While I was searching (again) in 2009 for a home for my memoir, Map, I decided to take the time to articulate some publishing fundamentals and my own philosophy on the matter. Map had caught the interest of an agent and a publisher early in the decade, but at that time eight years later when the book was truly ready for publication, they were long gone. Yet I knew there were readers out there who needed to read stories like mine, a coming-of-age memoir about a time when it was easier to admit that you were in love with another girl than that you had met someone on the Internet. I wound up self-publishing Map this past October and in March it was named a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award (the Oscars of queer books). Now eight months post-publication, I stand by everything I say below, and add only that self-publishing is an experience that redefines the meaning of success and reminds you (often wonderfully) that book selling happens one copy and one reader at a time.
At its heart, publication is about reaching an audience. A love letter, a fortune cookie, a blog, a bestselling novel—all are forms of publication.
Traditional book publishers—the conglomerates, independents, and university presses whose books fill the shelves of your local bookstore—aim to contribute to this process for a selection of books they choose. They aim to do this while staying in the black, compensating their authors in some way, and (usually) providing paid employment to the folks doing the work of publishing.
When you submit a book to a traditional publisher, and they turn it down, it's essentially for one (or more) of three reasons:
1. Manuscript not good enough,
2. Book not expected to be financially viable (the math will vary from press to press), or
3. Lack of chemistry.
If you're lucky, the rejection letter will give you a clue to the reason. This is valuable information, particularly when multiple publishers seem to be in agreement. Use it. (If the reason is manuscript quality, revise until you can revise no more.)
Self-publishing has historically gotten a bad rap, despite the occasional success stories, but recent changes in technology are beginning to alter the landscape. It's anyone's guess how this will ultimately play out; meanwhile, there's attention, debate, and opportunity that didn't exist even five years ago.
There are legitimate reasons to choose to self-publish as well as to work with a traditional publisher. Each option has pros and cons, and the right choice will vary from author to author and from book to book. There are five basic arenas to take into consideration in making an intelligent decision: the shape of the words themselves, the physical product, the credential of affiliation, reaching an audience, and economics. The weight of the economic part of the equation will be heavily influenced by whether or not writing books is—or is intended to be—your primary means of making a living.
With self-publishing, you can hire people such as designers and publicists and editors to assist you—self-publishing does not have to be an all-or-nothing decision, though ultimately you are the one in control of what is offered to the public and how. With traditional publishing, a team is already in place, led by someone who is not laden with the emotional baggage an author inevitably brings to the publishing process.
Even if you go with a traditional publisher, it's possible that the book will see print when it is still in need of more editing, but this is an even greater hazard with the self-publishing route, especially in this day and age when you can make the decision to self-publish and have a paperback for sale and in hand in under a week.
Patience is important.
Your own internal editor and feedback from others each play a valuable role.
It is worthwhile to strive for—and hard to truly recognize—your absolute best.
"Best" is a moving target.
The wonderful thing about self-publishing is that it provides an outlet to authors whose voices aren't being heard otherwise, and a home to books whose audience is simply too small or too hard to reach for most traditional publishers' business models.
The challenge is that, without gatekeepers or curators, there's an awful lot of noise. (I argue that this is a good thing—I don't believe people should be silenced just because their best isn't as good as someone else's best. Others certainly disagree.) As glad as I am—as a writer, reader, teacher, and fellow human being—that the noise is there, absent of word-of-mouth recommendations and such, I'm not likely to be reading many self-published books myself. I'm in good company here; when browsing for new reading material, most readers prefer the implication of quality that comes with a traditionally-published book to the gamble that comes with a self-published one.
With self-publishing, you lose the credential of affiliation with a traditional publisher; you lose the branding. You also lose the ambiance of the branding that often softens judgment while someone is actually reading your words.
It's the difference between saying, "I got into Harvard," and "I'm wicked smart." The first, we're expecting intelligence (at least until someone we respect tells us, "Harvard made a mistake that day"). The second, we're thinking, "Oh, really? Prove it."
If you're self-published, you need, somehow, to get other people saying the equivalent of "She's wicked smart." People whose opinion is already taken seriously by those who might read your book if they believed that you were wicked smart.
Of course, even if you're traditionally-published, it's helpful (and flattering) to have people raving about you, but in the world of self-publishing, if you want a larger audience than your close friends and loved ones, it's absolutely fundamental.
There are lots of ways to encourage this raving to happen, and to get people reading and talking about your book. Most of these will take a lot of time and energy, no matter which publishing route you take. So first, and most importantly, take the time and energy to get the words right.
Audrey Beth Stein is the author of the memoir Map, a 2010 Lambda Literary Award Finalist in Bisexual Nonfiction. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College and is a two-time national prizewinner in the David Dornstein Memorial Short Story Contest. She teaches memoir and novel development at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. Direct links to order Map can be found at http://map.audreybethstein.com.