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Why Self-Publishing Isn't for Me

Updated: Jun 4


black and white drawing of manhattan skyline
New York, New York. The Mecca of Traditional Publishing Houses

One of the goals I set for myself years and years ago was that I was going to be traditionally published by one of “the bigs.” For me, that means Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins Publishers, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette Book Group, or one of their imprints. WW Norton falls in there too. Publishers like Knopf Doubleday, Viking Books, Harper, William Morrow and Company—you get the point. I haven’t done that yet—but that’s the goal; it’s never changed. I have written six novels I believe are ready to go—and about three more that need some revising. My novel, The Losses, was published by Midtown Publishing in 2016, and I’m extremely grateful for it (as well as proud of that novel). That said, my goal remains. What about you?


As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I’m a member of a lot of writing groups on social media, Facebook groups being primarily where I interact with other writers, and I’ve been participating in a novel masterclass with other published writer friends in Taos, New Mexico, for going on fifteen years. That’s a special group—it’s normally the same people, or the same 6 (including me), with a couple other writers who pop in from time to time when one of the regulars doesn’t have something for that year’s class. It’s my super bowl—If I could live there working with these writers every week, I would. Plus, Taos doesn’t suck. It's also let me know Why Self-Publishing Isn't for Me


There’s a post on Lithub currently where Kristen Arnett asks if she’s “[a] Literary Asshole?” for thinking “most short stories are glorified therapy sessions,” and it got me thinking. Am I a literary asshole for pursuing my dream while I feel I’m holding back my novels instead of considering other publishing avenues (like smaller publishers/indies, self-publishing, etc.)?

My gut reaction is no, I’m not. My dreams are my dreams, and over my life, I’ve made a lot of those dreams come true. I’ve been around the world. I’ve worked in national parks. I’ve been to every state in the U.S.—all 50, many of them more than a few times. I’ve seen Mt. Rushmore. I’ve been to the Eiffel Tower. I’ve taken a Tuk Tuk from Khaosan Road to a minivan packed with tourists going eighty and scaring the shit out of everyone inside that steel and aluminum torpedo of a tuna can while a Thai driver waved his hand at us like, calm down, people, calm down, this isn't even fast, as we jetted our way to a train that then took us to the River Kwai, the sight of the movie based on Pierre Boulle’s novel, Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï.

Am I a literary asshole for pursuing my dream while I feel I’m holding back my novels instead of considering other publishing avenues (like smaller publishers/indies, self-publishing, etc.)?

I’ve been “pursued” by multiple “sketchy” people late at night on streets in Sofia, Bulgaria, in a suburb of Prague, and bumped into high school kids in the Blue Mountains of Australia, who were seniors visiting from my high school in East Islip, Long Island (and who, surprisingly, were being taught by one of my old high school friends). But I haven’t yet gotten that “Hey, bud, we’d like to publish your novel” call by anyone from Hachette or Penguin or Viking. Yet.


But I’m confident, if not very, very hopeful. And I think you have to be that way if you’re going to be successful, not just at publishing, but at life in general. When I was younger, my goal was to be a writer, but it was also to be “successful” financially. I had dreams of making six figures, and getting married and having kids, a nice car, traveling in style, all that. And so I went and got my MBA, a couple other master’s degrees, and hung my hat in a number of companies—tech, but mostly the big advertising agencies. I made the six figures. Had the big house. The nice luxury car. The trips. The dinners where I didn’t even look at the price of whatever I was ordering. And the wine—ah, the wine, how I miss the wine (I no longer drink at all).


But you know what? I hated it. Not the wine, but everything I had to do to make that all possible. I was getting up at three in the morning so that I could write for four hours before work. I traveled a lot. I didn’t get to see my kids as often as I wanted to. And I wasn’t reading as many of the books that I wanted to read. From the outside looking in, I was living the dream. But my first love, writing, was suffering, even with the four hours of hacking away before the sun rose. So, I changed my life. I had achieved what I’d wanted from a financial perspective, and it sucked. It’s time to do something else, I told myself. It’s time to do what I want. And that’s to write.


