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Submit, Quit, or Self-Publish It?

4 April 2012

From author Randy Henderson on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America blog:

The way to become a published writer is to write (and to submit what you write).  Seems obvious, yet so many would-be writers produce that one story or novel and then rework it endlessly, or submit a story or three, get rejected once (or a hundred times), and decide to give up.

. . . .

I would add for writers specifically that the writers who are published are the ones who continued to write NEW stories, and submit those stories, and move past the rejections, until they were published.

Of course, today we have a wonderful short cut — self-publication!

I have repeatedly been asked for advice from writers who have written one story, or been rejected a few times, wanting to know how to proceed, how to become published.  And sometimes as part of my response I make the mistake of mentioning self-publication as a possible future option.

. . . .

But too often, the would be writer latches onto that option as the answer, because the rest of my advice — to write and submit and be rejected until you are good enough to actually be published — requires work, and a lot of rejection, and letting many of your stories die an anonymous and unnoticed death.

And often the amateur writer believes their writing to be perfectly wonderful and worthy of being read. Unfortunately, it is hard to be objective about one’s own work.

Link to the rest at Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America blog


25 Comments to “Submit, Quit, or Self-Publish It?”

  1. In this wise advice you should also reiterate that editors are needed in this process. The opinion of others on your work is quite valuable in my opinion. It can lead to good reviews, lessons learned and errors repaired. A lot of times when you self publish, you tend to stay in this little bubble of self-success and a lot of things are missed making you look sloppy as a writer and very unprofessional. So writers, even if you decide to self publish, do not overlook the value of another opinion and the professionalism that can go along with it.

  2. My solution to this problem was to find multiple sources of editing advice. The vast majority of this editing advise was at the story level. I would test out the emotional relationships, and scenes, looking for the best fit. I do agree with the posting however that a lot of SP work might be technically edited, (spelling), but the pacing is off, or the story lacks elements.

    But another part of me says so what. Self Publishing E-books is cheap, and maybe the author needs to experience just getting it out there, and then latter realizing they could have done better. Maybe publishing and then re-editing is going to be the new way authors work.

    I struggle with this because on the one hand, I believe in producing the best possible piece of work that I can produce, but at the same time, I think some of the ideas about writing and publishing are grounded in a model that is of the past, and is failing every day.

  3. I, myself, am self published. Five books now. But I have also realized it is a dedication and a constant work in progress even after I feel my own book in my hands. Marketing, websites, social media, it’s never-ending, and you cannot ‘let up’ otherwise you and your works get lost.

    However, the constant push that gets results is even more rewarding than handing the whole process over to mr. publisher

  4. I agree that if you want to be a professional and build a career, you should behave accordingly (hiring top notch talent to edit and create covers).

    But then I think about all those fanfics and how many people read them and absolutely adore them, and in no way, shape or form have they been run past an editor first. Is there an audience for those fanfic readers who will pay .99 to read your next story regardless of how cleaned up/professional it is?

    I know people make fun of the fanfic thing, but “Fifty Shades of Grey” is nothing more than one person wishing that Edward and Bella from “Twilight” had engaged in S&M, she wrote a fanfic about it, realized it might have potential and changed the characters’ names and got it off to New York. It’s a bestselling book. Would she have had the same success had she chosen to self-publish it instead? I don’t know. But those fanfic authors can get a very loyal following of people who don’t always care about the same things we do (grammar, pacing, plot, characters, etc.)

    • She did basically self-publish it. The house that printed it was made up of other Twilight fans who basically changed the names and uploaded the files. Very little if any actual editing was done.

      • Thanks for the correction. I’d only heard general things about it.

        So…basically it’s a fanfic without editing that’s now hugely successful.

    • One of the deep dark secrets of the publishing world is this: the world is full of people who don’t care about the same things that writers and critics do.

      For example, I recently finished reading an SF novel from the 90s that is flawed in pretty much every respect, but it spawned at least three sequels and I’m probably going to hunt down the next one because I want to see where it goes from there.

  5. Self-publishing doesn’t allow writers to avoid rejection. Once you get past friends and family, are strangers buying the writer’s book? Is he/she getting the “This sucks!” one-star reviews?

    Sorry, but I’m getting tired of folks assuming self-publishing is easy.

