Writers have egos. Ten years ago (maybe more or less) there were few ways in which a writer might become self-published. The most popular being the “vanity” press. Today, it’s a different world. Print on Demand, E-books, blogs, and websites provide many low cost avenues in which to publish one’s work. But writers still have egos. And those egos require validation. We have not yet crossed over to a world where self published feels as meaningful as “Traditionally Published.” By which I mean someone pays you in advance for your work and then they go about all the laborious details of editing, formating and cover art. I often see writers “staying the course” in order to have Harper & Row or one of the other remaining publishing houses “discover” them.
It really is about self confidence. Traditional publishing means someone who “knows about this stuff” and thinks you have talent. It is an external validation of your ability to tell a good story. Self publishing on the other hand means that you have validated your own ability to tell a good story. In a way it’s like wanting to open a restaurant. Do you start your own or buy a franchise? The latter is like traditional publishing – you’re relying on someone else’s brand as a foundation for your own talents.
When I state that writers have egos, what I really mean is…we have some degree of self esteem issues when it comes to our work. “Is it good enough? Will people like it? What if no one buys it?” And of course the bigger, looming question – “If I self publish, am I a real author?” I have self published two novels and written thirty short stories. Honestly though, when Sanitarium magazine decided to publish one of my short stories that felt like a bigger moment. The reason is obvious – it was validation that my work reached an acceptable level for publication. Pretty dumb when one considers the positive reader reviews my novels have received. But I’m a writer – my work will never feel quite good enough. I’ll never be completely comfortable putting a piece of myself “out there.” And I’ll always need people to “like” my stories. I am no tortured artist who sees commercial success as detracting from my art. I write with the reader in mind. My goal is to tell a story that people love and of course, one that they buy. That doesn’t require a publishers validation – it requires readers’ validation. So lets explore the question of being a “real” author from a different view – history and changing attitudes.
In the beginning, all written works were “self published” to a degree. Ben Franklin ran his own small print press as did many others. Yes, there have been publishing houses since the 1700s, but many famous works appeared through the small print press…sort of like print on demand. The “business” of publishing grew in proportion to the levels of literacy. More readers simply meant more opportunity to make money. And where there is money, there are people willing to create industry. For a time, the publishing industry grew. In the past century the larger houses bought up the smaller ones. And for a while that lasted.
Today the traditional publishing industry has been gutted. Perhaps that is related to economics or perhaps it is because, much like Hollywood, someone is trying to “predict” what will sell and discounting anything they don’t believe will sell. The easiest way to make that prediction is to look at what has already sold and then repeat that over and over until no one buys it anymore…kind of like Top 40 Radio playing a song until you hate it. My point is that you cannot use a “publishers” attitude about the financial potential of your work to validate the value of your story (unless you are using the NY Times Bestseller list for your novel ideas). This is especially true of dark fiction. If you are Stephen King, then your story stands a good chance of traditional publication. Although even Stephen King at one time was told not to publish more than one book a year (which is why he invented Richard Bachman). If, however, you are not Mr. King then your “Horror Query Letter” will probably get a nice “thanks but no thanks” reply. There just isn’t a big bookstore market for “horror.” So if you don’t plan to change your writing genre than you need a better plan.
Times change. I doubt that the author of 50 Shades would have received a publishing contract without the support of fifty thousand ebook downloads. The popularity of her self-published work made it a good bet for publishers. Readers are still interested in reading – case in point, the success of Amazon. Yet B&N and the late Borders, struggle to make a profit. The reason for profit issues isn’t that people don’t buy books, the reason is that on-line book stores have a wider range of choices…because they can offer self published and small publishing house selections. Customer criticisms of books never, ever, have anything to do with “who published” the story. It is always related to the things that the author can control – plot, flow, and grammar. These are the core things that make you an author – not acceptance into the publishing house club.
An author is defined as, a person who writes a novel, poem, essay, etc.; the composer of a literary work. Self published authors are in fact real authors. A contract and a check certainly makes one feel more “official” but that is confusing external validation with the art of the craft. In neither scenario are you necessarily a great or even a good author. That judgment is made by readers not publishing houses. In truth, popularity is about marketing and marketing is something you can do better than publishing houses. A topic I will discuss in an upcoming post.
So yes, you are a real author if you meet the above definition. Being a “published” author requires that your work be available to the public. That no longer requires a publishing house. In fact, I never look at “who” published it. If I hate the story or it is poorly written I’m not going to hold Create Space responsible, I’m going to hold the author responsible. Am I suggesting we take a pass on publishing houses? Absolutely not. If they want to write me a check and don’t insist on scooping up my digital rights, I’ll sign. I am suggesting that if you have a story, don’t make the world wait until some finance guys thinks there is a large market for it. Be a published author and do it yourself. There are certain caveats to that which is what this blog site is about, but for now stop dreaming and start writing.
I can offer only this advice if you are still not convinced. Don’t try to write a book – just tell a great story and don’t rely on a shrinking (if not dying) publishing industry to validate your dream. If you write AND publish a book then you are an author…if people buy it then you are a good one too.