13 April 2013

Managing the self-publisher's chip

When I'm asked about self-publishing vs trade publishing, I'll list strengths and weaknesses of both options, and strongly recommend Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "Business Rusch" series of blog posts.  Rusch is a hybrid author and has invaluable information on traps and issues which face both trade and self-published writers.  Even if you're intending to only follow a trade publishing path, reading Rusch (and her commenters) on issues with various contract clauses can potentially save you an infinite amount of grief.

But one thing Rusch doesn't cover in great detail is disdain.

Yes, attitudes towards self-publishing are changing, and self-publishers can put out books and try to gain an audience.  A tiny minority are stunningly successful (in the millions of dollars territory), a solid number are able to become full-time writers, and a far larger body hover around my level - enough that it's a viable second income, but not enough to give up the day job (rather like many trade published writers).  And there's plenty of people self-publishing who don't sell at all - either because they don't write very well, write in an extremely niche area, package their books poorly, or are just unlucky.  Self-publishing is no more a guaranteed path to success than that old saw: "If you write a good enough book, and keep submitting it, it will get published".

Even successful self-published books are often treated as "not good, just successful", and one thing most self-publishers have in common is the need to deal with scorn, hostility, derisive comments and - worst of all - complete indifference.

Many self-publishers have come from submitting their books to trade publishing and receiving either form rejections or frustrating "almosts".  Years of it.  Decades.  And going into self-publishing, they will face not only the apparently insurmountable task of interesting readers in their books, but also people who state "I don't read self-published books at all", or "I only read self-published books by trade published authors" and forums which (burned by a flood of over-the-top self-promotion) have strict "don't mention your books" rules.  And that's not even starting on the direct mocking.

Any person facing a long negative experience is likely to build up at least a small chip on their shoulder.  This past week demonstrated that even enormous success will not necessarily remove that chip.  Hugh Howey - one of the most successful self-publishers out there, with a major movie deal, a print-only book deal, and promotion which includes airport placement (ie. someone who is more successful than the vast majority of trade published writers) - posted a now-deleted blog entry entitled "The Bitch from Worldcon".

The blog post demonstrated two things: Howey has no comprehension of offensively gendered language, and Howey is carrying around an enormous 'self-publisher's chip'.  The story involves Howey playing incognito at a recent science fiction and fantasy convention, listening to a very rude person dismiss self-publishing, and gloating to himself (and later to his blog readers) over the secret knowledge of his own success, while indulging in a little power fantasy of, basically, rubbing his detractor's face in it.

Enormous success obviously hasn't made the resentment go away.  And the negativity toward self-publishing and self-publishers isn't going to go away either.  It's now just couched in terms which include "outliers" and "popular but bad" and "cult-like mentality" or "self-publishing is really really really hard and most of you will fail at it".  If you label yourself a self-publisher, the attitudes toward the group as a whole will shower down upon you, no matter your opinion of trade publishing, or the quality of your writing.

I'm not immune to self-publisher's chip.  It bugs me when people make statements about the quality of my books without having read them.  And I'm strongly aware of not being "part of the conversation" in the SFF world.  One of my clearest memories as a writer will always be the 2010 Aurealis Awards.  Sitting in a big auditorium full of people, watching my book's cover flash up on screen as a finalist for Best Fantasy Novel.  It was an amazing feeling.  And then I thought: "The only people in this entire room who have read that book are the judges."

Strategies for managing self-publisher's chip will vary from writer to writer, depending on the particular negativity being faced at the time.  I can only share the methods I use to keep that chip in check:

1. Focus on the good bits

I might not be a bestselling self-publisher, but in many ways I'm an incredibly fortunate one.  I've had some external validation thanks to those (highly discerning!) Aurealis judges, which in the worst moments I can point to and say: "See!  See!  Not rubbish!"

I have a small core of readers who have liked my work enough to consider themselves fans.  And they tell other people they should look at my books.  Or they just send me an email saying how much they liked them.  And that is an astonishingly wonderful thing.

