I’ve been wanting to write about the rising popularity of self-publishing (or indie publishing) for quite some time. Several months, actually. I keep putting it off, partly because there’s already quite a lively conversation about it going on, and partly because I’m conflict adverse. (I know, and I’m a blogger, right? What was I thinking?)
I’ve been studying the publishing industry, and the indie publishing movement, with my trademark intensity for the past year or more. I have a lot of thoughts about it that I’ve been keeping, for the most part, to myself. But one of the key insights that I would like to share is this: Writing is a business.
It’s easy for us, when speaking about the arts, to entangle our emotions with our work. Which is as it should be. But in my experience, the farther apart we can keep our emotions from business, the better. I’m not saying we as artists and creators cannot or should not have emotions. But emotions can easily blind us towards making pragmatic business decisions (see the “practical” in my blog’s title).
Writing is a business. Every writer whose goal is to have a writing career is, in essence, running a small business. Whether she knows it (or wants it) or not. This seems obvious to me because I’ve just come off seven years of running my own small business in another arts-related field. But I’ve noticed that not all writers display this attitude, and it certainly wasn’t ever something I considered before becoming a small business owner.
Here’s the thing about starting and running your own small business: There is always risk involved. Always. Business is about calculated risk. There is always the chance that the business will fail. There is always the chance that your marketing campaign won’t work the way you hoped, even if you spent tons of time and money to make it happen. There’s the chance that the economy will take a downturn and shoot you in the foot. There’s the (terrible) chance that you won’t end up being any good at your business of choice.
It’s the same deal with writing. Even though writing doesn’t necessarily require a large outlay of financial capital, we’re putting ourselves on the line. Our work may not be popular. It may not attract the attention it needs to be successful. We may make it partway down the line, only to come to an abrupt halt. As in all businesses, there are many things that can go wrong.
Self-publishing carries this same risk. Because writing is a business. And maybe the material we self-publish will turn out to be really badly received. Or maybe no one will even notice it exists. Or, horror of horrors, maybe it will keep us from ever getting a traditional publishing deal if it turns out we made the wrong choice (or are playing it safe by pursuing both options at the same time).
As business people, our job is not to condemn without thought and research. Our job is to examine, as dispassionately as we are able, our different business options. Some of us will feel more comfortable doing this than others; some of us have a more entrepreneurial spirit, whereas some of us feel more comfortable taking an established path. There is no right answer here, folks. But after examining the current state of publishing, I believe that self publishing is a viable alternative (or a building block in a larger overall strategy) that should not be ignored.
Those of you following this debate on the internet have heard all about Amanda Hocking and J.A. Konrath, and now the big news this week is Barry Eisler turning down a $500k traditional publishing deal to self-publish instead. Yes, these are big names. No, not everyone who tries self-publishing will enjoy their degree of success. No, I don’t believe it’s a clear-cut decision about which path to pursue.
My point is this: Whichever path we choose as writers, there will always be risk involved. Anyone involved in the industry has heard a few choice horror stories about how traditional publishing has gone horribly awry. Self-publishing has its own unpleasant pitfalls. When we dive into either side of the industry, we don’t know how it’s going to go. When I started as a music teacher, I put up some ads on Craigslist. I didn’t know if anyone would answer them. My business could have been a bust before I even started. We experience the same thing in publishing, whether we send our manuscript out to agents or stick it up on Amazon and Smashwords.
Whatever path we choose, it won’t be easy. Self-publishing isn’t a shortcut; it requires a lot of hard work. Whatever path we choose, it won’t be fast. Craft takes the same time to develop, regardless, and while traditional publishing can take years even after you have a viable book (between finding an agent, finding a publisher, getting a release date, actually releasing the book, and performing all the necessary work between these steps), self publishing can take a long time too (between outsourcing various needs like editing and cover art, building a catalog of titles for sale, building a reputation as a writer, etc.) The key is to educate ourselves about the options (traditional publishing, self-publishing, the small presses, the e-editions only presses), look at the different risks involved, crunch some numbers, and then decide which option (or combination of options) makes the best sense for our business. While doing this, we need to keep in mind our business goals and our unique blend of strengths and weaknesses while making sure we consider both sides of a strategy (this means reading thoughts by people who are both for and against self-publishing, and the valuable neutrals if you can find them). Businesses in the same sector have different strategies, and that’s okay. Some will fail, which is sad but not out of the ordinary.
However, I can’t help but feel that innovation can be exciting as well as scary. I’m following the twists and turns of the publishing landscape with great interest, and I’m trying to avoid being overly critical of anyone. Because technology is changing the landscape, and we’re all a part of that, and we’re all trying to figure out what parts we can play in the change. Ultimately, we all love writing, and we all love books, and we all want to ensure that many wonderful books (in whatever format) are available to be loved and enjoyed. I see a lot of badmouthing on both sides of this issue, which is perhaps inevitable, but in the essentials, we’re all in this together. We merely have different visions of how to chart a course forward.
In the meantime, writers are experimenting. Some of them are combining traditional publishing releases with self-published short stories or novellas. Many are making their out-of-print backlists available. Some are turning their backs on large traditional deals, while others are accepting them with excitement. Personally, I’m glad that I get to be a writer in a time of experimentation, when the rules aren’t as cut and dried and innovation is more encouraged. While a small part of me wishes that there was One Right Way to get published, the truth is that there never has been; it’s just become more obvious.
Now it’s your turn. Please try to be civil, but tell me: what are your thoughts on today’s publishing world? How do you think self-publishing has changed the equation (or DO you think it’s changed)? What benefits do you anticipate receiving from your own business strategy? I eagerly await your opinions.