As I shared last week, and in my newsletter the previous week, I’ve put plans in motion to publish A Thousand Roads through my Dreamsphere Books imprint next fall, part of embracing the self-publishing process fully. While I’ll certainly be doing my part to follow the traditional publishing process to a T, and that includes getting advanced copies out to reviewers early, there’s still no guarantee of the market. I’m investing in the creation of something that I’m truly passionate about, but at the same time I struggle with a big uncertainty: how will readers receive this book?
If you’ve followed the self-publishing path then I’m sure you can relate to this fear. Even traditionally published authors have no guarantee come launch week their book will take off.
Many authors are rejected by traditional publishers (agent / editor submission) and feel this is the end of the line for that particular book. The book will never work or receive readers because, simply, rejection by the gatekeepers means there must be something wrong with the book.
I strongly believe this couldn’t be further from the truth — most of the time (I want to say almost all of the time) the reason for rejection is the given agent/editor simply didn’t connect with your story in a way that made them feel acquiring it was a sound investment. Professionals in the traditional publishing industry make their choices based on in-depth understanding of current and near-future market trends and, while they will sometimes take a risk on someone new because there’s some great promise (perhaps a unique premise or voice), often the decision is based on knowing what’s selling well and what people want more of, and marketing predictions of buying trends 18 months down the road (since books are put out about 18 months after they are acquired).
Many agents or editors will take on a book that needs further work, just as they will reject a book that’s perfect but doesn’t connect with them as something they are confident they can sell. When you strip it all away, you’re dealing with a select group of people who work together in a tight-knit network, with subjective tastes, highly varied but even so, given the sheer complexity of the perspectives of a planet of more than 7 billion people, still very limited.
The representation fallacy: most great books are hidden by the ones that are decidedly great
The winners write history, as the saying goes. Likewise, the successfully, traditionally published books we see in bookstores represent to the majority of readers the books that have been selectively picked by the publishers. Missing from this is the vast majority of books that exist, many of which will never see the light of day, but which are just as relevant to smaller niches of readers, either abandoned by authors or hiding in obscurity because the authors have self-published then found no success. As our technology advances, it’s my hope that soon it will help connect readers to the best books for them, which will not be biased to who the book is published by or what crowd popularity dictates.
Not every writer has the same goal when it comes to publishing. If your goal is breaking into the traditional market, then indeed, you will write a novel, revise it, submit it, then move on and repeat until you get a deal. Most likely by the time you break in you will have a pile of earlier books that never made it (and which will serve as a scrapyard for future books to be developed now that your career has taken off). Case study: Brandon Sanderson, who wrote 13 novels before finally selling his 6th. There’s nothing wrong with this approach if it’s your preference.
Some writers pick one book and stick at it until it’s perfect, getting input along the way until they push to land their deal. Case study: Pat Rothfuss with The Name of the Wind.
Some writers will write numerous novels, revise them, submit and get rejected, write more, learn craft, improve over years, get critiqued, write and write and still not get a traditional deal. They might give up and find another hobby.
For those writers who never land a deal (and they are many, you just don’t hear their stories in publishing magazines or guest author blogs posts because, you know, the winners write history) they might fear, because of common wisdom in author circles, that they are “writing the wrong book”. I’ve heard advice from several traditionally published authors about how they started in the wrong genre then finally found a different genre and broke in. Case study: author Dan Wells of the Writing Excuses team, who abandoned his epic fantasy novel to write paranormal horror, which kicked off his career.
This is good advice if you’re trying to breaking into the traditional market; if you’re writing based on what’s selling, then you need to write for them what people want to read. But is this the best approach for all writers?
If every writer wrote only what was marketable, we’d only see a fraction of the truth that the collective human perspective has to offer — and one great value of reading is the ability to learn vicariously about the human experience in ways beyond what your day-to-day life will offer.
Indeed, as a writer it’s good to try different things, and I definitely advocate for setting your work aside if you’re getting frustrated with the it. But what if you’re absolutely in love with what you’re writing and are passionate about getting it out to readers, even if you have no basis of evidence that there’s a market for it? What if you just need to get it out there because there’s a message — something important you have to communicate to whoever is going to listen?
Self-publishing with your whole heart and soul: your legacy as an author to the fiction world of tomorrow
Last August, to kick off my Dreamsphere Books imprint, I released a niche book called Pet Human, an owner’s manual written by an advanced machine consciousness that details how we as humans will be cared for as pet by our advanced machine descendants.
This book had no market and I knew that going in. But it had an audience and a message, and that message aligned with my vision of the kind of fiction I want to be bringing into the world, so we published it. As you will see if you check out the link, it has received some great reviews which, to me, have validated that my instincts were right to publish it.
The book is out there, not to be famous and leapfrog our company into profit, but simply to be there communicating a message we feel strongly about, itself a foundation for the kind of vision we will be sharing through my work and other niche works that explore the realities of cultural and creative transcendence in an age of progressive digital realism.
I haven’t even tried to break in traditionally with A Thousand Roads simply because I want to apply the work I do for self-publishing authors to my own book and I love the production process as much as writing. My book will come out and it will be a part of this platform and all that I do, and I will proudly move on and write more.
I’ve always been inspired by Beethoven and his nine symphonies. I’ve listened to them all the way through several times. In my mind, when I conceptualized the nine installments I want to write for my epic arc, of which A Thousand Roads is the first, I imagine it much like Beethoven’s nine symphonies.
Beethoven made a lot of music and applied his skills to the full, and the net sum of that paid his expenses enough that he could live and continue to focus on making music. He never wrote his symphonies because the market told him they would someday be the hallmark of twentieth-century culture alongside disco remixes of Bach. He simply had a vision to make something beautiful and he poured all his passion into making it. He created, invested 100% of his being and breathed even his soul into that work. And that is how the symphonies as we know them came about.
Beethoven didn’t write one symphony then try to get acceptance for it before deciding to write another. He wrote them, an aggregation of his experience as a composer and musician pouring into this work, left them behind as milestones.
Likewise as writers, we must follow our heart and pour our passion into what we create. There is no failure. There is only incomplete work and work to be done to complete it so it can be showcased.
We live in a brilliant age of opportunity, where self-publishing means there can be many more winners who contribute to the publishing history of fiction in the twenty-first century. You have the tools to professionally publish your own work and then find your audience as a fiction author. Even if your audience is a niche, or if you grow one reader at a time, your book can exist in the world to be found. Most importantly, it will stay in the world long after you have left it, and if you’ve done your diligence, it will shine like a star in the vast vault of storytelling.
You can see, perhaps, why I’m so passionate about the work I do as an editor and director of a book production company. Being self-published should not be associated with being of poor quality or being inferior, and I think we’ll see over the next few years the stigma diminish, particularly in the ebook arena, as self-published books that have been produced with professional finesse stand out more.
The overall point isn’t that self-publishing authors should expect that putting their book through all the bells and whistles of production will lead to sales that sustain a full-time author career. Even the majority of traditionally published authors whose books we see in bookstores earn only enough that they require other revenue to supplement living costs. We can’t all be the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen King or George R.R. Martin. But we can do everything in our power to pour our heart into creating books we are proud of.
Did you know that Moby Dick was a flop in its day? (Check out this Writer Unboxed post by David Corbett for more on that.) What is it you bring to your fiction for the readers of today and the future? How do you decide when you’re “done” if you’re self-publishing?