After writing and publishing four books the traditional way, last year I decided to go the self-publishing route for my latest title.
Since my first book was published in 2009, I’ve fielded many questions from writers over the years about the ins and outs of publishing:
Do you need an agent?
How do you handle rejection?
What if a publisher accepts your manuscript but wants to change it entirely?
How do you even get a publisher to read your work in the first place?
Even though self-publishing has come a long over the years, there is still a preference in snagging that ever-elusive publishing deal. I can’t tell you how common it is for people to drop their voice just a little when they find out I’m a writer: “Are you self-published?,” they ask. The tone is eerily similar to someone who’s about to offer their deepest condolences.
And the relief that comes across their faces when I tell them that actually, no, my books all found homes with publishers.
Why the hate towards self-publishing, though? The long-standing view on it is that it lends an author credibility: Someone liked your writing enough to bring it into the fold and make it part of an existing canon.
I come from a very DIY, punk rock, underground world. I started making zines when I was 14. My friends and I put together our own shows and poetry readings.
I don’t think you need anyone’s permission, or approval, or acceptance to put your work out into the world. There is no shame in self-publishing book.
But: There are some serious practicalities to consider, and overall, despite the many ups and downs that come with rejection letters, it can be easier to go to the traditional route for certain types of writing. I had to really hold out to find homes for a couple of my books, and the struggle was worth the wait.
If you are writing fiction or poetry, traditional publishing might still be the place to aim for. Yes, it is competitive as hell to get a publishing deal. There are way more poets than there are publishers, and for every novel that makes it out into the world there are probably hundreds that don’t.
Poetry and novels are really, really hard books to sell. You might have your list of favourite novels and think, “I know my book is just as good. If I could just get it out there, people will see that I’m a really great writer.” But the trick is in actually getting the buying public to decidedly seek out your book and read it and then hope that that keeps happening again and again and again.
Even with a publisher, my fiction and poetry – and I am mainly a poet – have been my worst-selling titles. Despite getting some advanced praise, receiving a lot of press, great reviews, touring, and overall hustle to make these books known, the reality is that it takes a lot of work to sell a decent number of books.
So why even bother? Well, the saving grace is that if you have a publisher to work with, they will have their own audience already built in, especially if it’s a small press (which is often the case if you’re working in literary fiction or poetry). They will have their own PR contacts, their own fan base, and their own social media platforms to help get your work out there.
Plus, you’re not shouldering the costs of producing the books. Self-publishing is hugely affordable these days, but remember that there are many intangible costs associated, too: Layout, design, marketing plans…there’s a lot to think about.
You will still have to do an enormous amount of hustle ahead of you either way, but working with a publisher can definitely help to offset some of the pressure.
I had a very specific vision for the book I did self-publish. Along with my writing, I run a full-time business as a tarot reader and astrologer. I write a lot about tarot and teach a lot of workshops around it, and I really wanted to write a book to help people work with the cards.
It takes a lot of time to get a publishing deal, and if you get a contract, you’re probably looking at another one to three years before your book actually comes out. A lot of publishers work way in advance. Their catalogues are planned out months and years ahead.
For example: At the time of this writing, I’m looking forward to the release of my next poetry book. The manuscript was written three years ago, and it was accepted for publication two years ago. So all in, it’s been a three-year wait to see it come to fruition.
As a poet, I know this is par for the course and is all fine by me. But as a business owner, it’s not practical for me to go through the motions of finding a publisher for something that, ultimately, needs to remain all mine.
Because that’s the thing to remember about publishing: It’s still business. Sure, you might look at your book as art, but you’re entering into a business arrangement with any publisher who takes it on. They see potential in it, they think they can sell enough to recoup their costs and hopefully turn a profit, so they offer you a contract.
Why would I want to share my product with someone else? My self-published book, Going Beyond the Little White Book: A Contemporary Guide to Tarot, was something I wanted to offer to my students and clients right away. I run workshops throughout the year and I kept thinking how great it would be to be able to have a guide book students could use as a follow-up after.
Plus, if I had decided to seek out a traditional publishing deal, had success in finding one, and then was given a release date for two or three years down the road…well, how would I know where I’d be by then? My business could evolve in so many ways over time. I could write three more books by then.
I didn’t make sense for me to wait, and it didn’t make sense for me to share profits with a publisher, either. And trust me: Writers do not make much. The publishers have expenses to recoup, not just on your book but for all of their operating costs – payroll, insurance, rent, the whole shebang.
With Going Beyond the Little White Book, I had a platform already in place – my business – that I felt confident I could sell through, and I knew that this was something that I could comfortably continue to sell and promote for some time to come. It was an investment in my business.
And that’s really where self-publishing can make a lot of sense. If you have a business and your book is going to be a product within that business, keep it under your control and do it yourself.
If you are a creative writer and have developed a really solid fanbase already and feel you can easily sell to a committed audience, self-publishing might also be a good option.
Would I self-publish my poetry or fiction down the road? It’s not off the table, but my preference would be to straddle both worlds: Anything I am creating through my business would stay within my business as my own product, and anything creative and literary would be sent out to my current publisher first.
One thing to remember is that if you are entering into the publishing world for the first time, you don’t know what you don’t know yet.
Don’t rush to get a book out there. Don’t panic at the sight of your first rejection letter. Don’t take traditional publishing or self-publishing off the table until you’ve explored and exhausted all options.
And don’t hesitate to build an author platform now. Blog, share pieces of your work online, talk about your creative process, make connections to other writers and start drawing in potential readers. Don’t expect a publishing contract to be a magic bullet. There is always more work ahead, no matter which option you choose.
If you are looking for some clarity and guidance around your own creative ventures, why not book a creative coaching session with me? Light your fire.