part of a lifestyle grouping. Self-help, spirituality, do-it-youself, all these non-fiction subsets fit the bill. Tolle is essentially selling himself and his message. The book is merely a part of the package. This is a very different landscape than fiction.
And I’m afraid I can’t quite agree with you that Canadian historical novel wouldn’t be marketable to Canadian publishers. Good heavens, everyone from Margaret Atwood to Michael Ondaatje to Joseph Boyden to Jane Urquhart to Linda Spalding to David Adams Richards to… well, Lauren B. Davis (snort)… have published Canadian historical novels successfully, and many of us published those as our first novels, when no one knew who we were. It’s the backbone of Canadian publishing.
However, having said all that, the industry is indeed changing. Publishers are publishing fewer books, whereas the market is awash in self-published books, most getting no attention whatsoever (and frankly, few of them deserve any attention). In fact, although I’m delighted to hear you’ve had readings at bookstores, most bookstores don’t support self-published works unless by a “local interest” author. Because of the changing landscape, I encourage emerging writers to research and approach smaller presses rather than the big commercial houses — since the big 6 are often shackled by corporate bean-counters, which saddens many good editors who must reject works they like. God knows I’ve been turned down multiple times by all of them. But I persevered, and went to a smaller press for a time when necessity so dictated. I still believe it is the smaller, literary presses who are most often taking risks with new authors — it’s always been like that.
If, on the other hand you feel you are too old to wait and to perhaps write two, three or more books without being able to publish (as most of us do when we’re starting out and learning our craft) then you’ve probably chosen the right path, and it’s clear you’re getting enjoyment out of it. As I said, I wish you all the best (but hope you find a good agent next time round!)
Hi Lauren. I love that you respond right away. It makes for such a good conversation. Just want to clarify that I did not mean that Canadian historical novels are not generally “marketable”, only that they do not appeal to a vast market. I LOVE Canadian stories (which is why I write them) and I read every one I can get my hands on! That is how I discovered “The Stubborn Season”, and I still think it is one of the best I have read! I think we need more of them! Our history is epic, and we are not even aware of it, as so much of our “entertainment” comes from the U.S, In Quebec, the historical novel flourishes, as do films and television serials about Quebec history. Of course, the industry there is hugely government supported, as it keeps the culture and the language alive. Wow, what a concept!
Thanks for your encouragement. I have never been a full-time writer, and now that I am retired from my teaching career, I will pursue this dream more vigourously. I write for love, and to share with others. Whatever else happens, that is a bonus. As my “best beloved”, who is an artist, and I both know, there is a lot of compromise to be made to make a living in the arts, but you have to keep believing. I had several brushes with death when I turned fifty, six years ago, so I decided to self-publish, and I don’t regret it. I think your advice about self-publishing and agents (!!) is very helpful.
I’ve come into this discussion very late because my attention has just been drawn to it. I think the self-publishing situation is far more nuanced than you allow, The commercial imperative is driving publishers more than ever, and this means that certain types of books are privileged and others disadvantaged.
Two of our books (joint authors) have been considered seriously by an agent or a publisher but rejected on the grounds that they were unlikely to be commercially successful in the small Australian market. A friend has published 8 well-regarded books and been shortlisted for major national prizes, but her publishers wouldn’t put out her most recent book because the one before hadn’t sold enough. Two friends have had books enthusiastically received by readers and major publishers only to have the book vetoed by the marketing department. And when you submit a book to a major publisher they are likely to ask you to nominate a successful book you would compare to yours. In other words, there are certain successful formulae and that is what the publishers are looking for.
What, then are you to do if that’s not how you want to write? I’m a widely published poet and have always thought that if I’ve worked on something to the point where I think I’ve created something good, I want it to have a life in the world. The same applies to a novel. The publishers are right to think our novels don’t have a mass market; they are comic novels but highly literary. But we want them to have that life in the world. If they reach 500 readers across the globe, that’s 500 successes.
Trawling through the masses of self-published novels on the net, I have to agree that there is a huge amount of dross out there The interesting thing is that a lot of these books are ham-fisted attempts to do exactly what the publishers ask you to do – turn out something in a popular genre that sells well (chick lit, sexy, zombie…) Judging by the style, the writers haven’t themselves read widely or deeply. So if these books fail, there’s no loss. If the writers really want to write (as opposed to “be a writer”) they’ll be no more discouraged than are writers who are repeatedly rejected by mainstream publishers.
We decided to self-publish in ebook format only. You can do that yourself, no need for a vanity publisher, and even with editing, formatting and a good cover it’s still not expensive. And no, we didn’t pay anyone to advertise, nor do we spend our lives self-publicising. If you re a writer and a reader you’ll have writer/reader networks in person and online. Through them you reach like-minded readers. No, you don’t make millions, but you do have readers who want to read your next book. There’s no other way that would happen.
Thanks for your comment, Gert. It sounds as though you have reasonable expectations (so many emerging writers don’t, alas), haven’t fallen into the usual traps (you’re not spending much of your own money), and also that you’ve learned your craft. The publishing industry changes more ever day. If self-publishing works for you, then that’s great. I wish you every satisfaction.