"But what better time to be an author?! All any writer wants is the chance to reach an audience and see what happens from there. Just a chance. And it's looking like everyone's going to get that chance." — Nathan Bransford
Receiving rejection from a publisher no longer spells doom to a writing career. Today, writers who are rejected trying to get into the front door of the publishing industry can find a way in through the back door of self-publishing. The process is not without its pitfalls, however.
N. Frank Daniels’s Futureproof was published this year by Harper after years of struggle and wandering through the murky wastelands of the slush pile, the place where unsolicited manuscripts linger. When you read Futureproof, you realize why — Daniels is writing in an experimental way in an attempt to give voice to a culture and a segment of a generation.
To criticism of his writing style, Daniels responds in an interview at The New Podler Review of Books, “The two biggest requests I’ve had from agents and publishers since Futureproof started getting noticed is to add more ‘plot,’ followed by asking if I could possibly call it a memoir (codespeak for ‘did all of this really happen?’). In the end I decided against doing either of those things because I felt it would be compromising myself too much artistically. Life isn’t about ‘plot,’ nothing is ever really tied up neatly, and that’s what I wanted to do with this story: give an accurate representation of how life is really lived in this segment of the population.”
Undeterred, Daniels published his Generation X manifesto through self-publishing outfit Lulu.com. His book found an audience via social-networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. Eventually, Futureproof found a home at Harper, and Daniels received a mainstream publishing deal.
Writer Jeremy Robinson has traveled a similar road. With his thriller Antarktos Rising — a gripping tale of a sudden and dramatic global climate change, the inexplicable greening of Antarctica, and Biblical monsters — Robinson had trouble overcoming mainstream publishers’ reluctance, possibly because of the book’s Christian slant. Like Daniels, Robinson decided to take his case to the people, and he won: His book sold well on Amazon.com, thanks to viral YouTube videos and word of mouth, well enough that he was able to get a mainstream contract for his next thriller, Kronos.
There are a number of others: the phenomenal bestseller Eragon started out as a self-published book. More recently, Still Alice by Lisa Genova has broken into the mainstream.
HOW DOES SELF-PUBLISHING WORK?
Companies like Lulu.com, iUniverse.com, Author Solutions or Amazon's Create Space operate via web sites. Creating an account enables you to upload your digital file. There is a certain kind of creative freedom involved: The book can be about nearly anything and doesn’t necessarily have to be a door stopper — you can publish something much shorter than what would traditionally be required by a publisher.
Once your file is uploaded, the company prints the book, one copy at a time, as orders come in. Copies can be ordered through the company web site or through other distribution channels, such as Amazon.com, depending on the distribution options that you select. In most cases, however, such books will not be ordered by brick-and-mortar bookstores, primarily because bookstores cannot return the unsold books to the publisher.
The cost to the writer varies from nothing at Lulu.com and Create Space for a bare-bones, do-it-yourself option, to many thousands of dollars for premium options at Author Solutions.
For the struggling mainstream publishing industry, self-publishing could be a good solution: If the writer does all the hard work of writing a great book, then also editing and promoting it, and if that effort translates into sales, all that mainstream publishers have to do is to swoop in and pluck the winner. For others, like Amazon, self-publishing could be a potential goldmine of bestsellers free of strings to old-line publishers, if its new program, AmazonEncore, manages to find the next James Patterson or John Grisham.
However, some critics warn authors against self-publishing, portraying it as nothing more than a pay-to-play scheme.
“It’s being presented as a real route to commercial success, and while that might be true for a lucky few, most writers who participate in these schemes are not going to do well out of them,” writes the author of the blog How Publishing Really Works.
Also, a great deal of investment may be required on the writer’s part for people in the mainstream to take his or her work seriously. For example, Still Alice author Lisa Genova hired a public relations firm to raise awareness of her book. As a result, “one reporter, Beverly Beckham for The Boston Globe, was interested in taking a look at the work.” writes the publicist.
The necessity for initial outlay is what makes self-publishing tricky; if done right, self-publishing places the onus of editing and publicity, traditionally the job of the publisher, on the writer. But most self-published authors lack the resources to professionally edit, promote or design their book. Tempted by the ease of “getting it out there,” they end up publishing into a vacuum, their work never able to attract any attention.
Nevertheless, self-publishing venues are not going away anytime soon. In fact, the phenomenon is growing. Lulu.com alone publishes 4,000 titles a week and has doubled in size every year, according to a 2008 article in The Guardian. Its catalog includes 232,000 titles.
And the possibilities for instant publishing are expanding, with print editions no longer the only option for aspiring authors. Amazon, the maker of the Kindle digital platform, has positioned itself to become a powerhouse digital publisher by offering the opportunity for writers to publish their own work directly to Kindle. (Amazon offers a choice here, actually: You can publish not only movies and other content through Create Space, but books as well.)
In addition, mainstream publishers are not entirely willing to give up on the possibility of finding diamonds in the rough. Recently, HarperCollins launched a 21st-century version of the slush pile called Authonomy.com. Using this venue, a book can come to Harper’s attention if readers vote on it frequently enough to make it rise through the pile.
Still, writers who want to go the self-publishing route should think carefully about doing so. Most of those who self-publish, said How Publishing Really Works, “aren’t likely to make many sales; the writers who pay extra for services like editing and design are unlikely to even earn their money back.”
Writer Beware, the blog warns, “For most writers … the path of self-publishing offers substantial downsides and pitfalls.”
SELF-PUBLISHED BOOK REVIEW BLOGS
For authors who choose self-publishing, the first hurdle is writing a good story, then having it professionally edited. After that, it is all about getting attention. To this end, writers may want to consider submitting their work to a self-published book review blog (since virtually no mainstream review venue outside of Blogcritics will consider reviews of self-published books). Here are some of the most well-respected sites to consider: