Is That All There Is?
November 15, 2022 § 39 Comments
What if publication isn’t your best goal?
By Allison K Williams
An author friend realized something while working on her memoir: faithfully rendering the stories of her life and preserving her experiences for her family was important. Quality writing, ideally at a publishable level, was also important. Actually publishing? Not so much.
Another author friend recently told me she’d just landed her dream job. Based on a similar previous job, she’d written a novel, a snarky, hilarious send-up of the manners and mores in her business world. Now she needed to set her work aside—publishing it, perhaps even working on it, could jeopardize her career.
Writing for personal satisfaction, or family tradition, or balancing the value of the job or life you love against the publicity of publishing, doesn’t get much respect. Often, we see the pursuit itself of publishing as a validator—that anyone who doesn’t seek shelf space isn’t “serious” about their work. As self-publishers advocate side-stepping the gatekeepers, we think, well, maybe you didn’t stick it out long enough for “real” publishing. Maybe your work wasn’t good enough. Sometimes we’re right. Sometimes we’re on the outside of a sharp, considered business decision. Sometimes we’re desperately needing validation for our own position in the queue, telling ourselves we’re “real” for sticking it out even as the process stretches on.
“Everyone has a story worth telling,” says publishing expert Jane Friedman. “Not everyone’s story is a good fit for a commercial publishing deal.”
You can take Friedman’s meaning as, “Sure, write your story, but it might not be good enough.” But there’s an equally strong case for “Sure, write your story, but explore your goals—is a traditional publishing deal actually your best path? Or will getting your words into the world another way be more satisfying?”
Traditional publishing is often seen as the “top” goal. Big Five, literary or university presses offer us validation, a stamp of approval from the publishing establishment. But even then, book sales can depend on how much time and effort the author is able to spend on marketing and promotions. After a long slog to find an agent, publisher or both, the author may have little control over the cover, title, or how the book is presented to the market.
Self-publishing can be a giant money pit—or a source of steady income for authors willing to self-educate and able to self-promote. It’s easy to be taken in by scammers, choose a terrible cover design, or get snowed under while learning how to run Amazon ads, write press releases and recruit a launch team. For authors who want to see their work on physical shelves, it’s discouraging and disheartening how many indie bookstores want nothing to do with self-published work.
Hybrid services can be a fast, easy way to get one’s book into the world, combining the control of self-publishing with the assistance of traditional publishing—or it can be heartbreakingly bad and massively expensive. Authors using a hybrid press often forget that they are not signing a “publishing contract” but purchasing a package of publishing services, and no matter how many times the press says “partner” or “contribution,” their entire profit comes from the author’s pocket. (And “royalties” means, “you already paid to publish your book and now we’ll be taking some more money.”)
We have all seen plenty of success stories in all three venues. We’ve all watched low-profile books capture the public imagination and shoot up bestseller lists. We’ve seen self-publishers make bank in book sales and generate enormous subsidiary businesses. And eyes-open hybrid packages can be a strong option for people with more money than time who need a guiding hand.
Here’s what I rarely see—authors who say, “I was happy just to have a book in my hand; I used Amazon to print ten copies for my friends.” Or, “It was enough to tell the story in my head and type ‘the end’.” Or even, “I enjoy writing, but I love my day job more.”
I spent ten years on a memoir that didn’t sell. I’m glad I wrote it, because it taught me how to write a book. I probably needed to go through getting an agent and lots of publisher rejections for the lesson to hit home: this book wasn’t good enough. Self-publishing Get Published in Literary Magazines was exactly the right choice when I needed a product to sell at writing conferences to offset my travel costs; I’m looking forward to bringing out the third edition with co-author (and Brevity Blog co-editor) Andrea Firth. And having Seven Drafts traditionally published has been a credential I needed to advance in my life’s work.
As you write, consider your goals. “Work real hard for a long time and feel like a failure if you don’t get a traditional deal” is not actually a goal. But “feel good about what I created and know I’ve done my best” is. As our own Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore says in another Brevity Blog,
Don’t let others dictate to you what “success” means in book publishing. Decide for yourself what makes it worth your while–and then celebrate your efforts.
I’m about to send a final draft of a novel—another 10-year book—to my agent. It might not be good enough. If she wants edits, I’ll make them. But if this book isn’t ready, I’m probably done with it. I’ll print a few copies for my friends. Because I don’t need this book in the whole world—I just need to tell this story, writing at a publishable level. Writing that sentence makes me cry. But it doesn’t make me sad. I’ve put the best of my craft into finishing this manuscript. People whose opinions matter to me think it’s good. And sometimes, that’s enough.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Join her mailing list here (that’s publishing, too).