Friday, October 28, 2016

Writing Advice Examined: On Traditional and Self-Publishing

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street, which releases in February 2017. Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for monthly updates on her authorwebsite.

People say lots of stupid stuff about publishing. 

When I was pursuing publication in 2001-ish (which feels like centuries agothe Kindle wasn't even around yet) I often received really dumb advice. Sometimes the advice was easy to ignore. Like if it was coming out of the mouth of my friend's boyfriend, who worked as a river raft guide and had no connections to the publishing world. I knew I should just smile, nod, and ignore.

But sometimes it came from an agent at a writer's conference ("No one is buying YA books. They're a waste of your time.") or other sources that seemed trustworthy. In our current landscape, where anyone can set up a blog or podcast and seem like an expert, how do you know who to listen to?

That question has been rattling around in me for a few weeks now, thanks to an interview I heard on a podcast. The host asked the author why she had decided to be an indie, and the author responded, "After I wrote my book, I sent a query letter to an agent and got a rejection. I hated the negative vibe of trying to be published traditionally, so I decided to go indie."

If I had heard this interview during the years of frustration when I received rejection after rejection, I know I would have been like, "I'm with you! I'm totally going indie too!"

And maybe that would have been an okay thing. The author being interviewed has seen much financial success from her choice, and is very happy with it.

But her glossy portrayal of indie publishing made me think of other misguided advice I've heard from the traditionally and indie published alike. As a hybrid author (three of my books are self-published, and four are traditionally published) who sees value in both camps, I think it's worth examining those bits of advice often tossed about:

"Put your work up on a blog or WattPad. The important thing is to get stuff out there."

At a glance, this might seem sensible. We can probably all name an author or two who got book deals because they found a bajillion fans on WattPad or their personal website. Who doesn't want Matt Damon to star in a movie adaptation of their book?

But success stories like The Martian are pretty rare. Most of the time what happens is you put your writing out there, your friends comment, and that's about it. It's not a bad thing to do, and it can be a great way to hone your craft and learn how to write for an audience. But it's not a realistic strategy for getting published, if that's what you're after.

And in response to that whole idea of "just get stuff out there," the goal is really to get the RIGHT stuff out there. Stuff that's so good people want to read it. Having a lot of junk out there doesn't do you any good, and is potentially harmful.

"To get an agent, you have to have a publishing contract. To get a publishing contract, you need an agent. You can't win!"

I hear this a lot, and I have felt the same way at times. And having one (an agent or editor) certainly helps with finding the other.

I was already published when I started working my agent. She was my first choice, and a friend (who I knew from making online connections like Rachelle Rea Cobb discussed in this post) recommended me. But my agent didn't sign me because I was already published. She signed me because she liked my voice. And that became very important when we went through a long contract drought together.

But if you don't have an agent, you can still connect with editors on their own blogs, on Twitter, or at conferences. Same with agents.

"Self-publishing is the way to go because there are no gatekeepers."

When people say this, the gatekeepers they're referring to are book buyers, the people who curate the shelves for book stores. But there are still gatekeepers even if you go indiethey're called readers.

Remember that self-published author I mentioned earlier? The one who didn't like the negative vibe of traditional publishing? What grated on me about her comment is the way it made self-publishing sound like a shortcut. Like this is the way to not get rejected, which is something none of us enjoy, And while it may be true that Kindle Direct Publishing doesn't care about if your book is polished enough or if you used Comic Sans on your book cover, readers do.

Just because you put the story out there doesn't mean anyone is going to read it. And just because they read it, doesn't mean they're going to like it or buy another book from you.

"Don't self-publish or you'll never get traditionally published. You're going to make a lot of mistakes, and it will be up there forever for everyone to see."

First of all, it doesn't matter what kind of published you are, you will make a lot of mistakes. Because even when you're traditionally published, you're still self-employed. (And human.) There is no one calling you and saying, "Now is the time to be doing this and this and this." Mistakes will happen no matter what.

But you can definitely minimize them by doing your homework on self-publishing! The Creative Penn is a great, exhaustive resource on the topic. The podcast is good too!

And if you decide to take down your book, you can. Roseanna White did that with her first self-published title. She shared her story on self-publishing earlier this year, and you can read it here.

