Wednesday, June 10, 2015

When to Consider Traditional Publishing First


Like our childhood heroes when we first find them drunk, lying headfirst in a pile of their own puke, traditional publishing has had a hard fall off its pedestal. It’s one of those things that most would still kill to be a part of, and yet we see all kinds of posts praising self-publishing, trying to remove the stigma against it and promote its values.

And while I do find the new popularity of self-publishing to be a good change, allowing authors of all kinds to make more money and produce more diverse works, I find the bile for traditional publishing to be detrimental, and an option that is better for many people who refused to even consider it.

1) If you don’t really want control.

Artists, especially when first starting out, always think they want complete say over everything. Sometimes this is true, at least for the first few projects. Some people do have a thoroughly thought out vision that could be destroyed if not kept in check by the visionary, and there are those who are good at it, whose work prospers because it is defended by the creator’s diligence, but there are also those who it is not the best option for. Partially because they don’t actually want it.

Most creators get burned out after the first few works in which they did everything. You read things about actors who insisted  on doing their own stunts in the first season that you couldn’t beg to in the last. You have self-publishers who make a successful series only to go back and redo with professionals now that they have the money. I personally produced plays for a few years when I was living in L.A., and in the beginning I loved to do things like poster design and finding costumes, but towards the end, if I could find anyone else willing to lend a hand, or even who was responsible enough to earn their pay, I’d feel it was a successful production.

Not only is complete control only fun for some in the beginning, it’s also something that some artists actually don’t want at all. What they’re really interested in is not lacking final word; they’re not actually interested in about half the choices they have to make.

For instance, I worked with an independent director who wrote, starred, directed, and funded his own film. He was one of those people who wanted to be in charge of everything, and yet he actually refused to make decisions. It wasn’t even an issue of skills; it was an issue of he only wanted to think about the fun parts.

He didn’t care about camera angles. He had no vision for them, didn’t push the camera person to do anything interesting, didn’t push himself to actually make some interesting choices. The majority of the scenes were filmed from across the room in long, tedious shots. It ruined any semblance of pacing, made it look like he didn’t know what the hell he was doing, and was just an important aspect that he needed to pay more attention to.

If you don’t have skills, vision can make up for it, and skills can make up for vision, but nothing can make up for the lack of desire. If you aren’t interested in paying attention to the important  details of your work, obviously you need a team. Not only that, but it’s likely you would prefer it.

2) You have no money.

It is entirely possible to self-publish for no money whatsoever. It is also not a solid plan if you are trying to either gain readers or support yourself financially. You’re competing with an infinite number of people. Some of them are great writers, so you can’t bank on only the quality of your story making it stand out. You need to be professional and competitive, and mostly, willing to get the word out there.

Things add up. Even when you are frugal, talented, and business savvy, you’re going to end up spending some money.

It’s extraordinarily frustrating to read about people who can’t even afford to pay for copyrighting their work, let alone do any sort of advertising. Even if you were to go with less obvious paths than throwing your money at Facebook, you need to be able to find an extra 100 bucks occasionally. Can you make bookmarks ($40 for 500)? Register a website ($10/year for domain name, 5-15/month for a hosting)? Copyright your work ($30)? Possibly postage to send out announcements or giveaways? Do you have the ability to send free arcs to reviewers? Items for giveaways? Gas money to drive out to events? And if you don’t have drawing skills or know HTML, you will probably have to pay a designer to help you create the graphics or sites.

And of course, having a professional cover, headshot, and a thorough copyeditor are important factors in your book being taken seriously.

While having no money can’t prevent you from selling your book, if you don’t have a lot of financial flexibility, it’s a good idea to look for an investor. You really will have a tough time trying to be successful when you aren’t willing to have any budget at all while surrounded by authors who do. If you’re willing to put in the work and learn the necessary skills, you can do it, but it means a lot of time and effort to keep competing with people have time, effort, and money.

The point of the traditional publisher is to fund the project; that’s why they exist. Of course, if you are unable to find someone enthusiastic in taking you on, I don’t recommend letting this stop you. It just makes sense to seek an avenue that gives you more funds first rather than the one which requires you to be the primary financer.

