Some thoughts on self-publishing

There is a lot of discussion about self-publishing on the Intewebs these days, and it is almost always in the context of the the seemingly imminent collapse of the traditional publishing models. There have been a number of recent self-publishing success stories, the most prominent of which is probably that of Amanda Hocking. She is not the only one, of course. I know another writer who has had a similar experience to hers, who has been offered a major deal by a New York publisher, but who remains a strong proponent of the self-publishing model. It is clear that self-publishing is no longer the ugly step-child of the publishing industry, the way it was when most self-publishing centered around vanity publishers. And I think there will come a point in nearly every writer’s career when they will need to take a position on self-publishing. I haven’t said much on this subject here, but since I talked about it at length last night with several other writers, it seems that I should discuss my position on self-publishing.

At this stage of my career, self-publishing is not for me.

I want to be clear that I am not opposed to the idea of self-publishing on principle, but for me specifically, it is not an approach that I am currently interested in taking and I have three reasons for this. Two of the three reasons I think are clear and make perfect sense. I don’t expect many people to understand my third reason, but I will put it out there anyway.

  1. I don’t write novels. I am short story writer. I love the short story form. I have tried writing novels, and they are very tough. It might be that with some practice I could end up writing a decent novel. But the two or three attempts I’ve made at writing a novel have not been fun for me. I want this writing thing to be fun and I really do have fun writing short stories. Now, when people speak of self-publishing, they are generally talking about novels, and even series of novels. I don’t usually hear “self-publishing” and “short fiction” in the same sentence. I could be wrong. But even if I am, I have had some minor success publishing short fiction through traditional short fiction publishing channels, so why bother with self-publishing?
  2. I don’t write to make a living. I sometimes feel guilty about this. Many full-time writers I know are really struggling to make ends meet. They worry about paying the rent, paying for daycare, paying for health insurance. They write to provide the basic necessities. Meanwhile, I have a full time job and Kelly has a full time job and those jobs allow us to pay our bills, provide insurance. The money I make from writing amounts to pin money. That said, the best money I ever earned was from the stories that I have sold. My point is that I don’t think I ever intended to write for a living. First of all, you can’t make a living writing short fiction, and as I pointed out in #1, I don’t write novels. The writers who have been very successful with self-publishing point out that you can make a lot of money, eventually quit your day job and write full time. The truth is, even if I wrote novels, and even if I got a big deal through a traditional publisher, I doubt I’d quit my day job to write full time. I like the security blanket. But it is a moot point. I don’t write to make a living and that was never my intent in anything but wild daydreams.
  3. I want to be like my heroes. This is where I think I will lose most people. When I decided I wanted to be a science fiction writer, part of the reason was because I wanted to be just like those heroes of mine who I read in the pages of Astounding/Analog, and Asimov’s and Fantasy and Science Fiction and many other magazines. I didn’t want to be just a writer. I wanted to be a science fiction writer. And I didn’t want to be just a science fiction writer, but I wanted towrite short stories. And I didn’t just want to write short science fiction stories, but I wanted to be one of the best short science fiction writers. I’ve since realized that while I do the best I possibly can, I won’t likely be one of the best. In any event, to be like these heroes of mine, I need to go through the process in the same way they did: start out as a fan, write some stories, submit them to the magazines, get published, start making a name for yourself, and then maybe, maybe try my hand at writing a novel. But because my heroes didn’t self-publish, I can’t either. I have to go through the gate-keepers, because going through the gate-keepers and being accepted by the gate-keepers is the only way I have for saying to myself, I did it, just like they did! This may seem like a completely silly, or even egotistical reason for avoiding self-publishing, but it’s what I’ve got and it is important to me that I do things this way, and beyond what I’ve said, I don’t think I need to explain it or justify it further. I am comfortable with my approach and that is really all that matters in the end.

