(Originally Posted on Feb 2, 2018)
So back when I started this blog and began the first draft of The Shrouded Emperor, my intent was to go the traditional route. Pitch to agents, cross my fingers and hope my manuscript didn't find a home in File 13.
However, as I began joining author communities, I began to notice something very interesting. A lot of self-published authors were very active members, mingling with traditionally-published names and promoting each others' work. Up until this point, I'd always considered self-publishing to be a repository of sorts for bargain-bin trash, Twilight knock-offs and ideas too weird to be mainstream. Sure, you'd get a Wool or Riyria Chronicles, but those were exceptions to the rules, right?
More and more I find that's simply not the case. There's bad books too, and the werewolf/Santa romance novels are still inexplicably being made by some madman/woman I pray I'll never meet. There's also some more indie-centric genres like LitRPGs that I'm personally not super into. But there's also some really, really unique and exciting stuff out there. And given the decline of brick-and-mortar retailers and the rise of Amazon as a hub for books, it's a shift that makes sense. Even New York Times bestsellers like Brian McClellan are jumping on the bandwagon, and self-publishing stars like Rob Hayes get featured by Barnes and Noble's website. The landscape is changing rapidly, and after weighing all my options, I decided a while back, that going the independent route is what makes the most sense for me.
So on that note, I'd like to address some common criticisms of self-pub, and why it makes sense for me personally.
But don't you want to be in bookstores? Go on book tours?
You mean those same chain bookstores that are rapidly going out of business? The ones stock loads and loads of geeky film & TV merch and Magic the Gathering cards just to stay afloat? The bookstores where many bestsellers in the non-licensed and non-legacy SFF section were originally self-pubs?
The dark day of chain bookstores' demise draws nearer and nearer, and while it saddens me to no end, that's simply how things are going. Almost every book I buy, trad and self-pub alike, I get through Amazon. It's simply more convenient (and cheaper) than getting in the car, burning gas, stopping to get a single book and then stopping to get something to eat on the way back. And look – I love the aesthetic and smell and experience of stepping into Barnes and Noble, scrolling through the SFF section and looking at all the books. I love grabbing a Tazo tea and a sugar cookie and leafing through the stuff I find. It's a relaxing and wonderful atmosphere, but the future of publishing draws ever nearer. And it looks less like a coffee house and more like Print-On-Demand.
As for indie bookstores – well, many of them are doing alright, and some of them even feature authors like me for book signings and other events. Tours on the other hand – are best done digitally these days, unless you're a huge celebrity who rakes in a ton of money from appearances. I'd personally rather invest in audio gear and tour digitally on podcasts, blogs and Youtube channels I know'll get the word out. It also frees me up to pursue more platforms that might otherwise get overlooked. And granted, even with all that, bigger publishers generally have the upper hand right now. But like I said, the landscape is changing. And going indie allows me to react to said changes and keep the rights to my IP, manuscripts and cover art so I can adapt to said changes as they happen.
But what are the odds you'll make any money?
Who knows, man? Some folks I've seen like Daniel Arenson have made a good deal off of self-published books. Others make an income, but not enough to go full-time. And many, many more simply don't get a return on their investment. This however, is simply a risk of writing any sort of book, as many traditionally-published books never make back their advance. So when you get down to it, ALL publishing is gambling. ALL writers are dreamers pulling on the slot machine with the hopes of scoring a big payout. And the vast majority aren't “big winners.”
The difference is that with self-publishing, I can at least blow on the dice a little, and in the astronomical off chance I win big, my payout is larger than most of the other guys. Also hedging things in my favor is the fact that:
A) I'm not a new writer, but have been doing comic book short stories, game writing (traditional and video), film scripts, and more for about 3+ years now.
B) I've gone through the submission process for all the above and have been accepted on a good deal. Most of those were for indie projects, so take that how you will. I've always kind of preferred indie things though, so that sort of factors into these decisions a bit
C) I've also worked with artists, and understand how to make a visually-compelling character for cover art and interior illustrations. Specifically in my gamedev work, I'm actually very active with the art team despite hardly being able to draw a straight line myself. I've worked with some folks who've done work even for major tabletop and gaming companies (as in, possibly some of the first ones that came to your head when i said those things), so at this point I'm confident that I can help put together cover branding for myself that doesn't suck paint.
D) I've talked at length to various book industry professionals both trad and indie, and I have an “inside baseball” view on what sells and what doesn't in the current market, both in trad and in self-publishing. That's not to say I'm an expert, or the Grand Poohbah of book sales, but I do have an inkling of how it all shakes out.
In short, I have a leg up on a lot of other people who are diving in dry to the slippery pits of Kindle Direct Publishing. I'd rather carve out my own destiny in publishing knowing what I know, then potentially have my book get saddled with really generic cover art, or not sell to markets I know'll buy the book.
