There’s a saying in the academic world—publish or perish. It means that if you want a tenured position, you must publish your research, or your dream of advancement will perish.
Writers who want to share their work face the same dilemma.
Years ago, people wrote books and sent them to editors who hired others to read through the pile of manuscripts in the hope of finding the next Updike or Jong. When editors ceded that job to agents, they followed the same procedure, acting as editorial screens to deliver works with literary or commercial potential. It was a respectable system.
Self-publishing wasn’t. People viewed indie authors with the same credibility afforded Donald Trump. Even the name of printers who handled the work, vanity presses, spoke volumes about DIY status. And for good reason. If a professional, an agent or editor, didn’t vet your work, you could bet the writing would look as amateurish as the cover design.
Today, indie publishing—uploading your work to e-book brokers and print-on-demand houses like Smashwords and Amazon—has gained a small measure of respect. Some proponents, Joanna Penn of the Creative Penn among them, count the followers of their blogs and podcasts in the thousands. Some writers like Bob Mayer, the former Green Beret and Area 51 series author, sell tens of thousands of units.
Self-publishing is not that onerous, they say. Gone are the days of loading up the station wagon with cartons of books and flogging them to libraries and stores. POD services print and deliver books as readers order them. Yes, with indie publishing, you won’t get the marketing, distribution or stamp of credibility offered by a traditional publisher. But if you’ve queried hundreds of agents with no takers, you need another option.
Through the end of the eighties, that wasn’t necessary. When I last pitched a novel, I landed a series of agents who did the heavy lifting. A decade later, when I wrote my first non-fiction book, the Spirit of Swiftwater, I took the manuscript directly to the publisher, an academic press that wanted to start a business imprint. For the second book, the publisher called me.
Those were the days.
For Peak Season, my debut crime-fiction novel, I queried seventy-six agents and editors. Nada. For Mr. Mayhem, the first of the Brinker novels, due out this fall, I queried seventy-five. Zip. So I declared independence.
That proved simple but not easy.
Publishing is no longer a question of DIY vs. traditional. Today we choose between sharing our work and giving up. That means authors must not only learn how to write, we need to develop skills in editing, proofing, design, social media, marketing and distribution. Add persistence to the mix and we have the ingredients for a new system that, like the old, offers satisfaction but doesn’t guarantee success.
From a gatekeepers’ perspective, the traditional system makes sense. In this name-brand culture, editors and agents look for a sure thing. Paid on commission, agents don’t need to take a chance on the unknown. New authors present too much risk with too little guarantee of reward.
My advice to emerging writers is to ignore the stigma of indie publishing. If you want someone to take a chance on your work, there’s only one place to look . . . in the mirror.