Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Is self-publishing too easy?

What is the value of difficulty?

It strikes me that self-publishing and traditional publishing, in terms of what these processes demand in terms of writing, are at opposite ends of the spectrum of difficulty.

Traditional publishing is all about difficulty—so much so, at times, that it seems designed to be difficult. You’ve written a book… and now you must query agents, and win an agent, and then that agent has to submit to editors, and then editors who like it have to submit to editorial boards, and editorial boards have to get the publisher to sign off, and the whole publishing company has to get excited about it and make the book, and then they have to sell it into bookstores in order to get it on the shelves… all this before a customer/reader ever sees the book. Jumping through hoops, some call it, and I’m sure we all sometimes feel like circus monkeys, leaping ever higher for that juicy banana.

But the basic fact is that there are far more writers than there are slots available in the traditional publishing world. There is a winnowing, and that winnowing is difficult and painful (though not always rational). Every step of that process, every new hoop, puts pressure on a writer. And the writer must meet these challenges, must jump through higher and higher hoops, if they want to be published.

The self-publishing process, on the other hand, is easy (again, just in terms of what the process requires of the writing; self-publishing brings a host of other difficulties into play—I mean, the formatting alone would probably kill me). There are no hoops in self-publishing. You have a piece of writing, and you decide to publish it. The end--assuming you have the money, chutzpah, and determination to go through with the process.

But what does this mean for writing?

I ask this because I think difficulty is important. I think difficulty is what pushes us. I think it’s uncommon to get to Great along the wonderful road of Easy. Not impossible, certainly, and some people will do just that. But not many. I think greatness is most often found on that ugly detour through the Town of Hardship and Toil.

Now, this is important: I’m not trying to say anything about the value of self-publishing, or the talent of self-published writers. Self-publishing is important, and perhaps vital and necessary. Traditional publishing is flawed. Frankly, a lot of people like to rake it over the coals, but it’s a human endeavor, and, like every human endeavor before it, traditional publishing is imperfect. We have to continue to make it better. And yet we also have to find a way for important voices to be heard, voices that have been missed or ignored by traditional publishers—voices that, without another option, would be lost to time, drifting in those dim places where dead voices gather and whisper of their what ifs.

Self-publishing is vital. My friend Renee has a book, and it tackles controversial subjects in a way that's possibly controversial . Would it have a chance with a traditional publisher? I can imagine how some of those risk/reward analyses might go. Self-publishing, on the other hand, offers an avenue into the public discourse (or a potential avenue, anyhow—audiences certainly aren’t guaranteed).

Or Neesha Meminger, who wrote what everyone said was a great book, and whose next book was not picked up. Suits, sitting in offices, fiddled with cuffs and collars and expensive shoes, fearful of low sales, fearful, perhaps, of books about brown people, and too lost in dreams of blonde vampires to see the audience out there, wating, waiting, waiting...

Traditional publishing is flawed. There are important voices that need to be heard, and self-publishing can give voice to silenced songs.

Yet I worry.

Some self-published writers will push themselves. They will push their craft to its limits, and find a way to write the best things they can.

But human nature, in general, is often like water: it seeks the path of least resistance. Why face rejection? Why face up to the No and the Not for me? Why try to push through a wall when a door is already open? How many writers, right now, are deciding to skip the traditional process? And how many of them will fail to live up to the possibility of their own stories?

Because there’s a reason we should face the rejection. It’s not nice to hear that No. But, if you listen really carefully, in the silence of your own head and heart, you will hear another No. And this is your own No. This is a No deep inside you, saying No, my book isn’t ready, it’s true, I can do better. It won’t be easy, but I can do better. And I will. Yes, I will.

That No leads to a Yes. A Yes inside, and perhaps, at some point, a Yes outside, too. A Yes to one hoop, and then another. But that first Yes is the most important. That one that says Yes, this is what I meant to write, and Yes, this is the best I can write it.

This, to me, is the value of difficulty.

It’s like with running (because I like running): you decide you want to be in the Olympics. You go out and you train for six months, running hard, three days a week. You get fitter and faster. You fly. You feel great. And then you go to a race full of Olympic hopefuls. You’re going to run the 1500m. You’ve been training for it. You’re fast.

The gun goes off, you run, and run, and you cross the finish line. You’re fast! You ran it in five minutes. The problem, of course, is that the other hopefuls all ran it in under four minutes. One guy even broke three and a half…

So what do you do?

