Unless you have been living under a rock for the past decade, you can’t have failed to notice that the publishing industry has experienced significant changes during this period. The advent of the e-reader and, subsequently, the ebook market that online retailer, Amazon, was at the forefront of establishing has been a disruptive game changer.
Once upon a time, the traditional publishers were the sole gatekeepers of the publishing world. What we were able to read was ultimately decided by the publishers because they determined which authors, and which books got published. Today, this is no longer the case. The new status quo, ushered in by the ebook revolution, has created new opportunities for authors and readers alike. Self-publishing is now very much a viable alternative to traditional publishing, providing options that weren’t previously available.
It wasn’t so long ago that people could dismiss self-publishing, out of hand, as vanity publishing. Many such people did (and some still do) regard self-publishing as the last resort of the writer who isn’t good enough to have their work published traditionally. The attitude responsible for this snobbery is much harder to defend today. Increasing numbers of independent authors are forging credible careers for themselves, some of whom are genuinely able to earn a living from their writing. Advocates for self-publishing now have several success stories to point to who have become established names in their genre. Those of us who read a lot can probably name at least one such author who achieved commercial or critical success (or both) taking the self-published route; be it Amanda Hocking, Hugh Howey, Andy Weir, Michael J. Sullivan or Anthony Ryan.
The intent of this post is not articulate the pros and cons of self-publishing and traditional publishing, or to advocate for one over the other; objectively, both have their merits and drawbacks. In truth, I was motivated to write this post because this topic has been brought into sharp focus for me in recent weeks, after completing the final draft of my soon-to-be debut novel. In that time, I’ve come to realise (from my point of view), the choice between being self-published or traditionally published is no choice at all. Rather than being the last resort, I view self-publishing as the first choice for me, and that is why I have decided to publish my novel independently.
My choice was prompted by a number of factors, but all of these reasons ultimately boiled down to one thing: Control. As for why that is important to me, I assure you it’s not because I am a control freak; it has more to do with my awareness that the only thing in life any of us have control of, is our own actions. Consequently, I have always been reluctant to relinquish control of whatever I do, even in circumstances where there is no other choice. If you are now wondering what exactly I mean by control, allow me to elaborate.
Having read and heard numerous accounts of how other authors got published for the first time, it is readily apparent to me that once a manuscript has been acquired by a traditional publisher, the writer subsequently has little to no input in how or when the book is published. So right off the bat, going the traditional route entails having minimal, or no involvement in how my work is marketed and distributed. Some writers no doubt consider this a good thing, and are perfectly happy to leave the principal marketing of their work in the expert hands of other people, allowing them to focus their energies on writing. But speaking for myself, I have such a strong aversion to having other people be in control of any part of my life, I could never be truly happy with this scenario.
My attachment to my creative writing is such that, not only would I want input into when and how my work is published, I could not accept anything less than complete control of this. Forgoing traditional publishing in favour of self-publishing ensures that I never have to relinquish the level of control I desire. I can decide on something as mundane as the artwork for my books, or something more important like publication dates. In fact, by default, all decision making in regard to marketing strategy would be entirely in my hands, from beginning to end. I, and I alone, get to determine what kind of advertising is appropriate, which platforms to utilise, as well as identifying, then targetting the right audience for my work.
Even more important to me than marketing control, is the matter of creative control. This issue is perhaps the principal reason why I can’t imagine myself ever becoming a contracted author for a traditional publishing house. I don’t know how common this is, but I have heard from a surprising number of authors who have been traditionally published, stories of publishers suggesting (sometimes even insisting upon) changes being made to their manuscripts if they want their book to be published. What most of these accounts had in common is that the requested changes were not the result of a desire to improve a story, but rather to increase the sales potential of the finished work. Whether or not this is a good thing (for authors to be asked to alter their creative vision by changing the gender or ethnicity of a character, adding or removing a relationship dynamic, increasing or decreasing the amount of sex and profanity) is for other people to decide, though there is an obvious argument to be made that publishers shouldn’t be begrudged this prerogative. After paying for the acquisition of a manuscript, the publisher also takes on the financial burden of editing and cover design, as well as the responsibility of marketing the final product to distributors and booksellers, so maybe it’s not a surprise that they might want a say, creatively.
Being a writer who could never accept being told that the direction of my story should not go one way, because the marketing department says more copies will be sold if it goes another way, my decision to favour self-publishing over traditional was greatly influenced by my recollection of John D. Brown’s experience with a traditional publisher. Back in 2013, I read a post on his website in which he announced that he had requested to be released from his contract with Tor Books, while he was writing the second book of his Dark God series. When I initially heard about the contract termination, before I actually read Brown’s announcement, I remember how surprised I was that any author would want to leave one of my favourite fantasy/science fiction publishers. However, once I finished reading the blog post (that you can read for yourself, HERE) I found it easy to understand what prompted his decision. If an author and publisher are having what is known as “creative differences,” it doesn’t make sense to me for compromises to be made that leaves one or both sides dissatisfied with the end result. I really admire Brown’s courage in doing what was in the best interest of his creative vision, by asking to be released from his contract and reacquiring the rights to his series, allowing him publish the books independently.
In addition to having complete control over all creative output, and the subsequent marketing of that work, one of the most attractive aspects of self-publishing (in my view) is the greater flexibility it affords authors in how quickly a completed manuscript is published. I actually consider this to be one of the genuine advantages self-publishing has over its rival; the traditional publishing industry moves at a glacial pace. All publishing houses have a set number of titles they will publish over the course of a year, so inevitably they have to determine which of their numerous acquisitions to prioritise for publication in any given year, as they can’t feasibly publish every manuscript they acquire. One of the consequences of this situation is that authors ultimately have no control of how soon their books get published. Once upon a time, I used to be surprised when hearing an author mention how many years passed between the time their manuscript was sold to a publisher, and the time the book subsequently went on sale. I now know this to be the norm, and one more reason for me to give preference to self-publishing; traditional publishing cannot match the speed and immediacy afforded by self-publishing. When an independent author has a completed manuscript ready to be published, the book can be made available for purchase very rapidly.
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention the financial argument for choosing self-publishing. Being a writer is a vocation that generally doesn’t pay very well. Unless you are one of the lucky few, you’re not going to become a multi-millionaire. Even for traditionally published authors who are successful enough to make a living from their writing, the number of middlemen involved in getting their work published and sold, usually results in the lion’s share of revenue generated from book sales ending up in the pockets of other people. Self-publishing makes it possible to drastically reduce the number of middlemen between authors and their readers, thereby increasing the percentage of revenue that goes to the author, since fewer people are entitled to a piece of the pie.
Hopefully, what has preceded has given a clearer idea of what I mean by control. All that being said, my belief that self-publishing is a better fit for me doesn’t mean I’m opposed to traditional publishing. In fact, the one area where traditional publishing would make sense for for me is in the sale of translation rights. Even if I possessed the language skills necessary to translate my writing into a dozen or more languages, the time it would take to do so makes it an impractical option. For that reason, I will always be open to having my work acquired by traditional publishers in non-English speaking territories.
So, that concludes my outlook on self-publishing; I view it as the first choice rather than a last resort. What about you? Are you a self-published author? If so, why did you choose to self-publish? I’d love to hear your reasons, so feel free to comment below.