Why Self Publish

Just some thoughts on the decision to self publish

Image: real_book_new

I made this. Neat.

So, I've just published a book via Amazon, with an audiobook version as well, and, if you're interested in science and humour, please go check it out. On the website I just linked to, you'll find all the information about what the book is about, and samples from it, and everything. I put about seven or eight years of research and writing into it, and so I hope you'll be one of the nearly dozen people that might possibly buy it.

Why such a self-deprecating expectation of how many people would read it? Well, I'm self publishing it, which means I'm taking a niche book written by a guy with no fame or credentials and not backing it with any kind of entity that could market it. It seems reasonable to keep expectations low. I did struggle for a while with whether or not I should try and approach agents and publishers, and if so how hard should I try. In the end, considering all the checks and balances, I decided self publishing was for me. After a conversation I had with another writer at a party the other day, it felt like maybe my reasons for going the way I did might resonate with other writers who might be reflecting on their own options.

There have been moments over the last few months when I could feel the value of having someone else, an agent or publisher, deal with some of the issues that have come up while preparing to release my book out into the wild. There are all sorts of fiddly details to do with formatting and categorization and editing and layout and on and on. When I made the decision to publish via Amazon instead of trying to get some kind of book deal, I had a vague notion that it would take a couple weeks to get my files together, and then a simple upload process. That was about six months ago, and I've finally got it all sorted.

Being a perfectionist, a control freak, and overly ambitious is a bad mix. I made an audiobook version, a web site, and all the graphical design in and around the book. I'm sure if speed were a concern, you could get a book out in a matter of days to a fortnight. But if you want the book to be right in a way that satisfies all your criteria, then it's going to take as long as it takes you to deal with your internal critic. Even as fussy as I am, it was still a process of learning which details I needed to let go of. There's a lot in the book that I already want to correct or change. Not having had the experience of having a publishing company that might want to work with me on book design and stuff, I'm not sure if that would have been better for me or not. As much as it would have been nice for someone else to work on the cover, I'd probably find an equal amount of personal struggle in letting someone else make design decisions.

Given that Amazon provides a level of distribution that makes my book available on a scale that is unprecedented in history, or at least well beyond my expectations, the only real advantage I can see from going with an established publisher is marketing. My insecurities about the marketability of this book have gone up and down over the years. On the one hand, I'm neither a famous comedian nor credible scientist, either of which would go a long way to help an agent or publisher believe my book was marketable. On the other hand, when I look around at other books that are published which seem way, way more batshit crazy than mine, I feel like my book is at least better than a lot of others out there. So, does insecure me or arrogant me win out in the internal debate to approach agents or publishers?

Many decisions are at their core emotionally driven, even though we bury them so deep in rationalizations after the fact that it seems they were well reasoned. In this case I'm too aware of my emotional drivers to let my rationalizations comfort me entirely. I think at the core, I was psychologically tired of dealing with this book. Which isn't to disparage it, I think it's a good book or I wouldn't have worked so hard to finish it. It's just in the years between start and finish, the book has been the source and result of so much emotional change in me that I just have a need to have it be done. It's been a project that has taken a lot out of me, and at this stage, the last thing I want to do is embark on what seems to be another couple of years trying to convince some gatekeeper to let me into their world of arcane rules.

Still, if the benefits of having some kind of representation were big enough, then I'd suck up the hassle and dive into the process. But, even in terms of marketing, it's not so obvious that publishers are such a great option. As I looked around at lots of agents and publishers, when looking through their requirements, many of them expressed that they want to see a go-getter attitude in the authors they represent. Do you have a blog, do you have an idea of the market you want to appeal to, do you have any contacts of significance that might be able to endorse your book... wait, isn't that stuff your job? It is, but it's just capitalism at work. The backlog of hopeful authors means publishers can be pickier. The backlog might not just be an overflow of hopeful authors. The publishing industry is definitely feeling the pain of competition from self publishing outlets with more credibility these days. Which means that maybe they have less spots to offer. Whatever the reasons, it seems that agents and publishers are in the position of ramping up the demands on authors, not the other way around, unless your some kind of celebrity of some kind that is already in high demand (which, again, raises the question, of how much benefit agents and publishers provide).

So if the amount of marketing push they're capable of is offset by the fact that they're not going to make it available to me unless I do a lot of it myself, what else are they offering? The simple credibility of being able to say I'm published by an actual publisher? From what I can tell, the only people for whom that matters are people who are intimate with publishing in some way or another. Over the last few years, in countless casual conversations I've had with friends, people from all walks of life, not one, ever, in any way, indicated that having a publisher mattered in the slightest to them. So long as a book was interesting and it got into their hands, they didn't care how it got there. Most of them, more in recent years than when I first started on my book, voluntarily expressed to me, "oh, cool, you're writing a book and these days it's so much easier with online publishing and stuff!" As in, they expressed a mild form of casual excitement for me that I didn't have any barriers slowing my dreams down. If the credibility issue still lingers in some circles, it's dying out.

