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Flying solo: when you're ready to self-publish...

The decision to self-publish is a courageous one. It demonstrates any writer’s or artist’s confidence in his or her own abilities, and a firm belief in the project.

This faith may not have been forthcoming from publishers to whom the work was shown -- but even the smallest understanding of how the major publishing houses operate should remove the feelings of failure and doubt which are suffered after the receipt of the first, or the thousandth, rejection slip.

In fact, writers across three continents have amassed a set of horror stories regarding their experiences with publishers -- stories which chill the bone marrow.

A rejection slip feels, to any writer or artist, like a rejection of oneself. Publishers and agents of integrity respond politely, with a few encouraging lines, even through the medium of a form letter. But many publishers and agents in today’s difficult market don’t see fit to respond at all.

In a majority of cases, your work will be returned to you in the SASE you provided, without any letter at all (which is certainly better than the worst-case scenario, in which an agent or publisher is actually insulting and abusive; it's not professional behavior, but it happens) and you wonder, did anyone even look at your work?

The answer is frequently, no one did, and the reasons for this are many and varied.

Publishers are not “reading” all the time. They have financial budgets, and lists which are filled for the whole year, frequently by March. When the lists are filled, they stop looking at manuscripts. You didn't know any of this when you submitted to them -- if you'd known, you'd have saved your time, money and nerves.

To prevent themselves drowning in the tide of manuscripts coming in from first-time writers (some of whom are genuinely “not ready yet”), most major publishers only read materials which are first filtered through by agencies.

Your problem swiftly becomes one of finding an agent who is reading! And, an agent who is not going to charge three-figures (in Australian dollars) per hour to read and edit. Understandably, most agents who serve the American and European markets would prefer to be sitting at a desk or restaurant table with you, and thrash out the pros and cons of your project over coffee. It can be extremely difficult to edit a book by remote control via email or physical mail; and one can forgive these agents if, being inundated with local New York and London writers, they choose not to collaborate with a writer on the far side of the world.

The reasons for the hundred-and-two rejection letters you’ve received could have nothing at all to do with the value of your work, or its publishability. They could easily be about business, budgets, and even about geography.

You might have an absolutely wonderful book ... but it will languish in your desk drawer if you don’t grasp this bull by the horns and wrestle it down yourself. Landing an agent has become as long and hard a chore as landing a publisher used to be. Some writers are never lucky enough to make the connection, and this failure can have nothing to do with the quality of their work.

How long do you walk this rocky road? The hunt for an agent or publisher should be given at least three years; but if you're still beating your head on this wall, throwing a lot of money at this problem, after seven years, it's time to seek out alternatives. Go on much (or any) longer, and you'll "burn out," lose your desire to write, and quit.

Understand that the leviathan of the publishing industry doesn't care if you quit. There are tens of thousands of writers just like you. They're skilled, with good stories to tell. However, the world does not have enough eager readers to support enough professional publishing houses to accommodate every good writer.

More and more, as times get harder, publishers are cutting their losses, amalgamating, merging, sacking staff, all in an effort to stay in business. The hardest part of this is that they will obviously choose to run with established writers who sell lots of copies.

Marginalized writers, or small niches, have been "feeling the chop" for more than a decade now. If this process is of interest, read this series of posts by Mel Keegan, in which the whole process of decay is discussed -- as well as the new industry which is still arising, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the old:

PART ONE: New York Publishing: Worms in the Big Apple
PART TWO: Learning to think outside the corporate box
PART THREE: Independent publishing- local goes global
PART FOUR: Digital publishing comes of age
PART FIVE: Publishing as sheer entrepreneurialism
PART SIX: POD Publishing -- getting megatrendy

Self publishing. Flying solo. The idea raises goose bumps, doesn't it?

Taking the first step in this process -- making the decision to "just do it" -- is difficult. For decades, there has been a stigma attached to self-publishing. It’s been labelled vanity publishing, and we are all warned against getting involved with it.

It was said (and forty years ago this was probably true), if your book was good, it would find a publisher. Many years ago, publishers were in command of publishing houses; they prided themselves in discovering new talent, and were always on the lookout for a gifted newcomer. In the golden days of publishing, such people could also afford to take a financial risk -- make a gamble on a new writer or a new book, and not suffer terminal economic wounds in the event of a mistake.

In these days of global recession, you’ll find accountants at the helm of the big publishing companies. Accountants have little interest in art, and are looking for the most marketable book; they’re hunting for high sales, big returns. Previously unpublished writers (or writers from modest-sales genres) are very low on their list of priorities ... and there are just so many fine, aspiring writers out there. More are churned out, degree qualified, by the world's colleges every year. The accountants can always fill their publishing quota with what they want and need. Celebrity books and best selling novelists come top of the list; and the list itself is much shorter than it used to be.

So where is the newcomer who is in no way connected to anyone on the inside to get a start? How does one break into an apparently impenetrable bastion, if you don't know someone on the inside? Having a friend of relative in the business has always been a wonderful opportunity, but most of us aren't so lucky. Doors are not about to swing open for us.

Which leaves many writers looking for viable alternatives.

The good news is, things have been changing lately, and changing quietly, behind the scenes, where it can be easy to ignore or not even see what’s going on.

