Access to publishing has never been easier than it is today, with the Internet lurking just a click away like the alligator you can’t see in the water trap. We, as a literate society, place value on words and especially on books. Few people I’ve ever met can even frame the idea of burning a book and see it as the last act of a sick, deranged world and/or person. It’s strange when you think about it, that this inanimate object, this collection of pages and a cover has a significance that transcends political and religious ideologies into something we can all get behind. Or, as Terry Pratchett put it more succinctly, “all words have some power. … They must be treated with respect.” (Going Postal, Terry Pratchett)
Perhaps this is why the most common and available form of self-publication today is, shall we say, ‘snubbed’ because it doesn’t produce a real, tangible book. Many on the Internet have heard of the bastion of “bad” writing, Fanfiction.net, and would not consider it to be a legitimate form of publication. For instance, you wouldn’t say “oh, I have a novel out, it’s on Fanfiction.net!” to anyone you didn’t know well or were reasonably sure they would love to find out your take on Master Chief’s scintillating love affair with Princess Peach (that old chestnut).
But this is an unfair take. A lot of very good, talented writers start out writing fanfiction, at least, these days they do. There should be no shame at all in flexing your writing muscles by speculating in writing what was going through the mind of your dual axe-wielding orc in Skyrim as she leapt roaring off a cliff onto a dragon’s back. Places like Fanfiction.net and its less copyright-infringing friend, Fictionpress.com, are generally what people think of when they consider publishing on the Internet. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s also not unusual to find a novel published as a web serial through Word Press or on a site affiliated with an established publishing house, like Harper Collins or Random House.
But, honestly, I think the most effective way to self-publish in a way that will give you credibility with everyone, is through Kindle. It’s relatively easy to do and you can opt to receive 70% of the royalties on each sale. You’ll have to handle most of the advertising and hype yourself to get people reading because you can’t rely on your novel’s worth being self-evident.
This is where a Publishing house has the advantage. A lot of what a Publishing house does is actually campaigning to get your book into the public eye. Love it or hate it, the campaign for 50 Shades of Grey was masterful. You couldn’t turn on the radio but for people talking about the book. It got onto morning television, something the key demographic is known to watch. And then of course, there’s the notoriety. Anyone in marketing will tell you that viral is how you want things to go. Get the balls rolling and even the people denouncing the thing are advertising it. That’s the thing about hype and why a Publishing house is your friend in that area. Most authors don’t really have a marketing mind-set. Serious ones force themselves to consider it, but the average writer just has a story they want to tell. The Publishing house, however, does think in terms of marketing and they will pinpoint the key demographic, such as women over fifty who maintain a home, or young men aged twenty who really wish they could have been in the SAS (without any of the training or … y’know, danger) and aim their advertising campaign at them.
Another great thing that Publishing houses do that doesn’t happen in self-publishing so much, is quality assessment. It’s so easy to publish online because there’s no editor standing between you and that text box you’re copy-pasting your chapter into. Letters of rejection and critical analysis by peers or an editor can destroy an ego. Everyone who creates something, be it a painting, a knitted doll or a novel, has an emotional connection to that creation. You have to have been inspired to make it, loved it enough to see it through to completion and then been proud enough to show someone. When someone critiques or criticises, or outright dismisses, that can hurt. Of course it does, and it’s natural to feel so. It’s easy to write off a criticism through thoughts of ‘they just didn’t get it’ and then take your poor, abused manuscript and publish it online instead. But editors see a lot of work, they read a lot and they may have a point. What may have seemed like a con, is actually a pro. An editor, be it your agent or someone in the actual Publishing house, can help you improve your work. It’s like handing a rough gemstone, already quite attractive in its rustic glory, and having it cut, facetted or polished up. The results may astound you.
The drawback to Publishing houses is that it’s hard to get noticed. Not many Publishing houses will read unagented scripts and virtually none will read an unsolicited script, so most would-be authors have to get an agent. An agent’s job is to find the Publishing house that will be most interested in your work and will represent you in pitching it to them and of course, they must be paid. That’s usually a percentage of what your book makes. Back nearly 10 years ago, when I was at University, the advice was to get the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook, which contains comprehensive listings of publishers and agents, what genres or styles they handle and all kinds of stuff like that. But it’s really only good for a year, hence its name.
Comics are easier to self-publish, and web comics are growing and diversifying all the time, but it’s still pretty rare to be able to live entirely off the proceeds of your comic. Off the top of my head I can only think of John Allison and Randy Milholland. It’s even harder for self-published authors to make a living off their work. Both web-comic artists and authors need to make public appearances, at conventions and signings to keep the wheel of their marketing turning. If you self-publish, you need to be your own accountant, marketer, editor and travel co-ordinator. Some people are good at that, some people aren’t, both have to work hard to get their work recognised and realised. You need to love the work to want to do it, because examples of wealthy writers and creators are very rare in the grand scheme of things.
So which do I think is better?
Honestly, being someone who aspires as a writer, I lean towards Publishing house. I have a childhood dream of seeing a physical book with my name on the cover available in bookstores across the country. However, I am also a pragmatic realist, and I can see the value of self-publication, especially if you can’t find an agent that suits you. Going back to my opening remarks on words having power and books being given a strange, almost eldritch, significance by a literate society, does it really matter if those words are on paper or stored in a Kindle or other e-reader? Is a story lessened by being posted to a forum or WordPress blog?
No. It isn’t.
There are literally (see what I did there?) thousands of websites devoted to showcasing what you want to write and modern technology makes it easier than ever before to get your story into the hands of readers. The Publishing house and the physical copy of your book is the dream, but maybe the Kindle or Fictionpress.com is just a stepping stone towards that dream. As long as your story affects the reader, makes them laugh, makes them cry or simply entertains them on that train journey, surely it cannot matter what form it’s in, or how it got there.
Because that is what writing is really about.