Thursday, October 25, 2012

Having "the talk"

At certain points in your life, there are certain awkward conversations you must have (sex, self-publishing) with condescending strangers you would rather ignore (parents, literary agents) instead of listening to their prudish, old-fashioned, desire-killing advice.

Such conversations are frustrating because these people act like they are trying to do you a favor when it sounds like they are preparing you for a life of celibacy and gigabytes of unpublished novels. It is for your own good, they say.

And you think, why does this jaded old codger have to ruin it for me? Who spit in his sidecar that he wants me to remain a virgin/unpublished author for the rest of my life?

Dear reader, these advice-givers are not so much trying to snap you off at the root as they are trying to stem your boundless enthusiasm. They want your expectations to be realistic. They want you to be safe. And they want you to know that, no matter what it looks like in the movies, things will get messy.

Almost every agent who blogs, gives interviews, or speaks at conferences addresses self-publication at least 37 times a year. When they warn authors against it, they are not saying that all self-published authors are doomed to obscurity and marketing their books on internet message boards.* They are not even saying that self-pubbed authors are lousy, despicable people who deserve to see their dreams ground into dust. They are simply saying that self-publication doesn't work out like most people expect, and they are saying it loudly because many people are going to ignore them.

Agents and successful authors who talk about self-publishing the way the Amish might discuss Ferraris are combatting two big misconceptions:

  1. "Self-publishing will make me rich and famous, just like Amanda Hocking." For every Amanda Hocking, there are thousands of authors with 99-cent eBooks who have yet to sell to anyone outside their Monday-night writing group.
  2. "Traditional publishers and agents aren't picking up my book because they're greedy and ignorant. Also, I don't know the secret handshake." No, they are probably passing on your book because (a) it's not right for them, (b) you need to work on your query approach, or (c) your book isn't ready yet (c is the most likely). And if you self-publish your book before it's been edited to pieces and reassembled, you are more likely to have a half-baked book that nobody buys than a half-baked book that everybody buys.
And no, I am not trying to take a dump on self-publishing. Some authors build a mean little raft of a book and successfully navigate the Amazon without the publishing industry's lifelines. But the questions to ask are (a) "What do I expect from self-publishing?" and (b) "Does it seem easier to break into mainstream publishing or to sell 20,000 copies all by my lonesome?" Self-publishing can work, and some publishers and agents are making room for new business models, but it is still a very, very long shot.

*But most are. Then again, most traditionally-published books don't do that great, either.

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