I could tell you exactly what I did to prepare, but your situation is different. I could tell you what worked for my first book launch in 2011, but this is 2013, and the landscape has changed. Indeed, it changes rather substantially every six months or so. Instead, I’ll give you a perspective, then a checklist of sorts in the next chapter, Seven Questions to Ask Before Self-Publishing. These will hopefully be time-independent ways to decide if you’re ready.
Guarantee Failure by Not Trying
I remember having an intense discussion with my husband about it. “What if I write like crazy, query a hundred agents, and I still don’t have a published novel in 5 years? It could happen. It probably will happen.” I envisioned that as five years of my life, wasted. And I didn’t like to waste things, certainly not years of my life. I have a limited supply of those. At the same time, the idea of giving up my writing was keeping me up at night.
By comparison, making the leap into indie publishing was a much easier gamble.
Many authors on the traditional path have already made a high stakes bet. They may not be so keenly aware of it as I was, especially if they’re not giving up their day job to do so (although that time still comes from somewhere: family and social life sacrifices, primarily). Most writers don’t have the luxury of quitting their day jobs (or having their spouses support them) but the ones who have quit to write full-time know exactly how risky that leap truly is.
The Big Lie
A NY publishing contract. Your book on the shelf at Barnes and Noble. These are the dreams that feel like they are dying when you go indie. I don’t want to minimize this, because it’s a very real (and painful) thing for many writers. I went through multiple rounds of queries with more than one book – I understand how much perseverance that takes and how giving up on that feels like failure. And stirs up the fear that you’re a hack after all. Because you believe The Big Lie.
The Big Lie: If you can’t get a contract with a publisher, you’re a hack who can’t write.
This is the Biggest Lie in the publishing world, one that’s still promoted (and believed) by many in the industry. Never mind that it’s plainly not true on its face: it’s an emotional lie, one that appeals to our insecurities on many levels. The reality is that all kinds of people who can’t write (but have platforms to sell books) get contracts, and many people who can write never get contracts because there’s a limited amount of shelf-space and publishing “air space” (the number of books publishers are willing to publish at any given time so they don’t “compete” with one another).
Limited spots + unlimited potential of writer types = some talented writers won’t get a spot
There is a lot of incentive throughout the system to believe the Big Lie. The desire for external validation is a nearly universal human trait, especially for something as subjective as art. Authors who get the spots want to believe it was their talent that got them there (which is no doubt true, but only part of the truth). Publishers can only enforce bad contracts on authors as long as authors believe they are gaining something other than a bad contract (i.e. “validation”). And let’s not forget economic incentive: believing the lie keeps authors spending lots of money on conferences and other “pay for access” measures to secure one of the slots.
The radical nature of indie publishing is that it shines a spotlight on The Big Lie.
(This is not to say that everyone who pursues a trad-pub contract believes The Big Lie – they may have very valid reasons for wanting to be published with a big house without thinking they’re a hack if they don’t. And this is not saying that every story jotted down is something people will want to read. But the subjective nature of writing as art means that knowing what will appeal to people, and what will not, is extremely difficult. And editors are human beings; they don’t have a lock on knowing what will sell anymore than the rest of us.)
Learning the craft of writing is like climbing a mountain.
The trek is something that will take your entire career, but once you finish your first novel, you’ve made it to Base Camp at the bottom of the mountain. As you revise and write more novels, you start to climb (and new writers enter Base Camp). How far you climb and how fast is directly proportional to how much work you put into it (as well as how aggressive you are in seeking to improve your craft).
Somewhere around 80% up the mountain, you’re writing stuff that will likely sell (to people other than your mother) – how much depends on the genre, market, mood, and a hundred other things. But you’ve developed the skills to write a story well-told. There’s still plenty more mountain to climb, more room for improvement, but you’ve mastered a good portion of the hill.
I don’t think of this mountain as a competitive slush pile (although that’s another way to look at it), because there can be as many people as you like at 20% of the way up the mountain (or 80%). This isn’t about heirarchy (where one writer is a “hack” and another has “talent”) but about domain (mastering your craft) (see Heirarchy vs. Territory: Finding Your Writing Domain).