A careful reader will note that in #1, I say that I don’t write novels and in #3 I talk about submitting through traditional publishers because that’s the way my heroes did it. It’s a contradiction, right? Well, maybe. As I said, I like writing short stories. I hope that over time, I will improve in this, sell a lot more short stories and get to the point where it would seem I have a reasonable chance of selling a novel if I chose to write one. In that case, I might consider taking the time to do it and attempt to go through the traditional publishing model to get the novel published. I can see how this approach seems a little cowardly, I suppose. But I look at it like this: it would probably take me a year or more to write a novel and during that time, I wouldn’t be able to write short stories which is what I really love doing. In order for me to give up writing short stories, the possibility of a novel sale would have to be pretty strong. But the fact is that right now, I can’t even consistently sell short stories. I still need practice there and I think I’d much rather spend the little time I have for writing, trying to improve myself as a short story writer, producing more stories–better stories–making more story sales, and building a name for myself as a short fiction writer.

The truth is, I have already done more in science fiction than I ever imagined I could. What more could I ask for?

All of this is my lengthy explanation of why self-publishing is not for me: I don’t need it for short fiction because I’m already selling them. And I don’t need it for novels because I don’t write them. As to the future of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing: I don’t know enough about either to say one way or the other. But I’d liken the battle to something like political scientists see in party politics with Duverger’s Law. Traditional publishing will be forced to make some concessions as self-publishing becomes an increasingly viable option. But self-publishing has a number of real problems to address: lack of advances, lack of distribution (outside electronic forms), lack of publicity departments. Whatever happens, it will be interesting to see it unfold.

5 thoughts on “Some thoughts on self-publishing

  1. You don’t need to defend your decision not to self publish. SP is slowly losing its stigma, but it’s not like the ‘traditional’ route now has a stigma … and to be honest, you make it sound like it does. It is not like you are suddenly an outcast or anything because you stay off the Kindle hype :).

    As for short stories don’t get self published. Well, I actually think short stories are very good for self publishing them as an ebook. Because the market for short stories is not that big.

    You have sold a few stories to magazines. But what about the stories you didn’t sell? What about the stories, that have been sold but for which you got the rights back?

    Put them together in an Anthology and put them up on Kindle. There is no need for them to collect dust in a drawer. They won’t get you enough money to make a living, but they might get you SOME money.

  2. Frank, I didn’t intent to come across as making it sound as if the traditional route had a stigma. But I did write this post shortly after a hot barroom debate on the topic with some folks who were very pro-self-publishing so I was probably still defensive from that. 🙂

  3. I think that there is going to be a very strong component of short story fiction involved with self-pub and e-publishing.

    What to do with the story after it runs in a mag and appears in the anthology or collection?

    Put it up as a .99 cent self-pub e-pub.

    In regards to the general topic here: I’m a strong proponent of tradition, believe that (good) gatekeepers are a necessity, and believe that all of that will eventually go away in favor of allowing a generally uneducated public to amuse themselves with both writing and reading drek. Good writers will find something else to do after they get sick and tired of seeing their professional work unfavorably compared to crap by a majority who is incapable of discerning the difference.

  4. Steve, I did that with my first published story. It originally appeared at InterGalactic Medicine Show, but I recently made it freely available on my site, or $0.99 on the Kindle.

    But I am completely with you on the good gatekeepers. If a story I write doesn’t make it through the gatekeepers, I’m very reluctant to self-publish because it means by our industry’s judgment, it’s not up to standards, and I don’t want to put below par stuff out there (I worry enough about that with the stories I do manage to sell). I suspect that the short fiction market will be less affected for the simply reason that you can’t make a whole lot of money writing short fiction. I’d expect there to remain a stable market of professional and good quality semi-pro publications, to say nothing of the original and reprint anthology market. No one I know who has made a name for themselves coming from the self-publishing world has done so through short fiction. Unfortunately, you may be right about novels. You’d think the traditional publishing industry would see the light here and make some concessions, considering them an investment in their own future. But I think they are in panic mode and holding their ground.

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