  6. I’m doing that; if I write a short story I think might sell to a magazine I send it to the pro markets in that field until they’ve all rejected it, and then self-publish if not. So far the one story that’s been rejected by the top half-dozen magazines in the field is buying me a couple of coffees a month, which is much better than having it sitting on my hard drive. I have a couple more making the rounds.

    Ultimately there are only two reasons why I’m bothering to submit to magazines:

    1. a sale at $0.05 a word is worth a lot of e-book sales at $0.35 a copy.
    2. a story in a respected magazine is likely to bring more people to my self-published e-books.

    It’s not as though most editors are going to send back a detailed critique explaining why they didn’t buy your story so you’ll know what to do better next time, and submitting purely to be rejected is for masochists.

    I don’t see any real downside to self-publishing stories that don’t sell elsewhere. If they’re good you’ll make some money and fans, if they suck then hardly anyone will buy them.

    • The only reason that I don’t put short fiction through the full submission process any more is because I’m impatient. And my printer doesn’t work any more, so I only do paying magazines which interest me AND allow online submission. (Those three together cut down the possible list a lot.)

      And I don’t write very many short stories these days.

      But, in a perfect world, I would write more, and I would put them through the full process before self-pubbing them. Why not make money on both? And why not get paid to advertise your books?

      • I’m trying to write one a month so I always have multiple stories being submitted and one a month will come out of the end of the queue if it gets rejected. But I keep finding distractions that get in the way :).

  7. Great comments. As I note in my post, self-publishing is a valid option for some people.

    I would further add that self-publishing IS easy. Getting people to BUY your self-published works is not.

    Word of mouth and repeat customers are the absolute top drivers of book and story sales, FAR more so than ads, or self-promoting tweets and posts and schemes, etc.

    And while some people may decide to buy a story because it is cheap (or free) and has an interesting title or opening line, if it is in fact a horrible or even just not-great story (poorly written, no plot or cliche’ plot, etc.) then odds are they are not going to buy the next thing the same writer self-publishes, not when there is so much more out there to choose from.

    And in that case, the writer often blames the marketing, or the competition, or anything but their writing, and they have invested a lot of energy into trying to make a bad story successful that they could have spent instead on writing a slightly better story.

    Yes, there are exceptions. Yes, some people’s first ever piece of fiction is amazing. Yes, some people get seven figure deals as a result of some bit of fan fic or self-published work that catches a wave of buzz. But for every one of those, there are thousands upon thousands of beginning and emerging writers who really would benefit from writing that million words of prose before self-publishing. And that benefits the readers, because there is less risk and disappointment in buying self-published works if fewer of them are horrible.

    This is not because these writers are untalented or anything like that. It is because writing, just like playing guitar, or painting, or martial arts, or anything else, is something that usually requires lots of practice to get gooder at’er.

    As for the stories sitting on my hard drive that have been rejected by every market, I may self-publish them someday after a bit of polishing and reworking (using my gained experience and hopefully improved skill), and I keep my eyes open for new markets, and anthology opportunities. In the meantime, I continue to write, and to submit what I write, and occasionally I sell something. Having a bio of published works (hopefully soon to include a novel) can only help when I DO decide to self-publish all those trunk stories. And having a good collection of great stories will also help, as the person who enjoys one of my stories will be able to immediately buy the rest, and recommend them to their friends, rather than wishing they’d spent their dollar elsewhere.

    But that is my path, and it is certainly true there is no single “correct” path to becoming a successful writer.

    • I don’t believe readers’ memories are that good. I’ve bought a small number of self-published stories that turned out to be bad and I’ve downloaded dozens of free e-books that I gave up on after a few pages… and I can’t remember who wrote any of them, so I couldn’t possibly refuse to buy their next story.

      There’s only one self-published author I do avoid, and that’s because the two novels I’ve read started really well but fell apart by the middle and collapsed by the end. For me to actively not buy anything by an author I have to at least read to the end of the story and feel disappointed. No-one reads the really bad stories because the first two pages tell you they’re hopeless and the merely bad ones don’t warrant anything more than moving onto the next one.

      • Excellent point. They might not remember the author’s name. But wouldn’t you have rather not invested the time (and possibly money) in reading even as much as you did of those bad stories and novels in the first place? Wouldn’t it have been nicer if they’d waited until they had improved as writers before posting their stuff and taking up your browsing and reading time for nothing?