The next week you hear about another race. Last year, no one ran this race under five and a half minutes. You can win this race. And you’re fast. Not many people can run 1500m in five minutes. You feel great. You’re healthy. Picking up this running thing was the best thing you ever did. You’re happy running.

What do you do?

Do you go to this other race? You’ll be successful. You’ll be fast and happy. Why not? There’s nothing stopping you. And it’s a great choice.

But maybe you’ll always wonder what it would be like to be in the Olympics.

And, the thing is, it’s not even about being in the Olympics. It’s not about winning a medal, or some idea of glory, or a tag you can put on your chest, or the title you put after your name on a business card. It’s about a simple question: how fast can you run?

You can go to the second race. You’ll be happy. But you could also look at those runners heading to the Olympics. Why were they faster? Were they simply better and more talented than you? Or are they going to the Olympics because they did not train for six months, but for sixteen years? Because they did not run three days a week, but seven? Because, perhaps, they put everything into their running, studying and training and endlessly searching out, step by step, the perfect biomechanical rhythms?

There are no wrong paths, no wrong choices. And it is not about self-publishing or traditional publishing. These are, in the end, rather fickle determiners. It’s about the writing. That, in the end, is all that really matters.

And perhaps, for some, it’s a moot point. Different writers have different wants for their writing. Not every writer will want to face the hardship and toil involved in learning to write the very best thing they can write. Many people will write something, love it, and simply want to share it.

There’s something wonderful about this, and something pure. This is the heart of writing: the desire to communicate, to share something.

And yet I believe, too, in writing as an art. I believe in the power of difficulty. Every year, running records are broken. We go faster and faster because something is pushing us, hurling us past our boundaries, past all the things that once held us back. We have something to reach for, a chance to find the best of ourselves. It is difficult, and perhaps impossible. And yet we run.

We do not know our potential until we try. Until we push ourselves. Until we find out what lies on the other side of difficulty.

I worry, in a world of self-publishing, that many writers capable of greatness will settle for good, or pretty good, or good enough. Some, certainly, will find greatness, will push themselves regardless of the influence of the worlds in which they move and write. But human nature is human nature, and it’s oh so easy to run downhill, oh so easy to settle, perhaps, without even knowing we're settling.

And yet a lot of writers in the traditional system, perhaps, would never reach this point. They would run that first race, see how far behind the other runners they were, and hang up their cleats. No Olympics, no local race. Just a few beers, more time on the couch, and those moments, in the silence of memory, when they recall the feel of the ground beneath their feet, that sense of floating, of flying, of running.

Perhaps self-publishing can keep dreams alive, can keep these people writing. But how will writers push their writing to new heights when it’s so easy to run downhill and the world is tilting ever southward?

What about you? I know some of you have self-published, and I’d love hear your thoughts (whatever the path you’ve chosen). What led to your choice? What has it meant to your writing? How do you push yourself, or is that even important? What does the difficulty of writing mean to you? And are you better for it?

And how fast can you run?


Ted Cross said...

I think this is an important point. In my experience, newer writers tend to hit points along the way when they honestly feel their work is ready. Then with some further learning, we realize that our book really isn't as ready as we thought it was. This can happen several times, as we keep editing and keep learning, and there comes a point when we begin to question our own judgement as to when a book will ever be ready. With traditional publishing we at least have some professionals helping us to understand when we have hit that point.

Matthew MacNish said...

You were doing great until you started talking about running. Always with the running. Can't you compare things to something else? Something easy? Like reality TV? Or video games?

It's too hard to read about running.

Steve Abernathy said...

Yes, it is to easy. Ease seems to be the reason most discussions about writing and publishing ranks "write a good book" at the bottom of aspiring writers' goals and desires. Hype is the most pressing concern, far as I can tell. Sad, really.

Conversely, to consider traditional publishing in 2011 as the apex of judgment in taste, critical analysis, acumen, talent nurturing, etc., is a bankrupt stand. Traditional publishing produces few worthwhile books, and that argument is harder to dispel than that they are functioning well, and thus discerning and difficult.

Motivation is what it is; lazy people will always turn out lazy books. One has to be able to spot good attempts that might have been better, and one should beware of making the best the enemy of the good. I'd take a whole lot of good over a smattering of greatness these days.

aspiring_x said...

great points, ink. all of them.

Erik said...

