To self-pub? Or to trad?
That is the eternal question.
Or at least it used to be.
Back in my day—yes, I am a hag, reflecting back on yesteryear—the big publishing decision was absolutely an either-or affair. Being ‘pro trad’ or ‘pro self-pub’ was as passionate an affiliation as being ‘Team Dean’ or ‘Team Jess’ after watching every episode of "Gilmore Girls" (‘Team Jess,’ obvi).
The only difference between the two was that one carried an air of sophistication reminiscent of Upper East Side cocktail parties known for its classy hors d’oeuvres, whereas the other was viewed as a drive-thru shame-fest of twenty chicken nuggets for $6.99.
First of all, I love chicken nuggets.
Secondly, there’s some broad-brush unfairness happening on both sides.
And yet, unfairness ruled the day, because that whole familiar ‘a little from column A and a little from column B’? It wasn’t really an acceptable option.
Here’s how I interpreted the prevailing wisdom of the era: if I self-published first and didn’t become an immediate smash hit like Twilight, I was allegedly damaged goods in a literary agent’s eyes. And so, it was best not to take that massive risk at all.
Cool cool cool, let’s try to get traditionally published.
But wait: why would I even WANT to become traditionally published, when the freedom and 70% royalty of self-publishing beckoned? So my art could be controlled for a shitty 10 percent? And a tiny section on a bookshelf that would largely be ignored by the book-reading masses?
Nah bro, self-publishing is the future.
This mutually exclusive conundrum is where I, the proverbial ‘bro’ found myself after finishing my first novel. When I look back, my path was shaped not once, but two distinctive times, and in both cases, by online message boards (I’m pretty sure the same thing happened to Lady Gaga).
The first message board I stumbled upon was all about that trad-pub life. A thread for unagented writers … a thread for writers who’d received a request from an agent … a thread for writers who had landed an agent and were working on editing their manuscript ... a thread for writers who had an agent and were nervously out on submission, and so on. There was also a thread for the rarest of unicorns: the writers who had landed a publisher (according to popular folklore, the pure extracted tears of trad-published writers can be used to cure anything from a paper cut to a deep-tissue stab wound).
The culmination of these message board threads was—to put it mildly—a lot of fucking content, and for me at least, it amounted to an infinite number of ways to get totally obsessed with a part of the process that was only supposed to be … a part of the process.
But hey, so what? Here before me, laid out in exquisite detail, was all the knowledge I would ever need to crack the code of getting published, and it was totally free and unlimited!
And so, feeling much the same way as I had when presented with a sumptuous brunch buffet in Paris—with the classy live jazz music distracting me from the fact that I was basically a hog, lining up at the trough—I allowed myself to get swept away in the greasy current.
I dove headfirst into the aforementioned chronological threads, and once I had thread-creeped everything I could find in those, I then discovered threads for every single literacy agency known to man. These magically delicious threads were updated with query letter wait times, rejection stories, success stories, horror stories, and so on.
I poured over these threads for hours and hours, en route to creating a spreadsheet that would track the 100 or so literary agents I was planning to reach out to with a query letter.
Did they say yes? Did they say no? Was there feedback? Did they ask for the first ten pages? Am I waiting for a response?
These inquisitive rows and columns were thirsting for juicy data to populate their cells. And I, quite frankly, was pretty much getting high off that shit.
As spreadsheet mania progressed, I realized that my query letter response rate was not what I had been hoping for. So naturally, I hopped into another all-important message board thread: writing the perfect query letter.
Let me pause here, to officially state that I do not begrudge the message board threads.
These threads were incredibly helpful to so many writers (including myself). Seriously, just think about all those people volunteering their time to offer insights and advice. It’s a community!
The problem, though, with that thread-hoppin life, is that it’s very easy to lose your sense of why you’re even doing it in the first place—and why your passion ended up being writing, instead of something else like figure skating (I used to practice single axels in my basement, so believe me, it could’ve happened).
