Self-Publishers: Who Grants You Permission and Who Tells You No?

quinn-noI read something over on The Passive Voice that has been bugging the crap out of me.

6/ Someone To Say ‘No’ This is the big one. It’s counter-intuitive to most indie authors, and even to many authors who come from traditional publishing. One of the things I love about indie publishing is the freedom. It’s very liberating to not have anyone to shoot down your ideas, to be able to play with different formats of stories or different genres, to take a chance on an idea and see how it flies. That power restores our ability to take a chance on an idea that just won’t let go of our imagination.

But who will tell an indie author if he or she has it totally wrong? As tedious as it can be to build consensus, there is merit in listening to other voices. Where will I find that voice? Everyone I consult in this market is being paid by me. I’m the client of my freelance editor, which reverses the balance of power between us. Just as in the traditional publishing market, I couldn’t tell my editor that I wouldn’t make change X to my book (or do it by Y date), my editor now can’t tell me to make change X. A freelance editor might believe she can’t tell a client indie author things that author won’t want to hear.

Power is held by the one who pays.

(Deborah Cooke–the original article is well worth reading)

I had a strong reaction when I read it. I like to think I’ve gained enough maturity to examine my own reactions before I start spouting off. Plus, I’m horrendously overworked these days and even commenting on blogs is an indulgence. So it’s been sitting inside my head, nagging at me as I wonder why this is wrong.

The answer came the other day while I was engaged in an email conversation with a client. One of the things I said to him was:

Promotion and marketing don’t sell books. Promo and marketing get your name out there. That’s it. What sells books is word of mouth. So you do your promo then act pleasantly surprised if your efforts do result in a few sales. Where your real energy goes is into the stories. You write, get better, write more, get even better, and eventually you figure out what your readers like and then you give it to them, plus some. Every single “overnight success” I know personally has been plugging away for years. You’ll know you’ve “made it” when you have readers arguing over whether you’re best thing since Skippy peanut butter or the worst literary fraud who ever existed.

Here’s the thing, back in the good ol’ bad days of traditional publishing, writers had one road to travel to publication. Submit their work to agents and editors until somebody, somewhere said “Yes.” A writer could spend months or years on the submission/rejection treadmill, and quite often they never did find the right person at the right time to say “Yes.” There are some (I used to be one) who feels that grind builds character and makes writers better writers. I don’t believe that anymore. In fact, I think it’s the opposite. I think the submission/rejection grind wrecked or outright destroyed far more writers than it ever helped–even those who got publishing contracts, and in some cases, especially those who got publishing contracts.

The reason I’ve changed my mind is because the prevailing myth is that the reason agents and editors reject writing is because it’s no good. It’s not just a myth, it’s an outright lie. The ONLY reason any work is rejected is because the agent or editor doesn’t think they can sell it. That’s it. The only reason. One person (or a committee) decides a particular piece of work is unsaleable, and rejects it.

Some agents and editors are better than others at reading the market and knowing what will sell. But the vast majority are just as dumb as the rest of us and so they’re just guessing. I’ve met a lot of publishing house editors and several agents. Some are quite talented at what they do. I’ve never met one who was infallible. Most of them are just like me: established tastes and strong opinions. Unfortunately taste and opinions do not make for good business sense. For example, I love Anne Tyler’s books and I’ve never been able to make it past chapter three in a Nora Roberts novel. Were I an agent or trad editor and something that reminded me of Anne Tyler crossed my desk, I’d dub it good or great, and I’d reject anything that smacked of Nora Roberts. I would tell myself I’m making my decision based on sound business principles, but the reality is, I’m just another goof who can’t see past my own biases.

Ms. Cooke asks: “But who will tell an indie author if he or she has it totally wrong?

My answer is: “Nobody has a right to.”

Writers, editors, and agents have only their own prejudices, tastes and opinions to judge the worthiness of a work. The only people who actually know what will sell are readers.

