Editors Blog

Should I Self-Publish? – Part One

The big dream since childhood—shared by so many fellow writers of all ages—was to walk into a bookstore (perhaps a bookstore that I owned—bonus dream!) and find a novel with my name on the cover gracing a column of shelves with eager hands reaching upward to pluck a copy and buy it before racing off to a comfortable chair to savor and enjoy.

Selling it and making a living wasn’t quite in the picture at age ten, but the writing and sharing of a story was, and to be honest, that remains the driving force today (although some walkin’ around money for the weekend is always nice). Yes, writing and sharing a story—one often dropped into my consciousness like a ten-ton anvil by the ever-elusive muse—is the key desire. And the story may not be “sellable” but it is one I am compelled to tell and share regardless, lest I lose my mind.

I’m sure many of you know what I’m talking about. You have them too—a stew of stories brewing in your head, and you know in your heart that some of them have a definable market that would make an agent salivate, but some, no matter how good they are, are Barnes & Noble longshots in a half-formed daydream at best. Often, poetry and short prose by “unknowns” falls into this category, and even fan-fiction and genre-blending works such as a gothic western vampire novel that takes place in space (oh, that sounds pretty good, actually) might also be harder to place.

While these artistic creations are stockpiling in your mind or your hard drive, your main project, the one destined to make Simon & Schuster open their pocketbook and roll out the red carpet, might be taking up all of your time. This dream of traditional publishing, no matter what an e-book billionaire may tell you, will never and should never die. But that doesn’t mean some projects aren’t perfect for a self-publishing right now, if not for fame and fortune but for the adventure of trying out a new technology or medium.

Why not give it a shot? Maybe no one will buy it, sure, but no one will buy it while it’s sitting in a drawer somewhere, either.

That’s what I told myself about a batch of short stories I had written while I tinkered and re-tinkered two novels over the last few years. Yeah, I sent some stories out to magazines and some made it into the hands of far and distant (and much loved) readers, but my main focus was on the novels and finding an agent for them. And when a few hours on a random Monday night opened up and I could choose to spend time on one or the other, novels won out so often that I started feeling like I was betraying an entire aspect of the craft.

So, for the fun of it (warning: shameless plug zone ahead), I decided to put together two self-published books—a collection of poetry called Dealing with the Devil in the Middle of the Road, and a separate upcoming collection of short stories titled The Cards We Keep—using a print-on-demand service. When deciding to do so, I saw that the pluses outweighed the negatives:

  • Even if I sold a novel, no publisher is going to kick down my door for a dozen noir/horror/sci-fi/crime short stories.
  • If I DID sell a novel someday, readers will have something else to dive into while they wait for the next novel.
  • Most magazine markets don’t pay for fiction and poetry these days, so why not sell them at a low cost and direct to readers instead?
  • The amount of money I would spend putting a book of stories together myself (cover art, proofing, an ISBN, etc.) would be far less using a POD than using a vanity publisher (which can easily cost hundreds to thousands), although knowing how to use the technology will help.
  • I can have fun with the process, learn some new design/technical skills, network with editors and artists, and most important, control the fate of a project that has an awesome risk/reward ratio.
  • If a self-published book of short stories flops and sells fifteen copies, who cares? If it does sell, great! If a Random House novel with all the PR bells and whistles flops and sells fifteen copies, then hello new career of peeling potatoes on a Merchant Marine steamship!

Basically, you have nothing to lose. Unless, of course, you put out a really, really, really, really, really, really, really bad book. Try to avoid that, OK?

I’m in the process with the second book now (more about that in Part Two: coming soon) and it has its ups and downs, but one added bonus of self-publishing AND seeking out traditional representation that I have found is this: When someone asks “Oh, you’re a writer? What have you written?” you can say “I have a novel circulating with a few agents right now, but I also have books available at my website and Amazon. You should look into those.

As a writer seeking traditional publication, your life is not relegated to future possibilities and current insignificance.

I can’t stress that enough. You can work toward the future AND share other projects now by giving potential fans something to sink their teeth into while your great masterpiece winds its way through the gears of the massive publishing machine. Best of all? You can have fun doing it. This is why I vote YES when it comes to the question: “Should I Self-Publish?”

But figuring out HOW to do it can be tricky. We’ll get to some tips on that in Part Two. In the meanwhile, look over your stories and projects. Have any that look better in someone’s Kindle today instead of in an agent’s hands tomorrow? Have you self-published one work while you sent out queries on another? Share your experiences in the comments below!

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James Duncan is a content editor for Writer’s Digest, the founding editor of Hobo Camp Review, and is the author of the short story collection The Cards We Keep and the poetry collection Lantern Lit, Vol. 1. He is in the process of submitting a handful of novels to agents for traditional representation, just like everyone else on the planet. For more of his work, visit www.jameshduncan.com.

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