I’m involved in a fairly active writing community online and I keep seeing writers saying the same things over and over again:
I want to get published by a traditional publishing company and self-publishing is a last resort.
I will never self-publish and if I write twenty novels and none of them find a home at a Big Five publishing company, I still won’t self-publish.
I won’t publish with a small press because I might not get an advance and they can’t market my work.
Now, every writer is different. Some writers are not cut out for self-publishing. They just aren’t. Self-publishing is a business (actually, all publishing is a business, but many writers don’t see it that way and that’s another post for another day) and some writers don’t want to be business owners. Essentially, if you go the indie route and do-it-yourself, you are effectively a small business. There are writers who don’t want to deal with everything that that entails and that’s their choice – the purpose of this post isn’t to persuade anyone to this side of the business, but to ask why this is.
Why do writers cling to the traditional publishing model despite the steep odds of breaking in? Why are so many writers closed off to other avenues of getting their work into the hands of readers? I mean, presumably if you’re trying to be a career writer and not just a hobbyist, you’re writing with the intention of getting an audience. So why limit your ability to do so by sticking to one way of publishing?
I started thinking about this, thinking about why I used to want to be traditionally published, and it came back around to validation. I wanted to be able to say, “Big Time Publisher X just gave me a three book deal. That must mean I’m a good writer.”
Well, no, not exactly.
Publishing is a business after all so that means the bottom line of a given company is first and foremost the concern of the people running it. That means that if they come across a writer who is only so-so when it comes to the actual mechanics of writing, but is writing on a subject that’s currently hot in the book market and can make them a lot of money, they’ll publish that writer, shitty prose and all.
You can write the most beautiful sentences in the world, but if your story isn’t considered salable by the marketing department of Big Time Publisher X, you’re not going to get a contract for your book. At least not from that particular publisher.
Now, I’m not saying my teenage rationale for wanting a traditional publishing contract is the rationale for all aspiring writers who go the legacy route. I’ve had many writer friends say to me, “I want a traditional book contract so I can get my work edited.” I don’t bother pointing out that more and more publishing houses are cutting editorial positions and outsourcing the work to freelance editors and I won’t get into that now – that’s for another post and another time.
Another one I get is, “I want a traditional publishing company to sign me so they can market my novel since I’m not good at self-promotion.” I have on occasion pointed out to the writers who say this that even if they score a contract from a New York publishing house, they’ll still be doing the majority of their book marketing themselves (especially as a newbie), but that always falls on deaf ears so I’ve stopped saying it. Let them believe that all they have to do is write the book, turn it in, and sit back and collect the royalty checks – not my career, not my business. They’ll learn soon enough how much self-promotion traditionally published writers have to do just to be midlist. (Hint: it’s pretty much the same amount of work indie authors have to do to be midlist.)
These are legit concerns that aspiring writers have. They don’t seem driven by ego or crippling insecurity. But I’ve seen writers say stuff like this:
· I want a traditional publishing contract because I need the validation that someone besides my family and friends thinks I’m talented
and it saddens me. I am a firm believer that the only validation a writer should need is the validation they get from readers. Readers are the ones who spend their hard earned money on your work – not agents, not publishers, and certainly not other writers – and, therefore, their opinions are the only ones that should matter.
Talent is subjective. There are even many people who don’t believe talent exists. (I am not one of those people, but that too belongs in another post.) But if readers are buying your books and enjoying them, and you’ll know they’re enjoying them if they leave glowing reviews on all the online retailer sites and Goodreads or they’re blogging about your book, then those people think you’re talented or entertaining or something and that should be enough.
Again – if you’re a hobbyist writer, then this probably doesn’t matter to you, but if you’re trying to do this as a career, you have to get past the notion that only a legacy publisher can tell you if you’re good. Readers are the new gatekeepers in this digital age and they’ll let you know if something you’ve written is good or not by either buying it or ignoring it. (And yes, sometimes good books get ignored due to obscurity or bad covers or crazy pricing and quality of the project has little to do with it. I know.)
This publishing dilemma reminds me of a situation I found myself in after college. I couldn’t get a job at any newspaper in the country and I couldn’t pay magazines to run one of my freelance articles. I felt like a complete failure, not to mention angry at the amount of money I spent on a useless degree. So I applied to grad school for creative writing and when I was accepted into Sarah Lawrence’s Graduate Writing Program for Creative Non-fiction, I was thrilled. Somebody thought I could write! I wasn’t a hack after all – I was good.
Well, again, not exactly.
See, I believed this to be true when I deferred my acceptance so I could try and get enough money in scholarships and grants to attend and the school held my spot without question when I explained to them, nicely, that their financial aid package for graduates wasn’t going to “aid” me in doing anything other than accumulating more debt than I already had from my undergrad studies. I thought, “Gee, these people must really believe I’m a good writer if they’re willing to wait for me. They must really want me in this program.” I kept thinking it when I asked for a second deferment and was given it with no fuss. But if they’d really wanted me in the program because I was good, wouldn’t they have tried to adjust my financial aid package so I could afford to attend the school without going bankrupt in the process?
They wanted my money. That’s all. It had nothing to do with whether or not I was “good.” But I bought into that idea because I was naive about how MFA programs, and university admissions in general, actually work.
That same lack of understanding of the business side of publishing is what I believe makes people say the things I’ve mentioned above. These writers are operating under the assumption that the business still works the same way it did a decade or more ago – it doesn’t. And sure, you can tell writers to research the industry for themselves before committing to any particular path, but the problem with this is that every writer’s experience in the business is different so for writers who need clear, step-by-step instructions on how to go about doing this professionally, they won’t get it. The path to publication is not one size fits all. For every former traditionally published writer who now publishes his own work via Amazon and swears he will never go back to a New York house because of how horribly he was treated, there’s a former traditionally-pubbed author self-pubbing who’d gladly go back to a traditional contract if offered one.
Is it for validation’s sake? Advance money? It’s certainly not for rights and royalties because when you self-publish, you keep all of your rights and you get a higher royalty rate than if you were to go through a publisher.
I don’t know. All I know is that my first book just recently received its first review on Smashwords after months of radio silence and it was lovely. The review made me smile because the reader loved the characters, loved the setting, and said if there’s a sequel, he (she? The name was gender neutral) will most likely be getting it – and “most likely” is way better than a “probably.” It’s practically a “yes.” That’s the reaction I was hoping for and I now have at least one confirmed reader for the next book in the series.
Seriously – besides making a boatload of money, what other validation could be better than that?