Granted, there's still massive success stories like Ed Mcdonald and Nicholas Eames, both of whom are newcomers (and totally cool guys to boot) and doing marvelously well in the current trad fantasy space. And were it not for certain people I know and certain skills I have, I'd still hedge my bets on trad publishing as being the best option. And let me be frank here to any potential authors reading this – for 99% of writers, it probably still is. If you don't have experience working with concept artists, or know Photoshop well enough to make a pro book cover, I suggest you bite the bullet and take whatever cover's given to you by a publisher who knows their stuff. It's better than say, getting cover art that looks like this. If you haven't talked with editors who've worked for some truly big writers, then it's probably best to go through the submission process and take whatever edits are given to you.
I have done those things though, and I also have knowledge of platforms like Youtube, which are criminally underused by booksellers and publishers. There's also Discord, which is a really amazing tool for building communities of folks interested in your work. Going indie means I have the freedom to experiment with these new platforms, as well as utilize platforms like Youtube Live/Twitch, blogging networks, and more. In other words, I can afford to move at a speed the rest of publishing can't, at the expense of not getting as much “traditional” coverage as other authors.
But what about the self-pub stigma?
Oh gee, you mean that thing that doesn't actually exist in 2019?
Yes, long ago, there was a time back when the Amazon store was flooded with quite a bit of vampire novels and cheap monster smut. Everyone had a nice hearty chuckle at them...but then something interesting began to happen. Books like Wool and The Martian got critical acclaim, and more serious authors began considering it as a viable alternative. Come 2018, some of SFF's boldest voices are coming from the self-published scene, and are winning real awards. Even the covers on some of these books are significantly better than many trad offerings, even those of NYT bestsellers.
And when you get down to brass tacks, Sturgeon's Law is a thing even in trad publishing. A stroll down Barnes and Noble's shelves will yield not only some really solid and great books, but terrible-looking Urban Fantasy novels, and even secondary world fantasy that doesn't look that far off from dollar store romance novels. On the other hand, nobody's turning their noses up at The Crimson Queen, Paternus, Arcane Ascension or Manifest Delusions. ALL these books get high marks among core fantasy readers, and I when I talk to people about interesting worlds, magic systems or other fantasy elements, I see these books get brought up with increasing frequency.
I think in the end, it all boils down to making a quality product. Cover, internal formatting, editing, the whole nine yards. There isn't really self-pub stigma now so much as there is bad book stigma. And trust me, there's plenty of (if not necessarily more) trad published books that miss the mark in spectacular fashion. Editorial weeds many of these out, but as of now, Self-Pub has proven to be a perfectly adequate vehicle for good SFF in recent years. It's not an editorial and commercial greenlight per se, but it's also not a death sentence either.
Part of the reason I chose to self-publish is because I have the means to control many of these quality elements, and have a product I know will be both what I want, and optimized for the market.
Okay, but didn't you say curation was a problem for indies?
Eyup. And sadly, that's gonna be one of the big issues I face going forward. For those of you who don't know, I wrote a post about self-publishing a while back. In it, I said the biggest problem with the self-pub space was the lack of “curation” or “brands” that people could associate with different products. So for example, TOR is well known for their epic fantasy series, while Baen has a loyal fanbase of gun enthusiasts, veterans, engineers and hard sci-fi fanatics. Their logos aren't just mindless branding, they're an assurance to said fans of a certain quality and expectation.
So when people go through the fiery hoops of agents, publishers and editors, they're not just doing it to “appease gatekeepers” or gain a fat paycheck. They're doing so to help get their book to a publisher that'll act as a curator and promoter for their content. And one of the big, gaping problems with independent books, is that you're going out there without that curation. Orbit books are different than TOR books, which are different than Baen books. But when you join Amazon KDP, you're thrown in with vary flavors of whatever genre you've chosen.
There is one major element of curation you're seeing more of though, and that's book blogs and Booktube (aka book Youtubers). These independent reviewers, as well as larger sites like Kirkus and Fantasy Faction, are responsible for driving many sales and informing the wider market of new and hot books. And in may cases, a good self-published novel can get as much coverage and care as a trad book. That said, self-publishing actually opens some doors into markets that otherwise might not be explored, while many of the big review sites might still review my stuff.
...But You'd Still Accept a Publishing Deal if Offered, Right?
Actually...yes! Though perhaps not in the way you'd think...
You see, I want creative and editorial control (to a certain degree, anyway) of the two fantasy series I'm working on currently. It's deeply important to me, and not just something I'm writing for cash (although cash is a wonderful thing to have). However, if there's interest in my work from traditional publishers, I'd be more than happy to work on exclusive books specifically for that market, or translations of my indie books into other languages. If there's territories that might enjoy my work but don't speak much English for instance, I'd strongly consider a foreign publishing deal if I was hypothetically approached. And while the chances of that are very slim, it is something I've still considered nonetheless.
That said, I still want control over my IPs whenever possible. So in most cases, the answer would still be no, unless it was a deal no sane person could refuse. I love indie art, indie films and indie fiction. More and more I find myself reading indie fantasy, which is increasingly topping the bestseller lists of Amazon. And while there's no guarantee I'll be successful or popular with my work...hey, it's worth a shot.