I do read my negative reviews, but I save them up, get them over with like a dose of medicine, and move on.  Spending energy on negative reviews of your book is like stabbing yourself in the knee.

2. Care less about other people's decisions

Self-publishing is a wonderful option, but I don't evangelise it, and I accept that readers might use it as a criteria to winnow down the millions of books available to them.  Ultimately, it matters very little if a particular individual avoids self-publishing.

It's incredibly hard to do this when you're just starting out, and no-one is reading you.  It makes you feel like you'll never be read, that you're unfairly penalised, that it's all hopeless.  It will be even harder if your writing isn't quite there yet, and you've rushed to self-publishing perhaps before you're ready for a critical audience.  If nothing else, you can fall back on an "Hey, at least I have nice copies of my books on my bookshelf" attitude.

3. Don't try to be part of the conversation

This is probably the hardest one for me.  I like talking about SFF, and I'd certainly like to see my books considered part of the conversation in discussions of the genre, but one of the first lessons self-publishers learn is "don't talk about your own books outside your own blog".  I sometimes stray on this one - I'll see someone posting or tweeting: "I'm looking for SFF examples of X".  "There's hardly any SFF which does X, please someone give me examples!"  And eventually, against my better judgment, I'll be drawn in, and respond with two of three examples, including a book of my own which does precisely what the person is looking for.  And it seems like every time I do this, the person asking for examples will meticulously thank every single person for their suggestions - except for that pushy self-publisher, of course.

That's my chip in action.

4. Think long term

Self-publishing inverts the trade publishing model where pre-release buzz is built up, there's a mass burst of publicity on release, and the book has to sell sufficiently in its first year (or months) to keep the author's career alive.  If I judged my likely success on my first few months after release (where I sold only a handful of books), then I'd be an abject failure.  Except for the rare instant successes, self-publishers aren't really in a position to judge their careers for at least a couple of years.  And you never know if your next book might be your break out book, which in turn will juice your sluggishly selling backlist.

When I started I had an idea of a "five year plan". My first book went live in October 2010, so I won't really be able to judge how I'm going till October 2015, but the view from April 2013 is pretty good.

5. Next book?

Disinterest and occasional outbreaks of vitriol toward self-publishers are far easier for me to deal with than the immense negativity I suffered submitting books which never went anywhere, because it's balanced by lots of lovely positives.  And the biggest positive is the knowledge that there are readers out there waiting for my next book.

And so in conclusion I seem to be saying much the same as what most of the self-publishing advice posts say: The best thing to do is put your head down and write!


  1. I think we're currently in the vanguard of the self-publishing movement - ten years on, maybe we'll look back at these conversations and shake our heads in disbelief.

    Re your third point above, I kind of think that applies to all authors, whether self-published or not...

    And I am very definitely one of those readers looking forward to your next book!

  2. Matters will definitely improve - hell, they're already scads better than they were two years ago.

    It's so nice to just be able to write books, get them tidied up, and put them out with pretty covers.

  3. I'm not sure I agree. I find it intolerable that people can (apparently) say whatever they like about self-pubbers, in the most offensive manner, and authors are just supposed to smile sweetly and take it. It's no wonder that Howey is bitter. He's been treated like vermin for years and suddenly big publishing is interested in him because he has a demonstrated ability to generate income, and they want a share of that. Obviously, his outburst was in poor taste, but I think the time has come for a little bit of pushing back from self-pubbers; although assertive would be a better tone to take than outright aggressive.

    On the plus side, all those who are so disparaging of self-published works are seriously missing out.

  4. I do think people should not be rude to self-pubbers as well, but I don't think that's going to happen any time soon, and so the best thing I can do is manage my own response to rudeness, rather than allow them to goad me into acting like an ass in return.

  5. "Many self-publishers have come from submitting their books to trade publishing and receiving either form rejections or frustrating "almosts". Years of it. Decades. "

    These people are called "bad writers." They should give up and stop bothering people. Why would anyone persist at doing something at which they suck?


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