This post was edited 8:07 PM for clarity.
Yeah – everyone and their mother keeps writing these silly articles telling everyone they’re going to tell them some great reality of being a self-published author. Something that everyone else is afraid to tell them. Then they lament about how authors have to write a good book, put out an awesome product, and market the book themselves! Oh heavens! For me none of that is a huge secret.
Of course I can see where people new to the whole publishing game might think self-publishing is easy, then find themselves seriously disappointed when it doesn’t pan out (or they discover it’s a lot of work). Though I suspect many of those new to the publishing game probably aren’t going to be running around the web reading “reality” articles either.
The new technology and popularity of e-readers isn’t only making it easier than ever to self-publish. It also makes it easier than ever for anyone to start their own small presses to make money off of noob writers. So while for someone like me (who writes a lot of controversial stuff not fit for mainstream publishers) the whole do-it-yourself model is a blessing, whereas for other writers it could be a total nightmare. I had a bad publisher once-upon-a-time.
How about I give you some REAL reality about the writing life (self-published and traditional) ? I’m going to be blunt and say it in a way that most people won’t.
Besides, I can say whatever I want here and no one can censor me. Some of this might be stuff I’ve written about in other posts. If so – sorry for the repetition, but obviously it bears repeating.
1. A huge percentage of the population actually thinks they could write a book or be a writer. The majority of them are WRONG. Most people can’t write their way out of a box. It takes more than being able to string together some sentences, use good grammar, and spell correctly to be a good writer. So it’s great that you got all A’s in English. Good for you. Now you have to learn craft. While someone can have an innate ability for writing it is still a learned skill and like any skill, must be practiced and honed.
Along that same vein I’ve had friends who tried their hand at writing because they figured if I was doing it then it couldn’t be *that* hard. Just because you think you’re as smart as authors you’ve known (or smarter than authors you’ve known) doesn’t necessarily mean you can do what they do. It also doesn’t mean you’ve put in the time they have. Sure – maybe you’ll get lucky and the first book you pen will be famous and you’ll blow everyone else’s books out of the water. However, it’s not likely. Just as an example – I’ve been writing stories since I was about eight. I’ve been penning novels just as long. I’ll be thirty-nine next month. You do the math. Most of the published and successful writers I know have a similar back-story. We’ve all been writers for many years or at least the majority of our lives. It’s not just something we pulled out of our ass one afternoon when we were bored.
2. Building an audience on your own, from scratch, takes time. If I told you how many hours I spend a week marketing myself you’d never believe me. A lot of noob writers expect that the second something is published and available, droves of people will be lining up to buy their books. With major publishers you get a lot of marketing support to help you sell your work (though that’s diminished over the years and I know authors published by the big six who do a lot of their own marketing) but when you self-publish, it’s just you. It’s taken me fifteen years to build the audience I have. Most traditionally published (by big six publishers mind you) authors can get an audience the size of mine in a few months. That’s the difference between traditionally published by a large or well known publisher, and self-published and/or small press.
3. If you don’t believe in your work or have stamina – walk away now. Persistence is key. As stated above, very few writers (if any) develop a name or audience overnight. Especially self-published or small press authors.
4. Of all the millions of people who think they’re writers, only a fraction of them will actually have the stamina to finish a book and finally send it out into the world for publication. The impatient ones and the ones who have been rejected by everyone will jump into self-publishing. Of those, only a small fraction will go on to write more than three books. For your writing passion (or hobby) to develop into a writing career, it requires you to be a prolific writer. This means you have to write more than one book. It usually means you have to write one or more books a year. Most prolific writers have more than one pen name (readers may just not know about the others).
5. Editing, formatting, and cover art are also learned skills. If you self-publish and you can’t do these things yourself (I don’t recommend editing your own work) – you’ll hire people with those skills to do it for you. This leads me to #6.