I do some copy editing and a whole lot of proofreading, and some of the books I work on appeal to my tastes and others don’t. Some are beautifully written, others aren’t. Some are slickly professional, some are rough or even amateurish. It’s not my place to judge a work’s worthiness. In fact, no writer wants to ask me about the saleability of a work because I’m the last person anyone should ask. A former friend and I used to have a running joke: if I adored a story she wrote, chances were it would not sell, but if I hated it, even loathed it, it would not only sell, but probably pick up a few awards along the way. I know what I like and I’m very passionate about it and given time to think I can make pretty good arguments as to why I like or dislike any particular piece of writing. I haven’t a clue about why anybody else likes what they do. I can Monday morning quarterback with the best of them and sometimes I think I can figure out the appeal of best sellers, but it’s just guessing.

If a client asks my advice on how to improve the CRAFT of writing, I can go on for days. I’m pretty good at pinpointing where a writer is interfering with the reader. No writer should ever ask me if they should publish. How the hell should I know? More importantly, I don’t have the power or the right to tell anyone to not publish. As a reader, yes, I can decide if I want to shell out cash and then invest my time, or not. As an editor? Absolutely not.

Back on the submission/rejection grind, a lot of writers did get better. Not because their writing was rejected. It was because they kept writing. If you keep writing, you can’t help but improve because practice really does make perfect.

The trouble with the submission/rejection grind was that a lot of rejected manuscripts ended up in drawers or under the bed or tossed in the garbage. The only thing wrong with them was that some editor or agent (or even a lot of editors and agents) decided they didn’t know how to sell it to readers. Readers, if they knew about all those lost/forgotten/trashed stories, might disagree.

I’m of the mind these days that if you write it, let readers decide if it’s something they might like–and NO ONE ELSE. Not your critique partners, not an editor, not an agent, not a reviewer, and certainly not organizations like Authors United or Authors Guild. The latter can spout all they want about the evils of Amazon and how self-publishers are destroying literature and culture by flooding the market with cheap crap. Reality is, how many of you have ever walked into a book store and said, “Holy shit, there are way too many books! I’m outta here!” No? Yeah, me neither. Do publishers and writers have a discoverability problem? They sure do. Readers don’t, though. Readers know what they like and they know how to find it and they don’t need some “curator of culture” holding their hand. I, personally, don’t give a rip about how many books are published each year. It doesn’t make a bit of difference to me. If I want something, I know how to find it. Everything else is ignored.

Nobody is entitled to reader attention. Everybody has to earn it–whether you’re just starting out, or you’re Douglas Preston of Authors United (who, if you type in his name on Amazon will bring up over 1000 results). If you earn it, you reap sales and accolades and maybe even a living. If you don’t, well, you can either give up or get better.

To my way of thinking, self-publishing the early works is a lot like the submission/rejection grind, EXCEPT for one very important distinction: Instead of seeking out that one person who is guessing your work is salable, you’re putting it out in front of a whole lot of people who actually KNOW if it’s salable or not. You won’t have to wait weeks, months or even years to find out either. You’ll find out in real time. Readers might tell you “No.” They might turn up their noses and ignore you completely. It’s a risk you take. The thing is, it’s YOUR risk. It’s your time, your energy, your vision, your money. If you believe in what you’re doing, then do it, damn it, and don’t waste time seeking permission. If you miss the mark, oh well, roll up your sleeves and try again.

Deborah Cooke said it herself: Power is held by the one who pays.

That I agree with 100%. Except, she means the self-publishing WRITER and I mean the READER.

On the practical side, you might benefit from expert advice, even if you pay for it. Not permission, not validation, not praise, not attaboys, not judgement–advice. There are as many reasons why a particular book doesn’t sell as there are books. It could be timing, it could be packaging, it could be subject matter, it could be the writing itself. It’s all guesswork. As an indie writer/publisher, you’ve got a lot of room to experiment and grow. You’ve got time for readers to find your work (a HUGE advantage over traditional publishing). If you think you could be doing better and should be doing better and can’t figure out on your own how to do better, then it will benefit you to seek advice. But don’t make the mistake of asking anyone–especially someone you’re paying– “Do you like it?” Because it’s pointless. Be specific. “What can I do to improve my writing?” “Is my packaging working?” “How come readers are giving up on my novel after only reading three chapters?” The thing about paying for advice is that you are free to take it, or not. If it rings true to you and you’re capable of following it, you’d be a fool not to. If it doesn’t make sense, then you’re out a few bucks. Big deal.

