“If I can’t get an agent, I’ll self-publish on Amazon.”
That’s what a writer friend of mine always says.
It’s a good mindset to have- one in which a writer has a choice between traditional publishing and self-publishing- but is it a smart strategy?
Most of the arguments for or against taking one route over another focus on tradeoffs. If you traditionally publish, you lose authorial control over publishing rights, book titles, and cover images. The upside, however, is that you gain a team of experts. Not just an editor, but also professional cover artists, book formatters, and various other industry experts who understand how to market books.
But by far, the greatest appeal to self-publishing is the lure of higher royalties. Blog post after blog post, each with some variation of the title “Why I Choose to Self Publish”, emphasizes this aspect of self-publishing. This isn’t surprising. Many writers going down this path say that self-publishing is akin to starting up a small business. One in which you the writer must take charge of editing, cover design, and marketing. And if that doesn’t seem burdensome enough, you must also take the financial risk as well.
So let’s say you have written a book you love, have money to burn, and are willing to spend the time marketing your product. Should you then plunge into self-publishing. Well, according to the writing chatterati, it’s your choice. You have to weigh the pros and cons and determine what’s best for you.
But I disagree. I say the choice is an illusion.
And if you’re wondering why, it’s because self-publishing and traditional publishing are two different markets that service two different kinds of readers.
Self-Publishing: the new pulp fiction
When we think of pulp, we think of noir mysteries. But pulp is a much wider field than that. At its most basic, pulp refers to price point. Pulp novels were hastily written, quickly published, and cheaply priced. As an art form, they were written to be enjoyed and then disposed of. To be pulped.
Back in the day, pulp represented a wide range of genres including mysteries, adventure stories, Westerns, and romance. These days, if you walk into your local Target or grocery store, the pulp fiction selection is much smaller. There are only a handful of truly pulp works available, and most of these are romance.
But pulp hasn’t disappeared. It’s only migrated to the eReader. The truth is indie-publishing is the new pulp fiction.
This means that writers who want to break out in self-publishing have to think like a pulp publisher of yore. Understand the genre they are writing. Know what is essential and what can be experimented with. After all, readers shelling out their hard-earned $1.99 or $4.99 for a book will come with expectations, and those expectations have to be met. A novel with a bare-chested dude on the cover ought to have a small amount of erotica even if it’s totally vanilla. Likewise, such a book must also end with a happily ever after. Failing to meet these kinds of genre expectations will only lead to obscurity.
So, what does this mean for the writer sitting at their dining room table, typing away at their novel? The kind of book they always wanted to read.
Well, that book you’ve been longing for better be pulp fiction.
Of course, an aspiring author can take the other path. Traditional publishing.
A while back, I sampled the first chapter of Donald Maass’ book, Writing 21st Century Fiction. Maass, who is a New York based literary agent, is an industry insider of some repute. His book suggests that there’s been a shift in publishing. Bestselling fiction is no longer just about plot; it’s also literary in style. He envisions “the death of genre” in favor of authorial voice. Books have to “rise above category”, “transcend” genre, maybe even “blend” them. It’s not hard to see that here is the path for writers whose books don’t meet pulp expectations.
Here is also, I suppose, a challenge to self-publishing. As the pulp market slowly slips away from trad publishing’s control, the industry has to focus on quality. Since most agents barely read sample pages submitted during the querying process, traditional publishing also leans towards books with high concept premises.
So you better have that or you’ll be traveling up the creek without a paddle.