Why Submit to Publishers & Agents When You Can Self-Publish?

Last week I celebrated the one-year anniversary of the publication of my first book, Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism.

I posted specifically about that experience here. But for now, I want to address a totally legitimate question I’ve been asked in the context of coping with rejections: why bother? Why bother with this whole submission thing when you can just self-publish? Why submit yourself to the good graces of literary academics and traditional publishers in their ivory towers, when you can just do it yourself?

Self-Publishing Is Awesome–If You’re Up For It

Let’s just head this off by saying–as evidenced by the fact that I self-published that book myself, I am not anti-self-publishing in any sense. I think it can be an amazing solution for many writers.

Before the Amazon revolution, self-publishing was considered a last resort, expensive and clunky, and the quality of self-published books was notoriously awful. These days, that’s no longer true; self-publishing is a totally respectable and affordable option, and you can pretty easily produce a beautiful book using a POD (print-on-demand) service.

Self-publishing offers a flexibility and control over the process that you can never have with the traditional model. I am glad that I did it and I think it was a great experience for me.

But.

All things being equal, I still prefer getting published by a publisher, even a small independent one.

Why?

The Learning Curve

From what I’ve learned, successful self-published authors have the following in common:

  • They produce high-quality books
  • They are great at engaging with and expanding their audiences via social media, forums, and content marketing
  • They are prolific and produce new books all the time, consolidating their revenue and audiences

The first two items require a much wider skillset than just writing a book–or the money to pay someone, or several someones, who have those skills.

Producing a high-quality book means editing, proofreading, book design/typesetting, and cover design–not to mention formatting the eBook. Publishing it yourself means choosing the right tools and platforms for you, and learning the differences between them and how to use them was a major project for me.

Engaging with your audience on the Internet requires some computer skills–building an attractive website, managing an e-mail list,using social media, etc. You don’t have to be a gregarious extrovert to succeed, but you do need to be willing to put yourself out there and pitch your stuff to people. This, in particular, is something I really, really struggle with.

Editing as a Service, and the Problems Therein

My biggest investment in LtJ was hiring an editor. I felt it was indispensable to have another pair of professional eyes look over the manuscript.

First there’s the question of finding a good one. I hired one on the recommendation of a colleague–and had a fairly negative experience with her. Working with an editor at a traditional publishing company isn’t a guarantee that you’ll love each other, but it does at least set a baseline for the quality of the work you can expect from her.

But even if you manage find an amazing editor—you’re still hiring her. That is, the editing job is a service she is providing you.

I think this creates a problematic dynamic.

In my opinion, you should want to please your editor, not the other way around. If your editor is worried that giving you certain feedback may make you unhappy, he may opt to gloss it over or omit it. He is not invested in the success of the project–he’s only invested inasmuch as he gets paid for his work, which happens before the book goes to print.

I’m not saying it shouldn’t ever be done this way. But it’s a disadvantage, one that can negatively impact the quality of your final product.

The Investment

If you have the money to invest in the production of a great book–awesome. I didn’t. I did most of the work myself, including book design and setting myself up on CreateSpace et al, paying only for the editing (which I was unhappy with, remember?) and the ISBNs. I enjoyed the process of designing the book myself and I have an eye for design, so that worked out just fine for me:

But it’s not for everyone.

Depending how much you invest, you’ll need to sell several hundred copies to break even, and that usually means investing a lot of time in marketing. (Unless you also have the money to invest in a publicist, but… yeah. Time and/or money either way.)

You’ll have to invest time in marketing no matter who publishes your work, but at least with a traditional publisher, it’s them making the seed investments, not you–and you have a team of people, not just you, who are invested in your book’s success.

The Distribution

If you’re on top of your social media game and get the hang of content and social marketing, you can achieve excellent results. Still, you can’t achieve the same level of distribution that a traditional publisher will have. Getting your books on a shelf in a brick-and-mortar store will require a lot of work and ultimately doesn’t really pay off financially when you’re self-publishing.

The Recognition

Look.

In the Creative Resilience Manifesto, the collection of core beliefs that guide this blog, I state the following: “I share my creations because I believe in their worth. Not everyone is going to share that belief, but the only opinion that really matters is my own.”

Self-publishing, for me, was an exercise in letting go of the need for a higher authority to approve of my work.

And yet.

Obviously, the quality of your book is far more important than who published it. Nonetheless, having the reputation of a publisher behind you makes people more likely to take you seriously. In the world we live in, people are obsessed with qualifications and credentials. There will always be snobs who will turn up their noses at a self-published book no matter how good it is. (It happened to my heroine Brené Brown with her first book, which was self-published!)

People are lazy and they like relying on the judgment of “professionals” instead of forming their own opinions.

That doesn’t mean you have to get the approval of an authority. Absolutely not. But having it can be an advantage.

A Note on “Author-Invested” Publishers, a.k.a., Glorified Self-Publishing

Now, the publishers that exist today fall all along the spectrum from strictly traditional to what I call “glorified self-publishing.” I dabbled in submitting LtJ to some Jewish publishers before making the final decision to self-publish it, and discovered that the vast majority of them are what they call “author-invested,” which is a euphemism for “fork over $10-15k so we can produce your book and distribute it, and you will enjoy high royalties.”

Look–I’m not pooh-poohing this model entirely. If you have that money and don’t want to handle the production yourself, it might be worth it for the distribution. And I get that from the perspective of a publisher, investing in a book is risky, and this is a smarter business model that eliminates that risk. But to my mind, that’s also the biggest problem with this model. Because thanks to your investment, their editors and graphic designers will get paid either way; and thanks to your high royalties, they aren’t left with much of an incentive to make sure your book is successful and profitable.

It’s Not Really One or the Other

I think this is the most important thing.

The two models are not mutually exclusive.

When you self-publish, the book still belongs entirely to you. This means that another publisher can still acquire it from you. This doesn’t happen to everyone, but it does happen. (It happened to another author I know, and it may happen to me–I have a publisher interested in LtJ, but we haven’t signed anything yet.)

If you are successful and achieve good sales with your self-published book, that makes you a much safer bet for a publisher or agent, since you already have a platform and have proven yourself at marketing.

Yes, there are agents and publishers who will turn up their noses when they hear that you self-published something. They need to get over themselves and get with the times.

Ultimately, it’s a very personal choice, and I can’t tell you what’s right for you. Both routes require courage and resilience; it’s just that some of the challenges you face are different. And I’m sorry to tell you that no matter what you choose and how successful you are, if you’re a creative person putting your work out there… there is still plenty of rejection in your future.

But hey–that’s what this blog is for, right? 😉

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2 thoughts on “Why Submit to Publishers & Agents When You Can Self-Publish?

  1. I very much admire your tenacity, particularly as I know that you have a young family to look after. Keep up the good work.

    Like

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