Four years ago, I submitted the final draft of Talismen: Birthstones to Amazon CreateSpace, a site that allows anybody to submit a file for self-publishing and makes it automatically available for purchase on Amazon.com and Kindle eBook.
Do I regret it? Yes.
This post is partly just a self-pitying personal story, but also contains good information for those of you out there thinking about self-publishing. I am by no means 100% against it, but my family and I were simply ignorant of the situation going in.
The Vision of Self-Publishing:
When I was writing Birthstones, I never entertained the idea of self-publishing. To me, it was a personal pride and rite of passage to have my manuscript rejected by a dozen companies before finally shining through and getting my literary foot in the door. I thought self-publishing was for authors who weren’t good enough to convince someone to pick up their book. But even now that I’ve been disappointed with self-publishing, I doubt that this is true. You see, there are many tantalizing reasons to self-publish.
My parents approached me with dazzling dreams of the wonders of self-publishing. Publishing companies and editors always want to make changes to your story, hold you to unreasonable deadlines, and take gigantic bites out of your profits, right? You’re a good author, your story will sell itself, and then you get to stay in charge of all creative decisions, profit, and time management. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, you no longer have to invest in your own printing press, because Amazon will do it for you. All that’s left is to write.
The Ambiguous Reality:
Technically speaking, everything above is more or less true. Publishing companies, agents, and editors will expect you to compromise on some content and share the profits. However, apart from telling you what to do and printing the physical copies of the book for you, publishing companies have an added benefit that my 14-year-old self didn’t appreciate: marketing.
Sadly, books do not sell themselves. I was under the impression that my readers would be so smitten with the book that they would tell all their friends, and my audience would increase exponentially. Unfortunately, I invested no money in advertising. At all. None. I told my local institutions: school, the Taewkondo Academy, the library. I sent free copies to family members. But I never made any investment. You reap what you sow: you can’t simply plop seeds on the ground and expect them to grow as efficiently as a farmer’s would. There’s a chance you’ll get a nice harvest, but it’s small.
In short, the added benefit of publishing companies is that they will tell people about your book. Assuming at least some other people out there are like younger me and think all self-published books are trash, then traditional publishing also convinces more potential readers of your book’s quality: a person who knows a thing or two about books decided to promote yours, so maybe they’re onto something.
Overall, my impression is this: if you have the resources or experience to market a book, go for it. If you’re a freshman in high school, don’t go for it. I imagine that self-publishing will be very nice for established authors in the future, who may have such reputations that Tweets or blog posts is all they’ll need to sell a million copies. But if you’re a first-time author, think of a publishing company as like a share-holding company for a first-time entrepreneur: you share the costs and risks with others in order to minimize the loss to your own finances, and latch onto someone with more resources by convincing them that your idea is worth investing in.
Can you reverse your decision if you self-publish? Can you use the same story in traditional publishing? Well…not likely. I toyed with the idea of republishing Birthstones via traditional companies. After all, I own the rights. What am I going to do, sue myself?
Unfortunately, traditional publishing companies use sales numbers to determine a book’s quality. If your self-published book sells well, it might get “picked up” by a traditional publisher. That was my original backup plan. However, the catch is that if your book does not sell a couple thousand copies in the first few months it’s out (doesn’t matter what the figures are beyond that point), consider it gone. Traditional companies will not pick it up. They’re looking for a large burst in sales early on.
And don’t think that you can simply pitch the book as an entirely new concept as if your self-published version never existed. Remember, you self-published it on the Internet, where everything is permanent. There’s a pirating book site giving out free PDFs of Birthstones as we speak: you don’t think that a traditional publisher can’t run a simple plagiarism scan (to make sure you aren’t submitting somebody else’s work) only to find that you’ve already publishing that manuscript you sent them? Once your agent or publisher finds out that your book has already been published (so you lied) and that it didn’t do well (so they think it’s no good), consider your contract terminated.
I lost Talismen:
Frankly, I lost my baby. Scratch that: I threw away my baby. Talismen has accumulated a decent readership (especially thanks to that pirating site), but did so over the course of a few years. I wasn’t willing to “spend money to make money” as the saying goes, so in retrospect, I never stood a chance. I love Talismen with all my heart, but it’s not going to get picked up until another one of my books is a success. But it’s a long road ahead. Should I just publish the rest of the series online? Should I dedicate my time to that when there are other stories I want to write that could still be traditionally published? For now, the answer is no.
For those of you asking where the Birthstones sequel is, the first draft is sitting in my computer files, waiting to be loved. If I die tomorrow, having not finished the Talismen series will be one of my greatest regrets. I will finish it, one day.
But not today.