Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Five Top Reasons Why Aspiring Novelists Should Not Self-Publish

My word to the aspiring novelist who's thinking of self-publishing--"Don't."

These days self-publishing is easier than ever. Now even traditional publishers are starting to tout self-publishing arms. But that doesn't make SP the best choice for those who want to pursue a career in fiction.

Just to be clear before I continue--I'm not talking about self-publishing nonfiction. Nor am I talking about an established novelist choosing to use POD (print on demand) to reissue a novel that's fallen out of print. I'm talking only about the new novelist.

Five Top Reasons why aspiring novelists should not self-publish:

5. Self-publishing is Plan B. Let's be honest--what aspiring novelist would choose shelling out dollars to self-publish over being paid for a novel by a traditional publisher? If you want a career in fiction, Plan A is worth striving--and waiting--for.

4. Distribution. It's one thing to print a book. It's quite another to sell the printed copies to stores. First you must convince the bookstores to stock your product--and book shelf space is particularly tight these days. Stores are stocking less books even by novelists who've already made a name for themselves. Don't expect stores to readily stock your self-published book, regardless of the promises SP companies may make.

3. Marketing. It's bad enough now with traditional publishers. They all want to know how you will help market your novel. But at least you're part of a team. Going the SP route, it's just you. What's your platform? If you're not getting distribution to stores, you need to sell directly to readers. Are you willing to merely cover your costs? Even lose money? Are you prepared to see the novel you worked so hard to write sell only a few hundred copies, if that?

2. Editing. Yes, I know the SP companies may promise editing, based on how much you're willing to pay. In most cases the level of "editing" is far under what you'd receive from a traditional publisher. Sometimes it's nothing more than copy editing. The substantive "macro" edits for fiction--dealing with characterization, foundational story structure, dialogue, etc.--are likely to be lacking. Not good. Every novelist needs a good, hard edit. After writing 21 books, I sure wouldn't want to be without one. Even if you're promised a macro edit--how skilled is that editor in fiction? (All fiction editors are not created equal.)

And the #1 reason:

There's no shortcut to craft. This one's the hard truth, folks. If your novel has been rejected by numerous traditional publishers, most likely your craft hasn't yet reached the publishable level. I know this from firsthand experience. It took me ten frustrating, heart-wrenching years to learn my craft to the publishable level. If I had succumbed to the temptation of self-publishing anywhere along the way, I would have shortcut the learning of my craft. Instead I rewrote and rewrote my novels until they were ready. I became skilled in story structure, dialogue, multi-level characterization, symbolism, foreshadow and red herrings--all the aspects that make up my craft. I had to. It was either that or quit and abandon my dream. Learning to write fiction is hard work. It takes diligence and time. Self-publishing is a quick fix to the problem of multiple rejections. But it does not take the long-term view of building one's craft for a lasting career as a novelist.

Yes, I've heard of The Shack. To most rules you'll find a few exceptions. But for every The Shack, there are thousands of SP novels that sold little and did nothing for the writer's career. And yes, I've heard the arguments that a first novel may be ready in craft--but no publisher will touch it because of content. That's rarely true. If it's craft-ready, someone will eventually pick it up. Again, I speak from experience.

I could so easily have self-published Eyes of Elisha, my first suspense. Even when it was craft-ready--enough to garner the attention of multiple pub boards--the door was slammed on it again and again because of its content. That was only in 2000, but CBA (Christian market) fiction has vastly changed since then. Now CBA publishers wouldn't even blink at such a story. But I kept trying through my agent--and finally a door opened through Zondervan (a division of HarperCollins). Eyes of Elisha was published in 2001 and went straight to the CBA bestseller's list. Eight years later it's still in print and selling. I have two folders overstuffed with hundreds of e-mails and letters from readers who love Eyes of Elisha, and I now need to start a third.

I'm well aware of the controversy on the subject of self-publishing for a new novelist. I'm well aware that emotions tend to run high on the issue. I do not write this post to cast aspersions on those who have done so. I write it to encourage aspiring novelists to stay the course, keep learning, and earn your way into a traditional house. Those of you who have self-published your fiction--I encourage you also to keep learning your craft (as all we novelists must do) and work to see your next novel bought by a traditional house.


Candy Arrington said...

Thank you for this post. I totally agree.

Jason said...

Thank you for the encouragement. As someone who just finished the second draft of his first novel (and thinks upon reading for editing it's cow crud so I'm not sure if I should scrap it and write a new novel instead) it's tempting to run the self-publishing route. Fortunately for me right now, I'm too poor to afford it...that helps avoid the temptation.

