Resistance is Vital or When is it Time to Self-Publish?

I know I run the risk of offending indie authors when I say this but here it goes: most self-published books are not novels but drafts of novels.

Most is the operative word in this sentence.  There are certainly excellent indie books, and there are good reasons and bad reasons to put out a book on one’s own.  As the publishing world contracts into one big corporation, independent publishing is the way that new voices can be heard.  It is wonderful that authors who are not deemed commercial enough can still find an outlet and an audience, and I do suspect that many of the literary stars of the near future will come from outside the traditional publishing industry.  (Let us assume, my fellow writer, that your indie book is an example of the good ones and it is those other people I am about to talk about.)

Let’s face it, self-publishing is also a way for people to avoid taking criticism, to avoid revision, to avoid learning.  If you’ve ever gone to a site that reviews indie books and looked at its guidelines– “no poorly laid out books, no shifts from third to first person narration, no characters that aren’t fleshed out, no bad grammar, no excessive typos”– you get the sense that most of the books that come to them are not of a professional quality, perhaps they could become so with a bit more effort, but they are not there yet.

In the past, readers were spared the author’s learning process.  Today new writers often publish books first and learn how to craft them later.  Young writers publish their first drafts, endure public pans, “unpublish” and put the book out again.

There is a joke that frustrated writers tell about publishers and agents.  They say editors separate the wheat from the chaff and publish the chaff.  They can be a frustrating barrier to entry, and they are not always right.  More often than not, I am afraid to say, they are.

Getting a novel right is a long term proposition.  It is a marathon, not a sprint.  Someone once wrote (I say it this way not because it was someone eminent, but because I can’t remember who it was) that runners do not have Boston Marathons in them waiting to get out.  A novel, like the marathon, is a peak experience that comes as the result of lots of tedious work.  In the case of the novel, that means lots of tedious rethinking and revision when you thought it was all done.

To jump to yet another metaphor (really where are those editors when you need them?): As stones are polished by the friction of ocean waves, novels are polished through resistance.

I have often said that I am glad that self-publishing was not an easy option when I started writing fiction, because I would not like to have done all my learning in public.  I surely would have published my first completed novel because at the time I was proud of it.  Why wouldn’t I be?  It was a lot of work to write a whole novel.  It expressed my point of view.  Looking back on it, I can even say that it had little flashes of something not entirely humiliating.  (The best bits have been scavenged for other things over the years.)  The fact of the matter is, though, that it was autobiographical in the worst way, self-indulgent, and probably boring too.  I still have affection for the novel.  I am still proud to have done it.  It was part of my process.  I am equally grateful that no copies exist anywhere on earth– at least nowhere that I can’t delete them.  I am grateful for every publisher who rejected it, and especially to the few who were kind and generous enough to take the time to explain exactly why.

I was fortunate enough to get published (in non-fiction) quite soon out of the gate.  The first book proposal I sent out (using Writer’s Market) was accepted about a month later.  I had the advantage of having a writer father who mentored me and taught me how to write strong proposals. My first book came out in 1999 and I published three more the following year.  By 2001 I had moved up to a midsize publisher.  That book sold quite well, (85,000 copies) allowing me to get an agent.  (Before I had sold that many books, I found it much easier to be accepted by publishers themselves than by agents.) I can’t tell you why this process went so smoothly for me or how to replicate it.  I can only tell you that’s how it started for me.

The only bit of advice I can give on how to get a foot in the door is that you have to kick your leg out.  A lot of beginning writers get so intimidated by the process that they don’t even try to query mainstream publishers.  If you try (in a systematic way with a strong query) and persist it might be easier than you think.

So for nearly as long as I can remember, I have had access to publishing professionals– publishers, editors and agents– who were willing to take me seriously and give me honest feedback when they rejected things like my terrible first novel.

Publishing professionals are not literary gods, they do make mistakes.  Their views are subjective.  But they do read more than just about anyone.  They do know what tends to sell and what doesn’t.  They do know what has been done too much or not enough.  They know how you compare to the other things in the slush pile.  They can tell the difference between a finished novel and a first draft.

I get frustrated with rejection, as any human being does.  But I have come to approach it with the following assumption, if an editor or agent doesn’t get what I am trying to do it is not because she is dense.  It is because I didn’t convey it well enough.  I need to go back and fix the problem.

You need to learn to interpret the feedback, of course.  If you just incorporate any suggestion anyone gives you you’ll be bashed around like a ping pong ball and I can’t imagine any good writing coming from that.  When you start getting reviews you see clearly that the aspect of a book one person loves is the very thing another hates.  So you need to make value judgments.  Sometimes you have to trust your instincts that something in your book is simply not that person’s taste, but is vital.

Even in that case, you might realize that the editor is telling you something important.  For example, an editor might say that she didn’t respond to something a character did in the second half of the book.  The problem might not be with the plot at all, it may be that you didn’t set something up well enough early on to make it clear why this had to happen.  Maybe there was some aspect of the character’s personality that made this action inevitable, but which you assumed rather than put on the page.

Rather than listening to the specific suggestion, listen to what the editor isn’t getting and then figure out how to make it clearer. You know that angry e-mail you wrote about how block headed this editor is to reject something so fabulous?  (Yeah, you know you want to, go ahead and write it– just don’t send it.)  Go back when you’ve got that off your chest and read your explanation of exactly why you made your artistic choice, then go back to your novel and make sure everything you just said shows up in the writing.  If you have to explain it, it probably doesn’t.

The process of revising a work to a professional level could be easy and swift or it could take years.  You may have to put it aside and come back to it with fresh eyes.  The point is, I think this is a part of the process that is vital and it risks being cut short by the easy availability of self-publishing.

There tends to come a time, though, when the feedback from the pros has less to do with flaws in the writing– things you can fix as a writer– and more to do with marketplace considerations.  “Books on skiing never sell.”   Once you start getting feedback like, “I loved your style but we just haven’t had luck with books with African-American firefighters as protagonists” it might be time to think about self-publishing.

As much as it pains the artist inside, and as much as it pains many in the industry, publishing houses are businesses that need to acquire properties that can turn a profit.  It is a difficult business, no one can predict the future or be a perfect diviner of readers’ tastes.  It may be that your lovely, little book is just not the type of thing that publishers think can find the kind of audience they need to survive– large and swift.   Just because you can’t move Harry Potter units doesn’t mean no one will buy the book.  You may not need a huge Random House audience to be satisfied as a writer.  Just remember that getting anyone to buy your independent or tiny press book will be a hard slog.  (See my “nothing works” series.)

I find that I am in exactly this position at the moment.  My most recent novel (It is strange to call it “recent” as it is actually a novel that I’ve been revising over the course of nearly 20 years with the help of negative feedback) has gotten to the point where it is no longer being rejected for its quality but for other market concerns.  For the moment, I am still trying to get it into the hands of someone inside the big old publishing world who sees its commercial potential.  (I, in fact, believe it has commercial potential.)  Selling is often a matter of persisting until you find the person who gets excited about your proposal.  On the other hand, now that I feel as though there is no more for me to do with it as a writer, I have left the indie option open.  Not yet, not yet, but if I have to I will.


  1. Many good perspectives. Like you, I began selling professionally (30 years ago) when self-publishing was really not an option. I am still grateful to those editors who made me revise — thereby teaching me how — and also those who just said no, because sometimes that is a lesson just as valuable.

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