As you slowly start to lose yourself, you try to remember the good part—that you’re gaining knowledge, following the rules, and making a good impression. These are all crucial things when you’re trying to get published or sell a script. So, yes, soak up some wisdom! I strongly encourage it.
But what do you do when it starts to take over and writing stops being fun?
And what’s the next step when you’re not one of the few who’s offered representation by an agent?
I found myself in exactly that place. I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t having fun, and I wasn’t getting a literary agent.
Did this mean … I sucked? Should I have changed my romantic comedy to include supporting characters played by vampires? Should I have not had a protagonist with an Indian background in 2010? Was that too avant-garde? And to reiterate, did I totally and completely suck at writing?
Naturally my brain chose to fixate on that last thing the most. Self-doubt. It’s a drug.
When you’re swimming in that cloud of blinding self-doubt, you’ll be all the more receptive when one of the lesser unknown literary agents offers to read your manuscript. And later, when they offer you representation, you’ll totally skip the reality check of confirming this agent’s background—to see if they’ve even sold a romcom before, or fiction in general for that matter (they hadn’t and they hadn’t).
You’ll be so full of hope that you won’t even find it odd when they don’t want to edit your manuscript (which likely indicates they are in no way an expert in your chosen genre). Why hadn’t you noticed their lack of a relevant background when reviewing all the literary agents? Chances are, you totally blacked out at some point in your message board fever dream. It happens.
The good news is that when a couple of rejections from publishers get forwarded your way (it’s good news, I swear), the fog will lift, and you’ll realize something: this literary agent might be fine for someone, but for you? They are 110 percent wrong.
You’ll part ways amicably, and then … and then … well, then what?!
In that 2010 era that I lived through, the one where you were either ‘team trad’ or ‘team self-pub,’ the resounding advice from my chosen team was to put that manuscript in a drawer, work on the next book, polish it up, and then dive back into those message board threads all over again. After that, I would simply rinse, repeat ... and eventually die?
At least there was a plan.
The trouble was, I wasn’t looking for something that was so prescribed, especially when the chances of success were so minimal.
And with that, it was time to switch teams.
If I self-publish, will I be telling the world that I totally and completely suck?
I won’t pretend this worrisome thought didn’t cross my mind (and circulate like a barrel-aged pinot noir swishing around in a wine taster’s face hole), but I didn’t let it deter me from visiting the prevailing self-pub message board of the time.
Here we are then … the self-publishing journey.
Condensed version? Freedom, possibilities … (*checks notes*) … back-stabbing, fraud …
In other words: the whole effing gamut!
Where do I begin …
I quickly learned that embarking on a self-publishing path was equal parts art and business.
Already having a marketing background from my day job, I was able to cut through the endless advice being doled out on every topic and focus instead on what I found to be useful.
Needless to say, I was kicking things off by saving boatloads of time versus the ‘trad pub’ message board abyss.
Score one for ‘team self-pub.’
With some initial knowledge now in hand, I shifted gears to getting my book into shape with some editing help from two trusted fellow writers. After that, I focused my attention on the aspects of marketing I would now need to manage as a one-woman show:
I researched cover artists (conveniently categorized on the message board), I learned about which book banner ads and newsletters would yield the most bang for my buck, I got insights on writing book descriptions based on keyword best practices, I reached out to book review blogs, and [insert ten more things I won’t bore you with here].
I also spent some time eating proverbial popcorn, whilst creeping the latest scandals on the message boards (I am human, after all).
And, yes, there were scandals aplenty!
What sort of scandals, you ask?
There was the book cover artist who disappeared into the night with half of his payment before delivering high-res files; there was the total hack who was padding his book score with tons of fake reviews from bots (Amazon finally caught up with that); there was the author who started dragging every book reviewer who didn’t leave a stellar review (shockingly, that still happens, like literally as of April 2021 … ahem … yes, I eat popcorn and creep Twitter); there was also the ‘crew’ of successful authors who decided to offer free tips and advice in a thread that quickly devolved into condescension, jealousy, moderators getting involved, accounts getting blocked … oh, boy.
