“Everywhere we look, big things and small things, material things and lifestyle things, life is a matter of choice… And the question is, is this good news, or bad news? And the answer is yes.” ~ Barry Schwartz
I teach a college course titled “Contemporary Issues in the Humanities,” and one of my favorite TED Talks to show and to discuss is The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz, based on his book by the same name. Schwartz’s analysis of today’s plethora of choices as being both good news and bad news is spot on for writers. Just a few years ago, a writer with a finished manuscript who wanted to be published had two choices, three at the most: seek an agent or submit the manuscript directly to publishers as an author. The third possibility–self-publishing with a vanity press–came at both financial expense and a potential cost to one’s professional reputation.
Today, however, the number of choices can seem overwhelming: agent or direct submission? Self-publish? If self-publishing, ebook or paper or both? Distribute on Kindle or Nook or something else? Offered at what price? At what stage of revision?
The good news is that more choices give writers more control. We’ve all heard the stories of famous authors and highly acclaimed books that were rejected ten, twenty, or more times before being published. What if they had given up? Or died?
This summer, I made the decision to self-publish a work of historical fiction for children, Oscar’s Gift: Planting Words with Oscar Micheaux. When I wrote the book, self-publishing was the furthest thing from my mind. In fact, I wasn’t thinking much about publishing at all during the book’s creation. This was both a change and a relief for me, as my four previous non-fiction books had all been written only after I’d secured a commitment from a publisher. As much as I value the security of having a book contract in hand, I’ve also found that I enjoy writing more when I write as I did when I first began freelancing, “on spec.”
Oscar, as I’ve come to call this particular project, was different in other ways, as well. It was my first work of fiction, other than short stories, as well as my first book for elementary-age children. Oscar grew from personal history (that of a farm girl with the dream of being a writer), a sense of place (rural South Dakota), and an immersion in a historical figure and time period (homesteader, novelist, and film maker Oscar Micheaux at the turn of the 20th century). In the spring of 2010, the book landed an agent. This was new, as well. I’d been lucky (or naive) enough to have published without an agent to this point. But more about that at the end of the piece.
While I am by no means an expert in indie authorship at this point, I want to share my reasons for choosing this road and offer some possible takeaways for other writers.
Why I Chose to Go Indie
1. Publishing Trends. The topic and tone of Oscar are a hard sell in today’s traditional children’s market, which is geared more and more toward fast commercial success. Much of the feedback we received from editors about Oscar’s Gift had to do with current trends and expectations. Some noted that the figure of Micheaux is not well known. Others felt that the book could have a “strong life” in libraries and schools but would not “break out” in today’s market. My friends half-joked that I should add a prairie vampire or dystopian plot twist.
Had the overall response been less positive toward the book itself or pointed toward more sweeping editorial changes, I would have considered a complete overhaul and resubmission. As it was, I briefly considered re-writing the novel for adults, or following the idea of one editor to transform the story into a picture book. In the end, though, I knew this was the story I wanted to tell, with this particular young protagonist and for this particular age range. I was well aware that mine is a quiet book told in a classic children’s style (an attribute my agent helped me to see) rather than a trendy blockbuster, and I wanted to give it the chance for that possible strong and long life in schools and libraries, as well as an audience of, perhaps, intense and quiet readers.
The Takeaway: Pay attention to feedback. One negative comment is no cause for weeping and wailing, but a general trend of suggestions can be very useful. Never be afraid to revise. That’s what writers do. At the same time, be careful to discern criticism about your writing from analysis of marketing potential, and spend some time thinking about your book’s readership.
2. Surprised by a Platform. My best writing buddy helped me to realize early this summer that, rather than think of myself as building a platform, I needed to realize I am already standing on one, and it’s high time I use it. This took me completely by surprise. I’ve been blogging for only a little over a year and consider myself still a beginner, and, I’m not always comfortable with the social aspect of social media. However, I’d forgotten about the other planks that make up a platform: public speaking events, articles and guest pieces, involvement in organizations. After my friend’s nudge, I decided to test the waters, and I queried Psychology Today about writing a blog in my area of non-fiction expertise. By the end of the day, literally, I had my own PT blog, “Creative Synthesis,’ which is yet another platform plank, ready to be nailed in place.
I guess my friend was right.
