Non-traditional publishing means poverty, self-doubt, and obscurity, but wait on agents to reject query after query? No way!
Thanks to America's insatiable taste for vampire porn, celebrity memoirs, and fake history, I am never going to get a book deal. I could be wrong. Feel free to prove me wrong. But nearly a hundred rejections of my first book convinced me I was wasting my time hunting after agents. Maybe I could have benefited myself by following the MFA route, by having a shinier personality, by cursing less, by conforming to the desires of the market, but I don't have it in me. In 2016, Ros Barber wrote an essay for The Guardian, "For me, traditional publishing means poverty. But self-publish? No way," in which she encouraged writers not to self-publish. While I am confident many writers should not self-publish (I hope they were convinced by her argument), writers can do whatever the fuck they want to do with their work. If you're confident in your work, if you're confident that traditional publishers are too out-of-touch, mercenary, or chickenshitty to publish it, do it yourself. The gates are down. Mostly hacks and morons are storming through, but there's room for us, too. I probably could have emailed an editor at The Guardian and pitched a rebuttal, gotten myself a nice writing credit, but I hate writing query letters. I can say whatever I want here, I can swear, ramble, and run on as I please. And an essay in defense of self-publishing should be self-published. Plus, no editor would have let me get away with letting me blame my un-success on vampire porn, at least not in the lede.
Opponents of capital punishment often say that it's better for guilty people to go unpunished than for one innocent person to be executed. I concur, and I also believe it's better for writers who can't get any traction in mainstream publishing to self-publish, even if most of those writers aren't any good, than for one good writer to go unpublished or to give up.
Barber makes some valid points, and, conveniently, they're all bold headers. You can see them for yourself here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/mar/21/for-me-traditional-publishing-means-poverty-but-self-publish-no-way. Your book may not be ready, she says, correctly, and if you self-publish it you might regret it later when people are making fun of it. You risk looking amateurish if the cover isn't good enough or if you don't proofread well or spend enough time on layout. All good points, and if you intend to self-publish you should pay attention to them. Self-editing is challenging and risky. The last thing you want, as a self-published author, is for a careless poofreading error to undermine your already Congressional-approval-rating low credibility. You can pay for a good cover. You can pay for a proofreader. You can pay someone to lay out your text. I paid for my covers, not much. Some people don't like the cover of Barn Again; some people do. Some people have picked up my book because of the cover and bought the book because of the writing. I've gotten very kind emails from strangers who liked my book, from people who would never have heard of my if I hadn't said fuck it and just self-published my book. I do my own proofreading and layout and went through three proof copies of Barn Again before it was ready. I read the whole book aloud, with a pen in my hand. I did the same for The War on Xmas. I've taken great care in proofreading and layout, and I'm confident in the quality of the layout and formatting.
I agree that a lot of self-published writing is shit, a lot of self-published and "indie" writers are annoying, but the only way to change that is for talented, less annoying people to ignore the stigma of self-publishing and just fucking do it. I feel like a hack sometimes, basically every day, but that's a normal writer feeling anyway. Many talented, hardworking writers have found success, or something close to it, by waiting, by querying, by networking, etc., but the publishing world is still not a meritocracy. I can't say whether it ever was a meritocracy, but the industry today seems to be almost entirely market driven. I am not a socialist, but I'm certainly not a capitalist, and I refuse to languish in total obscurity because there's not an obvious market for my work. There is very little room for literary writers. Good writers aren't getting the chances they might have gotten a few decades ago. One reason for this barricade is numerical: there are just too many of us. Everyone's got a fucking MFA. The other main reason, the bigger one, is that publishers cater to the tastes of readers, and readers just want zombies and hot takes. (Or that's what agents, editors, and publishers think readers want, so that's what they give them, and readers buy that shit and forget to tell the agents, editors, and publishers, that they'd be OK with some non-zombie stuff, too.) A self-published book might be a book that didn't deserve to get published, but it could also be a book that deserved to get published but wasn't, and it's likely that a book that was put out by a major publisher was really a book that didn't deserve, on its merit, to get published. If you see a book you're not sure about, you just have to pick it up and start reading, judge for yourself. Of course, if you're in a bookstore, you're probably not looking at a self-published book. I might be saying all of this out of self-interest; because I can't get published I want to convince you, the imaginary reader, that the publishing industry is corrupt and stupid, dismissive of talented writers like me, when in reality maybe I'm just not good enough but I don't want to admit the truth to myself. Read one of my short stories. Judge for yourself.
Barber's main argument against self-publishing is that self-published writers are annoying. I don't disagree, but I interpret that observation differently. She says don't publish because self-published writers are annoying and you don't want to be annoying. I say do publish, if you want to, but remember not to be annoying. The need to constantly promote your work is soul-crushing, but not as soul-crushing as having nothing to promote. If all you ever say, on the internet or in person, is "Buy my book!" you'll be a bore. I'd probably rather talk to some jizzberg who likes Infowars. I do very little promotion of my books. Occasionally I'll post a link on Twitter or Facebook; I'm sure I was annoying on Facebook after I published Barn Again because I probably overposted about it for a while. Although I hate Goodreads, it has been of some benefit. I have a handful of followers, at least one of whom actually bought my my book. I don't buy ads, but I've been doing monthly giveaways; each month more than four hundred people enter to win a copy. I also hate Wattpad, but I am on there, I have a lot of work up there, and a couple people who interact with me there have bought my book. The main way I promote my book is just by adding work to my website, writing that I'd have a hard time publishing in literary journals: light verse, one-off humor pieces, a series of satirical book reviews, plus this fucking feature about unheard-of writers. Writing these pieces takes away time from working on a book, but it's also a good way to distract myself if I'm stuck on another project, and during dry spells where no one wants to accept my fucking short stories, I can give myself instant gratification by doing something for the website. Instead of boring, annoying, soul-crushing promotion, I'm writing. I don't have much to show for my effort yet, but one day someone's going to wind up on my website, find the bookstore, and pay however much money they want to pay because you can set your own price for my books.
The most persuasive argument, for me, against self-publishing, is Amazon. Barber says, "With Amazon’s Kindle and CreateSpace as the major outlets, [self-publishing] continues to put money in the coffers of the company largely responsible for destroying author incomes in the first place." CreateSpace is easy, but it's not the only option. I use CreateSpace, but I'm working on publishing through Ingram Spark, which will open up more distribution options, although they'll probably be mostly hypothetical. You still have to get a bookstore to order your book. I steal a little bit of money away from Amazon by selling books through my website. I'd love to publish through a local printer, but I don't have the money to cover printing costs.
Maybe this is all self-justification, maybe I should have waited. And waited. And queried. And waited. I'm thirty-six years old. Even if I live to a hundred, I'm going to be dead relatively soon. I don't have time to wait around for an agent to finally get me.