Pulling the Curtain Back from the Stigma of Self-Publishing
In recent years, self-publishing has become an acceptable way for authors to share their work with a readership. But just a few years ago, self-publishing was the last stop on the rejection train. Authors usually resorted to self-publishing only after dozens of failed attempts to land an agent or sell their work to a publisher. For this reason, self-published books carried a negative stigma, which is only now being shed.
Since most self-published books failed to pass the litmus test of the publishing industry’s gatekeepers, they were seen as universally unworthy. And in many cases, they were. Agents and editors won’t get on board with substandard books, so those books are less likely to get published.
But that doesn’t mean every rejected book is substandard or all writers who self-published did so because they couldn’t secure a publishing contract.
In fact, some of the most notable writers in the literary canon self-published: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, William Blake, Benjamin Franklin, Edgar Allan Poe, Gertrude Stein, Mark Twain, and L. Frank Baum. And if that’s not enough, Wikipedia lists even more self-published authors and self-published bestsellers.
The Truth About Rejection
The truth is that plenty of books that went on to great success were initially rejected. Lolita was “overwhelmingly nauseating.” Jonathan Livingston Seagull was “ridiculous.” George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which critiqued communism, was rejected by none other than T.S. Elliott, who said “We have no conviction that this is the right point of view from which to criticize the political situation at the current time.”
Anne Frank’s diary was rejected sixteen times. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected eight times. Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected by over 100 publishers before its authors went ahead and published it themselves. (Source: Flavorwire)
Let all these instances of rejection and self-publication be a reminder: agents and editors are only human. They read ridiculous amounts of prose and are tasked with picking only the ones that, in their estimation, have the best chances of becoming bestsellers. And they make mistakes. I’m sure the eight publishers who rejected Harry Potter will carry the weight of that mistake for the rest of their lives.
When you stop to think about the jobs that agents and editors perform, it’s easy to understand why so many great books slip through their hands. Maybe an agent read a book when he was tired, hungry, or stressed out. Maybe he just read three other books with similar storylines. Maybe the story touched a bad nerve. Maybe the editor who read a book loved it but didn’t feel like his publishing house could find an audience for it. Maybe he disagrees with the narrative’s philosophy. Maybe he’s looking for a zombie story.
The fact is that just because a book is rejected five, ten, a hundred times does not mean it’s bad or that it can never be successful.
The Other Truth About Rejection
We can’t escape the other truth about rejection, which is that some books really are rejected because they’re not very good. While authors must remember that a rejection doesn’t mean their book can’t go on to find success, they also have to figure out whether their book has the potential to succeed.
The best way to gauge the merit of your own work is to be well read. If you haven’t absorbed a hearty portion of the literary canon, you have nothing to gauge your own work against. You need to read good books, bad books, mediocre books, and great books and learn to identify that je ne sais quoi that differentiates them.
The New Era of Self-Publishing
If you ask me, the new era of self-publishing was inevitable. Its fate was sealed when Internet access became widespread. Of course authors are going to self-publish their work now, and in droves. Before we had all this fancy technology, self-publishing required a hefty investment. You’d have to find a printer and pay for a run. There was no print-on-demand and there were no ebooks. You placed an order — 500 books, 1,000 books, 15,000 books. You paid for all those books and then you went out and sold them, trying to recoup your investment and turn a profit. Nowadays, most self-published authors hire an editor or proofreader, cover designers, and maybe a PR consultant. Back then, you had to do all that, plus pay thousands of dollars for copies of your book. Technology changed all that, making it easy and affordable to self-publish.
Some people have decried the wave of self-publishing that’s sweeping across the Internet. Some terrible works are getting published! We need the gatekeepers of the publishing industry to weed out the bad books! I think that’s nonsense. Let the market — let the readers — decide which books they want to buy and read. Let authors take the risk, put their work out there, and see what happens. It’s an ideal business model that creates a broader and fairer playing ground.
And the best part is that it puts the power of publishing into the hands of the authors and readers, removing middle men who controlled what got published and what didn’t (which is kind of a scary thought).
A Living Example
In 2011, Hugh Howey self-published Wool, a short story, through Amazon’s Kindle Direct program. As it grew in popularity, he developed the story into a series (check out the complete Wool (Omnibus), and in 2012, he sold the film rights to 20th Century Fox. Film legends Ridley Scott and Steven Zaillian have both expressed interest in working on the project. Most recently, Howey entered a contract with Simon and Schuster, who will distribute Wool to retailers in the the US and Canada. And for the record, the contract allows Howey to continue distributing Wool online himself.
And Wool was never even rejected. Howey made a conscious decision to self-publish. Here’s what he said about self-publishing just a few days ago:
“I never shopped Wool to agents. After my first book release with a small press, I decided that self-publishing was for me. I never looked back. It wasn’t until agents and publishers began approaching me that I engaged in a dialogue. I actually predicted this before it happened. Over a year ago, I told anyone who would listen that every book should *begin* as a self-published work. Let it prove itself in the market and then allow agents and publishers to approach you. I was mocked for espousing this view, but it has now become more and more common. DBW recently posted a story about the 300 6-figure advances in 2012, and how 45 of them were for books previously self-published. That’s a healthy percentage.” (Source: Goodreads)
Of course, self-publishing isn’t for everyone, but it’s certainly an option all writers should explore. In upcoming posts, we’ll explore the benefits and drawbacks of both traditional and self-publishing.
Have you considered self-publishing or given any thought as to whether you want to choose traditional or self-publishing? Have you read any self-published works recently? Share your thoughts on self-publishing by leaving a comment, and keep writing!