Renting vs. Owning
I couldn’t wait to own my first house. I mean, I literally couldn’t wait.
The closing date was still a week away, but I was already over at my future home on Taft St. in Hollywood, leveling a plot of soil in the back yard, spreading sand, and installing pavers. There was a covered arbor back there, and I wanted to create a patio where before there was just a patchwork of grass, soil, and loose rock. In the middle of the yard there was also a huge tangle of vines covering an old fish pond. Soon, I would have this up and running as well.
The owner of the house didn’t mind my enthusiasm. In fact, he very much didn’t mind. A lovely gay man, he spent the week sipping lemonade on the new patio and offering suggestions and advice as I worked on what would soon be my yard. I was learning not only how much I would love my first home, but how much I would love improving it and working on it.
I’d had the same experience with my first sailboat, Xerxes. I would stay up past midnight at times with a miner’s light on my forehead doing odd projects around the deck. Owning something is to want to care for it. Especially if you worked hard for the money used to acquire that thing. When something is given to you, or when you’re just renting, it’s hard to put the same effort in for its upkeep and improvement. Not to say it doesn’t happen, just that there’s something primal about sweeping out our caves and putting up some bison art.
There’s a myth out there about self-publishing related to this. Because of the big publishing houses’ eroding market share and growing irrelevance, there’s a concerted effort going on to promote traditional publishing as at least a viable alternative to going it on one’s own. The industry has moved quickly from besmirching self-publishing to attempting to sell the middleman-enriching route. Which is understandable; they want to lure in clients and continue making most of the profits off our art. But there is something abysmally wrong with many of their arguments, and we owe it to aspiring authors to point those fallacies out.
The particular myth I’m talking about here is that self-publishing requires a lot of hard work, while traditional publishing means all you have to do is write the manuscript. This is plain nonsense, of course. Publishers expect authors to promote their works, to engage on social media, to answer emails, to do signings and interviews, and much more. And this ignores the massive amount of work it takes to even get published (researching agents, writing queries, tracking responses, doing rewrites).
But let’s set aside the fact that authors of all stripes have to work their butts off to make a living at this. What pundits and publishers miss, because they have no experience with it themselves, is that self-published authors don’t work harder because they have to. They work harder because they want to.
Authors who have only traditionally published also fall prey to this myth. They’ve only ever rented. They sign ownership of their art away, and now they are punching a clock, toiling for peanuts, and that’s not a motivator to toil more. It’s a disincentive. Which is why most authors work a day job teaching creative writing, procrastinate, phone in manuscripts at the last minute, and waste their prodigious talents. They are like the first European settlers who starved to death in a land of plenty because they knew all their hard work was going to be seized by the sponsor company.
That pundits, publishers, agents, and editors don’t get this is frankly startling to me. They see the incredible hours that self-published authors put in, and they assume that it’s forced drudgery. That the work is necessary. Maybe because they are all punching clocks, they don’t know what owning your own business feels like.
Small business owners reading this are nodding their entrepreneurial heads. They went from punching a clock to taking a chance, to believing in themselves, and when they saw that their efforts brought immediate and direct rewards, it made them want to work harder. It is this reward mechanism that people are seeing across the self-publishing landscape, rather than any necessity born by the publishing path. There is striving, yes. But much of it is happy striving.
The really pathetic response to this, even when some in the biz understand the psychology behind why self-published authors work so hard, is to say, “Not everyone wants to be a small business owner.” Or basically: “Not everyone wants to own their own home.” And: “Not everyone wants to be their own boss, work their own hours, and be in charge of their lives.”
How dehumanizing. Not everyone wants agency? Self-actualization is the highest on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You basically have an entire industry out there trying to brainwash artists into not valuing the creative freedom opened up to them by simple digital tools and print technologies that have made the middlemen irrelevant. You’ve got an entire industry subsisting on the cruel art of learned helplessness.
You don’t have to go it alone if you self publish. Join a critique group. Form a writing club. Hire an agent, editor, assistant, or publicist. “But not everyone wants to take all that risk,” the agents of helplessness will say. As if a $15,000 advance paid out over two years is either a heavy burden to them or a saving amount of money for an artist. Besides, it’s the artist taking the risk either way.
The author who plans to submit works a day job and writes on the side for years until they hammer out that first rough draft. Those hours represent otherwise lost wages. And what would they really have to risk in order to own their art instead of being renters? The cost to self-publish a professionally edited manuscript, with brilliant cover art, is less than the cost of a computer, or a work truck, or the first month’s lease on a retail space. Each book is a small business with almost no startup costs. And the manufacturing costs are both minimal and one-time (editing, cover art). After these, you just upload, press a button, and a retail partner does the rest.
The real risk is selling art for cheap, accepting horrid contracts and low royalties, and placing pricing decisions in the hands of misguided corporate suits who want to protect some pathways to readers at the expense of others. Or trusting these suits to negotiate fairly and competently with your prime retail partners. That’s risk. And it’s a risk fewer and fewer authors are going to want to take, and the response is going to be myths and zombie memes and fear-mongering from the middlemen who are missing out.
Whenever you see them warning you about all the hard work it takes to self-publish, understand that they are dead wrong. Self-publishing doesn’t take extra hard work, it just makes the work so much more enticing and rewarding that you’re likely to do more of it. Anyone who has ever owned, rather than rented, will understand the difference. And anyone claiming that we would all just be happier to rent, or to give up control of our creative endeavors, or wave away our human agency, is selling something you should be wary of anyway.