I decided to self-publish my novel last month. Writing the best book possible is very important to me, and a close second is finding an audience to read my book and evoke some kind of emotional connection to the reader. I realized that even if I went the traditional route, I'd have to do a majority of the marketing (blog, tweet, etc.). So why not get the higher royalty rate if I'm going to do all the work myself?

As far as pushing myself, I know I have a better chance of selling more books the better my writing is. Sure it's "easier" to self-publish, but if your goal is to sell books, whether traditionally or yourself, then you put your best product out there.

Scott said...

Another thoughtful post. I think many readers are also worried that a self-published work will be a poor effort.

You mentioned that in the end what's really important is the writing. I would say it's really all about the STORY. I believe the writing controls as much as 20% of a book's success, but at least 70% is due to the story.

Anyone calling him/herself a writer should turn out the very best writing possible, but in the end success is defined by how many people read your book, right? I mean, it's a public communication medium.

My rural public library invites local authors to speak, and each one piles a table full of their self-published books. None of them look like books I, or anyone I know, would actually read. I wish these authors, so full of heart and energy, could find a way to write things people wanted. Then they would find the success they crave.

The danger here is obviously that you will sell out to teen vampire mania. I believe the trick is to steer between that and unfortunate obscurity with your work.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

@ Ted

I agree. I think almost every writer goes through this, and there are points, when finishing a draft, that you say "There!"

But later on you realize you're not done yet. What do you do, though, if in that moment you actually published your story?

I think that's what I worry about in terms of self-publishing--writers selling their own stories short in those ecstatic (and usually temporary) moments of "I'm done!"

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

@ Matt

I'm going to stick to metaphors involving Nachos from now on.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

@ Steve

I generally agree. I do think laziness is often conquered not from within (or solely from within), but by outside factors that push you. I've known so, so, so many writers in workshop classes that would crank out writing during the workshop because they had a deadline, they had a teacher demanding something, but as soon as they were out of the workshop... the words dried up, and so did the desire to revise, and to make something better.

And though I don't like many things about the traditional system, or the choices they make, I still always seem to find a lot of great books to read...

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

@ aspiring x


Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

@ Erik

Thanks for chipping in.

Do you find it harder? How do you stay motivated to push yourself? Crit groups?

I really think one of the key things in the self-publishing age will be to find ways to push writers, to keep them moving rather than letting them stand still. Because, man, it can be hard.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

@ Scott

I agree, and by "writing" I really mean both the prose and the story. The two, for me, are hard to separate, as the story is only ever realized by the words on the page.

And I think one of the big problems that self-published writers will face are story problems. Crit groups and copyeditors can help clean up the small stuff, but those deep story issues often need a ton of work and a great editor, and those are hard to find.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

As usual, a thoughtful piece on a difficult (and timely!) subject.

All the dangers you cite are real. But even those Olympic runners ran local races - dozens of them, hundreds of them - on their way to becoming an Olympic star. If the only race they could ever run was the Olympics, well, that would hinder their path to greatness.

I think every writer has to keep striving, even ones who clear the traditional publishing hoops. What if you clear the hoops once, but then fail with the second book? I think that can be more devastating to your career than many other paths.

What if you self-publish, but garner no sales? Do those writers give up and stop writing? Or do they do better, write a better book, and then self-publish that?

I don't know the answer to that - I think it depends on the writers, as all of this does.

If you are a striver, you will strive. If you like the easy path, well, you won't find a whole lot of that in writing - or at least that path is fairly short.

Erik said...

Bryan--writing is hard either way. The only difference is when a story is ready I can have it available to readers in a matter of hours instead of months. And I'm even more motivated now to write the best story I can because I know for a fact that it will be in front of an audience instead of sitting on my hard drive hoping some agent will like it.

I don't belong to any crit groups, but I have a couple of writer friends. We help motivate each other and read and edit each other's WIPs.

But you're right. It's incredibly hard to stay motivated to write, but I don't think it's trad vs. self-pubbing issue (at least for me).

Marsha Sigman said...

How fast I run depends on whether someone is chasing me.

I'm a critical reader. Spotting the mistakes of others is something that comes pretty easy for me. But spotting my own is a little harder. I thought my first manuscript was great, a year later when I went back to read it...I realized it was shit.lol

I need someone to chase me so I will run faster, or write better. Self-pub. is not for me.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I guess it depends how professional the self-publisher and if they jump through all the proper hoops as well.
And I'm glad I never went the agent route. Just went straight to querying publishers.

Douglas Morrison said...

