What I Want Out of Writing: Weighing Traditional and Self Publishing

What I Want Out of Writing: Weighing Traditional and Self Publishing

While researching ways to make a living as a professional writer, I’ve found heaps of articles about how difficult it is to do. However, I have also found some articles suggesting that it is becoming easier to make a living self-publishing rather than going the traditional route. I started to consider the pros and cons of either argument. There have been some decent comparisons, such as here on the NY Book Editors website, but I had to do more research than a few either-or comparisons, go deeper than lists of pros and cons. I also wanted to understand what attitudes were behind either mode and give reasons why I, personally, wanted to publish traditionally or independently.

Here is what I want out of writing:

  • To write timeless, striking, thoughtful, vivid, and meaningful literature in all genres for the rest of my life
  • To be able to study and engage life through writing
  • Make a decent living from writing

The first two bullet points are dependent on the third, but not entirely. I have a full-time job and a part-time job on the side. The full-time allows me to live, and the part-time lets me squirrel away money to pay for editing and cover art. In the meantime, I am writing, editing, and researching more diligently than I ever have. I think if I put in the hours to make everything high-quality, I can make it self-publishing.

What makes me think I can make it? I have won some small awards and have made coffee money publishing freelance writing in college. So many people– teachers, friends, even strangers, have encouraged my writing and have supported me through grants, beta reading, offering advice, and connections. I remember a professor telling me, “Of all the students I have, I think you are the one most likely to become a successful writer.” Since I could write my own name, I have wanted to write. Since I was in middle school, I have been serious about being a professional. I am confident in my writing.

I also think I can make it because my professional experiences and secondary interests line up well to self-publishing: social media, online fundraising, and communication for nonprofits. I didn’t jump into self-publishing totally ignorant of online tools or plans. With my friend, Angela, I built a plan which included a timeline and a best-practices list that I wanted to check off as I went. The timeline covers five years of goals. I prepared, hard.

I say this sincerely: it doesn’t matter so much how I publish, so long that I do. Before graduating, I intended to publish traditionally. In the beginning, I agreed with the common reasons why I should not self-publish.

  1. It’s all on you to make your book a success. This means editing, designing, marketing, and distributing. I know a little about each of those things, but if I published traditionally, I’d have help from specialists in those areas.
  2. You pay. If you want professional anything for the book, you pay. Editing, designing, marketing, and distributing, anything.
  3. Stigma. Self-publishing is sometimes seen as the last resort of writers who couldn’t get a personalized rejection letter. And yes, there is a lot of crap out there. By association, people will think your book is crap too, even if it isn’t.   

However, I began to see the attractions of self-publishing. I had too much time on my hands, and I began to research why you should self-publish.

  1. It’s all on me to make my book a success. I like that I can choose my cover design, market to a crowd, and choose my editor. I had time on my hands to research best practices for promoting, designing, and distributing, and the more I learned, the more I thought that I could do it.  
  2. Higher royalties. There are countless stories of bestselling authors who still couldn’t– or can’t pay their bills. See here for an anthology of them. Here’s a multiple-time bestseller who recently went back to the civil service to pay his mortgage. In self-publishing, serious writers who do their homework and promote well can earn a living even if they are relatively unknown. I live in a state with a low cost of living, don’t have expensive hobbies, and live at home. What I would consider earning a living here isn’t a lot of money.
  3. The stigma is going away. More publishers are mining major self-publishing outlets for great books by bad marketers. This activity is just recognizing that there are genuinely good books being self-published and recognized by the mainstream. I confess I think the stigma is still enough to scare away authors and readers, and yet I am hopeful that it will continue to drop.

Before I could self-publish, I had to answer the negative points to self-publishing and counter the positive points to traditional publishing. The positives of traditional publishing are easy (paraphrased from the NY book editors article listed in the beginning of this post, and for convenience, here.)

  1. It’s more prestigious. It’s a fantastic feeling to have total strangers tell you your book is good enough to publish. Many literary prizes totally ignore self-published works.
  2. You get paid an advance. If your book doesn’t sell, you will have the comfort of the advance to tide you over to make something that will sell.
  3. Marketing support. To repeat the second point of the negatives of self-publishing, I know a little about editing, designing, marketing, and distributing. But, if I published traditionally, I’d have help from multiple people, each of whom are specialists in those areas.
  4. I’m more likely to be able to get in bookstores. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are more likely to buy from established publishers than from a single self-published author.

I don’t care about the second point, sort-of-kind-of care about the first and third points, and super care about the fourth. I really, really want to have a fantastic physical copy of every book I publish. I have never met a writer who didn’t want to hold their own book in their hands. There are some authors who had successful Indiegogo and Kickstarter campaigns to make a physical copy of their book, but I am nowhere near that level of success. One day, I may cross over to traditional publishing, but I’m giving myself five years to see how this plays out. I’ll write until I die, but I’ll only self-publish only until I know whether it’s right for me.

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