So, back to being a literary asshole. And when I say it, I don’t mean in the way Arnett does. When I think of being a literary asshole (me), I mean it in the highfalutin, no I’m not self-publishing, yes, I’ve put in the magic 10,000 hours (actually, probably a LOT more than that) pursuing my craft, acquiring three degrees (two in literature, an MFA in creative writing) sort of way. I mean it in the sense that this is what I’ve wanted all my life, and I’ve worked at it—maybe I suck and am just a fraud, like many [most?] of us writers believe—diligently, purposefully, for decades. And sometimes (likely because of my immaturity in this area) I find myself offended by newer writers who go straight for the self-publishing route, immediately calling themselves an author because they were able to print something on KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) or had some vanity publisher publish their work for them. There. I said it. Let the vitriolic bashing begin!

I find myself offended by newer writers who go straight for the self-publishing route, immediately calling themselves an author because they were able to print something on KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) or had some vanity publisher publish their work for them.

If I were reading this, I’d probably think I was an asshole too, right? Who am I to criticize anyone wanting to see their work in print? The answer is no one, and I get that. I do. So, why does it bother me so? I’ll tell you. I don’t think it’s the actual work being “published” that bothers me. Being part of writing groups, as I’ve mentioned (and if you’re reading this there’s a good chance you’re from one of those groups), I see a lot of writers becoming first-time authors, or publishing their tenth or twentieth novel, and considering themselves on par with writers who have “put the work in” rather than take the self-publishing/vanity publishing route. I do understand that’s not the case with every self-published book; there do exist writers who’ve put the time and effort in and who have written excellent books and for one reason or another have decided to self-publish. I think, rather, it’s the whole marketing and social media commenting about the inevitable aftermath of these authors’ efforts, namely their lack of sales and the unrealistic expectations they have for what are, often, works that don’t meet the high standards readers seek in the works they choose to purchase and read.

cartoon image of a redheaded woman holding a book
Vanity Publishing Allows You to Pay Someone to Publish Your Work

Blasting out mini tomes on instant messages to other writers with links to buy your book isn’t going to get me to buy your book. What I’ll probably do is just block you. Complaining that you’re getting a lot of one-star reviews on Amazon or wherever after you’ve published the first draft of your novel because you thought you’d written a masterpiece the first go around isn’t going to get you any sympathy. Not from people who take this shit seriously. Just because you can swing a bat and hit a baseball doesn’t make you a good baseball player. Yes, you can play, but the Yankees ain’t going to be calling you up after your first ever at bat. Not unless you’re Shohei Ohtani, and even then, that man put a great deal of effort and practice into the game. And that’s what you need to do as well, at least if you’re looking to have people read your books. If that bothers you, I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe toughen up. Writing isn’t for sensitive people. Or it is, but only during the writing and revision process. After that, you have to suck it up and be open to criticism. Before you publish your novel or send it out to agents or indies or, if it's published, reviewers and readers.

Complaining that you’re getting a lot of one-star reviews on Amazon or wherever after you’ve published the first draft of your novel because you thought you’d written a masterpiece the first go around isn’t going to get you any sympathy.

Does all this make me an asshole? Maybe to some of you. And that’s okay. I don’t mind. But if any of what I’ve said makes a little sense, maybe you should reconsider the legacy you want to leave behind. Do you want people to read your books years from now because they’re good books? Or do you just want to feel special because you wrote something and it’s on a website called Amazon? If that’s the case, more power to you. But that isn’t why I write. It never has been. (That’s a little bit of a lie—when I was younger, I did have a little bit of that in me. But reality hit and I’m glad it did).

man jumping in the air saying "I'm an author"
You Wrote a Book and Now You're an Author. But Are You Really? Did You Put the Work in?

