At the risk of repeating a point I’ve made about a hundred times, writing is a hard bloody industry. Especially if, like me, your interest is less specifically in one form, i.e. screenwriting or prose, but the vocation in general. Every different discipline of writing has certain requirements and skill sets to learn, and every one has different paths to success.
Producing something yourself is seen a bit differently in theatre and film than in publishing. In both you’re almost expected to do a few independent projects before anyone notices you. Rare is the playwright or screenwriter who was snapped up for a major project before doing a lot of stuff off their own back first. But publishing is different, because self-publishing, with exceptions, is not generally considered a clear path to getting noticed. In fact, it’s almost the opposite; self-publishing comes with stigma, a sense of ‘you weren’t able to get this published elsewhere so you had to do it yourself.’
There is a bit of a narrative now that some of the stigma has lifted around self-publishing. It’s sort of true; not that long ago six of the top ten bestselling ebooks on Amazon were self-published. In fact, Kindle has made a veritable industry out of authors hoping to be the next big thing. But see, that’s the problem; when something becomes easy everyone starts doing it and when everyone starts doing it your chances of standing out from the pack, even if your work is exceptional, narrow down to just about zero. It’s no different to uploading a funny video on YouTube and waiting for the viral fame to hit; the internet may have democratised success, but there is more competition than ever before and success relies on so, so many factors.
It's very easy to get swept up in the romantic stories of self-publishing triumphs, but look a bit closer and you’ll see common threads. Matthew Reilly went out of his way to make his book look as professional as possible, before lugging boxes around from book store to book store and begging them to stock it. And even then, his career only took off when an agent happened to pick it up. Which, I’m sure you can guess, doesn’t happen every day. Christopher Paolini’s wealthy parents paid for the print run of Eragon and then took the time to go on tour with their son around America, promoting the book in costume at various stores. To get something self-published out in the public eye, to make it stand out from all of the books that have cred behind them, takes time, money, lots of effort and a decent product that can find a place in the market. Both those cases required supreme effort and commitment, and they’re the lucky ones. So what happens to someone who self publishes without any of those things?
Funny you should ask.
In 2012 I self-published my novel Windmills. At the time I was at Melbourne Uni and they had a book printing service in the library. I was passing it one day and, demoralised from lots and lots of rejection letters, decided to look into it. It was expensive, but at that point, seemed the only option left to me.
Here’s a lesson I’ve learnt about myself; contrary to what I might have told people when I was younger, I don’t really care about fame and fortune. I mean they’d be nice and all, but honestly all I ever wanted was for people to read my stories and to make a living off that. And at that time, self-publishing seemed as good a way to achieve that goal as any. I paid the money, read through Windmills over and over until I was pretty sure I’d caught all the typos (I hadn’t), got a friend to design the cover and we were off to the races.
The result was… not good. Look, for the time I’m proud of Windmills as a piece of writing, but as a product it’s pretty garbage. The typesetting is a Microsoft Word document in A5, the cover is pixelated and overall the book just just looks cheap. The very first printed copies were especially terrible; they were worn and crinkled despite being freshly printed, the title was blurry and most of them fell apart the moment you opened them. Either that, or too much glue had been used, leaving the spine lumpy and misshapen.
Did I care at the time? Hell no. I was an author! But, tellingly, I didn’t go out and promote it at bookstores. I had a little launch in my hometown, sold it to friends, stocked it in a couple of second hand stores and that was pretty much it. On some level, I think I knew the book didn’t look right. This was later confirmed when a bookstore owner told me that if I was going to self-publish, I had to make sure it didn’t look self-published. I left that store in an offended huff. Criticism is always more upsetting when you know it’s true.
I self-published again a year later, this time a book of my early plays. It definitely was more impressive than the last time; I had a friend studying editing who did the typesetting and made it look professional and slick. But I didn’t even bother to try and sell many of those; I think I just wanted my theatre work to sit on the shelf next to my Martin McDonagh collection. Because yeah, Hometown was definitely in the same territory as The Beauty Queen of Leenane.
But in that lies the truth. Whatever I told myself and others, I didn’t self-publish because I thought it would actually help my career. I self-published because I wanted to hold a printed version of my book so I could feel like an author. And yeah, unwrapping that first copy of Windmills was exciting. But it didn’t feel like an achievement. Not really. Because I hadn’t achieved anything. I felt self-conscious whenever I sold it to people or spoke about it. When people congratulated me, I wondered why. I hadn’t done anything special or difficult. Anybody with the money and desire can self-publish a book. There are a whole bunch of vanity presses out there for that exact reason, to take advantage of would-be authors who haven’t been able to get published elsewhere and want to see their work in print.
Do I regret it? Not really. I recognise now, after the fact, that Windmills wasn’t ready yet and if I had put more work into making it really impressive or getting it into stores somebody might have noticed it, and that would not have been good for me trying to do more with it later. And look, one lesson I learnt from that whole experience is that people are far more likely to read your work in physical form than a PDF. Lots of people I know read and enjoyed Windmills, and that was, on some level, all I really wanted from it. I heard plenty of stories about people staying up all night to finish it. That, whatever the flaws of the execution, made me feel pretty good. And young writers don’t often find much to make them feel good.
None of this answers the question of whether self-publishing is worthwhile. The truth, to me, is that there isn’t an answer. I know quite a lot of people who have self-published; some of them have done it badly, others have produced books that look absolutely worthy of any heavy hitter publisher. Whether they recommend the endeavour or not is up to them to say. But I will point this out; of all the people I know who self-published, myself included, none of them have had the Matthew Reilly or Christopher Paolini thing happen to them. And some of them have written work that is far better than either of those authors.
There are other realities to consider. I made about three times as much money from every copy of Windmills than I do from Boone Shepard. Because when you have a publisher, you make at best $2 per book. Publish yourself, and the profits are all yours. That’s not nothing, especially if, like me, your publisher is an independent without a huge marketing budget.
Unless I ended up in a position where my platform was such that I could be sure of the worth, I doubt I would self-publish again (I don’t count Seasons of Fear, as that’s a collective passion project done with friends). Boone Shepard, for me personally, has proved in its reception that I am at a place in my career where I will be able to find publishers interested in my work. Even if it takes longer for it to happen, I’d rather be patient and give my work to people who know what they’re doing, rather than risk another Windmills situation.
But that’s just me and that’s just right now. Things can (and do) change, so who knows if I’ll hold firm to that position in a couple of years’ time. Speaking as somebody who’s done it, my only advice is to really think about why you want to self-publish, rather than do what I did and rush something out just so your book can sit on your shelf. And as for the stigma, well, the response to that is simple. If your book is good, if you tell a story that sweeps up, engages and moves the audience, then I can promise you that nobody gives a shit how it came to be in their hands. It’s up to you whether you think your story’s that good.
Writing words about writing words.