It also gives me extra motivation to get into a traditional house.

Lori Stanley Roeleveld said...

Thank you for this bold encouragement. For some it may be tempting to self-publish, for others there is pressure from those not in the writing business to self-publish - lots of anecdotes about The Shack and urges to believe in yourself. I believe in my ability to write and I believe that God has called me to write but I would no sooner want to publish before I've produced excellent work than I would want a first year medical student to perform my surgery. Patience is tough stuff but God seems to revel in perfecting it in us! Thank you, again.

Heather said...

Thanks Brandilyn!! I was tempted for a while, until I 1) started looking into self-publishing and found it too expensive and 2) started learning more about craft. I'm so glad that I didn't give up my vision of being traditionally published!

Nicole said...

Having self-published two novels, I would give the same advice. Especially concerning the marketing. The only "flaw" (for lack of a better word) I've found in this sound and reasonable advice is that even the bigwigs in the royalty publishing gig have produced poorly written and poorly edited novels with many a copy-editing error. Because I read so much fiction, I can tell you the standard is high in some cases and very questionable in others. It/They, meaning publishers, really don't set the "gold-standard" for great writing anymore simply because they've published the bad, the mediocre, and the great.

In addition to this not all of us will be able to establish whatever is considered a "suitable" platform. JMO

Loved Eyes of Elisha and am so anxious for more!

Ane Mulligan said...

I'm really glad you addressed this, Brandilyn. I know for non-fiction, sometimes self-publishing makes better sense, IF you have a small niche for the book and you have the means to sell it. After traditionally publishing my scripts, I finally turned to self-publishing on the advice of many other playwrights. But since I taught at so many drama conferences, I had the outlet to sell them.

Your reasons are right on the money. As a reviewer, I'm often asked to review a self-pubbed book. After reading a few, I now say no. You have to read 1,000 to maybe find 1 good one.

Jess at Blog Schmog said...

I'm glad you addressed this subject! I've read a slew of differing opinions all the way down to the "publishers won't touch it if it isn't proven" argument. I appreciate you letting us in on your journey.

Yvonne said...

Thanks, Brandilyn.
Sometimes it gets so discouraging. Even though I know it's not easy, I want to "jump through the hoops." I want to have the endorsement of a publishing company behind me.
Thanks for showing us that it can happen.

Dee Yoder said...

As a new novelist, I have had numerous people "advising" me to self publish, including a few writers whose work I found questionable in quality. But I've resisted--without reasons behind the resistance. Thanks to your post, I can now resist AND give reasons why. (: Thank you!

Linda B said...

I've had so many well-meaning friends advise me to self-publish, and they are completely mystified when I don't get excited about it. I think they think the whole goal is just to hold your own book in your hand--whether or not you actually sell any copies! Self publishing may be a short cut--but it's not a short cut to the kind of future I want!

D. Gudger said...

My novel is knocking on editor's doors right now and my agent said it may take a while. Years even.

I can't count how many times I've been told my well meaning friends/collegues - just self publish.

It's hard to wait and get rejection after rejection. The rejections are mostly due to my novel being different and houses aren't sure how to classify it along w/ some content issues.

Waiting for a traditional house to snatch it up is what I'm committed to. I crave what I can learn from a team of editors tearing my ms to pieces macro and micro.

I'm trusting it will be well worth the wait :)

Sara Harricharan @ Fiction Fusion said...

Thank you several times over. I needed to read this today to remind myself to keep on working towards a higher goal, to strive to improve my craft and to hold out for first prize. You are certainly an inspiration!

Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith said...

Thank you for a very useful post. I've been reading a lot on this lately, and your note, at the beginning, that you are referring to fiction novel writers and not to nonfiction seems to be right on target for the most support for your position. Good distinction. Good advice. Thanks, again,

Bill ;-)


Sheila Deeth said...

Nice post. Thanks. I'm still sending my novels and short stories out to agents and publishers (celebrating rejections with chocolate), but I've started self-publishing my faith-based books. Not sure if that was a good idea or not, but at least it gets the self-publishing itch safely, and separately scratched.

julie said...

Ten years for your first novel? That gives me hope.

BookWhirl.com said...

Nicely written article. =) I agree that writing involves a lot planning. Self-publishing can serve as an alternative. But of course, it all depends upon your purpose on publishing your work. Congratulations on your novel! The work was way long but i'm sure that it's all worth it. Cheers! May you serve as an encouragement to others.