There is another concern with regard to self-publishing. It is very possible the inherent equality in traditional publishing (between those that have money and those that don't) may fade.
In e-publishing, a person that can afford to promote their work by hiring PR firms will seize greater sales from more wothy works. Though quality may ultimately rule the day, those initail lost sales will effect the overall quality in the e-book marketplace.
The world of e-publishing will call on authors to be marketers of their work on a greater scale.
So can money fix the race? How will an author offset an economic imbalance? Free Social Media and blogs like this one are key to creating word of mouth sales. I'm currently doing an article series to help bring some light into the PR and marketing world for authors and I hope it helps.
As always Bryan, great post!

M.A.Leslie said...

Hey Bryan,
I have to agree with you on your point. We, as you know, have self published a MG novel. While it has been fun and given us a taste of what the real thing is like, we are still seeking out an agent for other work.
On many levels I have found the selfpub to be an easier path with less barriers. I was able to spend a few hours formating for an EBook, then a PB. I pulled out a considerable amount of hair doing this, but not more then when I wait for responses from agents.
The difference is, and I don't know how others feel or what they are doing, but we are still trying to go the old route.

We haven't given up on the traditional way of getting published and we still get an inbox filled with form letters every day. But, I don't think it's made us run any slower. I know that I won't quit and I run just that much faster every day.

Thank you Bryan. As usual, you are an inspiration.

HGrant said...

You make some good points. Traditional vs. self-publishing is a complex subject.

Sorry for the length of this post.

I'm about to epublish a tiny book, 25 pages with 21 photos. I live in Gettysburg. My late husband was a nature photographer. Over a period of 10 years he took some photos of the battlefield that look like ghosts are in them. I'm not a ghost person -- I'm a skeptic -- but the photos and a few things that happened to us here are uncanny. So I wrote a tiny book for fun (and as a way to honor my husband). The photos are all in color. Make them black and white and some of the images disappear into the background. Color printing would be too expensive, so an ebook is the way to go.

I paid an professional to create the cover. I wanted one of my husband's photos on the front, the cover artist discussed my budget, and he came up with a fantastic, affordable cover -- and I could have a say about everything, which wouldn't happen in traditional publishing.

Right now another professional is formatting the manuscript, which is tricky because of the photos. My entire expense: $575.
My wait for the cover: 3 days.
My wait for the formatting/design: 6 weeks.
Compare this to traditional publishing.
Cover: no say
Wait for formatting/design: probably a year
Chance of a publisher buying it: zero, because of the color expense

I used to be against self-publishing because of the issues you raise -- number one, the quality of writing.

Now, I don't know.

Compare writing to art. What if artists could only exhibit and sell their paintings, sculptures, and photos in a handful of prestigious museums and galleries. In the real world, artists who want to exhibit in these places go through a submission process that's similar to the one writers go through -- they send slides and wait a year or two.

But a lot of artists don't want to go through that. They want to go on with life. So thousands of smaller galleries exist. Artists can also show their work in cafes and bookstores.

I think writers should have the same opportunities. Lots of people have stories to share. In the end, the readers will decide.

Matthew MacNish said...

BTW I hope this isn't related to anything you're seriously considering doing yourself.

If you gave up on getting published traditionally I would have to go pull a Charlie Sheen. Except I wouldn't end up winning.

chrysoula said...

The problem is in the idea that 'publication' is the finish line. That what challenges us is the acceptance of an editorial board, and that being able to produce your own ebook for sale takes away from that.

But-- the real finish line is in the hands of the readers. If you keep your eyes focused there, I don't think you can ever run out of challenges.

Jessica Bell said...

Right, so, tough question for me because I've done both. Novel published traditionally, Poetry collection self-pubbed. Mind you, I could never have summoned the nerve to self-publish my poetry collection with having first been traditionally published, simply because I didn't believe in myself enough until the contract boosted my self-esteem.

There are many reasons I self-published the poetry. A few being ...

One: I didn't have time to wait for a publisher to accept it due to being invloved in a peotry event this July. I needed something to bring with me.

Two: I don't believe any publisher would have pubilshed it. It's too dark. Some content could be classed as offensive.

Three: I'm confident that the collection is the best best best it could ever be. I'm proud of it. And I don't care about making money off it. I just want to share it with those who are willing.

With the novel, on the other hand, there is no way I could have ever self-published my debut. I needed validation. Traditional publishing gave me that. I think more writers should push themseves to attain that goal. It does wonders for your confidence!