        And I am still not convinced that the author of those bad stories that you and possibly others spent wasted time reading benefited as much from your (possibly buying and) reading their self-published stories and then simply moving on as they would from submitting it to a writing group for feedback, polishing it, submitting it to a magazine for rejection and moving on to writing the next, better thing.

        BUT — the important thing is that they are writing. So if self-publishing and getting two sales is the carrot they need to keep doing that, THERE is the benefit in my mind. Writers write, and the only way to improve is to keep writing. If self-publishing is the only way that a writer will convince themselves to continue working and improving, then that is what works for them, and yay for sticking to it. I’m just not convinced it is the best method overall, and certainly not the fairest or kindest to the readers. 🙂

    • Correct me if I’m wrong, but it also seemed like the article was particularly geared towards the ‘wroters’ you mentioned – those with only one story to their name and expect a sale right out of the gate. They’re the ones looking for ‘any answer’ for that sale.

      At least, that’s what I took from it.

  8. As I mentioned in the other thread, you see here the stated goal is how to become a published author. Not, how do I become a selling novelist who can make a living at this gig.

    There are two routes to the real goal. Traditional publishing, where your book doesn’t come out until it is “ready” per agent and editor critiques, once it finally is accepted (until it is accepted, you are just guessing at why they didn’t want to take it). Then at some point, you become a good writer who starts selling to publishers and get your books published. And then if things happen correctly, people actually buy it in significant enough numbers to earn out your advance and gain additional royalties.

    Or you self-publish, and while your early books may not rival Stephen King, may even stink, you get real feedback, learn the craft just as a writer in the traditional route does to sell to an editor or agent, and after a period of years get enough books written and out there that people start noticing. At which point, if you are ashamed of the early stuff, you take it down before it gets any significant traffic.

    Both routes mean you have to learn to succeed, become a better writer, and if you don’t, you’ll fail at both routes. The only real difference is in the traditional route, an agent and/or editor decides if your good enough. In the self-published route, the readers decide if your good enough.

    And since the readers are the ones who end up paying your salary in either route, they are the only one’s whose opinion really counts. The goal isn’t merely to become a published author, but to be a well-read writer.

    • One thing I would also add is that on a recent transatlantic flight I was reading a ‘best SF short stories of the year’ collection from a few years ago and a few of them made me go ‘how the hell did that get published?’ The answer, obviously, was ‘ah, it was written by someone famous.’

      So I’m far from convinced that the stories being published are always the ‘best of the best’; if Stephen King sends his laundry list to a horror mag, I’m sure they’d pick that over a great short story by someone with no publishing history.

      • For sure, an editor gets a manuscript from a well-established and hot selling author, and even if it is so-so, maybe not even all that good, you’d be crazy to reject it without a really good reason, because you know just having a book with his or her name on it will by that fact, earn the company plenty of money with minimal marketing investment.

        Compared to one of my books, even if it could be shown to be a better book, the publisher knows they are taking a crap shot. Might do well, a better chance it will end up not earning out its advance, and make the company any money.

        So obviously they are going to chose the sure bet over an unknown no matter the quality. Of course, in the scheme I’m looking at, the issue is for the unknown, new writer, what each route will accomplish as far as the real goal of “success.” In my book, merely getting published, while certainly a landmark in traditional publishing, and even to a large degree in self-publishing (just writing and finishing a story is more than most people will ever do), isn’t the real measure of success. But it has been in traditional publishing for a long time.

        The error is in thinking that the self-published author looks at getting published with the same idea of “I’ve made it.” Unless they’re delusional, they don’t. And by comparing the two routes based on getting published as the measure of success, obviously the traditional route wins hands down because it means more in that route. But, you’re also comparing apples to oranges, and mistaking getting published as being a successful author. That isn’t success. It’s a milestone on the way to success. Or the end of the road.

    • You make good points. I would say, however, my intent with this piece is not to encourage becoming a published author as versus a selling author. My point is to become a good writer, which in turn will hopefully mean a selling author (though of course there are bad writers who sell, and good writers who don’t). Certainly, many good stories get rejected. And some really awful but sparkly stories get published.

