(This is an extended and revised version of the article "A Self-Publisher's Manifesto," which was previously published in Self-Publishing Review on 7/27/11)
I am an indie author and this is my manifesto.
If you’re a reader, a simple lover of books, someone with no aspirations of ever writing or publishing, then there is a very good chance you’re unaware of the culture war that has been going on within the world of publishing for what feels like forever. The war is between the large publishing houses, primarily found in New York, and indie authors. For almost as long as the publishing industry has been a relevant cog in the entertainment machine, publishing houses have served the purpose of finding, publishing and, essentially delivering to the literary world the best authors they could find. But they didn’t do this alone. Literary agents—who not only represent authors, but also serve as gatekeepers for the large publishing houses—helped them.
Most any writer who has ever aspired to get published has learned the hard way that finding a literary agent to represent you is, arguably, harder than actually getting your manuscript accepted for publication by a large publishing house. And this is not by accident. As gatekeepers, the literary agents weed out the “bad” talent and wrangle in the “good” talent, making it easier for the large publishing houses to pick which handful of writers they’ll be publishing during any given year. As someone who has been rejected by more agents than I care to count, I have a pretty good grasp on how the system is intended to work.
First, the author writes a manuscript (i.e. a novel, a memoir, a collection of short stories, etc.). Once they finish, the author writes a query letter, which is, essentially, a one-page pitch to a literary agent. In the query letter, the writer should not only tell the literary agent what their book is about, but also why anybody would bother reading it or, more importantly, buying it. This last part is important, because agents earn money on commission, which means they only get paid if they can sell your book. So, even if they personally love the book, but don’t think they can sell it, they aren’t going to represent it.
If the agent likes what you’re pitching in the query letter, then they’ll likely ask you to send them the first 10-15 pages. If they like those pages, then they’ll likely ask for a partial, which are the first 50 pages. If they’re still satisfied with what they’re reading, then they’ll ask to see the full manuscript. After looking at it, they will either decide to represent your book or reject it. There is also the possible middle ground where they might ask you to make revisions to the book that will, in their estimation, make it more attractive to publishers. And even if you’ve gotten this far and the literary agent decides to represent you, it’s going to take nearly a year (sometimes longer) before you come to that agreement.
Of course, getting a literary agent is no guarantee of getting published. They still have to try and sell your manuscript to a publishing house. There are plenty of authors who have secured literary agents, only to find out that the agent couldn’t sell their books. But if you are one of those rare authors who have cleared all the hurdles and have had your book published by a large publishing house, one of the first things you will learn is that you’re going to be on your own when it comes to promoting and marketing the book. Publishing houses have limited budgets for marketing their authors and first-time authors aren’t likely to get much support. Ironically, if your book doesn’t sell, then the publisher will be less likely to buy your next book.
So, if you are that first-time author, you’re going to have to do some significant legwork—from creating a presence on the Internet to setting up readings and book signings—which is fine, especially if you’re serious about your writing and want to make a career of it. And while you’re putting in this work, it might occur to you that since you’re doing all the legwork yourself, what’s to stop you from publishing yourself. Up to now, the main thing stopping you was the stigma of being an indie author.
By having agents, editors and publishers making it so hard to break into the publishing world, it creates the perception that only the very best authors get their work published. This perception has put a stigma on indie authors, a stigma akin to taking your cousin to the prom. The impression is if you weren’t good enough to get published through a traditional publisher then you must not be a very good writer. And the publishing houses have benefited from this, because it means they haven’t had to compete with indie authors.
While it’s always been tough to make money selling books, considering Americans aren't generally keen on reading, the major publishing houses, in the face of a struggling economy, have been hurting more than usual. In their desperation to sell books (which, mind you, is a totally reasonable desperation) the major publishers have invested more and more money into selling personalities, rather than authors. This means when you walk into a bookstore, you’re more likely to see a book “written” by a reality TV star or a trendy politician. Even actors and recording artists are publishing novels. All of this is fine, except that, if you’re a major publishing house, you now have little-to-no money left to invest in first-time authors. Not to mention the fact that they’re a risky investment, unlike a celebrity who has name recognition and a built-in fan base.
This all makes sense from a business standpoint, but what if you’re a writer who has dedicated years and years of your life to learning and honing your craft? Are you supposed to just accept that some contemporary pop star (and their ghostwriter) have a book published and you don’t? You can keep knocking on the door of the literary agents and the big publishing houses (heck, you can even try the small publishing houses), but they can’t afford to take a chance on you. The best option for you then is to become an indie author and publish your book yourself. Except, there is that stigma about indie authors that hasn’t quite gone away.
Only now there is progress being made in eradicating the stigma. A big part of the stigma being eliminated is technology. Now, more than ever, it's easier for an author to publish their work without having to go through a large publishing house. Especially with the growing market of e-books, indie authors are seeing their books being sold side-by-side with traditionally published books. And if you’re a reader, chances are you’re not making any great distinctions between independently published books and traditionally published books; you’re just happy to find a book that entertained you while you were tanning by the pool or waiting for your doctor's appointment.
So if the readers aren’t holding onto this stigma, then where exactly is it coming from? Primarily, it’s coming from the writers themselves. But it’s not their fault. If you’re a writer who has been working at getting published for at least the last ten years or so (and for most writers, it’s much longer than that), then you’ve more than likely bought into the stigma. You’re a writer who, despite all the hard work you’ve put into your writing, feels like your work can only be validated by going through the traditional system of acquiring a literary agent and selling your book to a major publisher.
You would just as soon let your brilliant work go unread on your hard drive (or your freezer, depending on how long you’ve been writing) before becoming an indie author. You’ve dreamed of signing books in Barnes & Noble and doing readings at universities, giving interviews on morning talk shows and whisking around the country on national book tours. The stigma tells you that indie authors don’t get to do these things. And, for the most part, it’s true. But neither do most traditionally published authors either.
More and more quality authors are figuring this out and the world of independent publishing is benefiting from it. Just because the large New York publishing houses are publishing fewer and fewer quality authors doesn’t mean there are no quality authors out there. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. And just because these authors aren’t being published doesn’t mean they simply go away. Many of them are discovering that independent publishing is a viable option. The more quality writers who enter into the world of independent publishing, the more credible it becomes.
Even J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter dynasty, has turned to independent publishing. Now why would she do that? There is not a publisher anywhere in the world who wouldn’t kill to have Rowling on their roster of authors. And that’s exactly the point. From a business standpoint, Rowling stands to earn more money by publishing independently, rather than sharing her literary fortune with a traditional publisher. Business-wise, this is true even for the relatively unknown indie author.
Whatever advance you get from a traditional publisher, in all likelihood, is going to be the same amount of money you stand to earn on your own if you have a quality book and are willing to work hard to find and connect with readers, which is to say all the things you’d be doing anyway if you take your writing seriously.
So if you’re a writer out there who is tired of being rejected, don’t fret. Just publish your work yourself.
If you’re a large publishing house doing business as usual, good luck to you. You’re a business and you’re simply trying to stay viable. I can appreciate that.
And if you are a writer or a publisher or anybody who is still holding onto or perpetuating the stigma of independent publishing, let it go. Release it from your grip and accept the dawning of a new era, a better one even.
I am an indie author and this is my manifesto.