There’s a dangerous meme in the publishing world that says self-publishing was easier in 2009 and is much harder today. But nothing could be further from the truth. The exact opposite is the case. Self-publishing was nearly impossible then, and it’s incredibly simple now. In fact, it’s never been easier.
The hardest part of self-publishing, you see, is the decision to do it. You have a manuscript in your metaphorical hands, and you can go one of two ways: You can send that work off to agents, or you can send it off to readers. Either path is open to you. Whether or not the book sells in vast quantities will have very little to do with how you choose to publish the book. There are challenges both ways. But back in 2009, if you wrote a story you believed in, and that friends and family delighted in, and you took very seriously your dream of making it as a writer, it was pretty damn impossible to self-publish that book. Because everyone was telling you not to.
I remember getting on a forum for aspiring authors back when I was wrestling with my decision to self-publish or go traditional. The advice I received was that dangerous mix of dead wrong and overly confident. I was told that I was an idiot for considering self-publishing. I was told that I was an idiot to think agents would ever look at online bestseller lists and offer representation to an author for an already-published book. These were what passed for experts in the day, and it was hard to fault them for being wrong, because all of their advice made sense in the decades prior. The fact that it no longer made sense to query agents was hard to see. And even harder to believe.
I heard from everyone that the best way to get my work in front of readers was through querying and traditional presses, and so that’s the route I took. But I harbored doubts. I blogged about those doubts. I posted on forums to express those doubts. And what seemed logical to me was shouted down over and over with: “You’ll never make it. You’ll destroy your career. Readers will never give you a chance.”
Who was I to doubt these experts with many more years of experience? I agonized over the best way to get my words in front of readers. Agonized. I signed a contract with a publisher. I went the wrong way at first. And still I agonized. I spent many hours thinking, observing, and doubting the experts. It was the hardest thing in the world to do. And then the contract for my second book came along, and I faced that choice again…
Anyone today who thinks self-publishing in 2009 was easy has no idea what it took to overcome so much terrible advice and all the peer pressure and bullshit promises about going the traditional route. JK Rowling and Stephen King were held up to me as the likely outcomes of querying my manuscript. Books on store shelves were pointed to, not the piles of rejected manuscripts or the vast delays in getting the work to market. Writers for generations have been given the gloss, have been shown the lottery winners, not the reality in the trenches.
Working in a bookstore and being in charge of setting up author events, I met NYT bestseller after NYT bestseller who had a day job. Writers were largely broke and toiling in their passion as a side hobby or a second career, not as something they did to earn a living. But already in 2009, and morso in the following years, I would meet scads of authors I’d never heard of who were making a living with their writing. Rather than point to the outliers — especially as I became one — I began pointing to these invisible but successful mid-listers as the great promise of hard work and sound business decisions. I never wanted to be a Hocking or a Rowling. I just wanted to reach enough readers to pay the rent. Or maybe just the power bill. And self-publishing seemed more and more like the best way to do this. Today, self-publishing is 100% the best and most logical way of doing this.
My job in a bookstore gave me more perspective beyond the gloss: I watched new books sit on our shelves, only to be returned to the publisher. And I met readers wandering the aisles, clamoring for more great stories than were being published. I knew I had these stories in me. And I finally summoned the courage to do the nearly impossible: I put that second contract in a drawer, decided to go on my own, and even bought back the rights to my first novel. I did everything all the experts told me not to do. Anyone who thinks that’s easy is out of their minds. It was so hard that almost no one at the time was doing it.
Times have changed. Back in 2009, we were told our books would be horribly edited, rather than sharing among us the names of our favorite freelance editors. We were told the cover art would suck, rather than knowing about the Jason Gurleys, Ben Adams, and MS Corleys of the world. And we were told success along this route only happened once in a lifetime, like with Amanda Hocking, rather than seeing it happen at least once a month like we do today. We didn’t have Author Earnings and Data Guy. We had forums full of outdated advice and bullies shouting down anyone who disagreed. We didn’t have an open sharing of information and experiences like you get on KBoards. We had the rise of the new form of vanity publishing, where all that mattered was what imprint you were assigned to.
