Monday, November 17, 2008

When self-publishing can work

Oh, I'm back, for the most part. I'm still knee-deep in edits and about to get back to serious writing work. And I forgot today was Monday because I was hanging out at Murder One in London on Saturday, and we went shopping in Bristol on Sunday (Xmas gifts for the kiddies--we think we're actually about done with the girls already as far as buying presents, which is great), so yesterday felt like Saturday and I'm all confused.

But, I did say I would do a post on this, so here it is!

I used to be a little punk girl. I guess in a way I still am, even though I don't actively keep up with the scene or go to shows anymore because, y'know, that whole I-have-two-young-children thing. And really, at 35, I don't necessarily want to be the oldest person in the room. But it never really goes away. I still listen to the bands I used to listen to; every band I mention in the Downside books is a band I listen to and like.

So the word "indie" is one I'm familiar with, and one whose meaning I know well--which is to say, I know it well enough to know that a band released by a major label is not an indie band, no matter how they might want to pretend they are.

And I admit, it feels kind of weird to be such an advocate of Big Publishing, when I spent so much of my late teens and early 20s hugely involved in the indie world. My ex ran a very small record label, which I used to help him with. I remember being told by a certain member of a certain band that they were about to sign a major-label contract and being fairly horrified. I didn't say anything, but the words "SELL OUT! SELL OUT!" appeared shreiking red in my brain. And I still think of them that way.

But there's a big difference between the punk music world and publishing. Music is a very different medium; there is an entire subculture--with its own subcultures--devoted to certain types of music, whose members eat, sleep, and breathe that music. There's magazines like Maximum RocknRoll ("MRR"), or smaller personal zines, who do reviews and interviews, and whose tour dates are listed. You can go see a band play and buy their CDs and t-shirts; the only record stores I went into for years were small indie stores.

And everybody knows everybody else in the punk world. We used to have bands stay at our house; they'd have friends who were in other bands with them. You got to know which labels produced the kinds of bands you liked. It's very easy to grow in that world, if you're any good.

Publishing does not have this kind of supportive underground. It just doesn't. Hordes of kids don't gather to hear a writer read from their indie novel. I think this is largely because it's not as much fun to drink beer and leap around and listen to somebody read out loud as it is to drink beer, leap around, and shout along to music. You can't jump up onstage and start reading along, like you can at a punk show. Not to mention how much more subjective reading tastes are than musical tastes.

So while an indie band stands a good chance at some sort of success (even if it's simply not having to spend any of their own money to tour), an indie book has a much, much harder slog. There are no big shows where people get together and talk about books and share copies of books. There is no MRR to review indie books (although MRR used to do some book reviews on occasion.) There just isn't this thriving group of dedicated people.

Which is why self-publishing for fiction is so difficult.

Non-fiction has it a bit easier. For example, say you are a model train enthusiast, and you've written a book about a particular aspect of model trains. A major publisher would probably not be that interested, because the audience isn't likely to be more than a couple of thousand. But you could self-publish that, and your friends and fellow model train enthusiasts would probably be eager to buy it. You could earn yourself a tidy little sum with that book; you could have a lot of readers. You could take it to model train conventions. You could set up a model train website and sell copies; you could be interviewed in model train magazines. In other words, although you yourself do not have a platform, your subject already does.

Or perhaps you're a teacher or professor, and you've written a book about your topic. You could sell it to your students and do well. Same if you're an inspirational speaker or regularly give talks on a subject; maybe you give tips on public speaking, and do seminars on it. Your little book of public-speaking tips could be sold at your engagements, and bring in an extra few hundred bucks at all of your speeches. Or maybe you're an ex-pilot who's written a book for people afraid to fly. Or you make historical costumes and have put together a book of tips, which can be sold at vintage clothing stores and/or websites, of which there are hundreds. Or you've written about Barbie collecting (though of course you'd need to be careful in that case about copyright and trademarks). Or knitting socks. Anything that ties in with something else can be a nice little platform for self-published non-fiction.

Or for another example, there's my summer series on sex scenes. I still haven't decided fully what to do with it, but in addition to other thoughts, I've considered simply turning it into a PDF and offering it as a free download on Lulu, even giving the option to have it as a print book (the reader would have to pay for the book itself, but I would probably either not charge anything over the printing cost or it would be a dollar for charity or something.) I don't have a huge platform but I do have one, by way of the blog and my published books. So I anticipate if I did that it would sell fairly well. A lot of writers do this sort of thing; I know Holly Lisle offers a lot of writing-guide downloads etc. on her website and she's probably far from the only one.