6. Self -publishing can be expensive. Keep your day job. I’m not talking vanity press here. I’m not talking about buying millions of copies and storing them in your basement or garage while selling them out of your trunk. No – I’m talking paying artists for cover art, paying editors for editing, paying advertisers for advertising, paying dues to your professional organizations or subscriptions to industry magazines. Taking classes and attending conferences. All the things you should do. I have probably invested at least $10,000 or more into my writing since 2005 and I’ve just recently been able to recover that expense. Some writers NEVER recover this expense. It’s a sad, but true reality.
7. Self-publishing requires a lot of time (for marketing, conducting business, etc…). I am married and I have friends and family, but my social life is minimal. I have NO children. I work my 9 hours a day at a day job (because I like a steady paycheck and health benefits) and then I come home, have dinner with my husband, and then I write. Sometimes we watch TV or go out to a movie. Occasionally we go out with friends on the weekend. I don’t think people really understand it when I say WRITING IS MY LIFE. It’s what I spend at least 50 hours a week of free time doing. I also sacrifice sleep for it. If you don’t have a lot of time to sacrifice, self-publishing and small press may not be your best choice.
8. If you don’t want to do a lot of work (other than the writing, editing, lather, rinse, repeat), and you don’t have money but you want your work to be read —–> Stay away from self-publishing and go the old-fashioned traditional route. It really is that simple.
9. YOU SUCK. You will ALWAYS suck in someone’s opinion (especially to writers who are anti-self publishing or writers who see you as a direct competitive threat, or would-be writers who think everyone sucks but them). Deal with it. When you’re self-published be prepared to put on your crimson letter A (you dirty whore!). No matter what everyone says and no matter how much we all herald that self-publishing is gaining some respect, there is still a stigma attached to it. And there are still snooty haters out there who are going to piss on your parade and who, no matter how much money you make as an indie (indie as in independent of a publisher!) or how popular your books are, are going to insist you are shit. And they’ll point out your every mistake, too. Innocent typo on page sixty-five? Expect to be smacked with a newspaper and have your nose rubbed in it. If you can’t deal with that kind of nasty, mean-spirited criticism, stay away from publishing, period.
Not to mention once you’ve sold tens of thousands of copies of any one book and the majority of the reviews are good – eventually you’ll get this review: “This writer can’t write! They’re awful!” Of course if you’re like me, once you’ve sold thousands of copies, gotten mostly good reviews, been on a bestseller list and finally gotten the “This writer can’t write!” review from someone you don’t know who has a “verified purchase” on Amazon — you’ve arrived, baby. You’ve arrived… And you’re in good company. Most well known writers have gotten this criticism. It just goes to prove that good writing is subjective and not everyone is going to like your writing “voice”. One other point here: If you ever have any success as a writer (Indie or not) expect to feel like a fraud. You’ll wonder if you actually suck and just got lucky.
10. Along the vein of #9 – ALL WRITERS NEED EDITORS and even with editors a typo or two might get by. No one writes perfect prose. No one. And readers are going to find those typos and bitch about them. Suck it up and deal with it. (Yes, I know I started a sentence with “And”. I did it on purpose to piss off the grammar police — fuck off.)
11. Oh, can’t forget this one. Writing is work. Writing is a business. I can labor over a single paragraph for a half hour or more. Seriously. I can run on a treadmill for an hour and I can write for a few hours and feel the same level of exhaustion after each. The only difference is physical exhaustion vs. mental exhaustion. I also have to deal with distributors and printers. I have to hire editors and cover artists. I have to be my own self-promotion agent. If I get a booksigning it’s because I set it up myself. If I’m on a panel at a conference it’s because I initiated that dialogue.
12. Writer’s Spread (or Writer’s Ass as some call it) is a very real problem. When you work a day job + write + have a little bit of a life, exercise is something you might toss to the back burner. Get yourself a hamster wheel (i.e. treadmill, elliptical, or stationary bike) and get your ass on it a few times a week or even daily if you can. It will suck up writing time, but writer’s butt sucks, too.
This is all of I’ve got for now. I think it’s far better and more realistic commentary from the successful self-published (and traditionally published) side of the fence. Take it as you will.