The decision to self publish can be tough. For some of us, it follows months of pursuing the traditional route, trying to stay buoyant through multiple rejections and dozens of rewrites, catering to the expressed or implied preferences of industry professionals and beta readers. A few authors eschew the big five and smaller independent presses before even attempting this gauntlet.
Once I’d gotten my memoir, Tin Can Shrapnel, into the best shape I could, I looked at both options. Being an agent myself gave me a little leverage, but not as much as you might expect. I sent out a few submissions in the US but focused on major South African publishers. All of them expressed interest after seeing the proposal and sample chapters. But I knew the odds of one of them throwing their weight behind the book were slim, and made the decision to self publish anyway, for a number of reasons.
The memoir explores a year of history that few South Africans want to relive, a shameful time that reverberates still and reminds us of the often volatile, violent nature of that society. South African expats on the other hand, those who migrated to first world countries across the world, might read it and give thanks that they no longer live in Africa. This was confirmed by the rejections that came in. One house expressed the concern that it would be difficult to market a memoir to South African readers when the author is based in the US, as successful sales depend on physical presence. Another publisher, whose list includes many contentious titles, continues to review the manuscript, but I chose not to wait. I believe the story must be told, and I know too that it’s one of universal truth that transcends geographical borders.
Here are a few pros and cons of both traditional and self publishing options:
- Perceived credibility. There’s no question that the backing of a reputable house boosts platform and confidence, both key elements to a writer’s success. This is changing though, as more good writers fall through the cracks of a saturated market and choose to manage their own careers. The stigma originally attached to self publishing is swiftly wearing off as readers and traditional houses begin to respect the authors who take up this challenge. Self publishing is not for the fainthearted, and the major houses, recognizing how many great titles they’re missing, have literally bought into this option. For better or worse, Penguin Random House now owns Author Solutions, a controversial vanity press that merits a blog post of its own.
- Access to ‘heavyweight’ prizes and fellowships. This relates to credibility, and some contests are only accessed by or bestowed on traditionally published books. The National Book Award does not accept self published entries, unless the writer publishes the work of other authors too. The Man Booker Prize, originally only open to writers from Ireland, the UK and Commonwealth nations, is now open to authors who write in English from across the world, but novels must be submitted by a UK publisher. Across the board these conditions are changing too, and now even the Pulitzer considers self published work, as long as the book is available in paperback. There are many more awards which we can explore in another post.
- Financial advances. It’s true that in order to write, we have to be able to breathe, and an advance of several thousands of dollars allows us to take a few deep breaths. Who would turn down six or seven figures? However, these types of advances are rare and some border on the paltry, challenging the writer to survive through weeks of rewrites and numerous months before the book comes out. An advance is also delivered in stages and must be earned out later through sales of the book. Essentially, the author must pay it back in royalties before any further money is earned. The self published writer can pay as little as zero to publish a novel and can receive unencumbered royalties within a few months.
- Marketing and distribution. Established writers continue to benefit from the backing of major houses who budget for books at the top of their lists to reach as broad an inter/national audience as possible. But these hefty budgets apply to very few, and much of the marketing is becoming the author’s province. More emphasis is placed on platform now than ever before. Where distribution is concerned, it’s hard to compete with the channels open to traditional houses, but even in this regard digital and print options are blossoming for the self published author; all you need is the skill to navigate the options (which can be acquired through accessing dozens of blogs on the subject by authors who’ve gone before us), confidence in your book and some access to affordable financial resources.
The good news? As more avenues open up for writers to develop a readership, gone are the days of an author’s book having to languish at the bottom of a drawer. Notwithstanding the challenges and choices that sometimes overwhelm us, the impetus to write can be stronger than ever before. Once we’re able to overcome or avoid the perception of defeat on the gauntlet most traveled, choosing our own path in the realm of self publishing can be acknowledged as a triumph.
Next up: The Writer’s Emotional Demons