Not to mention, the process of getting accepted by a larger publishing may be changing to something more like how a lot of music is found and promoted. More and more, there are examples of authors who went the route of self publishing in one way or the other on the web, and then when their book became popular enough that it was undeniable that they had something of value, established publishers came in to represent them and take them up a level. That to me seems like a more rational model regardless of other considerations anyway, because, no matter how you cut it, I just don't believe any agent or publisher can claim to really know what makes a book or author successful. Pretty much all of the most successful authors that are household names had countless rejections before someone came along and gave them a chance within the gated community of publishing. Evidence, to me, that agents and publishers can only guess about as well as any person on the street as to what might be successful, and the times they end up "finding" a success can be looked at after the fact as simple random distribution. I don't think my book is likely to bubble up to any noticeable degree among the noise of so many other self published books, since, even if I believe in the quality of the book, it's just very niche. But I still think the model, of working within an anarchy of popular opinion before attention from major distributors is a more sensible model for book publishing than what it has been in the past.

All that said, it would nonetheless be better if some agent or publisher were to take me on. If nothing else, regardless of how much resource they can bring, which varies wildly among all the players in that field, it would mean having more than just me getting the book out there. Any number of people motivated to have my book more seen is better than just me alone.

What killed it for me in the end, though, was the process. With all the above in mind, it would still be worth it for me to narrow down a list of agents and publishers, selected by how well my book fits into the type of book they are interested in promoting, and send an email to each of them offering my book. I would totally do that... if that's how it worked. I went through lots of online lists of publishers and agents, and even paid to subscribe to an writer's marketplace website that seemed to have a high degree of credibility in aggregating legitimate places I could offer my book to. But, could I just gather a list of emails and then send it out and see who responded? No, each one had a different set of requirements for what formats they wanted the book in (some even required snail-mail submissions, I presume as a filter for those who find email too easy). Each place wanted a prospectus along with the book, where I would have to write about the book, about me, and lengthy details about how it might be marketed or who the book is for and similar issues (and here we fall into where some of them seemed to expect me to pretty much do all the marketing for them). Some places wanted these additional materials along with the book to be very long, some wanted them short, but regardless all of them had their own unique preferences. Each one would take hours to a day to prepare. And then after you submitted, most of them said that, if they could deign to respond to you at all, it would be two to three months. So you'd have to wait a quarter of a year, and if there was no response, then I guess you just assume nothing is going to happen.

On top of that, and this was something that confused me and still does, each of them seemed to say that it was a requirement that when submitting a manuscript to them, that you not simultaneously submit to others. They wanted a certain exclusivity during the time. Maybe there is some legitimate reason for this, like, if they do talk to you and if you are talking to someone else, there's something about the legal terms they reveal to you would open them up to some kind of liability that they can't handle or something. The world is bigger than me and I'm sure there are all sorts of conditions that I can not conceive of that might justify this, but I could never come up on my own with any good reason why I should play by their rules on that front. Early on, a few years ago when I mistakenly thought the book was ready, I did try submitting to a few places and talking to a few agents, and I played fast and loose with submitting simultaneously to a few. Didn't matter though. That they turned me down is, in retrospect, no surprise, because the book was not yet the final product I think it now is. But, it was still an education about how gruelling the submission process is, so that this time around, I knew what that option meant.

Bottom line, whether or not I play by the one-at-a-time submission requirement, each individual submission is a whole process. From finding the right publishers to finalizing something that meets their demands to hearing back from them... it could be years before I get my book out there.

Ugh, fuck that. I've already been with this book for maybe eight years (I forget exactly when I started... I think 2006 or so) and I need to get on with my life. I'm tired of telling people, "I'm working on a book." I want to just be able to say, "Check out my book if you're interested." And now I can . I need to move on. For one thing, this book has been an exercise in thinking about what is funny and why. What it isn't, though, is an exercise in me becoming funnier. I want to be able to get on stage and not tell people about funniness, that would be a shitty act. I just want to play around with being funny now, and develop an act. I also want to move on to writing fiction, like the kind of stuff you'll find on this web site, and other creative projects that are all about story telling.

So, I went the self publishing route. I feel it was the right call for me, and, if you're a writer, it may be the right call for you. Or not. I don't think there's a right or wrong about it, just what fits you and what doesn't. What I can say is that if some agent or publisher offered to work with me, I would very seriously consider it, and you should too if the option is right there. I'm just glad that it's no longer that having to find representation is the only option, because if it were, then the last eight years of effort might have ended up abandoned on my hard drive.

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