The pitfalls of self-publishing, part 1

All right, I want to talk about self-publishing, and I have a lot to say about it, so I’m going to break it up over a few posts.  I don’t know how many; I ramble a lot.  But so many of my friends and colleagues are asking me why I don’t do it, particularly now that I’m shelving Solomon’s Archivist, that now’s as good a time as any to address it.

I want to be a little careful because a friend of mine recently self-published his novel (American Zeroes by John DiFelice; if you haven’t bought it yet, do it know; I’ll wait).  Now, I haven’t spoken to John about it, but I suspect, before he self-published, he sent a few query letters to a few agents.  Why can I make such a wild assumption?  Because in all the conferences and all the readings and all the countless conversations I’ve had with countless authors, published and otherwise, I’ve yet to meet one who’s said, “My novel is so brilliant, I’m not going to waste it on Random House!  They wouldn’t know what to do with it, anyway!”

What I have met, are people like me who have gone to conferences, had frank conversations with agents over a martini or cup of coffee or whatever, sent a LOT of queries to a LOT of agencies, and got rejected from everyone.  Unlike me, some of these people have then said, “The publishing industry is a racket!  I’m going to self-publish!”  Which may be perfectly valid.  Maybe the industry is a racket, and maybe self-publishing is a rational response.  My point is, I’ve yet to meet anybody who wouldn’t prefer to go the traditional route, if that route was open to them.

The reasoning for that is that agents, ostensibly, know things that aspiring writers do not.  To make a comparison to selling a play script, I’ve yet to sell a play that didn’t involve me buying a drink for someone.  Sure, some of it is me pitching things over a couple of beers, but you’d be surprised how many times I’ve been having a drink with an artistic director, and they say something like, “What I really need is a play about a dolphin,” and I happen to have a brilliant dolphin play in my drawer that I couldn’t sell five years ago.

I think agents are like that.  They hang out with publishers, and when they got drunk with Susan from XYZ Publishing at a Christmas party last year, she mentioned that she hasn’t read a thriller about a trapeze artist in a long time.  And then, coincidentally, you happen to send your trapeze artist murder mystery to that agent.  He makes a phone call, “Hey, Susan, you still looking for circus snuff books?”  Boom.  Sale.

And, yes, you do want a publishing house to handle your book.  Even a tiny, small-press imprint that no one’s ever heard of, because a microscopic marketing budget is still better than what you’ve got, which is a dream and a credit card.

So, in a perfect world, you want to sell your book to a publishing house.  And to do that, you need an agent.  And to get an agent, you have to have a book that an agent thinks he can sell in a reasonable amount of time.  And, in my opinion, authors who self-publish are authors who have not been able to convince an agent that their book will sell.  Like me.  That doesn’t mean that the agents are right, only that they aren’t convinced.  So what’s the rational response?

For me, it’s to write another book.  For others, it’s to fork over the dough (i.e., crack open the credit card) to self-publish.  There are reasons that looks like a good option, which I’ll address next time.

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