I grew up with the belief that commercial publishing was the only really legit form of publishing. If you published yourself, it didn’t really “count,” because anyone could do it. There’s a kernel of truth to that belief, but it’s buried under a whole load of biased assumptions.
First, the kernel of truth: independent publishing (hereafter referred to as “indie-pub,” to be cute) is available to anyone and everyone. Scrawl two words on a piece of paper, and you can pay someone to print and bind it in a book, or a whole run of books. There is little built-in quality control and little-to-no editing (unless you want to pay out the nose for it, a service that vanity presses are more than happy to offer). In the old days, if you had a couple thousand dollars and a manuscript, you could publish. Nowadays, with digital books and print-on-demand services, you don’t even need the money. $25 is more than enough to cover the essential indie-pub costs, and that’s not even necessary if you’re going strictly digital.
In that respect, the indie-pub world is one without standards. There is no corporate machine willing to vouch for the quality of your work. It’s you and whatever word-of-mouth campaign you can drum up. This is truth, and readers are correct to be at least a little skeptical of indie-pub authors for that very reason. Caveat emptor.
This does not mean, however, that all indie-pub authors are created equal. I’m sure if you lined us all up in a row and asked us why we chose that oft-maligned route, you’d get answers as varied as the genres we write. I can only report my experience, of course. I’ll start with two of the biased assumptions I referenced above.
Commercial Publishing Bias #1: Commercially published books are inherently superior, because a publisher was willing to invest, edit, print, and market that book. They wouldn’t put in that effort for inferior books.
The Reality: Commercial Publishers are, like every other business, looking to make a buck. You might assume they’re looking for superior works to sell, but they’re actually looking for marketable works. These are not, necessary, mutually exclusive circles on the Venn diagram of publishing, but they’re not concentric-congruent, either. I mean, let’s be honest: there’s a lot of garbage that gets commercially published. It’s polished and packaged with all the same bells and whistles as the not-garbage books, but fundamentally, it’s still garbage. There are tired premises and plots; there are editing errors; there are poor cover designs.
(As an aside on that note, I recently came across a series of “Regency” romance novels where the covers consisted of drop-waist/mermaid-style strapless gowns. The Regency period had a pretty specific style of dress that 1. always included sleeves and 2. used the empire waist, which is about as far from a drop-waist as you can get. Did it matter? No. The publisher wasn’t going for accuracy. The point was to hook the intended audience with a pretty dress. Obviously I was not the intended audience. I was, however, a little sad that they assumed their intended audience wouldn’t know the difference between a 21st century gown design and a early 19th century signature style; that says volumes about what they assume of their average reader, I think.)
In the end, the truth behind this bias is not that commercially published books are superior. It’s that someone in the acquisitions department thought they would sell. And that’s okay.
Commercial Publishing Bias #2: Commercially published authors are inherently superior writers.
The Reality: Maybe I’m beating a dead horse here. Superior writing will not get you a contract with a commercial publisher. Celebrity status will. Knowing someone in the publishing industry will. Knowing a commercially published author to put in a good word for you will. Finding an agent to pitch your work might.
Commercially published authors have their work run through so many layers of editing and proofreading that, reportedly, in some cases it bears little resemblance to the original manuscript at all. Everyone who touches that manuscript smudges their fingerprints on it, figuratively speaking. Authors do not come to the publisher as perfect or superior writers. They come with a story or idea that they or someone else has successfully pitched as marketable (see Bias #1).
So, the truth behind this bias is that many commercially published authors are not superior writers at all; they are simply connected and subsequently polished. And that’s okay, too.
The intent of this post is not to disparage the commercial publishing industry. (I have them to thank for many of my favorite books and my severe myopia, after all.) It’s only to point out that they are working within a specific paradigm rather than the free-for-all paradigm of the indie-pub world. And here’s where my experience comes into it.
You sometimes hear stories of successful authors who sent out dozens or even hundreds of query letters, receiving rejection after rejection until at last, some agent or publisher recognized the merit of their work and took a chance. I admire those authors for their perseverance. I am not one of them.
I have sent in my lifetime a grand total of five (5) query letters. Four went out for my very first novel. One of these letters even had a taker who put me through the grand hoop-jumping process involved to acquire an agent before that lead petered out. The fifth letter was sent to a small publisher for the second novel I finished (Kingdom of Ruses) and was rejected right on the dot exactly two months later. I was so relieved to get that rejection that I put querying to rest for a season.
I tried to pick it back up once, for about twenty minutes. I looked at agents and publishers, read what they were seeking, and walked away from my computer with a very vivid mental image of putting a gun to my head and pulling the trigger. I’m not suicidal by nature, and I wouldn’t follow through with such an inclination, but in that moment, I understood a little better why people put their heads in ovens or throw themselves off bridges. The querying process itself filled me with complete and utter despair.
Maybe it does that to everyone. I don’t know. What I realized, though, is that instead of reading, “We at the X Agency are looking for edgy romance with a dark fantasy twist” (or whatever verbiage was actually used; there seemed to be a lot of “edgy” and “dark” material being sought, as I recall), all I read was, “We at the X Agency are looking for NOT YOU NOT YOU NOT YOU NOT YOU NOT YOU.” I read it over and over and over again. “You are not a good fit.” “You are not writing what we want.” “You are off-trend and unmarketable.” I didn’t need to receive rejections. They were written into the pitches for me.
And yet, all the while, I was still writing. I finished Novel #4 and knew immediately that I would never query it. What, then, was I to do with it? Shove it under my bed? Put it away in a cabinet? Or, clean it up, slap a cover on it, and let my friends and family have it as they pleased?
And that, for me, was the fundamental difference between commie-pub and indie-pub: one was telling me, “NOT YOU, NOT YOU, NOT YOU!” before I got anywhere near it, and the other was like, “Meh. We don’t care what you write. We’ll print it.” And print it they have, four years running.
Do I make scads of money? Heck, no. Do I have satisfaction in knowing that my work is mine and mine alone? Emphatically, yes. And right now, for me, that’s all that really matters.