Self-publishing was not easier back then. Competition may have been less, but that’s because the decision to self-publish was nearly impossible to make. And the more positive the feedback on your manuscript, the less likely you were to make that decision. Which means the best works were likely the ones sitting in drawers and slush piles. And the decision to self-publish was only made as a last resort.
In 2016, self-publishing is often the first and most preferred route. There is far less shame and less social resistance. Even people who don’t follow trends in the publishing world have now heard a story on NPR or read an article in their local paper about the success people are having by taking control of their careers. And almost anywhere you go for advice these days as a fledgling writer, you’ll encounter people with a solid grasp of the industry and emerging trends. You’ll find advocates for self-publishing. You’ll get links to helpful resources, blogs like Konrath’s and Rusch’s, websites like The Passive Voice, and the genius of Data Guy.
It’s impossible to be a writer these days and not know about the benefits, ease, and allure of self-publishing. Completely impossible. Even the most die-hard proponent of the traditional route will now concede that the two routes have their advantages. Self-publishing is no longer derided so much as traditional publishing is defended. We used to hear that self-publishing was the death of any writing career. Now we hear pundits claiming that traditional publishing is at least as good a decision for some writers. Amazing.
Yes, there are more books being published these days, and that’s a great thing. And yes, this increased output is a sign of a hidden truth: Self-publishing has never been easier. Back in my day, only the crazies and idiots dared do it.
In the comments, it has been suggested that publishing might be easier today, but selling is harder. Which is precisely the meme I think we need to dispense with. Selling is a product of publishing. My point is exactly this: Selling ebooks today is easier than it was in 2009. Because in 2009, the chances were very good that your manuscript was never made available for sale at all.
The idea seems to be, from many authors working today, that they would be self-publishing in 2016 no matter the social and technological forces in play today. That is, they were going to be inspired to write, and choose to avoid querying, even without having heard of JA Konrath, KKR, and Amanda Hocking. That even without the stories of KDP’s ease of use, and the steady adoption of Kindles and tablets, and the work of Data Guy, they and they alone were going to have the aptitude and foresight to self-publish. They would have had the market largely to themselves, just as people in 2009 did.
I believe this to be false. I think most of the people self-publishing today would have been just as hampered in 2016 as most of our colleagues and myself were in 2009. I think many of the manuscripts that exist today exist because of fan fic websites, places like Wattpad, forums like Writers’ Cafe, and examples of self-pub success like Barry Eisler’s. Yearly traditions of NaNoWriMo have contributed, as have POD services like CreateSpace and book-making machines like the Espresso.
All of these forces contribute to each of us being on the market in 2016. They all facilitated the existence of our published works. Without them, we would be selling less. Most of us would be like the authors on 2009 forums that never got published at all, the people who will spend their brief writing careers querying the same few freshman manuscripts, giving up, and never selling a single copy. It was much harder to sell an ebook in 2009. The chances were extremely likely that your work would never even enter the market.
We like to pretend that we would have published today, no matter what, and that everyone else is jumping on the bandwagon, producing unwanted competition for limited reading dollars. But the truth of the matter is that we are all bandwagoneers. Our works sell at all because of social, technological, and market forces that all help to make self-publishing easier and easier. We enjoy the benefit of those forces, and others do as well. The meme that selling is harder today is a fantasy in which we alone would have published in 2016 even without the aid of those forces, which I do not believe is true. I think most of us would be writing query letters today, rather than working on our next novel.
This is also a case of investment hindsight. Everyone wishes they could go back in time to buy Amazon stock, or a flat in Brooklyn. But it was just as impossible back then to see the potential of Amazon’s profits or the explosion in popularity of Brooklyn as it was in 2009 to see the wisdom in self-publishing. Even worse: the more confidence you had in your work — and the more others said your work was great — the less likely you would have been to put it on KDP. The more likely that work would’ve been to languish in a slush pile.