Editorial: Self-publishing > Traditional Publishing

Bubble Cow

This article is reprinted with permission from Fred Johnson of BubbleCow.com

Hi everyone.

The school holidays are almost upon us, and I wish those of you with kids good luck. May your family holidays avoid disaster and may you never hear the dreaded “I’m bored!” It might be a good time to lock yourself away and work on that novel.

And when you finish it, go ahead and self-publish. That’s right, I’m not even beating around the bush any more. Self-publishing is the way forward, and big publishers know it. They’re scared. They’re trying to shut us down, man.

Okay, so they’re not actually trying to shut us down, but they are panicking over things like digital rights acquisitions and trying to keep the prices of eBooks up. Self-publishing is becoming more and more prominent each year. Self-published writers are starting to worm their way into the limelight and into the critical establishment. The time of reckoning is nigh.

And yet there’s still a residual shame surrounding self-publishing. It’s still seen as second best, as a sign of implicit failure. It’s vain and narcissistic. It’s something your dad shakes his head at. Get a real job son.

No matter that self-published writers can earn far more than most publishers will offer writers in their book deals – what’s 15% royalties against 70%? No matter that when you traditionally publish you can kiss goodbye to distribution rights as well as potentially to a whole load of other rights too – one contract some poor Redditor signed forbade him from blogging for two years. I suppose it also makes no difference that traditional publishers will stop marketing your book after a month if it’s not instantly a bestseller. I hope that advance was worth it.
Then again, if traditional publishing is so bad, why has literally every great work of literature ever gone through it? Where’s Jane Austen’s self-published collection? Where’s Don DeLillo’s Amazon profile? Why wasn’t War and Peace a poorly formatted eBook before it was a mighty hardback?

Self-publishing is new. People don’t trust it. They visit Amazon’s Kindle marketplace and they see an ocean of erotic fan fiction and some eye-meltingly offensive cover designs. They dig through Game of Thrones knock-offs and veritable acres of romantic Vampire fiction and then they leave, crossing themselves and muttering about the rapture.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Writers know that, economically speaking, self-publishing is a sensible option. They know that it offers them total control and total freedom. They know that for the vast majority of writers who snag a book deal with a major publisher, only the tiny minority will see major returns with a runaway bestseller. Fewer still will be lifted into the hallowed halls of the literary elite. What are the chances that you’re one of those lucky few? Statistically speaking, minuscule. It’s like the literature lottery – sure, you can’t win if you don’t play, but hey – you’re still not going to win.

And yet – what if you really are that special writer whose stars have aligned just right? What if your book doesget picked up by Penguin or Faber and you get a chunky advance with several zeroes? What if your book reallydoes sell millions of copies? Maybe Michiko Kakutani will call your novel “the greatest book ever” in her review for The New York Times. Maybe Thomas Pynchon will send you a picture of his face in the mail. You always knew you were special, that you were destined for greatness. Behind you, your literary agent adjusts his glasses and looks at you. He nods and smiles, unexplained sunlight sparkling from his silver beard. I’m proud of you, he mouths. In the crowd, the critics – hard-eyed, bastard critics, people who’ve made a career out of being spiteful – they’re weeping. Their pads and laptops lie forgotten on the ground. Academics have gathered like birds outside to peck at the crumbs you toss their way. Schoolchildren will be reading you for decades to come. You’ve done it.

Pull the plug. I’m sorry, I was getting carried away there. If you found your eyes misting over a little, chances are you want what most of us want: recognition. Writers aren’t typically people overly concerned with making a lot of money. After all, there are far more lucrative avenues to walk if that’s your objective. What writers want is recognition – someone to say, hey, I see what you’ve done here. This is good. I want to read this – more than that, I want to tell my friends about this. I want to shout from the rooftops about how much I love this book.
This kind of affirmation is what writers live for. They need the reinforcement, the encouragement – the yes, this is good, keep at it. What you’re doing has worth – people need to read this. It will bring them something that money cannot. Writers need to keep hearing this, and this is what keeps traditional publishing in the ring. Maybe you started off writing in school when a teacher liked your short stories. They told you that you had some talent for it – it felt good. The literary agent is much the same: an approving expert. If this guy likes it, it must be good! And then, when the publishing house agrees a modest advance and a three-book deal, holy cow, now this is validation.

This is the kind of validation that not even big sales as a self-published writer can grant. Big deal, I sold ten-thousand books. What do people know? To quote Peep Show‘s Super Hans: “People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis, you can’t trust people.” There’s something about having that select coterie of wise old literati and cold-blooded critics approve of you and your work. You’re one of them now.

This, I believe, is the thing that’s keeping writers pursuing the traditional publishing route. It’s this support framework that self-publishing lacks – you have to do it alone. There will be no agent to encourage you when you hit a wall, and no editorial team reinforcing your status. But you know what? Times are changing. Self-published writers are winning awards. They’re having well-respected movies made from their books – seen The Martian? That’s a Spielberg film based on a self-published novel by Andy Weir. As hard as it can be to believe, beneath the Kindle marketplace’s masses of housewife porn lurk some seriously good books by talented writers.

Of course, these truths are easy to know – they’re much harder to internalise. I know that eating meat is bad for the planet and is cruelty on an industrial scale, but damn it if that truth isn’t hard to internalise and apply. Writers know that self-publishing is the logical choice. They know it’s only getting bigger and they know that critics are starting to pay attention. They know they’ll have more freedom, that they’ll keep the rights, and that they’ll probably see more money in the long term. But they’d still sign a book deal quicker than I could blink if given half a chance.

Resist this urge. Self-publishing is no longer a failure, no longer a second-best avenue for mediocre writers. Self-publishing is the only option that makes sense – it is a victory. Don’t listen when people assume you couldn’t get a book deal. Choose self-publishing. Champion it. Reap the rewards.

Go forth and conquer.

Fred Johnson, Editor

22 thoughts on “Editorial: Self-publishing > Traditional Publishing

  1. I love this post! I completely agree with everything you’re saying. I am self-published and couldn’t be happier.


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