Why I don’t self-publish

By November 27, 2011Comms

Yet another “why I don’t” blog entry. I promise I’m not deliberately rabble-rousing, it’s just that I’ve been watching some fairly omnipresent debates out on the Interwebs lately, and doing some thinking of where I stand on them.

As folks know, I have a 3-book deal with one of the “Big 6” publishing houses based in New York City. That’s what’s commonly called a “traditional” publishing deal, and makes me, according to Mike Stackpole, a “house slave.” But what folks may or may not know is that, during my long road to securing the deal I currently have, I was strongly tempted to self-publish. I saw the success of the now legendary Amanda Hocking and J.A. Konrath. I felt that I’d written a good book, and I knew that the Big 6 turned down great manuscripts all the time that they later wound up regretting they’d passed on. If I believed in my work, if I truly wanted to be a writer, then why didn’t I just run my writing up the pole and see who saluted?

Now, before I answer that question, let me make this unequivocal statement. Self-publishing is absolutely a legitimate way to get your writing before an audience. I think it’s a lot less likely to be successful than the traditional route, but there are plenty of examples where it’s wildly successful. I am discussing why *I* CHOOSE not to self-publish. I am not lambasting anyone else’s decision to get their work to market in any way they choose.

So, let me explain why I don’t self-publish by way of an anecdote. When CONTROL POINT was first going out to market, the manuscript (then called LATENT) got some serious interest from the folks at Ace (an imprint at Penguin). But they had a problem with the second section of the book. They were willing to give it another look, but only after I’d essentially gutted this section and completely replaced it.

The section in question? 2nd out of 4. Which meant that the other 2 that followed would also have to be completely reworked. The publisher was essentially asking for a 75% rewrite.

You can imagine my heart sinking as I read that email. They weren’t offering a contract, they were offering to take another look AFTER I tore my life’s work down to the studs and reconstructed it. And this was AFTER one of the leading agents in the industry put his full faith in the manuscript and signed me to a representation contract.

So I did what I always do: I whined, I bitched, I called my friends and complained bitterly for as long as they would listen.

And then I shut the f$#k up and got to work.

And wouldn’t you know it? As the new outline came together, the novel got better. By the time I had completed the prose, it was orders of magnitude better. Sell to a major publisher in a 3-book deal better.

The lesson in all this? I am not the best judge of my own work. I am too close to it. It is tough for me to see what needs to change, tougher for me to know when my novels are “cooked enough,” ready for prime-time before a demanding and hyper-critical public. Heck, even my agent thought it was fine as it was. But you know who is a good judge of my work? Who spends pretty much all their time looking at writing trying to figure out what makes it good enough to go before the aforementioned public? Editors at major publishing houses.

Remember, I thought LATENT was fine as it was. My agent thought it was fine as it was. Had I been willing to self-publish, I would totally have trotted it out there at that point in the process. But it *wasn’t* fine as it was. It was NOT GOOD ENOUGH. It took an expert, someone with skills, experience and a gut instinct honed over years in the trade to first see that, and then guide me to bringing the changes necessary to make it fantastic onto the page.

The most important thing a writer has is his or her reputation. Once you put crap work out there for public consumption, you are well and truly screwed. People are not going to forgive you and pick up another book by you if they’ve read one that sucks. I, for one, am TERRIFIED of that possibility. The thought of trusting my own judgement on whether or not my work is ready for prime-time consumption about throws me into a panic attack. I would never have that confidence until an editor with decades of experience and a proven track record of shepherding major writers to success gave my manuscript the nod. I suppose I could hire such an editor out of pocket to vette my work before self-publishing. But such talent doesn’t come cheap, and guard officers don’t exactly make a lot of money.

So, the only way for me to access that kind of talent is to get a traditional publishing deal, which is what I wound up doing. There are people out there who have the ability to read their own work and judge it fit for public consumption. I will doubt I will ever be that person. Until I build that kind of confidence, I am unwilling to self-publish.

 

Author Myke Cole

Myke Cole is an American writer of history and fantasy who leverages a lifetime in military, law enforcement and intelligence service to take you to battlefields, real and imagined.

More posts by Myke Cole

Join the discussion 12 Comments

  • Dan Adler says:

    Scary. In an “if I ever get this damn thing written will I ever get anyone to seriously read it” kind of way.

