For me, traditional publishing means poverty. But self-publish? No way!
Life as a professional writer is financially depressing, and I’ve often been advised to self-publish. Here’s why I won’t do itRos Barber
A few days ago, I wrote a piece on my blog exploding the myth of the rich writer, and laying out (in terms the Royal Literary Fund described as “ruthlessly mathematical”) what authors actually receive when you buy their books. The simple answer for many of us is nothing at all, after that heady advance in the case of my most recent novel, which was £5,000 for two years’ work.
The blog was widely shared on social media, and viewed by nearly 10,000 people in its first week. The shock, agreement and commiserations were followed swiftly by people telling me what I really need to do is self-publish.
Now, I understand that “indie publishing” is all the rage, but you might as well be telling Luke Skywalker to go to the dark side. Despite royalty rates of 70%, I think self-publishing is a terrible idea for serious novelists (by which I mean, novelists who take writing seriously, and love to write). Here’s why.
You have to forget writing for a living
If you self-publish your book, you are not going to be writing for a living. You are going to be marketing for a living. Self-published authors should expect to spend only 10% of their time writing and 90% of their time marketing. The self-published author who came to my blog to preach the virtues of his path, claiming to make five figures a month from Kindle sales of his 11 novels, puts his writing time percentage in single figures. If that sounds like fun to you, be my guest. But if your passion is creating worlds and characters, telling great stories, and/or revelling in language, you might want to aim for traditional publication.
Self-publishing can make you behave like a fool
Imagine we have just met. I invite you into my house and the first thing you do is show me the advertising blurb for your book and press me to check it out on Amazon. Then you read me the blurb for someone else whose book you’ve agreed to promote if they’ll do the same with yours. Then you tell me how many friends you’ve lost today, and that I can find out how many friends I’ve lost by using this app.
Then you poke a reader review of your book under my nose. All within the first 10 minutes. Does this lead me to conclude you are a successful author, whose books I might like to buy? Or a desperate egomaniac with no thought for other people? One who may not be able to string a decent sentence together, since your sentences come out as semi-literate strings of hashtags:
I mute authors whose tweetstreams are 90% adverts in the same way I wouldn’t watch the shopping channel. The vast majority of indie authors have tweetstreams that are 90% adverts, perhaps a reflection of the fact that they must spend 90% of their time marketing. It certainly doesn’t make self-publishing look like the path to El Dorado. Why would I want to join this gang?
Gatekeepers are saving you from your own ego
Imagine you are a cabinet-maker. You look at a few cabinets, you read a few books about how to make a cabinet, you practice the technicalities of things like dovetail joints. Then, with hope in your heart and breakfast in your sawing arm, you grab some wood and set to work. But because you are new at this, your tools are a starter set.
In your ignorance, you chose wood that wasn’t properly seasoned. Wow, those dovetail joints take some precision, don’t they? This cabinet-making thing is hard! Nevertheless, with persistence and effort you complete your cabinet. It wobbles a bit. The drawers stick. The finish isn’t perfect. Buy hey, it’s a cabinet! You try to sell it to several furniture shops and they all politely decline. So are you going to sell it yourself? Or heave a sigh, make another cabinet, and see if you can make a better one?
Good writers become good because they undertake an apprenticeship. Serving your apprenticeship is important
My first novel was my fourth novel. It was accomplished on the back of three complete novels (plus two half novels) that didn’t quite make the grade (even though two of them were represented by well-respected agents). Yes, it can be frustrating, having your beloved book (months or years of hard work) rejected by traditional publishers. But if you are serious about writing, you will simply raise your game.
You will put in another few thousand hours and complete your apprenticeship. And when you do, you will be very glad that the first novel you wrote was not the first novel you published, because it will now feel embarrassing and amateurish. You can only be a debutante once. First novels are all about making a splash. You’ll find it hard to make a good impression if the first thing anyone saw from you was that wonky cabinet with sticky drawers.
You can forget Hay festival and the Booker
Traditional publishing is the only way to go for someone who writes literary fiction. With genre fiction, self-publishing can turn you into a successful author (if you can build a platform, if you enjoy marketing and are good at it, if you are lucky). But an author who writes literary fiction is dependent on critical acclaim and literary prizes to build their reputation and following. If genre fiction is chart music, literary fiction is opera: the audience is small, and there are limited ways to reach it. Self-published books are not eligible for major prizes like the Baileys, the Costa and the Man Booker, and getting shortlisted for major prizes is the only way a literary novel will become a bestseller. The chance of a self-published novelist getting their book reviewed in the mainstream press is the same as the chance of my dog not eating a sausage. The chance of an indie author being booked for a major literature festival? Donald Trump apologising to Mexico.
You risk looking like an amateur
Good writers need even better editors. They need brilliant cover designers. They need imaginative marketers and well-connected publicists. All these things are provided by a traditional publisher, and what’s more, it doesn’t cost you a penny. They pay you!
If a self-published author wants to avoid looking like an amateur, they’d better be prepared to shell out some serious dosh to get professional help in all the areas where they don’t excel. And I mean serious. Paying some poor bugger in the Philippines a fiver, or bunging £50 to your PhotoShopping nephew will not result in a distinctive, professional-looking cover. And don’t get me started on the value of good editors, copy-editors and proof-readers, and how many times they have saved me from looking like a twonk.
Providing these services to indie authors is a lucrative business. Indeed, many indie authors keep themselves afloat financially by offering these services to other indie authors: the new “authorpreneur” pyramid scheme. Which is all very well if what you’ve always wanted to do is start your own writing-related business. But if you’d rather be an author, why not practice your skill until you’ve written something a publisher will pay for? And enjoy the fact they’ll also foot the bill for everything else.
70% of nothing is not
My final caveat is fiscal. You can put all of that effort in, do all that marketing, and still not make a living. Fiona Veitch Smith made the transition from self-publishing to traditional publishing.
I do not earn much as a traditionally published author but I earn more than I did as a self-publisher. I published 7 books in 4 years and in that time only one of them went into profit – and that less than £100. And before anyone says it’s because I didn’t work hard enough, my friends and family who barely saw me for 4 years will tell you that I worked my butt off. So hard in fact that I attracted the attention of two separate traditional publishers who took me on (one for my adult books, one for my children’s books).
I could no longer take the feeling of inadequacy every time I read an article by a self-publishing success storytelling me if only I worked harder and smarter, did all the right social media promotions, spent 90% of my time marketing and only 10% writing – oh and subscribed to their blog or downloaded their latest how-to manual – I too could earn at least 5 figures a month. But the reality is, of dozens of self-publishers I knew, I was probably the most successful.”
She has just sold Korean translation rights to her children’s books, which illustrates another benefit of traditional publishing. Publishers and agents have reach. With access to proper distribution networks, they can get physical books into real bookshops. They can represent you at the major book fairs and sell your books to international markets.
Self-publishing? It generates a lot of noise on social media. It results in many flashy-looking websites from authorpreneurs keen to sell success secrets to other aspiring authorpreneurs. With Amazon’s Kindle and CreateSpace as the major outlets, it continues to put money in the coffers of the company largely responsible for destroying author incomes in the first place. But it isn’t a route to financial security. For those who prefer orchestrated backing to blowing their own trumpet, who’d privilege running a narrative scenario over running a small business, who’d rather write adventures than adverts, self-publishing is not the answer.