The Work Has To Be Competitive.
There’s a common refrain, heard around writers conferences and discussion forums, that runs something like, “If I can’t sell it traditionally, I’ll self-publish.” While there are some perfectly legitimate uses of this phrase, quite often it’s either meant or interpreted as, If the work isn’t good enough to sell traditionally, it can be self-published.
Well, it can. But it shouldn’t.
A self-published book should be indistinguishable from a traditionally-published book in quality, from cover to editing to layout. You know how you can spy the self-published book in a roomful of books for sale? That’s not good.
I will be among the first to say that self-published books can be just as amazing – or perhaps better, since they don’t have to be edited to a lowest-common-denominator committee – as any traditional book lineup. But the truth is, the off-cited tsunami of crap does exist, and we’ve no one to blame but ourselves.
The first time I made a piece of clothing, it wasn’t good enough to sell at a mall retailer. My early music lessons were in no way good enough to press an album. And my 5k time will never earn me a spot on the leaderboard. So why do we think early, developmental, or subpar writing should be published?
Imagine a boy, maybe 17, who isn’t sure he likes movies. He had to watch a few for school, stuff that never really caught his fancy and just didn’t connect with him because it was not his style or because the teacher made too much of the symbolism and camera angles and he hated writing the papers, but now he’s hearing from his friends that movies are really good. But he doesn’t want to drop $15 on a theater ticket to start, he’s going to try something cheaper first to see if it’s worth the investment, right? So he goes to Amazon Video to find a free or $2 flick. And he finds somebody’s basement-shot action wannabe with party-store costuming and bad sound obscuring the lame dialogue and whatever fight stunts their sixth-grade kid brother wanted to do before Mom got downstairs. (There are some… striking self-published movies on Amazon streaming video.)
Maybe that fledgling filmmaker will be the next Spielberg. But his current work isn’t impressive. And not only is he turning off his current audience (and setting up a hilarious retrospective to surprise him during his big talk show interview once he’s a household name), he’s probably just convinced our kid that movies really aren’t worth his time.
Okay, I know it’s hard to imagine anyone not familiar with movies in today’s society. But the truth is, a lot of people think they don’t like to read, because of bad school experiences or because reading was never valued in their family or whatever, and when they finally go to pick up a cheap book, they get something which just turns them off further.
Put out work which creates more addicted readers. Have a good critique group which constantly pushes you to be better. Make sure your stories are well-edited – both for structure and for grammar/typographical errors.
We Don’t Have to Be Competitive.
Look, we authors are not competing against each other. We’re really not. We’re competing against television and streaming movies and phone games.
No reader buys just one book a year; getting a reader hooked on another author just creates a bigger market for all of us. Promote other authors whose work your audience will also appreciate. But note that last phrase – I don’t promote just anyone I want to owe me a favor, I share stuff I think my readers will also enjoy. That does everyone good – other author gets a boost, my readers get something they like (they can’t spend all their time just waiting for my next release), and I gain a bit of additional reader trust so they’re more likely to stay with me. Pushing unrelated genres at readers will just confuse and annoy them. (And while I may or may not tell another author when I’m enthusing about their work, I never do it in anticipation of a favor owed. That’s not the point.)
I do several live book fairs a year, and I always if possible do a circuit before it starts to find out who is selling what. Then if I get someone at my table looking for something else – a Western romance, perhaps, or a middle grade adventure – I can point them directly to another author. They’re happy, the other writer is happy, the book fair organizers are happy, and I don’t have to deal with frustrated or disappointed shoppers. Everybody wins. (Well, except I didn’t make a sale – but then, I wasn’t going to, anyway, if they weren’t looking for what I sell.)
Help other authors with their writing craft and their marketing. (And just as important – take critique and advice professionally, not personally.) And remember, there isn’t really a divide between traditionally- and self-published authors. In fact, many of us are hybrids, doing both! It’s all about creating readers, not outselling the guy at the table or website next down from yours.
Okay, this is sixth in a list of five, but it’s true – self-publishing is more work than traditional publishing, but it’s also much less constrained and carries a great potential of fun. If you keep your eyes open and your hand to the plow, you can create an enjoyable career following your dreams.
Laura VanArendonk Baugh writes fantasy (epic, urban, and historical), mystery, and non-fiction. She enjoys helping other authors and will be teaching on writing craft and self-publishing with Ireland Writer Tours in August 2017. Find her at her website, on Facebook, and Twitter.