The truth is that anyone who reaches the 80% mark on the mountain is capable of writing books that will sell. Even writers who haven’t reached the 80% mark can sell books, given some pixie dust and tapping into a hot market. The Big Lie says that only those who have reached 99% are “good enough” to take a risk on publishing (because only the top 1% of the slush pile will get contracts). Indie writers on bestseller lists demolish that lie everyday. Of course, some writers jump into publishing when they’ve only just left Base Camp. Others leap in around 30% up the mountain and wonder why their books don’t sell. Hopefully, they will keep climbing and soon will have the answer to their own question.
How Do I Know If I’m “Ready”?
I get this question a lot. By a lot I mean nearly every writer I know (including me) has asked this question of themselves (or someone else). Unfortunately, the mountain doesn’t come with easy weigh-stations where you can take the measure of your manuscript. But there are signs that can give you some guidance.
* Have you written more than one or two books?
* Do you have a writing group or a stable of critique partners who you can call on for feedback?
* Do you listen carefully to that feedback?
* Have you learned the difference between good critiques and bad?
* Do you feel confident in your storytelling and your writing craft?
With the excitement and easy access of indie publishing, authors feel pressured to publish quickly. Be patient. Don’t rush it. All the time you spend focusing on your craft will pay dividends when you do eventually publish. Waiting until you’re at 80% (or even 50%) increases your odds that when you do publish, that you will find some success.
When I Made the Leap
It was late 2011.
I had written four novels: one trunked starter-novel, one published through a small press, one queried-then-trunked, and one out-to-multiple-agents.
I watched the publishing landscape shift under my feet: indie publishing was going mainstream, people were making serious money at it, and there was a subtle change in mood that always follows the prospect of earning cold-hard-cash: respect.
I answered the Seven Questions to Ask Before Self-Publishing (see the next chapter), and came up “green” on all counts: I had a book that had been vetted through crit partners, was gathering interest from agents, was potentially well-suited for the indie market, and I believed in it enough to invest the time, money, and effort that would be required to publish it well. I wasn’t trying to score an agent or a trad-pub contract by going indie; I didn’t care about getting on the bookshelf (my small press book wasn’t there, and I didn’t die because of it). I was after only one thing: readers.
At the time, there were a lot of authors “experimenting” with self-publishing by doing the equivalent of dipping their toe in: putting out a short story or epublishing one of their “lesser novels.” The idea was “well, no one in real publishing wants this old thing, so I’ll throw it up on Kindle and see what happens.”
How inspiring! I’d want to read that, wouldn’t you? /sarcasm
I’m not someone who normally does things by half-measures anyway, but this struck me as entirely the wrong approach. Those toe-dips into self-publishing seemed destined for failure, and I wasn’t surprised at all when the stories came out afterward about how miserable their “self-publishing adventure” had been.
If I took this leap, I wouldn’t be “dabbling.” I would lead with my best work, not my worst. And I’d be taking a full cannon-ball jump into the pond, because I believed it was the best path, not the last resort.
Turns out that intuition was right (something I learned to trust more as time went on).
I weighed my options, confronted my fears, and pulled my novel (Open Minds) from agents to self-publish.
[Irony made a house call on my launch day, when an agent emailed to let me know she was about to read her full MS request of Open Minds. In the three months since she had apparently not gotten my email about pulling it from consideration, I’d edited, had a cover made, put out an ARC, had dozens of positive reviews, and launched the book. It was an object lesson to me in the different timescales of the two paths.]
Because I leaped, I discovered that it doesn’t matter to me how my work is published, only that I have people reading it. Every day, someone tells me they enjoyed my novel, or writes a review of my work, or buys a copy—showing with their dollars and time that they’re intrigued to hear the stories I have to tell. I found that I loved the freedom of indie even more than the paycheck. I’ve literally never been more happy as a writer and have never looked back.
And I kept writing and climbing the mountain.
Check out the next chapter, Seven Questions to Ask Before Self-Publishing, to see if you’re ready.