when to self publish

Why I Will Never Self-Publish

Five years ago I finished my first novel and sent it out to agents. I had no doubt in my mind they would read the first ten pages and proclaim it the most original and inspiring work that had ever crossed their desk, and fight to get me published immediately.

Only one of the fifteen agents I queried bothered to write back, and the letter basically said keep trying.  When I told people about this flat-out rejection they inevitably suggested I self-publish.  They had heard stories of writers skipping past the publishing house and taking their words directly to the people, making millions in the process. But like anything that’s newsworthy, those writers’ successes only stood out because they were so rare.

After I licked the wounds of rejection, I decided I needed to improve my craft. It wasn’t enough to be creative; I needed to understand story arch, character development, POV, setting, voice, and a whole bunch of other writing elements I overlooked.

In the last five years I have taken writing classes to learn how to convey my thoughts, I started this blog to get in the habit of writing regularly, I created two writer’s groups which have forged friendships I will cherish forever, and I’ve added about 50 books on writing to my bookshelves. Not to mention, I write every single day. In other words, I have become a writer.  I don’t think any of that would have happened if I took the shortcut of self-publishing.

The truth is my first novel wasn’t that good. Yes, the ideas were good, but I didn’t know how to write at the time. If I had self-published, I would have spent every dollar I had putting out a mediocre piece of writing. I would have sold myself short, not believing that I was capable of growth.

Publishers and agents know what they are doing. Their jobs rely on finding fresh talent.  It’s one thing to hear from a publisher that your work is fantastic but they don’t see a market for it at the time – in that case, I would certainly suggest self-publishing. But if publishers don’t take your work seriously it might be because they can tell you haven’t taken it seriously.

I want to get published. For me the thrill of getting published is not the idea of having a book out in the world, but the acknowledgment that my work is worth the investment. I want a team of people, whose lives revolve around literature, to read my work and deem it good enough to stake their professional opinion on it. Now I know this sounds like it contradicts what I’ve written before about not judging your success on other’s perception of you, but there is a fine difference: my self-worth does not rely on getting published. I believe that publishing will:

  1. Bring me one step closer to financially supporting myself with my creativity.
  2. Help me gain access to more writing opportunities such artist’s residencies and writing grants.
  3. Make me feel less crazy for pursuing this crazy dream.

I do not believe that publishing will:

  1. Bring me ever-lasting self-assurance and pride.
  2. Make me an instant millionaire.
  3. Help me feel successful.

So, yes, I hope to be published one day, but, no, I won’t self-publish. Now that I’ve said this, I will probably end up contradicting myself and become one of those self-publishing success stories, and I’ll be forced to address this blog post in every future interview. Oh well, I think I can live with that.