The Self-Publishing Conundrum

I go back and forth when thinking about self-publishing.

That’s probably not the best way to open a post about the subject, but there you have it. A few years back I had written several short stories, only one of which managed to get picked up for publication. So I compiled them all and made a little book on Lulu.com to give to friends and family. It was even available on Amazon.com for a while. Nothing special, and I hadn’t done it with the idea to make a bunch of money or get my name out there. It was more that I felt like I needed to get those stories out of the way so I could do something else. I wanted them settled.

That book (The World Ends at Five) is no longer available. But I later had trouble when some markets showed interest in my stories, only to drop them when they considered them “previously published” just because I’d made a dozen books on Lulu. So in that light, I have to say I would probably only consider self-publishing again if I couldn’t get an agent or publisher interested first.

But then again . . .

Some works just don’t have a handy niche. A lot of my work is like that. People say, “What do you write?” and I’m like, “A little of everything.” A lot of my stories have a surreal bent. They’re not fantasy in the sword-and-sorcery sense, but they do involve magic or magical realism or alternate universes. It’s a pretty specific market with a limited number of outlets.

And then I’ve also written Sherlock Holmes stories. And a novella about a gay spy. And I’m working on a novel that appears to be a contemporary rom-com with a paranormal twist. (So . . . “paranormal romance” but not any of that over-the-top vampire/werewolf/ghost stuff.) And so some of this stuff ends up being not all that easy to place. And agents ask, “What do you write?” and I say, “A little of everything,” and they don’t know what to do with me. How do you market an author who skips around like that? So maybe self-publishing IS the way to go, not because it’s a last resort, but it’s more or less my only one.

Of course, then there’s the stigma. The whole idea that the only reason a person self-publishes is because they’re terrible writers “real” publishers won’t touch.

The problem with any stereotype is that it becomes a stereotype because it is (or at one time was) in some ways true. So yes, there are a lot of self-published authors who really could use some heavy editing. There are self-published authors who misspell and use terrible grammar and whose sentences hardly make sense for having been put together upside down and backwards. I know they exist because I’ve seen some of their books.

The idea, then, is that “real” publishers act as literary strainers: the good stuff gets through, the dirt and silt and impurities are kept out. But unfortunately, the mesh of the publishing houses is so fine, many good things also get kept out. And sometimes a little dirt gets through anyway. In other words, the system isn’t perfect.

And so there are some good self-published books out there. Even authors who have had success with traditional publishers are trying the self-pub route. And as it becomes easier for authors to do it themselves—therefore enabling authors to keep more of the money besides—there will continue to be an increase in solid self-published material.

The trick will be to find it. The good self-published books and e-books, that is. Now that every author markets themselves on Facebook and Twitter, it gets more and more difficult to weed one’s way through the blitz of status updates and Tweets. I’ll admit I’m still a little biased, still not terribly inclined to go check out a self-pubbed book or e-book unless I read a great review of it or a friend (better yet, more than one) recommends it. There are a lot of books out there, many I want to read, so to earn a spot on my stack, it needs to be pretty spectacular.

Wading through it all is like surfing the Web. There’s a lot of junk. Most of it can be ignored. And there’s more I don’t even know exists and I don’t really want to know, either. I have my select sites that I rely on. And every now and then someone says, “This site is cool,” and I check it out. And if it really is cool, it becomes a site I go back to regularly. The same rule applies to books and authors. I have authors I like, and subject matter I’m interested in, and writing styles I dig. I go back to those things. And if someone says, “Well, if you like so-and-so you’d probably like . . .” or “I read a new book about [interesting subject here],” then I might look into it. But some random person repeatedly shoving their book under my nose on Twitter probably isn’t going to sway me. In part because I’m pretty sure if/when I had/have a book to market, they wouldn’t bother with me, either. (That’s the problem with social marketing: everybody shouting and nobody listening. But that’s another topic.)

Let’s take fan fiction as an example. Years ago, fan writers had to submit their fics to fanzines devoted specifically to their chosen shows/genres. In that way, fanzine editors acted much as traditional publishers; they guarded the gates, made sure the best stories got through, or at least fixed the spelling errors. But then we came to the point where just about everyone had access to the Internet—hell, fanboys and -girls were some of the earliest adopters—and fan fiction began to pop up online. Everywhere. On collective sites like FanFiction.net, or on people’s personal sites, just . . . wherever. And it became impossible to find good fanfic any more because so much of it was just awful. (Sorry, folks, but seriously.) One had to shuffle through, or find a forum that had some recommendations, and those might or might not be any good based on whether you and whoever was making the recommendation had the same taste. (Kind of like whether you and a film critic agree; if you can find one you see eye-to-eye with, you’re in good shape following his or her recommendations on what to see—or not.)

So. Where does this leave self-publishing? Now that just about anyone can make an e-book, just like anyone can post a fanfic, it simply takes that much more work to find the good stuff. And makes it that much easier for an author and his/her work to get lost in the shuffle. I find that frustrating. Maybe because I’m not a marketing person, and so I know if I did self-publish something, it probably wouldn’t get me very far. But then again, even authors who get a traditional publisher might not get very far. It’s tough being a writer no matter which direction you go.

In the end, I wouldn’t rule out self-publishing. I’d like a few more traditionally published or produced pieces under my belt first, though. Credentials. Hey, if we’re now all in the self-marketing biz, I need to “establish my brand.” Or whatever.

Never mind. I’m going back to writing now.

Published by

M

Writer/Screenwriter

2 thoughts on “The Self-Publishing Conundrum”

  1. I’ve thought long and hard about self-publishing too. I have a few friends that do pretty good with it. They push really hard in promoting themselves too. I’m going to dip my toes in the water with it this year with some novellas. Novellas are difficult to sell to a publisher anyway. Yet I would prefer to have my novels picked up by a publisher. I’m not sure how well I’ll be able to do the self-promoting thing and keep it up as self-published authors need to do.

    1. Let me know how the novellas work out for you. (I just submitted mine to Amazon Kindle Singles, but I’m considering going the self-pub route if they turn it down.) I think it’s difficult to go out and promote yourself without becoming irritating. You really need word of mouth as opposed to doing it all yourself. Which means you need friends and family—and hopefully readers!—who will get the word out for you.

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