You’ve written a novel. You keep hearing all this buzz about self-publishing, but you’ve always imagined going the other route, getting an agent, landing a publishing contract, having that book hit store shelves. You’re not sure what to do. You get conflicting advice and all these anecdotes from friends and strangers online. What to do?
I’m seeing this conundrum a lot at WorldCon. I’ve met a lot of authors weighing their options, seen a ton of hands shoot up in panels hoping for that one last piece of advice to push them off the fence one way or the other. There’s a path on both sides of that fence, and writers can see crowds beating the grass flat. They can see the books that lie along either way. My advice, for what it’s worth, is to stop looking at those crowds and those books. Look at the work in your hand.
One of the greatest fears with self-publishing is that your book will be crap. Well? Is it? Look at it. Stop looking at what you see out there on store shelves and on e-bookstores. The path will not greatly shape your book. It simply won’t.
Sure, you will get some editing and some advice either way you go. The book will change a little. But that’s true along either path. Because you take this seriously, right? You aren’t going to publish a rough draft any more than you are going to query an agent with a rough manuscript. There are those people out there, but that’s not you. Stop looking at them. The work is the work.
If you send a rough draft to an agent, it’s going to get rejected. That thing better be polished almost to the point of self-publication. That means you workshopped it, had it critiqued, had some beta reads, have done seven, eight, nine full passes through the work on your own. You’ve read it aloud, looking for typos. You’ve had a text-to-speech program read it aloud, listening for typos. You haven’t done this? Neither path will lead where you hope.
But you’ve done all this if you are pondering this decision. You’ve got that perfect work. Is it good enough for an agent? For a publisher? They are more discriminating than readers. For them, it can’t just be a good work, it has to be marketable. Shelvable. It has to fit a mold, an expectation, a time and place. It has to be like that last thing that sold well, but not too like all the other things that are about to go on sale from the same people.
The reader just cares if they like it. The agent and the publisher can love it and still reject it.
The work is the work. Whichever path you choose, it won’t become drek just because you self-published. Books don’t rub off on each other like this. If anything, you will shine by comparison. And along that other path, where the books are all professional and polished, you can’t see the ones that didn’t make it. The slush pile is buried. It’s behind those bushes, out of sight. The work is the work.
We fear self-publishing because of the stigma, but it is rapidly fading. We fear it because there are so many bad books out there, but those aren’t your books. We gaze longingly at the beautiful hardbacks lined up in the store windows, but those aren’t yours either. And the path didn’t make them that way. Not all that way.
This is the great barrier, I think. There’s the dream that someone will accept a manuscript that isn’t done and they will somehow turn it into a bestseller. There’s the fear that somehow the awesome book that blows the minds of everyone who reads it will become rubbish as it is dragged through the muddy track of self-publishing. My advice is to worry about that work in your hand. And pick a path with zero expectations that the ground will magically move beneath your feet. How far you get is up to you and the work you put in, either way you go.