The traditional wisdom tells us that
self-publishing is something that any serious writer should avoid at all costs.
It's cast as the modern vanity publishing, and its peddlers as con artists
exploiting wannabe writers too naive to know any better. The classic stereotype
of a self-publisher is someone with more money than talent, a garage full of
unwanted books, and a bank account rather lighter than it should have been. Yet
there is a steady drip of self-published writers beginning to challenge this
perception: first Brunonia Barry has her self-published book, The Lace Reader,
auctioned for $2 million; now Lisa Genova secures a six-figure advance from
Simon & Schuster for her self-published title Still Alice. So have the
rules changed? Is now the time to dive into the sea of self-publishing and make
yourself your millions?!
The reason most self-publishers take the decision
to abandon the traditional path to publication is that they believe that they
have a great book which could sell millions, but which – for some reason – the
traditional publishers don't want to take on. It might seem far-fetched to think
that a successful publisher wouldn't want to bring to market a book that
genuinely had that potential, but you have to remember how modern publishers
operate. Modern publishers are not run by the kind of editors with a passion for
literature who probably founded them – they are, like most modern businesses,
run by accountants working to commercial imperatives. Books are not going to be
signed so much on how they make you feel after you've read them, but more on how
likely you are to buy them before you read them. In the case of Lisa Genova,
whose book tells the story of a woman who contracts Alzheimer's at an early age,
she was told by literary agents that people wouldn't want to read a book about
Alzheimer's. Certainly, you can imagine that if the ubiquitous focus group was
asked if they wanted to read a book about Alzheimer's or a book about a quirky
Englishwoman struggling with weight, romance, and the foibles of modern life, it
would be a likely victory for Ms Jones and her diary. Likewise, there's a pretty
good commercial precedent for books about teenage wizards, but it would probably
be hard to point to an example of the topic of Alzheimer's having been
successfully used as a driver of revenue growth.
Despite being rejected by literary agents for a
year, Still Alice was the winner of the 2008 Bronte Prize for excellence
in romantic fiction.
So it's true, you can have a great book but be rejected by agents and publishers
simply because it doesn't tick the right commercial boxes. Nonetheless, it
would be an unwise author who totally ignored the reactions of industry
professionals to their work. Most of the time, if agents and editors think your
book can't sell it's for one simple reason: it can't. Before you convince
yourself that you're right and they're wrong and invest your children's
inheritance in self-publishing your book it's worth clearly identifying exactly
why they're making this "mistake". If you've written a book with an unusual
and/or uncomfortable topic then fair enough, but if you've written a knock-off
of last month's bestseller and they're still not interested, then the chances
are that your book just isn't good enough as it stands. If you go back and
rewrite it then maybe you can get it up to the necessary standard and make a
success of it – but if instead you self-publish it before it's ready then all
you're doing is putting a sub-standard product onto the market, without any of
the benefits of the backing of a major publisher. Your book is at a
double-disadvantage and you're almost certainly dooming it to failure.
And that's probably true for the vast majority of self-published books. Though
we can point to a couple of examples where self-published authors have achieved
great success, this hides the silent masses who have achieved nothing but
disappointment and financial loss. It's worth bearing in mind that, however much
the methods and terminology may have changed, the purpose of the modern
self-publishing / print-on-demand company is still essentially the same: to make
money out of wannabe authors; and they will not only allow you to blow all your
money on a lost cause but will eagerly help you to do so.
But it's not your money which is the main thing you're risking when you
self-publish – it's your credibility. Self-publishing comes with a stigma that
it can be hard to overcome. Genova was advised by one literary agent not to
self-publish as it would kill her writing career before it started. In this
instance, they were wrong – but it's an attitude that is prevalent throughout
the publishing industry. If you have talent, it's assumed you'll place your book
through traditional means. If you don't, you'll resort to self-publishing. To
some extent it's like accepting a badge of failure (at least in the eyes of much
of the publishing industry), and once you've done it your
options narrow markedly. You'll find that lots of awards for published books
don't accept self-published books – while at the same time submission
guidelines for agents and publishers will tell you they don't want anything
that's been previously published, including self-published books. You find
yourself stuck in an eerie twilight world which is neither published nor
unpublished, and which is difficult to escape. Once you go down the
self-publishing path it's more often than not a narrow and one-way street you'll
find you're travelling.
But surely it doesn't matter what the publishing industry thinks? That's the
point of self-publishing, isn't it? You get to sidestep the agents and editors
and ignore their opinions, right? Well, not quite. Neither Barry or Genova
actually made their money from self-publishing, remember – they're not still
paying for the printing of their books and distributing them round the world
themselves. In both cases they made their money when they had the opportunity
of making a U-turn on that normally one-way street and returning to the path of
traditional publishing. They both sold their books to major publishers and left
But if Genova managed a U-turn, couldn't you? Well, Genova got a couple of lucky
breaks that enabled that U-turn. The first was that a copy of her book found its
way into the hands of an executive at Simon & Schuster whose mother happened to
have Alzheimer's. Unsurprisingly, he was more open to the subject than other
figures in the industry had been, and it was his company that ultimately bought
the book. The second stroke of luck occurred at the same time, when an
enthusiastic review in the Boston Sunday Globe prompted a call from another
self-published author who had secured an agent and sold her book to a major
publisher. That agent subsequently became Genova's agent.