In the meantime, keep writing, keep publishing, keep putting yourself out there. Let the readers decide. They are the only ones who matter.


38 thoughts on “Self-Publishers: Who Grants You Permission and Who Tells You No?

  1. Yes! And can I just add: correlation does not equal causation. Writers who were rejected and kept writing got better. I’m sick to death of the Doug Prestons of the world trying to claim that it was the REJECTION that caused the writer to improve. Because that doesn’t make any sense at all.

    • Yep. I also don’t like sales being the ONLY judge of a book’s worthiness either. My philosophy these days is to put it out there. Let readers decide. Could be only a few readers find it worthy, but those few are important, too. I can’t even count the number of writers and genres disappeared because trad publishing decided I wasn’t worthy enough as a reader to write for.

      • Some books are published before their time, too, as corny as that sounds. IIRC Tolkien didn’t really take off in the US and the world until it got associated with the sixties counterculture.

        I also vouch for the French author Louis Ferdinand Celine. His first two books about life in France at the turn of the 20th century and during and the after WWI are very well written, emotionally powerful books. However, they are not James Patterson-eque ‘page turners’ by any means.

      • Very true, SJ. Timing matters. It’s easy to miss a trend, or to come in so far ahead of it that no one realizes it is a trend. Which is one reason I counsel writers to be patient. Sometimes word of mouth seems glacial. Sometimes books just have to wait for the right audience to appear. One of the reasons the used book business is so solid is that readers can’t keep up with everything being published. By the time they realize they want to read something, it’s no longer available new. Big advantage with digital publishing. There’s plenty of virtual shelf space.

    • Can’t remember which of the recent screeds against self-publishing it was, but the author said that submitting to traditional publishers allowed a writer to learn to take rejection. As though that were a virtue we should all be pursuing. Golly. I got my fair share of rejection during my trad-pub days, and I’d be hard pressed to say it made me a better person.

      • I know which screed you speak of. It made me laugh out loud. The only way the submission/rejection grind improved my writing was that I grew obsessed with query letters and synopses, neither of which made me a better storyteller and distracted me from “real” writing and drove me kinda nuts to boot.

    • Years ago I was at an arts and crafts show where everybody was in a buying mood and vendors were selling like crazy and if you could bottle the mood in that place, you’d kill the anti-depressant market. It was a great show. There was a pair of obnoxious guys who were loudly, rudely, incessantly trashing the vendors. I started following them, trying to work up the nerve to say, “Hey, who are you to trash the hard work and creativity of artists?” Then one guy made a comment along the lines of HE hadn’t sold a piece of REAL art in his REAL gallery in weeks and it was because people were stupid and had no taste.

      It’s not just books.

      • That gallery operator didn’t have a clue about the subjectivity of Art.

        As far as books go, non-fiction is somewhat less subjective, because of its practical application aspect: education and self-help sell. Novelists, poets, playwrights, and other creators of written imagery are mainly communicating beauty and emotions, like painters, sculptors, photographers, and also performing artists. The kind of written Art that serves primarily for entertainment is sometimes harder for buyers to justify, so the subjectivity of the market for fiction is greater.

        Mixing their Art with crafts at shows is a savvy move for artists, because it’s easier for people to buy crafts, due to their inherent objectivity: “I need a basket. Will this basket do the job? Yes. How much for this one? Oh, goody!” The craft-buying mood may wash over onto the Art, and then everybody’s happy.

        Despite writing’s being a Fine Art, I don’t recall seeing authors at Arts & Crafts shows. Might be a good place for Indies to do signings.

  2. Who tells self publishers no?

    Answer: the readers, and especially, the Amazon or other book selling site commenters/reviewers.

    If your book stinks, the people who bought it and felt gipped have no qualms about informing the world right on your book’s Amazon page.

    And if all they write is, “no!” then they’ve let you off easy.

    I’ve heard this argument lately, (a lot lately actually, almost makes me wonder if there was some kind of traditional publisher meeting to put this idea out there) – that the submission and rejection process makes you a stronger writer.