      But again, it is hard to be objective about one’s own writing. So who do you turn to as an external, objective judge? Yes, you can self-publish and let the world decide, but if the story is bad then you’ve just added one more bad story to the sea of bad stories, and you may have turned off readers from even checking out your future, better stories. Even your mother may start avoiding your emails.

      More importantly, the feedback you do receive is hit and miss — the people who bother to respond are a subset of those few who even read it (many of your ideal target readers may have just passed on it altogether), and you have no idea how useful their feedback will be in actually improving your writing or making the next one a story they would like. They might just enjoy complaining. They might have terrible taste and thought your story would be something completely different than what you wanted it to be. They may just not be equipped or have the ability to express what it is that really needs improving.

      While it is true that most rejections from magazines and publishers are generic rejections, an acceptance for publication or even a personalized rejection are “as good as you can get” indicators that your work is reaching a professional level (other than huge sales of a self-published work). Not a perfect indicator, but a pretty good one.

      And when it comes to feedback, whether you self-publish OR submit to pro markets, you are better off seeking feedback via writing and critique groups, preferably from writers and editors who are in advance of you in their writing careers, and readers who know how to provide useful and critical feedback. You can meet such folks by attending writing workshops or conventions, or find writing groups using Meetup.com or similar methods. There are also online writing groups. Critters is a popular one, but OWW (http://sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com/) has the benefit of a very small membership fee and having pro editors and writers as members, which may ensure a higher quality critique.

      Really, either path CAN work. I just feel that the “self-publish your bad writing and learn from the failure and criticism” method has perhaps more opportunities for self-sabotage or distraction, and also is making readers who are looking for a good read instead unwilling test subjects tricked into paying for and reading something bad. It also, again, just adds to the sea of bad stories that a potential reader has to wade through to find the gems. Think of it as paying it forward — when you are ready to publish something that is good and worthy of being read, wouldn’t it be nice if it wasn’t lost as one little diamond in a field of broken glass?

      • Thanks, Randy, for jumping in and commenting. And for the record, I agreed with most of what you wrote.

        My assumption that you were focused on getting published is from your opening paragraph:

        The way to become a published writer is to write (and to submit what you write). Seems obvious, yet so many would-be writers produce that one story or novel and then rework it endlessly, or submit a story or three, get rejected once (or a hundred times), and decide to give up.

        There is an assumption, in your piece, that I agree with, that a successful writer will learn and grow and get better. That is true whether one goes primarily the traditional route, or the self-published route. And equally true if one doesn’t do that, either route, that they will not likely succeed, short of lightning striking. There are those occasional “child genuses” who innately know how to tell a compelling story. But for most of us, like you say, it will take writing up to around a million words before we get really good and people take notice.

        I think where we disagree or don’t see eye to eye, based on your comments, is whether it is a good idea for the new author to self-publish his earlier work, prior to the one million word mark.

        While I fully agree an author should take all steps to make sure what he’s putting out is the best it can be (my first published novel was looked at by at least five different editors, not counting a number of my own edits on it), I don’t think a bad one will necessarily be all that bad.

        Yes, he or she may lose a handful of readers who buy it and can’t stomach the story for one reason or another. But we’re talking hundreds of thousands of readers out there. Bad work isn’t generally going to get widely viewed or read. And as one pointed out, the few who read the first few pages and stopped are not likely five years down the road to remember that author and avoid their newest hot seller when he/she does get good and sells well. And once the author does get good, and they realize an early story really does stink, as a self-published author, they are free to remove it from the market.

        So I see little downside. I also don’t hold much stock in the getting lost in the sea of books. That has always been the case, readers have always had more books than they could possibly ever look at and read. And they have their own sorting and shifting. And they regularly buy books they end up not liking. Granted, with self-publishing that percentage appears to be higher, but good books will eventually rise to the top and bad books will stay lost in obscurity.

        That same dynamic has been with published writers all along. How many authors didn’t become famous until after they died? A lot of good that did them. lol.

        Anyway, good points. I agree fully that writers write and successful writers improve their skills. I’m just not convinced that avoiding self-publishing the earlier works is all that bad. I think it accomplishes the same thing that happens in traditional publishing. Only difference is readers are deciding instead of editors and agents.

        And for your info, my first books were published by a small press. So my first book wasn’t self-published.

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