Yesterday the publisher services company Lulu.com announced that John Edgar Wideman, two-time winner of the Faulkner Award for fiction, would be publishing his new collection of short stories, Briefs, Stories for the Palm of the Mind, in conjunction with Lulu’s new VIP program. Wideman has been published for years by Houghton Mifflin, according to the report in Publisher’s Weekly.
This was notable, although Wideman may just be the first of many as self-publishing gradually loses its stigma and is seen as simply another path to publication, and for many people, a superior one to the traditional publishing route.
Here’s part of what he said in a press release issued by Lulu:
Wideman decided against a traditional publishing contract — and royalty advance — for Briefs because he wanted more control over the publishing process and to develop a more direct connection with his readers. He also wanted to experiment at a time when the publishing industry is undergoing more revolution than evolution. . . . I like the idea of being in charge. I have more control over what happens to my book. And I have more control over whom I reach.
I’ve often heard other self-publishers voice the exact same sentiment, although few had a royalty to turn down. But there are also echoes in Wideman’s statement of the move to what you might call author self-empowerment. When publishers rely on authors for marketing plans, platform building, and finding their own community of readers, they inadvertently also pass a great deal of power over to the author at the same time.
Self-publishers have traditionally grasped for this power directly. Before the internet, self-publishers lived by direct mail, and the direct selling that happens on the internet today owes a great deal to what direct marketers have learned over the last 50 years in other media.
But the growth of self-publishing as an accepted path to publication, aided by authors like John Edgar Wideman, is not what this article is about. No, this article is about you.
You Know Who You Are
Wideman found compelling reasons to self-publish his book, based on an informed and pretty astute reckoning of where publishing is at the moment.
But, like anyone connected to book publishing, I often hear the exact opposite from people who buttonhole me and start telling me about the book they have “in their desk drawer” or “packed up in the attic” or “in a big box under my bed.” These stories are amazingly common.
A woman dreamed of writing a book, spent months working on it, but never got any further. Or a man, getting up early for years, completes a manuscript but just prints a few copies to give to friends. Why?
Because they have found many reasons to not self-publish. Look, most authors are never going to get a contract offer from a big—or small—publishing house. The demand for publishing far outstrips the supply of big-publishing company openings for books. That’s what’s caused the meteoric rise of self-publishing, once digital printing and print on demand distribution removed the monetary risk of getting into print.
So what obstacles are left? Why haven’t these writers become authors, fulfilled their dream of publication, and found their readership?
Here are the top reasons I’ve identified why you might decide not to self-publish:
- You don’t want people to look to you as an authority—Authors acquire a definite authority within the area they write about. This is particularly true of non fiction authors. Even though you know quite enough to write a book on the subject, does something about being looked to as an authority make you nervous?
- You’re afraid of speaking in public—It’s common for authors to be asked to speak in public, and to pursue public speaking as a way to market their book. Common knowledge tells us that the number one fear in Americans is the fear of public speaking. Perhaps this is really the fear of appearing a fool in public. Is that what’s stopping you?
- You don’t need another income stream—Novelists would like to make money from their books, but would write them anyway. Nonfiction authors often write in order to make money, to capitalize on a business opportunity or leverage their experience to improve their clientele or their hourly rate. The independently-wealthy and people satisfied with their current income might see self-publishing as a waste of time.
- You have nothing unique to say in your field—Maybe you’ve spent a career as a primary school teacher, following curriculum. Perhaps you’ve been a cubicle slave for years, and the creative juices have been beaten out of you. I’d say it’s more likely you’ve simply forgotten how unique your own perspective on life, your business, or your hobby really is.
- You’d rather not contribute to publications in your niche—Once you start publishing you naturally start marketing, and writers use writing as a way to get the word out. But maybe you are embarrassed by the chance you might seem to some a “know it all” if you start getting articles published in relevant trade magazines and websites. That could slow you down.
- You prefer to wait a few years and see if you get offered a contract—There’s a certain kind of writer who is happy to write, and never get published if they can’t get that contract from Knopf, or Random House, or whoever. They accept the wisdom of the agents and editors they submit to (literally) over the years, and feel it’s better that their work stay unknown, since it’s unworthy of their gods. That’s a tough one.
- You hate the idea of autographing books for buyers—Having fans, people who will show up at bookstores to hear you talk, stand in line to get your autograph, may be disconcerting. People in our culture often feel unworthy of attention, as if others are deserving, but I am not. Maybe this shame was drilled into us when young, it certainly is long-lasting.
The World of Publishing is Changing: It’s Your Turn Now
I fully expect to see more authors like John Edgar Wideman turning to self-publishing out of pure self-interest. But many other writers can do the same thing. The tools of Lulu and other publishing services companies are there for us to use. Many involve little or no expense.
Writers who publish a book themselves, if they are realistic in their expectations are usually energized by the experience. Since print on demand means you’ll never get left with a garage full of unsold books, the risks have become almost completely psychological.
My message is this: Now is the time. It has never been easeir, faster, or less expensive to get into print. With the tools of the internet and social media, the marketing landscape has never been so level. Go drag that box out from under the bed. Climb up into the attic and pull that manuscript down. Fulfill what you started, or start what you’ve dremed of. You won’t regret it.
Takeaway: The obstacles to publishing are, increasingly, within us. Our opportunities to self-publish have never been better, and the stigma of self-publishing may fade rapidly. The time to act is now.