One of the hottest topics of discussion among writers remains whether to self-publish or to query literary agents who in turn pitch the manuscript to a publishing house. The discussion creates a number of political camps: some see value in indie publishing; some see it as a disservice to readers. There are those who see indie publishing—along with the digital revolution that brought it about—as a destabilizing threat to the industry and the livelihood of many.
Blanket statements about the value of indie publishing won’t work to the extent they don’t acknowledge that there are different types of writers who are at different points in their careers. Here are three categories of writers that I’ve made up from the top of my head.
Career Writers — These are the folks who devote time to developing their writing talent, study one or two genres and take time to learn everything they can about the publishing industry. Career writers make writing a habit and keep at it. The most important project to them is very often their next book.
They know the market is fickle and that it favors a body of work. They understand that it’s not wise—and most likely a waste of time and resources—to attempt to write a best seller; to stake their career on one great book; or to invest in an expensive marketing campaign.
Good writers — This category consists of those who have a facility with language and can convincingly express their ideas or have a knack for telling stories. They may be naturally gifted, self-taught or have training in professional or creative writing. None of this, however, easily translates into a compelling book that the market will receive with acclaim.
Aspirational Writers — These are the folks who may, or may not, have sufficient talent to build a following. They often haven’t adopted a genre and may not be fully aware of the rules and conventions of the novel as an art form. Their primary motivation to write may be as a type of personal expression.
I take issue with those who would silence the aspirational writers. There will always be low-quality books no matter how much we complain. There are easy strategies we can use to avoid them. You can carefully evaluate reviews, get personal recommendations or wait until an unknown book proves itself in the marketplace. You don’t have to be the canary that is subject to noxious fumes when forced to remain deep in a dubious mine.
My Way or the Highway — Some believe that self-publishing is a bad way to start a writing career. I’ve never fully understood all the arguments. The confusion, again, seems to be the unstated assumption that there is only one type of writer. This political camp does its position a disservice by relying on fuzzy arguments that appear to be aimed at folks who think writing a novel is a relatively quick and easy way to wealth and fame.
A well thought-out decision on whether a writer wants to pursue a traditional publishing contract should be based on her knowledge of the industry, what she aims to accomplish in publishing a book and the point where she happens to be in her career as a writer.
Choosing Traditional Publishing — My guess is that most of the well-meaning advice we hear about “choosing” traditional publishing is directed at those who know very little or nothing about the publishing industry. To the cognoscenti, this is nothing but spurious tripe. The fact is that choice doesn’t exist; only celebrities can choose traditional publishing.
On the other hand, I know a few career writers who self-publish and no amount of convincing (except the mid range of a six figure contract) will make them accept an offer from a traditional publisher. One outlier is Barry Eisler, who made the news because he turned down a half million dollar offer.
Most first-time authors who go through the gauntlet—and end up selected for publication—are offered a $5,000 contract paid over three years. Many writers rightly calculate that signing away all the rights of their manuscript for such a meager offer isn’t worth it. They take into account that after the book’s initial run and market exposure of a few months, the book has a 98% probability of disappearing forever.
Under most contracts, the publisher reserves the right not to publish and distribute the book. Sometimes they exercise that right without ever publishing your book! The author can complain in court, but really doesn’t have a strong case. The comeback is that she received $5,000 worth of consideration in exchange for the publisher’s purchase of the manuscript.
Instead of going to court, you could contact your literary agent and politely suggest that the publisher overlook the contract terms so you can get the rights to your book back. After all, what’s the publisher got to lose?
If your agent is returning your phone calls at this point, you may be in luck.
Where are you in your career as a writer?
Painting: Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)