"Publishing houses are only interested in you if you have a platform."

Speaking solely as a writer here, I do think there's a lot of truth to this statement. I've seen exceptions, and for fiction writers, the platform issue doesn't matter as much, but it still matters a lot.

First of all, by "platform" I mean the number of people you can reach. How many Twitter followers you have, how many people subscribe to your email list, how many people follow your blog, etc.

But a low number of Twitter followers is no reason to think, "I'll just go be an indie writer." Because if you want to sell books, you still need a way to reach people and get the book in front of them. So don't let yourself think that platform is only an issue if you're trying for a traditional house.

"You're only an author if you're published traditionally."

Please laugh at anyone who says this to you. Because it just ain't true.

In my experience, writers who are really against self-publishing have had unusually successful journeys as a traditional author. They've never had a publisher cancel a series when they still had two books left to write. Or had their acquiring editor leave. Or gotten the painful email that their book is wasting space in the warehouse and they're getting rid of it.

There's a self-published version of this sentiment too. It's, "only sell-outs publish traditionally."

I instantly distrust writers who refuse to acknowledge that there are smart reasons to choose either path. Or both, as many do.

So ... where does all this advice examination leave us?

Here's where it leaves me. I believe:

That there's no One Right Way.

That this industry is changing, and everyone is trying to figure it out. What's true today might not be true tomorrow. 

That even people who have been in the industry a long time disagree with each other on what's best and what sells books.

And that we should be cautious about taking advice from just one source, or in condemning others when they make a choice different from our own.


  1. I haven't checked out this blog in so long! Glad to be back. Great advice Stephanie. There is no one way to do anything right. Thanks for posting.

  2. With self-publishing: A favorite author of mine has several traditional and self-published books. But her books that where self-published happened because she thought after being told there was no market for several of her books that they were still good and well-written stories that she wanted to share with her readers and she had them properly edited. She wasn't throwing them out there immediately after writing it because she wanted her book read *now.* I think your reasoning for self-publishing matters. If you're doing it because you don't want feedback and just want people to read your story without putting thought into revisions or if you've made a book the best it can and just feel self-publishing is better for whatever reason, reasoning matters.

  3. Thanks for your perspective, Stephanie! This whole discussion is definitely one that runs through my mind every and now, and I like to hear new, balanced perspectives on it. That helps my decide how to go in the future. :)

  4. Thanks for this post! I've been writing for years, but haven't reached the level of content/platform/bravery needed to consider publishing yet, so I haven't looked into it very far. Your examination on both types of publishing is definitely the kind of info/advice I'm looking for.

  5. Thank you so much for this post, Stephanie! It had SO much valuable info that I really needed to learn, as I'm going to be considering publication sooner than later (hopefully). It was lots of fun reading your examination of both types of publishing. Thanks again!

    ~ Savannah

  6. Awesome post, thank you! Although I haven't published in either way as of yet, I've already experienced some of this. One group I was briefly apart of went all crazy on me when I said that I wanted to publish traditionally. I don't think I've been back much. Each path is different. Someday I may publish in both ways (hopefully), but I agree that there are positives and negatives to both sides and we should appreciate both for their value.

  7. ah... But the harder question: What's the right way for me? lol. Love your post :)

  8. Very well said, Stephanie! I'm so thankful to be a writer in today's industry. While there is more competition than there once was, there's also more publishing options available and more ways to reach readers and connect with them.

    I completely agree that there is no "one way" to pursue publication. Each route has its own advantages and disadvantages. It depends on the author's personal goals/vision and the project that they're hoping to publish. Most readers don't seem to care much about the publishing company, either. If they keep hearing great things about a book, and it looks interesting to them, they won't think twice about buying it -- even if it's self-published. (Joanne Bischof is a great example of this! There was so much buzz surrounding the release of her YA novels. I was amazed to find out they were self-published.)

    These days, it really does come down to writing a good quality book and building a platform -- no matter which route a writer decides to take.

    Thanks for clearing things up in this post!


  9. I really don't know what to do! I've put so much time and effort into my unfinished novel that I don't want to risk nobody reading it, or it not being the best it can be(highly likely since I'm fourteen) if I self-publish! But it also seems like a lot of work if I do traditional publishing. What should I do?!