An aspiring writer recently wrote in to one of my favorite advice columnists, Captain Awkward. The advice seeker loved to write, but lost confidence with every rejection letter. The question: how to persevere when all efforts seemed futile?
Among the Captain’s excellent suggestions was this:
If rejection is killing you, eff the gatekeepers and look into self-publishing your work. My friend Phil did just that, check it out. Chuck Wendig is another person who is creating his own writing career and connecting directly with audiences to sell his work. Catherynne M. Valente wrote short stories in the form of letters to her audience for years … The gatekeepers will take notice of them and come to them eventually with money and contracts and offers of a mainstream audience, but they aren’t waiting for that to do what they want to do. And when the big time comes, they’ll be ready because they’ve already been doing it. Think of what it would mean to a publisher or an agent to take you on as an author with a built-in following who is great at self-promotion and attracting fans? Lots of people can write well. Not everyone can have the hustle to make their work stand out in today’s crowded marketplace. [Emphasis added.]
I like this advice because it presents the potential benefits of self-publishing without downplaying the time and effort involved.
Some authors think of self-publishing as a magical pole that will allow them to vault over the heads of the effing gatekeepers who stand between them and their audience. Those authors are in for a disappointment when they reach the other side. Yes, they’ve bypassed the agents and traditional publishers, but now what? “If you build it, they will come” is a poor business model if no one knows your book exists.
In other words, you still have to do the work. Instead of writing dozens of query letters, you’re looking for an editor who will help you make your manuscript as polished as it can be. You’re hiring other members of your publishing team to help you with cover design and page layout, or you’re learning how to do those things yourself (pro tip: not as easy to do well as it looks). Once your book is available to the masses, you’re pounding the digital pavement every day, trying to connect with readers directly.
None of this is meant to discourage you! There are valid reasons for bypassing the traditional gatekeepers. A hundred agents might reject your manuscript, not because it’s poorly written, but because they guess it will only be of interest to around 600 readers in the world, and major publishers won’t consider it worth the investment. You, on the other hand, might be very happy to sell 600 copies to the people who really want them. You might decide you’re willing to do what it takes to find those people.
In the end, the traditional and self-publishing routes share certain features in common. There is an opportunity for success. There is a risk of failure. There is work to be done.
The good news is, if you’ve already written an entire book, you’re no stranger to hard work.
So do your homework. Review your options. And then, whatever option you choose, give it your very best shot.