    Well, I’m not aware of any noble, generous big time New York City book publishers/agents spending their days writing detailed letters to wannabe writers on how to improve their work. Maybe once in awhile a writer who shows promise might get a letter from an agent saying “Sorry, I can’t help you, but you should try this and this and hope that works.”

    Usually, you’re going to just get a standard, “No thanks” letter.

    Now, does that writing and rewriting process help? Of course. The more time and effort you put into something, the better you’ll get.

    Can you also put that time and effort into self publishing? Yes. Self publishing runs the gamut from the misguided folk who scribble some nonsense and think a big payday is on the way to people who have put a lot of time and effort into their work and have put out quality.

    Is it better to have an editor that doesn’t answer to you for a paycheck? Yes.

    But, it isn’t easy to get yourself into that situation and to just throw your hands up and quit on something you love because someone in some office somewhere rejected you based on a two minute look at a one page summary of your book doesn’t make much sense either.

    Are there some self publishers with inflated egos who think they’re fabulous and need no help? Sure. The commenters will point their problems out to them.

    The self publishers that will do well will recognize they need help, seek it out, and actually use that advice and criticism to become better.

    Final point in this rant. I’d argue that someone who took the time and spent the money to consult an editor is more likely (though not guarantee) to follow the editor’s advice.

    After all, if they thought they were perfect, they wouldn’t have hired the editor in the first place.

    • Good comment, good points. As for your final point, though, I’d like to add that sometimes you don’t want to follow advice, even if the person is an expert, even if you paid for it. Sometimes it’s bad advice. Indie publishers have a responsibility to learn to tell the difference between good advice and bad advice. If you’re going to make a mistake, make it on your own terms, not because some professional told you to.

      • That’s true too.

        I think these arguments often break out because people look at things through an all or nothing lense (i.e. this person in traditional or publishing did X so everyone on that side must do X)

        The key is how much work did the writer do before hitting the publish button, so the self publishers who will do well will put more work into their product.

        The “write, get rejected, rewrite, get accepted” argument is good in that it is another way to inspire people to rewrite and revise, but it also presupposes that revisions will always lead to a book deal.

        Ultimately, when you’ve done every conceivable thing that you can do to improve your book and you can’t bare to work on it anymore, it’s up to you to decide if you want to wait for an ok from some big wig or to give self publishing a go.

  3. Loved this. I have always wondered how many great books I missed out on because some suit in an office decided he/she couldn’t sell it, and how many brilliant writers never broke through because they were beaten down by rejection. I hope some of those writers are successfully self-publishing.

  4. I wonder how many books have been ruined by well-intentioned but wrong-headed editors working for traditional publishing houses. In the 1970s the prevalent story was that sex sells and that editors pressured writers of genre fiction–particularly mysteries–to write sex scenes into their books whether or not there was any reason for them. Reading over fiction published during that time one can believe it–there is a lot of random sex between characters that has nothing to do with the story.

    I suspect that there are similar pressures today.

    • I think a lot of writers were ruined by publishing houses. Editors get an idea about what sells and it makes them lazy and short-sighted. It’s far less risky to fit everybody into a tight niche than it is to let readers decide if they like something or not.

  5. One caveat – the rest is gold.

    And the caveat is tiny: practice does not make perfect. If you’re lucky, it makes you faster.

    What practice can’t do is educate your eye and ear: writers can improve only if they are aware of the difference between the story in their head, and the one constructed in a reader’s head from the words on the page.

    To improve, you have to be aware your prose is deadly, not deathless, wonder why, and seek out a book or a teacher or a reader comment that will tell you exactly why you are not yet capable of doing X. Then you FIND a way to learn X. IN the DIY world that can be a book, another writer, a blog. You can go to workshops, take a class, or get an editor who points out your flaws.

    It’s the writer’s reflection on the distance between aim and achievement, and desire to close that gap, that leads to possible improvement. Followed by a lot of work.

    I fear the judgment of the marketplace far less than that of the gatekeepers. I will soon get my chance to see if the fear is justified.

    • I’ve nothing against learning, Alicia. In fact, I encourage any writer to take classes or workshops or attend conferences to learn. I used to have a HUGE collection of writing books. Some made sense to me, others didn’t. All helped at least a little bit.