The Internet has brought access to worldwide markets to your door; virtually every desk has a computer on it, and modern software is unspeakably powerful. The world has gone digital, and it’s suddenly possible to print very small numbers of a book. Or one. There are “empty warehouse” publishers. There are digital publishers and eBooks, and ebook "readers" which sit in the palm of your hand with nine hours of battery life before an hour's recharge, and these devices are actually (more or less) affordable.

(We'll look at the hardware in another post. We're going to review the reading devices and the software that runs on them ... be on the mailing list, and don't miss a thing!)

Little about the publishing industry is the way it was even five years ago, and it’s more possible now than ever to take on the “big guys,” play them at their own game ... and go into it with the expectation of winning.

It can be done. It's being done every day. It takes skill, determination, faith in yourself and your work, an enormous amount of energy, ingenuity, a spirit that won't be beaten, and a few bucks. But first, it takes a kind of epiphany -- an awakening...

You must hurl yourself over the first step, and turn a deaf ear when you should hear the term “vanity publishing.” In many ways this is an obsolete term. It harks back to the era where a good book would be published, and where a veteran publisher took a great joy in discovering a new writing talent.

Those days and over, and it's possible they might never return. Yet in 2009 there are more aspiring writers and artists on the fringes of the market than ever. What's to become of them? It's true that 90% of them are "not ready yet," or simply not good enough to make grade. They might have nothing new to contribute, or not enough integrity to settle down and learn a new trade -- the trade of the professional wordsmith. But 10% are good enough to make the grade, and this percentage works out to thousands of writers -- perhaps tens of thousands, globally -- for whom the opportunities to get into the traditional publishing industry are far too few.

After years of trying, the most determined writers arrive at the point where they think, "I can publish it myself and sell copies on the Internet. Why can't I do that?"

And you can -- if you can get past the stigma of self-publishing, which is still confused with vanity publishing, even now.

For marginalized writers (newcomers or niche market authors), the traditional publishing is a risky game. You may begin to break in professionally, with small printruns from a small publisher, only to find that corporate mergers close your publisher down or curtail their list. This is a very common scenario. All at once, after ten or twenty years dealing with a "proper publisher," you’re starting over, even though you have several or many published books to your credit. You can find it difficult or impossible to find another publisher, and after years of trying you'll reach the same point as the new writer who never found a publisher at all: "I can publish it myself and sell copies on the Internet. Why can't I do that?"

It's most important not to confuse self-publishing with self-marketing, or to confuse either of these with Vanity publishing. Vanity publishing can be a recipe for disaster ... self-publishing can open the door to fantastic success -- and we're about to look at the ocean of difference between all three of these types of publishing.

As someone once said, there is no better revenge than success!

The whole endeavour begins with information. If you're on this post, we assume you’ve already climbed several learning curves to get here:

  • you’ve made yourself into a good, solid writer;
  • you’re a good copy editor, too: your work is ready to go, and you know it;
  • you’ve computerized yourself and your workspace;
  • you've bought, and mastered, the DTP software...

In fact, you’ve arrived at the very last step in a thousand-mile journey. The only problem left is, this step is as wide as a river ... and you’re searching for a bridge. On one side is yourself, with a book (or more likely a pile of books, since you've spent the last 3 - 7 years trying to get a decent agent who will actually represent you instead of wasting your time and sending you bills), and the ambition to turn the damned books into earners.

On the other side of the river is The Reading, Buying Public. You need to connect the dots. These books need to find their way into the hands of those readers, and the Internet is the way to make it happen. But, damned if you can make the dots connect up. You're hunting for that bridge to bring it all together.

This bridge is made of several components, and by far the most important is information. You already have the faith in your gift and your work, or you wouldn’t be reading this. The financial costs of pre-press and printing won't be so high that some useful elbow-space on your Visa or MasterCard won’t cover them. A few hundred dollars, max. Maybe less.

In fact, the intention of this series of posts is to cut those costs down to size and get the manuscript to morph itself into a book, the way a caterpillar becomes a butterfly ... and then to get the book out there in front of readers. The decision -- to buy or not to buy? -- will be made not by an editor, publisher, or the buyer for bookstore chain. In the new marketplace there's just YOU and the READERS. You find them, you impress the hell out of them, and they'll happily give you $10 for the fun of reading your book.

After the sale, you must give them their ten bucks' worth. It better be a good book, because to make a living at this, you need what marketers call returning customers. You need to build a client base of readers who loved your first book and are dying for your next one. So it behooves you to double-check everything, make sure you're as good as you think you are, before you slap a cover on this novel and go to market.

Information is the key, and the most crucial component of this bridge. With information, you can bring self-publishing within your reach, physically and financially.

This series of posts is not about the marketing aspect! We're going to call this "Metamorphosis: From Manuscript to Book." When the printing process is finished, you’ll have something to go out there and sell -- this is the goal of this series. Marketing is a whole 'nother subject: you sell copies, make back your investment start to see a profit. That's a vast subject in itself, and we'll tackle it separately.

Marketing-wise, at this point we assume you’ve done your research, you know your markets. You are sure the sales are out there, if only you can figure out how to get the project off the ground. You're confident of your work: you're good enough to publish professionally, and have been good enough for some time now. It's killing you, not being able to find a decent agent or a publisher.

Time to fly solo. Your thousand-mile journey is about to end. Be on the mailing list or subscribe via RSS! And now --

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Self publishing: why would you do it -- and how?!

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