When I first started looking into my publishing options for My Brother’s Keeper, I spent a lot of time reading about the pros and cons of traditional vs. independent publishing. One of the things that surprised me was the vast volume of blogs and articles on the topic of independent publishing as a path to freedom from the tyranny of the evil publishing overlords.
Most of the posts sounded something like this: Big publishers are evil. They don’t care about good books or good writing or good authors. They’re just money making machines. And if they don’t see your book as a money-maker it doesn’t matter how good a writer you are, they’ll never give you the chance you deserve. And even if they do publish your book they’ll give you pennies for every copy sold and keep the rest for their greedy selves. But that’s ok because now I can publish my book myself and prove them all wrong!!!!!
And for many people who choose to independently publish their work, there are certain kernels of truth in statement like this. Many perfectly good books are rejected by publishing houses every day. Publishers make hard decisions about what books to print and what books to reject – and often it comes down to what they think they can sell. But that’s to be expected, because lest we forget, publishing is a business, and as a business it’s end goal is to be as profitable as possible.
That doesn’t make big publishers evil, dictatorial, or cruel. It makes them pragmatic. It makes them capable of surviving in the midst of an industry that is undergoing radical transformation. It makes them smart.
So yes, if you don’t fit into the mold of what’s popular and sellable, then self-publishing may be exactly what you’re looking for – “freedom” from the limitations of traditional publishing. But if you’re going to take the plunge, it is important to acknowledge exactly what this “freedom” really means.
You see, freedom is a tricky thing. The freer you are, the fewer rules and restrictions you are subject to, the greater responsibility you take on to govern and monitor yourself. Because no matter how free you may be, you’re still subject to the consequences of your own actions (not to mention the other “free” individuals with whom you come into contact).
As Americans get ready to celebrate our national Independence Day, we are, essentially, about to throw a giant continent-spanning freedom-party (with BBQ and fireworks and everything!) But I, for one, am thankful that I live in a place and a time where my freedom is not absolute. I have the right to make my own choices, to live and speak and worship as I desire. But I don’t have the right to kill someone or to take what does not belong to me. I don’t have the right to punch a stranger for looking at me weird. I don’t have the right to wander naked through the mall or smoke in a store. There are still laws that I must obey, and police to make sure that those laws are enforced. There is order in my society, rules and regulations, social expectations and cultural norms, and all of those things limit (in small ways and tiny measures) the breadth and depth of my freedoms.
But the self-publishing industry isn’t part of the 21st century world. It’s closer to the old wild west. As indy publishers we are trail blazers, wanderers, adventurers seeking our fortune in places where “societal norms” have not yet settled. That’s a good thing. It gives us freedom. But it can also be a bad thing, because it means that there’s no one policing our choices. There’s no one keeping us out of trouble.
That means that you can produce exactly what you want in whatever manner your choose. You can sell your book for a million dollars or give it away for free. You can create a 500 page tome made entirely of jumbled letters and childlike scribble. You can do pretty much whatever you like, slap a cover on it, and call it a “book”.
You can do any of those things, because you are free; but each choice that you make as a self-published author comes with its own set of consequences.
So before you make the decision to self-publish, you first need to identify your motives and expectations. Are you publishing because there is a message that you want to get out there and you think print-media will help you in accomplishing that goal? Are you publishing because you want to make a career out of writing? Are you publishing because you want to make money? Or are you publishing because you want to finish a written work that has never felt complete as long as it’s sat in manuscript-form in a drawer somewhere?
There are no wrong answers here. You can publish for whatever reasons strike your fancy. Nevertheless, it is still important for you to understand the “why” behind your decision to publish; because that why will dictate exactly how much freedom you have in this process.
You see, you as a self-pubishing author are not the only one with freedom in this equation. The reader – your end user – also has freedom, specifically freedom of choice. You have the right to publish whatever you want and to present it to readers for their enjoyment, but each individual reader has the right to pass over your book without a second glance. So if your motivation for publishing is tied to commercial success, your freedoms are limited by what you can expect your readers to accept.
What does this mean? It means that you need to know what your readers want and like, and then you need to give it to them. You are, of course, free to put a picture of a zombie on the front of your recipe book, or to cover your spy thriller in pink hearts and flowers. But you will then be subject to the free choices of an audience who will quickly and quietly move on to something that looks more like the books they want to read.
You are free to finish a first draft, print it out, mark it with a kiss, and declare your work complete. You are free to argue that the nuggets of gold that are found in your writing more than make up for the 22 typos that can be found in the first chapter, and that no one cares about which version of to/too/two you use in a given sentence. In other words, you are free to publish your unedited, unproofed work. But your readers are then free to write the scathing reviews that come with such shoddy work.
As an independent author you have freedom – more freedom today than perhaps at any other time in our history as writers. However, that freedom comes with responsibilities and consiquences. So if you are serious about your writing, if you want to be treated like a professional, make sure that you’re acting like a professional. Don’t abuse the freedoms you’ve been given. Treat them as something precious and special – something to be treasured – because that’s precisely what they are!