I’ve been asked a lot lately by new writers whether they should self-publish their first novel or go with a traditional publisher.
To me the answer is very obvious: find an agent and publish the traditional way.
What follows is my reasons why I think the answer is obvious but first a disclaimer.
Disclaimer 1: I have never self-published. Unless you count the short stories on this site and even then they were all published somewhere else first. I have zero direct experience with self-publishing though I have seen several friends go through the process. Some to a great deal of success. I am definitely not anti-self-publishing. If you have questions about self-publishing I recommend you read what Courtney Milan has to say about it. Her blog is a fantastic resource.
I do, however, know a lot about traditional publishing. To date I have had nine books published by the following publishers: Allen & Unwin Australia (How To Ditch Your Fairy, Liar, Zombies v Unicorns, Team Human), Penguin Australia (Magic or Madness Trilogy), Penguin USA (Magic or Madness Trilogy), Bloomsbury USA (HTDYF, Liar), Harper Collins USA (“Thinner than Water” in Love is Hell, Team Human), Simon & Schuster USA (Zombies v Unicorns) and Wesleyan University Press (Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, Daughters of Earth).
Disclaimer 2: I come out of the YA publishing category. Everything I say here is shaped by that fact. As Courtney Milan points out in the comments below it’s very different in her genre of romance.
Ask Yourself This Question First
Why do you want to be published?
There are many many answers to that question. But the most usual ones are: because I want to be read by people who don’t know me, because I want a career as a writer.
But sometimes people answer that they just want to see their work as a real book with their name on the spine and they don’t really care who reads it and they don’t want to have to send out to get an agent and all that jazz.
In that case, self-publishing probably is the way to go. You pay to have a few copies made with your name on the cover and then give them to your friends for Christmas.
This post is addressed to the people who want their work to be read beyond their immediate circle of family and friends.
Why You Should Try To Get Published The Traditional Way First
I first sent out a story for publication when I was fifteen years old. It was rejected. And repeat. A lot.
I sold my first short story almost twenty years later. My first novel sale came not long after.
Yes, you read that right, it took me twenty years to get published.
Getting published the traditional way is a slow, gruelling, heart-breaking and soul-destroying process. At least it was for me.1 My first two novels never sold. I know people whose first ten or more novels never sold.
I was desperate to get published back then. DESPERATE.2 I get the impatience many people feel with how long everything takes in publishing. It really is awful sending your work out over and over and over again to the same No, no, no no, HELL NO. No matter how the agents phrase it that’s what it sounds like on the receiving end.
Or even worse: no response at all. Despite your multiple queries.
Here’s why I think it’s worthwhile going through the gruelling process of finding an agent. (For why you need an agent read this excellent article by Victoria Strauss.) And then the just as awful process of your agent trying to sell your book to a publisher.
You learn to deal with rejection.3
Being a professional writer means dealing with rejection all the time. Every time my latest novel goes out to publishers it gets rejected. Multiple times. I can’t remember now how many publishers rejected HTDYF and Team Human. I find it best to forget those things but, trust me, at the time, it felt like an endless chorus of NOs.
You only need one yes. No matter how long it takes.
My first novel, Magic or Madness, was published in loads of different countries, each successive book of mine has been picked up by fewer foreign language markets. I’ve been rejected by pretty much every language market in the world. Eastern Europe has never published so much as a haiku of mine. I try not to take it too personally.4
You don’t need a tough skin. I certainly don’t have one.5 But you do not need to be able to keep writing despite rejection.
All too often I hear from people whose first novel has been rejected by gazillions of agents. Years now they’ve been sending it out, rewriting it, sending it out again. They’re filled with despair. They’re ready to give up. I ask them how their second novel is doing? They blink at me. They have not started a second novel, let alone finished it and sent it out to agents.
Always have a novel on the go.
When your first one is out there trying to land you an agent get started writing the second novel. And so on. Did I mention that I didn’t sell my first novel? Or my second? That I know people who did not sell their first ten novels? Jonathan Letham did not sell his first novel. From memory I think he sold his fourth. His earlier novels then sold after the first one to be sold was published. This is a very common story.
Keep writing is good advice when you’re trying to find an agent and it’s good advice when you’re a career writer whose agent is trying to sell what will be your hundredth published book when it finds a home.
Never stop writing!
People trying to find representation for their first novel often think that once they find an agent their book will automatically sell. Not true.
They also often think that once their first novel sells all their subsequent novels will also sell. Sadly, not always true either.