But in those cases there is already a platform, and that is so important for self-publishing. And they're both non-fiction. For fiction...

Well, for fiction you're going to have a very hard time.

I'm always amazed when I see authors's websites which do not have any excerpts or anything. This happens often with, say, PA authors, and it confuses the hell out of me. Why would you not show the readers what they're getting? In what world do you expect people to buy a book without knowing anything about it? Your website is supposed to help sell your books; nobody cares about your cats or your husband, they want to see your book. And if your book isn't in stores, you need to work harder to suck them in. You need to build the platform you do not otherwise have, basically.

This is why I don't normally think self-publishing is a good idea for fiction. How are readers going to find you? They might find your non-fic book because they're looking for model trains, but what will they be looking for to find your novel? What is going to draw them to it? Why would they buy it instead of a book in stores?

Because contrary to what some scam publishers may try and tell their victims "authors", most people buy books from bookstores. Oh yes, some buy at WalMart or Target or the grocery store, but most novels are sold in bookstores. (Those statistics about the huge percentage of books not sold in bookstores include vanity-press books, textbooks, technical pamphlets and guidebooks, self-published books, etc. etc. etc.) It's difficult to impossible to get self-published books into bookstores, or any stores, and that's why if you're writing fiction it's best to go with the biggest publisher you can. And if you keep getting rejected? You write a better book until one of them makes it.

I know it's not what people necessarily want to hear. And I know it kind of sucks. And I think on Thursday I'm going to talk about this some more, because I have more to say.

But the bottom line is, self-publishing is not necessarily a bad thing, and it's not necessarily a sign that your work isn't good enough to interest a major house or even a smaller one. It can work. Specialized non-fiction can do very well self-published.

But fiction's another story, and I'll talk about it a bit on Thusday.


Anonymous said...


Some of the greatest ever have been accused of "selling out" -The Clash, Metallica, Van Halen (o.k. Van Halen really did). I think it was James Hetfield (Metallica) who answered the accusation best, “Yeah, we sold out: every show, every night, every building”.

You do what you do but be true to you. -V95

December/Stacia said...

See, I want to agree, but I just...can't. Even though I know I should. It's the memory of that Cobain person and his stupid "Corporate magazines still suck" t-shirt on the cover of Rolling Stone, like he was somehow above all the pandering and ass-kissing he was doing.

But I do consider publishing to be a different story. It's simply not possible to make a living self-publishing fiction (hell, it's extremely difficult to make a decent living writing fiction for the big houses), whereas a top indie band can make a quite comfortable living without going corporate.

BernardL said...

Unless a person has a secret desire to be a carnival barker, self-publishing is not the way to go. As you point out, either keep submitting, or write another one they'll accept. No comment on punk rock. :)

laughingwolf said...

exactly so, dee... how-to books also work in the self-pub area

December/Stacia said...

Lol, Bernard, exactly! That's exactly what it's like. I see self-pubbed authors all the time, joining online forums just to post about their book, or thinking of ridiculous ways to promote their books; it's really sad.

Right, LW! Good point. That's another good idea for self-pub. My BFF bought a self-pubbed book on potty training and it was pretty helpful; the woman who wrote it seems to be doing great business with it, especially as when you buy the book you get free consultations with her by email, anytime.

laughingwolf said...

good stuff sells well, and the best help is from happy readers/users who tell their friends of their 'finds'

Declan Stanley said...

I always think it's so unfair (Because life is so fair) that if you're an independent band, or film maker, or artist you are expressing yourself without the corporate suits telling you what to say, but if you are an independent (self-published) author it is because you're not good enough to get signed by a "real" publisher.
A quick search on YouTube will show that there are as many bad musicians and "film makers" out there as there are bad authors.
As for selling out I'd be more than happy to sell out, for the right price :)

RfP said...

"Non-fiction has it a bit easier. ... although you yourself do not have a platform, your subject already does."

True. Isn't that part of why so many fiction authors have bios that correspond closely to the storyline? "Mavis Insecta, author of The Bee and I: A Love Story, was an apprentice beekeeper in college and is married to the love of her life." None of that need be mentioned. Including it is in part an attempt to give the author a nonfictional platform.