Being an independent author can often be as rewarding as it is challenging. Most days, I enjoy the extra tasks that come with it, and in pre-pandemic times, it afforded me many opportunities as a vendor of my own work to get out across Canada and meet readers and writers from all over and all lifestyles. It’s how I met my two friends, Nathan and Stephanie, who helped with the beta reading of The Worth of Gold. In fact, nearly my entire writing network has been cobbled together in such fashion. The vast majority of that network is also independent authors like myself. The few that aren’t independent are signed to smaller, more localised publishers.
I like having the control over the printing, marketing, and promotional aspects of the process, and am learning everything I can about that side of the industry all the time. It’s an exciting process for those inclined towards it, though I respect that many writers simply have no interest in that facet of the publishing world. “To each their own,” as the saying goes.
Sure, there are days when I feel I would benefit from the perks of being represented by a literary agent and printed by one of the major publishers. Yet, I have found contentment and acceptance in the knowledge that I may never achieve any of that.
There are times when it’s a cold, lonely road to walk, granted. I would imagine that such a feeling occurs no matter how your books are published, though. When you dial it back to the art of writing itself, it’s still a joy, and I wouldn’t trade it. I simply love telling stories. How my stories are published, in this day and age, is increasingly irrelevant so long as we writers can craft our tales and the worlds in which they dwell.
Then, you see comments like this one:
The writer has since deleted the tweet, and I don’t feel like promoting them, so, their name, tag, and face are covered. If you did a little digging, you might at least find the original screen grab or even the convo in which the since-deleted tweet originated. Again, it’s not gonna to be me that promotes them. Onward.
Now, there’s a wealth of stuff to break down in that one tweet, and I’m not going to analyse everything he said with a fine-tooth comb. What I will do is speak on his overall belief that self-published books are somehow inherently inferior to those published by traditional means. First off, I disagree with the opinion in the strongest terms possible although that should come without surprise, given how I publish Gold & Steel. However, even if I completely gave up writing entirely, pulled my books from market and had zero stake in the publishing game, I would still say that. My reasons for such derive not just from my own experience, but also from hearing the publishing stories of my contemporaries.
To start, I will say that his opinion is not exactly original. In fact, you can find several amongst the traditionally published and the industry in general who will agree with him. It’s important to understand where that collectively held opinion derives from, and that source is, as you might expect, as antiquated as the gramophone.
In pre-internet days, opinions like the one in the tweet above were so commonplace, that it defaulted to self-fulfilling prophecy. To this end, self-publishing in the 90’s and earlier, was seen as a last resort, and your tools for making it happen were rudimentary or prohibitively expensive. These authors who were overlooked by agents and publishers alike that still wanted to share their work with others were often reduced to doing everything on their own. Editing was up to themselves, more often than not; they relied on artist friends for artwork, or simply had no artwork at all. In terms of printing, your options were to avail of whatever tools were to be found at printing supply stores like Staples to get the job done.
Of course, it’s nothing but an uphill battle, in that case, for the self-published author. Unless you possessed the means of being a perfect self-editor/proof reader you’re going to be at a disadvantage immediately. Marketing was down to word-of-mouth self-promotion. That promotion, of course, was all you had, because visual artistic appeal was largely out the window. Next to the traditionally published, with their access to editors, artists, marketing, near-automatic store placement, and every other perquisite, survival of the self-published by contrast was for only the hardiest of writers. The only other avenue left to self-publishing authors were vanity presses, which the tweet author accuses Amazon of being.
Amazon is many things and much of it might not be complimentary, but a vanity press is not one of them. Vanity presses, for those unaware, are printing houses that pop up seemingly out of nowhere that offer manuscript submissions and then take advantage of the author by having them pay usually outrageous fees to publish. They prey on authors who have been turned down by the big name publishers and are desperate to see their book in print. The print quality is substandard at best, and the authors are generally on the hook for hundreds or even thousands of copies of their book, that they alone are then tasked with selling. Editing and proof reading is largely non-existent, and the manuscript acquisition process is a ploy to make you think you were finally accepted to a publisher. That is, before they start advertising all their printing services to you.
On the contrary, Amazon doesn’t charge for print books, unless you want them. Some authors go eBooks only these days, and they pay for nothing but the paltry setup fee and get up to 70% back on their eBook sales. If you want print books, you can get as few or as many as you want. The prices are fair, and the print quality that I’ve seen is at the industry standard.