So self-publishing certainly played its part in her success – without it, that
executive from Simon & Schuster may not have ever seen the book, and she
certainly wouldn't have had a review in the local press, but for me this is
still less a story about success through self-publishing and more a story about
success in spite of self-publishing; a story of some amazing lucky breaks that
rescued Genova out of self-publishing and returned her to the traditional
publishing world. Certainly, you could never argue that self-publishing allowed her to
take control and orchestrate her rise to the top – both the key events which
brought her success were things that happened to her not by her design, but by
accident. Her story is less that of a Richard Branson or Bill Gates; more that
of a lottery winner. It isn't something you could replicate or repeat. I don't
mean to diminish her achievement – her book must certainly be of the excellent
quality any book must be to succeed and win awards – but it could all so easily
have been different. Had she lived in a slightly different place then the review
would have been in a different local newspaper and would never have been seen by
the author who introduced her to her agent. Had she chosen to write the same
story about Parkinson's rather than Alzheimer's then that executive at Simon &
Schuster would probably have had no interest in her book, and would probably
never have read it. At the same time, most agents and publishers would have
shunned her for her self-publishing stigma. Genova could easily have languished
forever in the obscurity of self-publishing purgatory.
It's therefore still hard to commend self-publishing as a wise route for wannabe
authors. The odds against you are always high in the publishing industry, but
I'd suggest they're a lot higher in self-publishing, despite a couple of
attention-grabbing examples to the contrary. You make it harder to get an agent,
harder to sell your book to a publisher, and unless you can guarantee that an
executive at a top publisher is going to have an unusually strong personal
connection to your book (and will definitely happen to see it!), and that you
will be able to get a book review in a local newspaper that happens to be read
by an author who is represented by one of the very few (if not the only?) agent
who has a track record of accepting and selling self-published books, then
you're adopting a strategy which is both high cost and high risk. Not a
Finally, I think the most important thing to take from these stories is the fact
that, despite the headlines, neither of these authors became rich and famous
when they got into self-publishing. They became rich and famous when they got
out of it.
When I was a little girl, I loved to write poems and short stories. I
had a collection of my poems in a folder and during the summer months, I’d
spend endless hours writing about the people around me. Reading was also a
big part of my life. I spent endless hours during the summer months
reading romance/suspense stories, which were my favourite. Occasionally,
I’d try writing my own but they didn’t seem as exciting as the ones I read.
I never dreamed I was paving my way to becoming a writer. Somewhere along
the way, I dropped out of high school and started raising a family. Money
was scarce and I put off any plans for the future that included writing..
Several years ago, after a nasty divorce and an attempt to obtain my
freedom, I gave writing another try. Since it was something I was already
good at, and the talent was still embedded in my heart, there was no reason
why I shouldn’t take it up again. It made sense to me to nurture the
craving that already existed and do something with the God-given talent
that lay dormant all my adult years.
Many rejections later, I wandered if I had made the right choice. But
in my heart, I knew it was the right decision.
Writing was a precious gift that needed to be trained and brought
forth so I enrolled in a creative writing class. By the end of that class,
I had already published one small essay. A couple of years later, I was
working for the local newspaper writing front-page news and feature
stories. Not without a price though. By the time the editor got through
with my work, it looked more like hers than mine. Some of the stuff in
those articles never came from this brain.
Since then, I have written for many newspapers, newsletters and small
press publications and have managed to get published in hundreds of them.
My work, with minor changes that the editor asked me to make, was my own
work and my byline sure looked nice after each story or poem published.
Becoming a writer was easy but it was because the desire was already
there – I tried writing stories when I was five or six and no one seemed to
care – they’d never help me spell words and make sentences. But by the
time I was in third grade, you can bet I was writing anything and
everything humanly possible. I was amazed with books and magazines and
read eagerly. It was a part of my life, my being. Little did I know that
all this was a bridge to my writing future?
Don’t ever be fooled into thinking that writing isn’t hard work – it
is, and it requires patience and time. Revision and editing is essential
in the success of every story, article or poem you write. I have spent
endless hours rewriting a story and it still didn’t get accepted.
Writers have to realize too that everything they write isn’t a
masterpiece no matter how good one thinks it is. I started writing a book
several months ago and several people thought it would be the next bestseller. Harlequin Romances requested to see a full manuscript – but you
know what – it still hasn’t landed a home yet. My romance/suspense book is
still unpublished. It may have been a masterpiece in some people’s eyes
but thus far, it continues to be rejected. But I’m not giving up without a
fight. I have a good story line and the talent to get it published but it
won’t happen overnight. The original title I had for this particular book
was SHORT OF A MIRACLE but I changed it to one that fit it better. You
know, it’ll take anything short of a miracle to get it published from the
looks of things.
Whatever the reason you want to become a writer, let that desire
become a reality. Train it, nurture it and give it room to breathe and
grow. Stand back and let your talent take root and see where it leads you.
Don’t let rejection stop you from being the writer you know that you are.
Keep on trying until someone reaches out and accepts your work not once but
many times. Keep on writing no matter how hard the road seems to get. Keep
those creative juices flowing…
Marcella Simmons has been writing professionally since 1988 –
she has over 650 published credits in over 350 small press
publications nationwide. In 2005, Simmons had her first book of
poetry published, and is working on several book projects at
this time. She continues to write a regular weekly column for a
local newspaper in her hometown, as well as many other writing
projects. "Writing is a way of life for me," she says.
Simmons is the mother of eight children (all are grown now) and
she has seven grandchildren with another on the way. "My
family is also a way of life for me, and my inspiration."
stories for children needed In mid-November, Story Something
will launch a new online community for children's stories.
They are currently looking to commission up to 100 short stories for
children between the ages 3 and 8.
Travel writers needed New monthly travel magazine, The
Traveler Family Vacation Guide, and
associated website, thefamilytraveler.net,
are seeking travel writers. At this
stage no payment is offered, but a
byline is given.