Why Self-Publishing Might Be A Mistake

1,515 words.

Originally posted on my writing blog which was active from 2010 to 2018.

Recently I saw a tweet from someone contemplating self-publishing some of their writing. They didn’t sound confident about it. It prompted me to write this post.

I’ve thought about this for years, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it was a mistake to self-publish Lute of the Sparrow on Amazon.

It was an informative experience, true. But the only thing I really gained from it was the first-hand knowledge and experience of formatting a book for e-publishing. At the time I thought that would be worth something, but in retrospect, it’s not. The process has probably changed entirely since 2011 anyway.

Obviously, not being a popular author, and not having the time or money to promote it 24/7, nobody actually *bought* the book. It’s been on Amazon for seven years and I haven’t made a single cent from it. I haven’t received anything even from the handful of people who actually paid money for it, because you have to cross a certain threshold before Amazon will cut you a check (it’s something like $100, which is far beyond the number of copies you can sell to friends and family).

(That’s why they always say it’s more important to write a review or spread the word about books than anything elseā€¦ reviews and buzz lead to a chance for enough sales to get over that threshold, whereas, completely counter-intuitively, sales don’t lead to anything at all.)

(It’s also why Amazon is evil as a publishing company, because they get all the benefits of my content without having to pay anything for it. In fact, thanks to Kindle Unlimited, you can pay Amazon money to read my book for free. Such a deal.)

(Incidentally, I see Amazon has a direct deposit payment method now which allegedly does not have a threshold, so my complaints could be moot.)

(I should stop these parenthetical side bars and get back to the point.)

Not getting any money doesn’t seem like a drawback, right? Assuming I maintain a day job. So I didn’t really *lose* anything by publishing the book, right?

Well, unfortunately, I can count a few things I’ve lost.

Most obviously, I’ve lost the ability to ever publish Lute of the Sparrow traditionally. I can never submit it to an agent or editor without them Googling it, seeing it’s dead as a doornail on Amazon, and passing on it without even reading it. If, by some miracle, someone *did* read it and want to publish it, they would then Google it and find it had already been published. A lot of places (rightly) won’t publish a book that’s already been published elsewhere, even if self-published (it’s a concept called “first publication rights”). Even if a publisher thought the book was the most amazing writing ever seen, they are, in the end, a business, and they’ll be able to see that the book was commercially unsuccessful on Amazon, so they would have no choice but to back away slowly.

I knew that before I published it, though. So why did I go ahead with it? This is where we move beyond pure business logic and into more emotional reasons.

The main reason I self-published Lute of the Sparrow is that I simply didn’t think anyone would ever publish it traditionally. I had absolutely no confidence in it. I was 100% sure that it would be rejected by everyone I tried to submit it to, period, The End.

That may or may not be true. I still think it is true, but I’m experienced enough now to know that the author is not the best judge of whether a book is good or not. (Just as a programmer is never the best person to test their code.) I should not have made that judgment myself.

Besides, I now know that whether or not a book is published traditionally mainly boils down to luck and connections. It helps a lot if the book is good-or at least average-but without luck and connections, you’re never going to get a book in front of any eyeballs. (Persistence might be a substitute for luck and connections, if you can put up with years of rejection. But persistence, too, has a price. I have heard that the more you are rejected, the less likely you are to be published, because the publishers start to remember you as “that guy that’s been rejected a thousand times.”)

I said I still think nobody would publish Lute. That’s because I’m experienced enough now to know that the story has flaws from a craft perspective. I can now look at my writing from more of an editor’s perspective than ever before. I love that world and those characters, but I can see the flaws in the story construction as plain as day. I can’t *not* see them. I have ideas on how to fix them, but it would take extensive rewrites-throwing it out and starting over, for all intents and purposes.

I knew all of that in 2011, before I self-published it. I knew the story needed a lot of crafting before I would be fully satisfied with it. But I’ll be honest: I wanted to work on other things. New things. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life chiseling away at one book. So I gave up on Lute of the Sparrow.

They say that you never really finish a book, you simply abandon it. I agree with that. In this case, it was absolutely, undeniably true.

But that’s not a good reason to publish a book. Especially your first book. In 2011, I was basically saying, “I enjoyed writing this book but it’s got problems and I’m sure nobody will like it anyway, so I’ll just go ahead and publish it myself. What’s the harm?”

It was an admission of defeat.

Whether the book is good or not isn’t really the point. The point is that I undermined any chance for it to be evaluated independently from my own doubts and fears. I sabotaged myself. I killed it before it even had a chance of life. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was training myself to believe that I didn’t belong in the world of traditional authors. That’s not a lesson I needed. Nobody does.

One other, more subtle thing I’ve lost is the ability to use the name “Everett Renshaw” for any traditional publishing attempts. Lute of the Sparrow, from now until the end of Internet time, is going to come up under a Google search for Everett Renshaw. The stain of that book just sitting there on Amazon will haunt Everett Renshaw for the rest of his career. Maybe he can recover from it, maybe he can’t. I have ideas for that problem, too. But if he can recover from it, it will take a lot of work.

So what have I learned? What should I have done?

Well, nothing.

I’ve written a lot of novel drafts since I wrote Lute of the Sparrow. I don’t think any of them are ready to publish, or even submit, much like Lute. Some of them probably never will be, and that’s okay.

The older I get, the more I realize this: Not every piece of writing needs to be read. Sometimes writing can be just for ourselves, to explore an idea. In fact, I dare say that writing should always be for ourselves, more than anything else. As a blogger, God knows I’ve blogged countless times just for me. Sometimes I write drafts but never publish them. I do that a lot actually. On Endgame Viable, I have over a hundred draft posts that I haven’t published. Some of them are really long and elaborate posts, too-there’s one fairly recent post that’s over 5,000 words. But they aren’t “right,” so they remain unpublished, and I move on to other things.

Most importantly, I’ve learned that it never hurts to not publish something. There is no downside whatsoever to keeping my writing to myself. Certainly from a business perspective, there’s no downside. From an emotional or craft perspective, you could argue that spending too much time on one draft is counter-productive, but as long as I keep that firmly in mind, and continue to work on new material, maybe one or two drafts a year, I’m taking the steps necessary to avoid falling into that trap. (Admittedly it’s a constant struggle, one that must be re-fought weekly or monthly, if not daily.)

P. S. Why not check out Lute of the Sparrow on Amazon! It’s completely free if you have Kindle Unlimited. And why not write a review when you’re done? Or tell someone else about it? I mean, if you like it that is. Don’t write a review or tell anyone if you hate it, obviously. :)

P. P. S. A cynical person might think this post is just an advertisement for my book, but I didn’t really intend it that way. At first, that is. Then I thought, “Wow, this could be a great advertisement for my book, too!”

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