But let’s get back to traditional publishing. The reason I want to be published traditionally by the publishing houses I mentioned above is because I grew up associating those houses with the books I loved. I can’t tell you how many times I put down a book and saw that little penguin staring back at me. How many times I squinted to see the details of Diana, the goddess of hunting, in Bloomsbury’s logo, designed by Newell & Sorrell in 1986, Bloomsbury’s “B” drawn cleverly as Diana’s bow. I hold onto my completed novels, most of which have been revised and edited more than a hundred times over the years, because I remain true to my goals. I want readers to read my novels decades from now, if not centuries.

The reason I want to be published traditionally by the publishing houses I mentioned above is because I grew up associating those houses with the books I loved.

Yes, I understand the odds and the likelihood of that. But isn’t that a noble pursuit as a writer? Is it just about the immediate gratification of seeing your name on a book cover? Of telling your friends or your grandmother or someone at a bar that you’re an “author” so they get impressed by you? Again, I’m no one to judge, but that ain’t what I want for myself. I want to write books that someone reads and thinks about long after they’ve moved on to their next read. And like it or not, I haven’t read too many books I’ve fallen in love with where KDP was the publisher. In fact, as far as I know, I haven’t read any.


So, yes. I’ll hold on to my novels and keep writing more while I work on getting the bigs to notice me. I’ll keep believing (until something changes drastically—even more so than Colleen Hoover holding all the bestseller spots on whatever lists) that, hate them or love them, the bigs and their imprints are where it’s at, and that self-publishing just isn’t going to be in the cards for me. You can think I’m an asshole for that—and maybe you’re right. But this asshole is sticking to his guns. I want to go up against the odds. I want to be bashed and criticized and told, No, thanks, as many times as it takes, because all it takes is that one Yes. All it takes is holding onto my dreams the way I’ve held onto the rest of them, because someday it’s going to happen. I’ve made everything else I wanted to achieve come true. I’ll make this one happen as well. You watch.

 

Cully Perlman is a novelist, short story writer, and a Substantive Editor. He can be reached at Cully@novelmasterclass.com 

 

 

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Khách
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I was floored reading this blog and quite happy about it. So many of your thoughts — I felt — were taken directly from my head. I am currently working on my first novel, and it may very well take me ten years to write, which would be acceptable if I were ten years younger. When I set out to learned a new craft I never do it half-ass. I have worked with so many different mediums through the years, and what I produce is never half-ass. I mean, who would want half-ass hanging on your wall? Not me. Some of the things I’ve read posted to the Facebook groups I follow are cringe worthy, yet we are supposed to…

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Thank you, MK. Social media is definitely an easy place to unload whatever is on your mind (I'm getting some nice criticism from posting this blog post there), but I take it with a grain of salt. I speak my truth and hopefully someone reads my posts and gain something from them that they can then use for their writing. But something I learned a long, long time ago as a writer was that if you can't take criticism, you shouldn't be a writer. Publishing is definitely in a transition phase right now, but the fact is great writers all have their rejection stories, and there are plenty of "lesser" writers who've achieve great success. It's just how things g…

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As usual, Cully, I admire your words, though I don't always agree. I've been happy with my small Texas publisher, though I wish I had a big publisher (absolutely.) I don't want to self-publish for many reasons. Chief among them is I'd rather write than do all the self-publishing work that seems to be required. And I agree--there's a lot of bad, poorly edited work out there. So let's keep our dreams but focus especially on making each book better than the last. Cheers, Nancy Stancill

Thích
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Thanks, Nancy. Everyone's different, so I can understand any disagreements with things I write--it's expected and welcome. And I'm with you on not wanting to do anything other than write. I don't enjoy all of what self-publishing would require I do. I actually went through the process for a book of quotes I did just to know the process. I didn't sell the book or anything--just wanted to be knowledgeable of the process. And yes! Keep the dreams going. Have a great week!

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