True story: there are successful, published writers whose agents have not been able to find a home for all their books.
Rejection: it just keeps on giving.6
You Learn How To Write
In those 20 years I was sending out and being rejected I never stopped writing.
I would occasionally get little hints from my rejectors as to why my stories weren’t working for them. Some of those comments were useful, but far more useful was all the feedback and comments I received from other writers. Having my work critiqued by other writers improved my writing immeasurably and prepared me for the brutal edits I would get once I became a published author.
(Here’s a post on how to find people to critique your work. Check out the comments as well.)
Even more helpful was learning to critique other people’s work. It is eye opening to read someone else’s unpublished work and see that they’re making similar mistakes to the ones you make. Suddenly you understand what everyone was talking about when they were critiquing you. It teaches you to see the flaws in your own work.
Obviously continuing to write was also very important. During those twenty years I learned how to write novels. I learned that I was better at writing them than I was at short stories. I learned to write stories and novels that people other than me wanted to read and that is when, at last, they started to sell. (Hopefully you’ll be a faster learner than I was.)
Once You’re Published
This is when your learning curve takes off with a steepness that is dizzying. No critique I have ever received from friends has ever been as detailed or demanding as any of my editorial letters.
I am a much, much better writer because I have been professionally edited, copyedited, and proofread.
Had I self-published I would never have learned how far my work was from where it needed to be. I would not have learned how much time and effort goes into getting a novel to a publishable standard. The many revisions and fact checking and proofing that are needed.
Then after the long and exacting editorial process, there’s the design of the interiors of book. What fonts are used, how the titles, and sub-titles look, how the words are arranged on the page. Then, of course, there’s the cover. Is there a more important ad for a book? No, there is not.
Traditional publishers do all that for you. And, on the whole, they do it pretty well.7
They also know how to distribute your book: how to get it to readers. They have long established relationships with booksellers all over their country. They know how to get books reviewed and talked about. They’ve been doing so for years, decades even.
You, a first-time, unknown novelist have little of that knowledge.
There’s a reason the majority of successful self-publishers already had a career publishing with traditional publishers. Or were very well-known in fan fiction circles. They had what is known in the industry as a “platform”. They already had a core audience; they didn’t need a traditional publisher.
An unknown first-time novelist does not have an audience. That’s why they should go with traditional publishers. Traditional publishers can make a new author known, can help build their audience.
When Courtney Milan started publishing her own work she’d already published many books with a traditional publisher. Her name and work were already known by many romance readers. She had dedicated and loyal fans such as me, who were willing to buy her books no matter who was publishing them.
Most importantly she had the knowledge and the contacts to do it right. She knew which editors, copyeditors, proofreaders etc to hire. She knew what professional books look like and how to produce same.
Writers with platforms, who have the inclination to do all the hard yards in producing their books exactly how they want them to be, can now do that. I think that’s wonderful for the industry. And truly great for writers.
I have never self-published but I certainly don’t rule it out in the future. The landscape of publishing has changed a vast deal since I started out. Self-publishing has changed a vast deal. We writers now have more options.
However, the vast majority of first-time authors, without a platform, are still better off going the traditional path. Even if they wind up self-publishing in the end they’ll do so with a great deal more knowledge of what they’re doing than they would otherwise.
Which ever path you pick, GOOD LUCK!
And keep on writing!
Update: I’ve had to not let some comments through. I get that you love what you’re doing and it’s working for you. By all means make the case for self-publishing on your own blogs. But really if the best you can do is to call me names? Then no. I am not letting your comments through.
Update 2: On checking the IP address of the nasty comments I discovered they’re all coming from the same person.
Update 3: Added a disclaimer to make it clear that what I have to say is shaped by being a YA writer.
- I do know a couple of people who were picked up by an agent and whose first novel sold basically within minutes of sending out. That’s unusual. Also annoying.
- I wonder if self-publishing had existed back then if I would have gone ahead and published my work as it was? Back then I was pretty sure what I was writing was genius despite all the rejections. Reading it now I know it was rubbish and it being published back then would have been at best really embarrassing.
- Which is not to say you ever learn to like it. I hates rejection, I does. HATES IT!
- But let’s just say I’m not barracking for any Eastern European football teams in the World Cup.
- Oh, the tears this profession of mine has made me weep. Fortunately a fair few of them have been tears of joy.
- Show me the profession that doesn’t involve waiting and being rejected. I suspect it does not exist.
- Yes, there are exceptions. Horrible exceptions. No industry is perfect. Least of all publishing.