But if self-publishing was the place where scandals were born, it was also the stuff of awe-inspiring magic!
What sort of magic, you ask?
As I began to embark on my self-publishing journey, I found myself reading a lot of self-published books. And well …
Oh. My. God.
I read so many amazing books!
Each time I finished another amazing book, I would say to myself: Holy shit, how did this not get published?! But then I would remember: It did get published; they just did it themselves, these talented mavericks!
One book series that will always stand out to me is Wool, written by Hugh Howey. Hugh was a regular on the message boards and had been getting a lot of compliments on his books. I saw the link to Wool in his signature and decided to give it a try—a little dystopia on a Wednesday? Why not!
OH. MY. GOD.
It was incredible!
(This is not an ad.)
It remains one of the best books I’ve ever read—trad and self-pub combined—and I wouldn’t even call it a simple dystopia, not with each line so evocative and poetic. Maybe it’s ‘literary fiction dystopia’? Is that a thing? In the self-publishing world, YOU BET IT IS.
We make our own fucking rules!
Needless to say, Wool blew up, and interest from Hollywood followed. At one point Wool was on the path to becoming a film, but in spring 2021, Apple TV+ announced they’ll be turning Wool into a series, starring Rebecca Ferguson (and I will definitely be watching).
But alas, there is another side to this magical coin, and it is wholly composed of … crap.
And not just subjective crap, which covers all manner of artistic sins … I’m talking CRAP crap: horrible grammar, bad formatting, the ugliest book covers known to man, the most ridiculous plots known to man … if it’s crap you’re in search of, self-publishing’s got it!
And yet … I love it so.
I love the fact that you can honestly and truly ‘shoot your shot.’ If said ‘shot’ means putting yourself out there with horrid grammar, then sure, you do you. But maybe it means putting your heart, soul, blood, sweat, and tears into something you really love and using your words to reach one reader at a time.
(And to me, that’s fucking beautiful.)
I could only hope to access some of that beauty, and after getting all of my marketing ducks in a row, it was time to shoot my shot.
When I released my first book, I was already thinking about the sequel, and once the book blog reviews came in, I started to notice some readers who were totally new (aka readers who weren’t friends who I had forced into reading my book—friendship, it’s a burden).
My sequel soon followed. It was a book that contained my heart, soul, blood, sweat, and tears, and soon after its release, I discovered an e-book marketing tool that I eagerly employed on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, and Google Play: give the first book away for free and get that juicy 70% royalty on the second.
The traditional purists who had permeated into the self-pub world found this tactic to be abhorrent. Would Charles Dickens have given Oliver Twist away for free?! I’m not sure what Dickens would’ve done, but what I do know for sure is when you don’t have the clout, and you don’t have the love of Amazon’s algorithms, why not give away a taste to get ‘em hooked?
And it worked!
New readers came in droves, reviews were posted without me even having to ask, and after releasing the third and final book in the series (which I wrote and published after quitting my job and moving to Paris—more on that here), I finally stopped wondering if I totally and completed sucked.
As time went on, I leaned in even harder to that good ol’ marketing vibe—an ebook prequel short story, an ebook boxed set … I squeezed every drop from that romcom series, and after selling 15,000 copies (not including the free ones), I could finally say:
I played on ‘team self-pub’ and (happily) lived to tell the tale.
So what should I do now?
After allowing myself five full seconds to bask in my success, the existential question of what came next started living in my head, rent-free. I knew I had another book idea, so was the natural progression to continue the self-pub journey I and live within my boundaries of respectable (yet limited) success?
Or was it better to give ‘team trad’ another try? Would they like me now? Would they really, really like me?
Both of these future options lacked … something. But what?
I did my best to stretch my mind beyond the black-and-white choices, and luckily for me, a new emerging option was calling my name.
Curious? I’ll tell you all about it next time ...
*Feature Image: Cristina Bernazzani (Adobe)