The other day on Twitter, I posted
So many authors make it out like self pub is the only smart way, but if you don't love business, you're going to have a bad time as an indie.— Rachel Aaron/Bach (@Rachel_Aaron) August 29, 2016
I originally wrote this as the second part of a response to someone replying to Trav's (awesome) business post about the mechanics of a commercially successful series. The commenter in question had mentioned that business posts were basically intimidating, and I absolutely agree. Big pages of numbers and math can be very intimidating if you're unfamiliar with them, but part of self publishing is getting familiar with stuff like this. This is the business part of the self-publishing business, and if you hate it, then maybe self publishing isn't for you, and that's cool. There's tons of other ways to get your book out there! No big deal.
That's all I was trying to stay. I didn't think it was anything special or incendiary, just the facts as I saw them, and yet this tweet got a lot more attention than I expected. At first, I wasn't sure why. It's hardly my most eloquent statement. But then I realized what I saying--that it's okay to choose not to self publish if that's not what works for you--was actually kind of radical in its own weird, publishing politics way.
So (since I didn't have anything else to talk about today) I thought I'd take a look at why that is, and what it means for all of us as individual writers. Onward!
Writing Wednesday: Know Thy (Publishing) Self
If you've spent any time (and I do mean any time) researching your publishing choices on the internet, you've probably seen someone telling you that there is only one smart way to go, and if you choose anything else, you're wasting your writing, your money, and your time. Sometimes this is said very politely with lots of excellent case studies showing exactly why one publishing path is better than the other. Other times you're flat out told you're a moron who's being swindled if you don't do as the author in question suggests.
No matter how it's said, though, there is always an opinion one way or the other. Pretty much every writer you ask, whether they're a multiply published veteran or someone who's only one chapter into their first book, has very definite ideas about which is better: trad or self.
Whenever you have a topic this divisive, there's going to be conflict. Even though most authors (with a few loud exceptions) are extremely polite, reasonable, and eloquent about their thoughts on the subject, picking a side for yourself can still feel like an emotional decision rather than one based in fact. This is especially true if one of your favorite authors is an outspoken supporter of one camp or another. When that happens, choosing anything else can feel like a betrayal. Even if the one choice makes sense for your situation, if someone you respect and like so much is constantly calling what you're considering stupid, it's only natural to think "am I being dumb? Am I actually throwing my writing future away if I do this?"
This is the part of the self pub vs. trad pub debate that I hate the most. Not the discussion--that's very good, very necessary, and a great tool for bringing to light the pros and cons of each path--but the absolute division. The constant refrain--sometimes boldly shouted, sometimes tacitly implied--that the other side isn't just wrong, they're dangerously, career wreckingly wrong. That if you sign with a traditional publisher, they'll hit you with an abusive contract to take all your money and keep your rights forever. Or if you self publish your first novel and it flops, no traditional publisher will ever look at you again.
To be clear, this isn't fear mongering. Both of the examples above can and do happen, but they're also both worst case scenarios, and that's what makes the question of what you should do with your novel so difficult. Because the truth is that both trad and self publishing have horrible pitfalls and incredible heights. Neither of them is easy and nothing is guaranteed. So how do you know which is right for you?
This is the point where pretty much every respectable publishing advice blog will say some version of "the right choice depends on you and what you want from your career." I've actually said that exact thing in my own post about self publishing and money. But what does that actually mean? If you've never published a book and never had a publishing contract and never worked with a publishing house, how do you know what's actually right for you? After all, whatever you choose, you're going to be locked into that decision for that title for years, maybe even forever.
That's not a choice to be made lightly! But while there are plenty of blogs that talk about the practical differences between the two (including mine! Click here for my Authors & Money posts on trad vs self), in my experience, the real difference between the two isn't actually in the business, but in what each one expects from you, the author.
That's what this blog post is really about. Every publishing blog under the sun (again, including this one) has posts about the practical, business differences between trad and self like royalty rates, contracts, marketing, and so forth. But while all that stuff is really important, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter how great the numbers are if you, the author, are unhappy with your choice. You could succeed beyond your wildest dreams in either self publishing or trad, but if that path's version of success doesn't match yours, then it doesn't matter.
In the end, this isn't a really choice of which publishing road is better. It's about which one is better for YOU, and the only way to figure that out is to figure yourself out.
Again, no small feat! "Know thyself" is a life long journey. But as someone who's seen the ups and downs of both the self pub and traditional publishing paths, maybe I can help put this old, bitterly contested question into a more personal light.