On the flip side, if you are looking to supplement your income with writing, self-publishing is probably a better plan. Successful self-publishers make more money than traditional self-publishers on average, and you’re more likely to make at least a few bucks even if you aren’t successful. Whereas with traditional publishing you’ll be hard put to get accepted and get paid in a reasonable time-frame, self-publishing can get you at least some money for the amount of work you put in.

3) You have no skill sets or time.

If you want your book to do anything other than sit on an obscure Amazon page, you need to be competitive. If you want to say that it is different than all those crappy self-published first drafts we have become accustomed to, you have to show us. If you want people to know about it, to see it, to have it be more than just another droplet in an infinite ocean, you have to do more than just scribble a cover and slap it up on the internet.

If you have the money to pay people with skill sets or time, then self-publishing is actually a good choice. That’s what a traditional publisher is. Of course, they have experience you don’t, but their primary job is being the investor, and if you can pay people with the experience, then traditional publishers don’t have much to offer you.

You will be required to do your researching in finding the right contractors, making sure they’re not scams, sometimes having to chase them down or even just meet with them to discuss your options, but you hire the right people and you can easily spend most of your time writing instead of making the last book successful.

Unfortunately, few people have the funds to hire a marketing advisor, graphic designer, editor, formatter, and anyone else you might need. Most people will do the work themselves, which is a perfectly acceptable decision… as long as they’re up to the challenge.

It’s irritating to have authors on Facebook complaining about how much hard work they have to put in, whining that it’s hard every time they realize the expectations in an over flooded market, or when they have some color pencil cartoon with a comic sans title as their cover and still claim they’ve done everything they could.

If you have the skills to do it yourself, you should. If you want to learn the skills to do it yourself, you should. But you need to still hold yourself to higher standards—the standards you would hold other people to. Would you buy a book with typos on the first page and sans an actual ending? Remember that you want people to take you seriously, and not expect the world to recognize your genius when there’s a lot of good works floating about in a sea of crap.

Self-publishing is hard. In many ways, it’s harder than traditional publishing. Yes, with the big New York publishers you’re more likely to be rejected, you’re not going to get anything until you actually get something—and even then you need to pass through four more gates of something for it to really mean anything—and even then it won’t be the magical world you’re expecting.

But that just goes to show that being a writer is hard in general. The only thing that’s easier about self-publishing is that it’s faster and you’re guaranteed to have a product if you put the work in. If you’re looking to be successful, however, self-publishing requires more work, more money, and less respect, having to work harder just to get to the same level of reputation as a traditionally published author. If you do manage to get through a traditional publisher, you have a team of experienced people who have been tested already by their bosses and coworkers (if they weren’t moderately good at their job, they’d be fired. If that freelance graphic designer you hired isn’t good at his job, you might not know until after you’ve already worked with him.) You have someone to fund printing, give you at least a small budget and effort into marketing, you have people to bounce ideas off of, push you further, and compensate for the skills you lack. They have prior relationships with reviewers and readers and bookstores. If you say, “I’m published with HarperCollins,” people don’t assume you’ve just published a typo-ridden first draft.

If you are interested in experience, help, funding, and support, traditional publishing might be up your ally. Otherwise, you need to do all the work of all those people in order to compete with them.

4)  You hate selling yourself.

Yes, traditional publishers expect you to market your own book more so than they did in the past. But not only will a reputable company offer you something, even just the name will make your life so much easier.

Being self-published is still, even for the most confident person, a little embarrassing. You get this look of, “Oh, a vanity publisher? Yeah right. You’re an author. You keep telling yourself that.” Or, at least, that’s how your doubt interprets it. And that makes it very hard to ask someone to give your book a chance.

Not only do publishers already have a name and connections, but you will often feel more comfortable contacting people (bookstores, events) with a book someone else is willing to support.

A confident, secure, and friendly person can do well with a self-published work, but if you really hate selling yourself, traditional publishing is far more up your ally.

5) You’re a relatively new author.