    Of course that assumes I ever figure out how to link the beginning to the end anyway.

  • Missviolacross says:

    I have to agree with you.  I’m not published – yet – but know that I need someone outside my brain to critique what I’ve written.  Someone who is up close and personal to what is selling, isn’t emotionally vested in the prose, and isn’t afraid to tell me what sucks and what works.  As you pointed out, there are many out there who are successful at self pubbing, but I for one will be going the traditional route too. 

  • Shecky X says:

    In a way, it’s fairly arrogant to go the self-publishing route when the writer chooses to go without an editor; unless they’ve worked successfully as an editor themselves, it’s highly unlikely that they’ve developed the mental detachment necessary to proper analysis of a work. This goes for ANY work that’s going to be read by more than the writer alone. Hell, any master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation usually requires a number of rewrites as directed by the advisor or the committee, and those are ONLY going to be read by an extremely narrow audience that shares all the same lingo and concepts; it’s not a broad-public thing.

    Some folks, after years of learning the ropes, are able to produce a work that needs only tiny bits of editing for final polish. Note the “after years of learning the ropes” bit – basically, the folks who’ve already ACHIEVED success in the field. So, in the end, the safest bet for people new or even only relatively new to the field is traditional publishing, because the production team is already in place.

  • Mhairi Simpson says:

    From what I’ve seen of popular self-published books, many general public readers are a lot less picky than publishing house editors. They can fall in love with a story without falling in love with the prose. Amanda Hocking’s books which were bought up by St. Martin’s Press will, as far as I know, undergo editing before being re-released. I think Latent probably was *good enough* as it was, just not *as good as it could be*. An editor takes things to a level that most writers can’t. It’s like being told your baby has a third eye. “That thing? No! No, no, no, really, it’s just a birthmark…”

  • wjroberts says:

    Amen

  • Joshua A.C. Newman says:

    Dude, you can hire editors. It’s pretty straightforward: you give them money, they edit your work. Sometimes they tell you things you wish weren’t true and then you whine and complain to your friends and grumble and then rewrite it and discover that the editor was right.

    Then you make a much better margin, have control over the content of your work, work on a revised edition five years later, and do it again.

  • What many self-pub authors don’t recognize is that there is a fairly substantial learning curve, when it comes to honing one’s ability to push nouns up against verbs.  It took me 870,000 unpublished words, before I reached what I consider to be “entry level” proficient.  Life’s been fun since then.  I am selling, and nice things are happening.  Did it suck to be unpublished?  Yes.  Am I glad I didn’t self-pub before I broke in via “traditional” means?  Yes.  In their rush to reach an audience, I fear too many self-pub authors are bypassing the homework.

    • Joshua A.C. Newman says:

      Again, you can hire an editor. You can hire a really tough editor, even. You’re definitely right that underdeveloped work is underdeveloped. But a file of letters saying “no” doesn’t give you good feedback to help you progress.

  • Anonymous says:

    it’s good you know your limitations.

    and you’re lucky you got good advice.

    imagine how you would have felt if
    — after all the rewrites — you found
    the work wasn’t substantially better.

    or — horror! — what if it was worse?

    and you _knew_ that it was worse
    — without any doubt in your mind —
    yet the publishing company wanted
    to put it out anyway, perhaps because
    they considered it “more marketable”.
    (it does happen, you know.  often.)

    so consider yourself to be fortunate.

    except maybe you need a new agent,
    because his judgment seems flawed.

    or maybe not.  maybe “good enough”
    was “good enough” for him to get the
    15% that he was looking for.  ya think?

    -bowerbird

    • Anonymous says:

      I have the greatest agent in the history of agents. The only way I would ever consider another one is if he were abruptly kidnapped by aliens. And then it wouldn’t matter because I would give up writing and dedicate the rest of my life to trying to rescue him.

  • Taylor Stonely says:

    The nice thing about today’s publishing world is that you can get people to help you in every aspect of the publishing process. Just today I hired an editor to look over my manuscript, and I will probably work with other people to help design my cover and interior as I do not have that expertise. I think the correct term for self-publishing done right is team-publishing, which term I borrow from James Altucher in his post about 21 things that authors should know about self-publishing found here:

    http://www.copyblogger.com/professional-self-publishing/

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