As I considered the self-publishing option, I reminded myself that I have a bit of a base with which to market and promote a book. My name may not be as recognizable as Lois Lowry, but I have a start, built over several years, and that’s something.
The Takeaway: Platforms can’t be built overnight, and they are more about involvement, persistence, and relationships than they are about rankings and followers. I think that the reason I didn’t see the platform underneath my feet was that I was having so much fun building it! The idea of a platform has always seemed dry and business-like to me, and I cringe–just a little–when I heard the word. But maybe the best platforms are also about following your bliss, in the best Joseph Campbell sense, and not being afraid to connect on a deep and real level with others who share your interest and passion. This kind of platform is very hard to begin building from scratch simultaneous with self-publishing.
3. Getting in the Flow of Formatting. Unless you are willing to pay someone to prepare your ebook files or print-on-demand paperback (I wasn’t), you need to know or be open to learning some computer skills and even some programming. If you already have some experience with writing html web pages and using css style sheets, and if you have a good eye for page and cover design, then the process of getting your books in the hands and on the screens of readers might be fun. It was for me.
However, if you have little patience for or interest in more than the most basic of word processing, if you are a writer who just wants to write, period, then self-publishing could be one big, expensive headache.
As a college teacher of technical writing, I have some background in this area, and I still became frustrated at times. The biggest mistake I made was not to label all of my files-in-progress along the way. Because I wanted to make the ebook edition look as nice as it could in all formats, I had separate files for Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords, and, at one point, I couldn’t tell which was the most recent versions and uploaded the wrong files (they were soon fixed). The next time, I’m going to make separate folders for each ereader and use a dating system in the file names, as well as immediately archiving older versions, where they are out of the way but not gone entirely.
The Takeaway: Self-publishing is a big commitment of time, energy, and skill. The skills are not difficult, but they are not necessarily pleasurable nor do they come easily for everyone. If you don’t want to pay for these services, make sure you give yourself plenty of time to learn the ropes and to practice before publishing your masterpiece.
4. Ready for a Learning Curve. Oscar has been written, revised, submitted, critiqued, formatted, and is now available in paperback, for Kindle and Nook and soon for iBooks. For me, though, the hard work is just beginning.
Some of you who are reading this may thrive on promotion and marketing and social media. I envy you. I’m the girl who got her parents to buy all of the candy bars or wreaths or whatever else I had to sell for school organizations. I know, however, that Oscar needs a champion in order to be read, and that champion is me. So I’m ready to put aside fears of what others might think (the “Who does she think she is?” kind of fears), ready to research and apply what has worked for other authors, and ready to share this next leg of my journey on my own blog, so that others can learn from my mistakes and, I hope, some small success. In the end, I hope to grow a little as a person, as well.
The Takeaway: Whether it’s revision and textual polishing, or ebook and paperback formatting, or marketing and publicity, some aspect of self-publishing will probably be uncomfortable for you. Are you willing to go there? To ride out the learning curve? To commit yourself for the long haul? To risk not meeting your expectations and having nowhere for the buck to stop but at your feet?
The Big Takeaway
I want to end with a story about relationships and the answer to a question that may have crossed your mind: Why am I writing about indie authorship on an agent’s blog? When my agent, whose name happens to be Bree Ogden, and I decided to let the contract for Oscar lapse after a year of submissions (not at all a long time, by the way, in the world of agent submissions), I was more than a little sad, even though we came to the decision mutually. She loved the story of 11-year-old Tomas and Oscar from the start, and she helped me to see it and value it in a new way. Once I decided to self-publish the book, I was unsure of how my decision might affect our relationship. As the launch date grew nearer, however, I knew that I needed to reach out.
My email brought the most gracious, supportive response from Bree I could imagine. You see, we writers often forget that writing and publishing is nothing if not about relationships. I learned that lesson with my first publisher ten years ago, whose professional support, mentorship, and friendship continue to sustain and to guide me to this day.
We write in the hopes not just to sell books, but to have a special relationship with readers, and anyone who believes in the power of books is part of that relationship. And, in that, there is no bad news.
For more information on how to get your hands on a copy of Lisa’s new book, see here.
IMPORTANT: This link outlines many of the realistic expectations indie authors should have (counteracting the ebook-millionaire myth) and shows that self-publishing isn’t the right choice for every author or every book.