I’m not going to define for you what a “new” author is because it doesn’t matter. You should interpret your experience level for yourself; it’s too vague and inconsistent a concept to take a definition from a blogger who’s never met you. But I will say that if you aren’t very experienced, getting a few rejections is a good thing. It is also a means to expedite your confidence level and push your skills more than if you were to just go straight to self-publishing.

You might consider traditional publishing if you…

Haven’t really been rejected yet
Haven’t received a cruel criticism
Haven’t had a solid impression about your writing yet
Haven’t had a lot of people read your work
Are still waiting to see if other people think you’re a good writer or not.

I’m assuming you don’t want to produce crap, you don’t want to ruin your reputation, and you don’t want to be demoralized, which is why the process of trying to get traditionally published first can help your self-publishing endeavors be more successful.

You will always have some doubt about your abilities, need an outsider’s praise and encouragement, wrongfully hate your own writing (and wrongfully love it), but those are issues that become lesser over time. You start to recognize the feeling of bias, start understanding what the common perception of your work is, and start to have very different opinions on different pieces you’ve written. All of that gains you a greater ability to take criticism. (When you already know about a problem, it doesn’t hurt as much. When you are confident in a piece more so than your others, you take criticism less hard.)

You really shouldn’t allow yourself to print crap, but on the other side, you will often feel like something is crap when it’s not. Experienced writers have a general impression about the quality of their work, even though they too can be wrought with bias, and they’re more equipped when to realize to push it further or call it a day. If you are new at writing and don’t have a strong sense of the quality/lack thereof of your work, going through a gatekeeper can help you try harder and believe in yourself when it actually is successful.

Traditional publishing can reject great books, but it does inspire authors to work more than self-publishing does. You’re more likely to publish something mediocre but adequate through traditional publishing, rather than a draft filled with basic beginner mistakes. Knowing that you have someone to prevent you from making an error in judgment allows you to take a risk on a work you’re not sure about—if it doesn’t get accepted, no one has to know.

And if you keep trying with a work, not only will you get at least a modicum of feedback (few agents will tell you why you got rejected, but you do receive some clues as to how your work was received), but you will grow more confident about that work over time, or, determine it really isn’t good enough.

For many self-publishers, their confidence came straight from their belief in a work despite all of the rejections. You can waddle around in the “what-if” stage of your book—I don’t know if it’s any good. What if I give it to other people and they think it is?—for a long time, and sometimes the only way to be sure is to give it out to others. Traditional publishing is a great way to learn what you feel about your writing without actually giving it to the public. You get rejected by agents rather than fans.

Which is important because in the beginning you’re malleable and fragile. Giving work out for everyone to judge too soon can demoralize you or mutate you faster than what any rejection could. With traditional publishing at least you have the knowledge of it being hyper-competitive (they can only take on a few clients at a time), and it being only one person’s opinion. But when you self-publish and no one cares, you get a cruel review, or a bunch of individuals criticize you for not writing like the person they think you should, you’re more likely to be affected by it. Either think it proves you’re not meant to be a writer, or try to change yourself to be like what the populace says they want, with little perspective about how the public can be na├»ve, shallow, or just closed-minded.

Writers for ages have survived off of the doubt of, “He might not have liked it, but if I could just get the real readers to see it…” which encourages them to keep trying. When it’s the public that meets you with hostility—or worse, complete apathy—you’re more likely to quit.

You also don’t want to have your first brush with criticism on the internet. Text is always harsher than criticism orally given, you don’t have the context to determine the validity or real meaning behind it, and it’s all in the view of everyone.

Most of us receive our first form of rejection (whether official or casual) in private where no one else can prove we acted up. And it’s less humiliating, like the difference between being lectured in your room versus at a party where everyone is watching. It’s useful to not make your self-published book the first place anyone has read your work.

Don’t let impatience lead you. Expedited criticism is harmful, and the best way to improve your writing is to take the time to work on it until it feels right, give it mild trial and error, let it rest for a while until you have fresh eyes again, and not just post it with the hope the public will love it.

Because self-publishing is guaranteed, doing it too soon can hurt your career. Trying to traditionally publish can give you a private place for trial and error until you’re confident enough to understand that, yes, this is the book I want to have written.