Personally, I use Amazon for my eBooks and Ingram Spark for my Gold & Steel print needs. You can find my books in print format on every site that sells books from traditional bookstores like Barnes & Noble, to big-box chains like Wal-Mart, to the usual online shops like Amazon. The quality of Ingram’s print books is at or above the industry standard. While they don’t offer cover printing gimmicks like raised font, they offer every format of printing you could want and all the typical cover options. I can proudly put my book on a shelf next to traditional authors and know that at least the print quality is no lesser than what is around it.
The growing popularity of eBooks blurs the lines between traditional and self-publishing even further. The internet alone is the marketplace for eBooks, and that’s proven to be the great equaliser. A good cover, a solid synopsis/preview, and a few good ratings/reviews can put a self-published author on the exact same standing in an eBook shop as Nora Roberts when it comes to attracting a reader. Apart from the ability to finance a strong marketing campaign and traditional media influence, there’s little that traditional publishers can do to throw their weight around on such a medium.
Today, thanks to the aforementioned, those choosing to independently publish can overcome the vast majority of pre-internet obstacles when it comes time to print. Before you get to that point, the internet has you covered once again. With a little work, research, and as much financial investment as any prospective author can muster, the people you need to help you cross that finish line are just an email away. Sites like Fiverr and such put editors and proof-readers within arm’s reach of writers for reasonable rates. Social media sites and their writer-focused communities bridge that gap in a way that never could be conceived pre-internet. Writers’ resources, be they tutorials, guides, and seminars are as common as grass nowadays. The gift of writing and publishing is being shared by writers from all angles.
Artists from all corners of the globe are willing to offer their services to authors these days too, and the vast majority who cater to that market can do your book cover layouts and printing set-up depending on the template of your printing outfit. Search Google for “pre-made book covers” and prepare to have your mind blown at the options available to authors these days. That’s how I found Rachel at atrtinkcovers.com, who did the latest round of Gold & Steel covers. I paid her for custom work to bring Orangecloak, Tryst, and Marigold to life, but it was only after I found her ready-made work on one of those sites.
How good are these artists? Go on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Indigo right now, pick a genre, and apart from the famous authors that you know are traditionally published, guess at which books in the “Top 100” of that genre are traditionally published or self-published. From the surface alone, it’s often impossible to tell the difference. Visually, the self-publishing game is better than ever.
“Yeah, but it’s the quality of the book itself that sets traditionally published and self-published authors apart.” People who agree with the above tweet might say. You might notice that I’ve not once mentioned quality of the material thus far, and that was by design.
Quality is but one piece of what any of the traditional publishers and the agents who serve them ultimately look for. Each publisher will only sign as many authors as they can handle in a given moment, and a prospective writer needs more than quality to make the cut for that tiny number of available roster spots. These publishers/agents turn away authors by the hundreds while accepting a fraction of that. Do you think that the entirety of the rejected authors are terrible writers?
The truth of the matter is that apart from celebrities whose fame originated outside of writing, the authors on every traditional publisher’s roster have prior rejections with but few exceptions. It’s practically lottery-level odds for an unknown writer to get their work picked up on the first submission to a publisher or an agent. It takes years, and sometimes decades for authors pursuing the traditional route to often get published, if they ever do, and quality alone guarantees nothing.
Factors like timing, market wants/demands, comparable material hitting the mainstream, and general marketability of the material (and sometimes even the author) are all taken into consideration by the acquisition editors/agents when selecting manuscripts for publication/representation. Heck, the general mood of an editor/agent on a given day might be enough for them to decide that a script goes to the slush pile or the reject pile. Yeah, it helps if your book is a page-burner from chapter one, but there’s no one formula for what makes a book a page-burner for any given person and their particular reading tastes. It should be said that many literary agencies will now give you biographies of the agents and their reading preferences, but publishers offer no such insight.
To make a long story longer: there’s no guaranteed formula for being picked for publication. As a writer, you’re going in blind, and are often waiting months or sometimes a year or two, and sometimes even longer, for any sort of answer. The rejections rarely come with any sort of insight into why you were rejected, either. Meaning that most rejected authors are generally coming out of the submission experience no further ahead than when they began. There’s quite often nothing but their own detective work with which to figure out where they might have went wrong.
I’ve been there. I’ve had agents who have never so much as responded to me and also gotten one page template letters of rejection from publishing houses. Go on Twitter under nearly any Writing-centric hashtag and ask it’s frequenters, and you’ll get dozens of identical experiences.
The point I’m trying to impress is that this process is, on its best day, severely flawed when used as a measuring stick of literary quality. The system is geared not towards those who are “actually good enough to land a book deal” as the tweet author stated, but those who are fortunate enough to check off the long, unseen list of differing criteria set by the person, people, and the company that they happen to submit their manuscripts to.
Even if you use the traditional publishers as your arbiter of what is and isn’t worth your reading time, are all traditional publishers themselves all equal in their ability to judge what is and isn’t worth publishing? They are, after all, private companies with dozens if not hundreds of employees (not to mention the authors they’ve signed) who they need to pay in order to stay afloat, and their primary means of revenue in which to do so is book sales. Therefore, it only makes sense that they’re going to push books that they believe will, above all, sell with as little effort as possible. That’s why celebrities get to jump the line. Do you think The Art of the Deal is a must-read guide to the world of business? It’s not exactly textbook reading on the subject, and it’s never going to be seen as such. However, it is, or at least was, a seller due to the fame, (and now the infamy) of its author. Sure, there are highly talented writers amongst the otherwise famous, without a doubt. Look no further than retired pro wrestler Mick Foley. His first book, Have a Nice Day, is still to me, the benchmark of the kind of engaging read that an autobiography can be. The point is that anyone with name power will have an infinitely easier time of landing a book deal with a major publisher because their name alone will draw interest. Quality though, is often just a bonus. Consider even the Fifty Shades of Grey series. Are those books going to be considered a classic literary series? Probably not. However, it is printed by Vintage Books, which is an imprint of Random House. So, by the tweet author’s own standards, it must be of the highest quality, literary consensus be damned.
Given all of this, what are writers to do when it comes time to put their work out there? Do we spend months or even years waiting for even a rejection from traditional publishers for the sake of the seal of approval that comes with it? If that’s what you, as a writer, want to do, then by all means. What of those who don’t want to wait all that time on a chronological gamble while their manuscript does nothing? Why wouldn’t they use tools like Ingram Spark or Amazon KDP to put their books in the same online avenues that the traditional publishers have access to?
The answer is a mixture. Some choose the old route, because while I may not have painted the most flattering picture of it, the traditional publishers still offer a plethora of perquisites. Depending on the book deal, you might have access to marketing funds, promotional tools like traditional media tours, and nearly guaranteed national physical bookstore placement of your books. Many authors though, are forgoing the traditional route entirely and using the tools I spoke of to establish themselves and their books on the market. They’ve not so much as hinted to agents and publishers that they have a manuscript, let alone had it rejected. Millennials especially, and the oldest of the Zoomer generation that are starting to publish, are choosing this path increasingly, making it nearly impossible to judge a books contents based on whether or not a traditional publisher stamped its logo on the spine.
Sure, it can be a mountain to climb if a self-published author wants their books on physical store shelves outside of their local sphere. That’s still admittedly a major disadvantage to self-publishing. You need proven online/in-person sales figures for individual franchises to take a chance on it, and nothing short of a viral sensation will convince companies to stock your books with the same regularity and presence as the traditionally published, but it has happened. The other downside is that once you self-publish, many agents and publishers will simply never want to publish your book, if you decide to try your hand at traditional publishing for the same antiquated reasons I spoke of earlier and that the tweet author espoused.
It should be said that yes, it would be nice to have an agent or a publishing house to take some of the work when it comes to the post-writing aspects of being an author. Yet, I maintain that with a little aptitude and a great deal of continual learning, there’s no reason that it can’t be done successfully by any given author.
There’s also a great deal of work remaining to be done on the image of the independent author. There are many within the industry and the traditional media that reports and reviews literature that refuse to acknowledge the changing trends of said industry. The fact remains though, that traditional publishers are far from the all-controlling juggernauts they once were. Stalwart stone sentinels watching longingly over the industry they might be, but the changing tides will erode even the most stubborn of stones.
Have a subject you would like to see Chris cover in a future blog post? Drop us a comment here or email at thegoldandsteelsaga”at”gmail.com. (replace the “at” with an @).