  6. Excellent article. Thank you.

    You wrote: The trouble with the submission/rejection grind was that a lot of rejected manuscripts ended up in drawers or under the bed or tossed in the garbage. The only thing wrong with them was that some editor or agent (or even a lot of editors and agents) decided they didn’t know how to sell it to readers. Readers, if they knew about all those lost/forgotten/trashed stories, might disagree.

    This tickled me I have to admit, because it’s something I’ve wondered about. Take JK Rowling and Harry Potter. JK had an agent so the rejection process was faster, and I can’t remember how many rejections Harry Potter garnered along the way. I believe it was around twelve. Without an agent, working through the slush pile process, that’s possibly nine years of rejection for Harry Potter, give or take. And up to a year to wait for each answer? Not unusual. Would JK Rowling have ever gone on, accepting those rejections for years, and decided to keep slogging away? She might not have done so, she might have decided she was churning out junk no one wanted. Minnete Walters, even with an agent and a background in publishing, took a long time to sell books that went on to be best sellers. Why was she rejected? Because it was accepted wisdom at the time in publishing you needed a continuing character (the detective) to sell crime novels. Guess they were wrong.

    And how many books get traditionally published only to languish on the remainder table? At the end of the day, yes, readers make the decisions.However, it’s still up to writers to put their best work out there.

    • And look at the excitement from readers when a “lost” manuscript is discovered. Currently it’s Harper Lee. I haven’t read the book and doubt if I will, but it’s a treasure nonetheless, and there will be readers who decide it’s a masterpiece.

  7. Very inspiring, Jaye! I will have to reread this on the down days. Most of the writers I know have enough humility and insecurity to keep striving to improve, so I think you’re right—they will get better and better.

    • Once upon a time editors kept their eyes out for potential. A writer might be raw, clumsy, not quite comfortable with craft, but the editor recognized talent. So the publisher took the chance and gave the writer time to develop. Those early efforts might not be great or even particularly good, but many of those writers developed into top best sellers. That doesn’t happen these days in publishing.

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  9. I believe the same about promoting – the best way to sell books is to be writing them and getting them out there. Sooner or later you may release one that the audience thinks is as great as you felt it was while writing it. I used to consult on formatting and IT related to self-publishing, and posted about it occasionally – nowadays I try not to write about writing, unless it’s creative or just sandboxing practice for me 🙂 There are better and more articulate folk out there than me, who can analyse and teach the ways of being a writer far more effectively 🙂 x

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  12. The only thing one needs to know about traditional publishing is “that if ain’t in the advance…it just ain’t, period. Traditional publishers always keep TWO sets of accounting methods. One to take into court if some author they’ve published sues them for withheld royalties, and one, of course, to tell them how the book is REALLY doing in the marketplace. If the product is a SERIES of books and they take off like wildfire, then it’s in the publisher’s interest to be halfway honest with the author. If the author has only one book, or may be two or three on different subjects, and the advance is not that large, the publisher knows he’ll receive a return on that advance that’s quite handsome, even if he decides to launch the book like baby turtles. Just put the product on the shelves with no advance publicity. I was lucky in that I had two editors who bought my books from two different companies tell me later that the publisher in reality owed me a small fortune. If you can’t afford a fortune to pay to a CPA that you as the author have hired, her is what happens. Hire any CPA for what you can afford-say a few thousand dollars-to go in and see if he can find that second set of books the publisher is using to cheat authors, and he manages to find it! What happens then is that the publisher takes him aside and says “Look here…what is this guy paying you? Three-four thousand? We’ll give you ten to find nothing-that way you collect from the author and from us and you save yourself a lot of work! Guess which client the CPA is gong to be loyal to?

    • Quite a tale, Edward. I used to look at my royalty statements and wonder where the numbers came from. They never made any sense to me, and they never quite added up. Were my publishers crooked? In a way, yes, they were incredibly creative in how they determined payouts. Do I have proof? No. I never did an audit.

      Regarding one item though, I have a BIG caution for all writers. Always remember that whoever keeps the books determines the “net.”

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