Saturday, April 2, 2011

Self-Publish or Perish?

Now, there’s a question. An intense conversation took place in my revived writers’ group last week – I say revived because we had not met since last fall with a hiatus for the busy period of holiday indulgence and then winter hibernation in which a great deal of actual writing took place.

Conversation seems so intense around this topic because there are still two strongly fortified camps when it comes to this. On the one hand we have the traditionalists that view self-publishing as something of a cop out, something not to be taken seriously because the author is doing it à la DIY. In this camp are those that believe the publishing houses and agents are totally the way to go, the only way to go as they are willing to spend the money, to take the chances, to put their names and reputations behind your work not to mention the time of all the behind-the-scenes staff in finance, marketing, production and design, etc. etc.

Admittedly, I am part of this traditionalist school of thought when it comes to books and publishing. Behind this thinking are a couple of points. Firstly, how could self-publishing possibly feel better than having someone commit to your work, back it up with cash and time. Secondly, if you go through an agent and on to a publishing house, they have all the expertise in place from contract negotiation to final product and promotion, AND a big name to go along with it. The writer can focus on the writing. I think a great many of us are thinking along these lines.

On the other side of the battlefield is the take-the-bull-by-the-horns, self-publishing camp. At first, this was a definite underdog area filled with less than mediocre fiction from vanity presses who totally took advantage of the hopefuls who went that path. People were getting screwed out of loads of cash and didn’t get anything near a dream-come-true scenario.

BUT – yes, there is a definite ‘but’ here. Times have changed. Technology and tactics have indeed changed, at an alarming rate. The economic recession that has been experienced by most of the western world has taken a bloody toll on the publishing industry and as a result, publishers and agents have had to cut their losses and shore up the defences. A few months ago a read an article about the demand by most publishers and agents for ‘marquee characters’ only because the view is that this guarantees sales and readership. This is something that we have heard quite a lot about and, as stated in the article, there is a danger in this reluctance to take on anything less than marquee names. The marketplace could become over saturated with books on a very few subjects. The result is the neglect of some potentially fantastic fiction about everyday characters that truly resonate with readers, no matter the historical setting. Smaller, Indy publishing houses tend to be gutsier with their lists and are well worth a look if your work is a good fit. However, most small presses publish very few titles every year.

So where does all this leave the writer, particularly the writer of historical fiction?

The more I read about the marketplace and the impact of the economy, the more it seems to me that writers are being left in the wings, waiting for times to change back again. They’re waiting for a throwback to the good old days of high advances and posh lunches with agents and editors whose budgets knew no bounds. However, the more I read about this, the more discussions I have with agents, writers and others, the more definite it seems that these times are not coming back. So what can we, as writers and creative types, do? Waiting around for things to happen doesn’t seem very proactive. In fact it seems to be positively fatal to one’s hopes and dreams.

Standing outside the walls of both camps now, hopefully not on the killing fields, I’m wondering if it might be a good idea to build a new camp, one that embraces the best of both worlds, one that has more of a chance of empowering authors. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still for the traditional route to publishing but I now also see the merit in the self-publishing, DIYmethod. The latter at least provides writers with another strategy to try out while the publishing world gets its guts back and becomes willing once more to take chances. Of course they have been scared; there have been countless casualties in their camp in the last decade, big and small.

Here is a good example of self-publishing success. A friend of mine sent me an article about a girl who had written a whack of YA novels in the fantasy genre. She was rejected by numerous agents and publishers. Finally, she decided to try out self-publishing through Create Space (, a company of To make a long story short, she sold her books for .99 cents each and at the end of the day, she made close to $2 Million for her efforts. Yes, she had to do it all herself, creation, formatting and loads of promotion but using this alternative route and a whole lot of dedication, she was able to get her name out there, develop a following and a demand for her work and now has nailed a seven figure deal with a major publisher (on top of her self-publishing which she is going to continue doing). Readers were stepping up to pay their money for her work which is available in print and e-format. I’d say that that girl is a writer, sans cop outs! This is, of course, the Harry Potter example of self-publishing but it is very telling.

Something to think about, isn’t it? Both traditional and new publishing routes provide excellent opportunities so now the question for many traditionally-minded writers is whether the focus, the approach, has been far too narrow. Why was Alexander the Great such a brilliant and masterly general? It was because he had vision and an uncanny ability to assess a situation and make changes to adapt accordingly. So, perhaps the campaign to publication should be waged on several fronts – eventually, one will break through the barriers.

New times call for new and adaptive strategies. I know, I’ve bludgeoned the military metaphors to death here but hey, this is a blog about historical fiction and I like ancient warfare. Whatever the tactic we choose, it shouldn’t be forgotten that constant drilling leads to victory and so to all writers out there, WRITE, WRITE, WRITE!

Let me know your thoughts…