Yesterday I explored why previously published authors might turn to self-publishing, when they’re confident in their book’s quality but are struggling in the current market. What about the unpublished writer?
I would hesitate to recommend self-publishing to most unpublished writers, because most writers are not as far along on their craft as they think they are. I’ve done well over 1000 manuscript critiques, between teaching through the Institute of Children’s Literature correspondence school, offering one-on-one critiques at conferences, working privately with writers, and exchanging manuscripts with friends. Perhaps 20 percent of those had a chance of reaching publishable quality with one or two more solid revisions and some polishing. No more than one percent were ready to send out when I saw them. Some writers realized this; many didn’t.
Author Kristen Lamb offers this warning to writers who may want to publish too quickly: “I am not against self-publishing and that is a whole other subject entirely. But, what I will say is that there are too many authors who dismiss why agents are rejecting them and run off to self-publish instead of fixing why their manuscript was rejected.”
One theory suggests that we go through four stages to become experts: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence (got all that?) The first and third stages are the danger zones. Many writers start out thinking that writing is easy. Maybe they always did well in English classes. Maybe their kids love the bedtime stories they make up. These writers don’t know how little they know. When they start to glimpse the long, hard path of publishing, some give up altogether, and some look for easier ways out—possibly leading them to self-publish that early work. (Some even assume that their work is so brilliant it’s worth tons of money, and they don’t want to share with a publisher.)
In the second stage, writers start to figure out how little they know. They work on their craft. By the third stage, they have learned many techniques and they use them, but because the knowledge isn’t completely natural yet, it’s hard to keep track of everything and make it all work together. These are good writers, but not great ones. This is where you start to get “good rejections” and other encouragement, but that first sale seems elusive. Or maybe you even sell a few things, but you’re getting mixed feedback on other work. This stage can last years, and it seems to last forever. Here’s where some writers turn to self-publishing out of frustration. But it’s important to keep working on your craft and not get caught up in the publishing business before your work is ready.
You want to wait for that final stage, unconscious competence—though that term may be misleading, because I’d argue that for writers we still have to critically analyze our work. The main difference at the final stage is you’ve gotten good at finding the flaws in your own work and understand how to fix problems that other people see. You’ve gone from “potential” to “polished.”
So unpublished authors shouldn’t rush to self-publishing as an easy shortcut. Self-publishing your work before it’s ready can only hurt your career. However, if a writer is willing to pay for a professional critique—probably several, one after each major revision to check progress—and hire other experts as needed, they may be able to make it work.
My friend and former student Jodi Stewart is self-publishing a middle grade novel, Silki: Summer of the Ancient. I’ve critiqued her manuscript (twice) so I know it’s good, but her story about a Navajo girl having adventures on the reservation didn’t resonate with New York City editors.
Jodi has studied every aspect of self-publishing and she’s hired experts at Mill City Press to get the book in print. It’s too early to see what success she’ll have, but she says, “I feel re-energized. Frankly, I was sogging down with all the seminars, books, magazines, articles on line, blogs, blah blah blah on how to get published and pick up an amazing agent in the process. I was beginning to feel like a $$-sign, instead of a serious writer. I never really wanted fame with my novel-writing, just something to show for all my hard work.”
So here’s a first time writer turning to self-publishing and getting what she wanted. Note that what she wants is reasonable. It’s important to start with realistic expectations. Huge success won’t come to everyone (or even most people) who attempts self-publishing. Still, it can be a way for good work to find an audience, and it can even lead to wonderful surprises. Here’s one story from an author whose self-publishing success attracted an agent and then a publisher: “The self-published versions of my book were taken offline to prepare for the very aggressive marketing of my new publisher, Sterling, and in less than six months the new version of my debut novel, Tiger’s Curse, was headed to bookstores all over the country.”
I think some self-published authors do well because the majority of readers have different standards than editors do. I have often heard editors say that they will stop reading a manuscript if they find even a couple of typos in the first few pages. It’s sometimes explained as “If you don’t care enough about your manuscript to proofread it, why should I care enough to read it?” (One writer I know calls this “spelling as a moral issue.”)
Yet many people simply don’t have top-notch English skills, or suffer from conditions like dyslexia that make it nearly impossible to proofread one’s own work. Those people could still be excellent storytellers. I haven’t read Amanda Hocking’s work, but I wonder if this is the case with her. She mentioned in her blog that some readers criticized her books for errors (she has since hired editors and cleaned up those early books), but many readers embraced her from the start. Perhaps those readers didn’t notice the errors or were willing to overlook them for a good story, while editors couldn’t get past them.
Of course, you could hire a proofreader to clean up your work before you submit to a traditional publisher. But editors have many similar concerns, regarding “voice,” genre, target age/length of book, and other considerations that make sense to them but many readers hardly notice. For example, it’s nearly impossible to sell a novella to a traditional publisher, but readers are willing to buy them as e-books.
So to review the question—who should self-publish? If your primary target is schools and libraries, you may want a traditional publisher so they can get your books reviewed in appropriate journals, and for the distribution network. If you’re not yet published and haven’t even gotten “good rejections,” you may not be ready to share your work with the world. Published authors who are happy with their publisher and feel like their books are well supported may see no need to change things. But for authors who have been orphaned by their editors or abandoned by their publishers, who write books in genres that are not considered marketable, or who just want to more control over their careers, self-publishing is offering new opportunities.
Tomorrow I’ll go over the specific steps to self-publish a book as e-book and POD.