The Book Has to be Good

“The self-publishing craze has made people forget that the book has to be good.”

That’s literary agent Eric Ruben during the “Bad Marketing Advice” session of DFWCon.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of truth in Eric’s words. For all the benefits of self-publishing—I’m a fan, to a point—its most egregious drawback is also its most appealing aspect: no gatekeepers.

In self-publishing parlance, the gatekeepers are literary agents like Eric and acquisitions editors at publishing houses. They wield the literary power from on high as to who makes it to the Big Dance of traditional publishing. 

If you clear the first hurdle of landing an agent, you have to clear multiple hurdles after that. The process is challenging, time-consuming, and requires at least a little bit of luck in that your book has to find the right person at the right time looking for just your kind of book.

I understand why it can be frustrating to pitch your work and experience rejection after rejection. Why go that route when you can just self-publish?

Because maybe the “gatekeepers” have seen thousands of ideas in just the last month and have a better lay of the literary land? Because maybe their expertise is worth listening to? Because maybe their feedback can help hone your book into something publishable?

Of course, receiving helpful feedback can be a rarity, but even a lack of feedback is feedback. (Hint: it means your query, proposal, or book likely needs more work.)

When I have clients who aren’t sure of the differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing, first we have The Talk. If they’re still unsure about which path to choose and I think their idea might be viable for a wide audience (and they have time to play the waiting game), I pitch this suggestion:

  1. Let’s create a proposal and pitch it to a few agents.
  2. Consider their feedback. If the client doesn’t receive feedback, I suggest self-publishing, so long as they can invest in an editor, a proper cover design, and correct interior formatting.

Some self-published books are good, but only because their authors put in the necessary work to make them so. They attended critique groups. They didn’t publish first drafts (or second of third or tenth drafts). They hired a qualified developmental editor and made the requested changes. They sent their book to beta readers who offered kind but unvarnished feedback. They paid for a cover designer and interior designer.

In other words, they put in as much time and effort into self-publishing their book as any multi-person team at a publishing house would.

Self-publishing shouldn’t be considered as a shortcut to “being published.” If you really want that to stick with you, remember this: Amazon has a long memory. Even if you pull your self-published book from its digital shelves, third-party copies will likely live on. And because Amazon is Amazon, its pages—with your name and your book—will sit high in every search ranking for your name.

So consider wisely the book you put into the universe.

If you’ve self-published, why did you decided to do so?