My novel, The Childless Ones, was released about four months ago now (the ebook a little before that). While sales have been about what I'd expected and I'm optimistic the book will find more and more of a readership over time as I get an increased number of reviews and exposure, I've begun to take a step back and reflect on the whole process of choosing to publish the book myself.
From the start I knew that The Childless Ones faced a number of challenges when it came to finding an agent and going the traditional publishing route:
It's a long book (clocking in at over 150k words), which can be challenging for first-time authors. All that paper costs money, you know.
It doesn't easily fit any existing genres in that it alternates between literary fiction and Tolkienesque fantasy, and structurally sits somewhere between a novel and a collection of stories.
It's a bit of a challenging read with lots of characters, two different narratives, and a non-linear plot.
All that said, I'm really proud of the book and still feel that it certainly would have been possible to get an agent, if I could have identified the right ones to reach out to.
As it went, I queried seven or eight agents, but didn't get any immediate bites. A few of the agents had been intrigued by the premise of the book, but ultimately thought it would be too hard to sell given some combination of the above-mentioned reasons. I know many authors query fifty or a hundred agents before finding representation, but I was getting impatient, figured I was working full-time so the income from a traditionally published book advance wouldn't make that much difference, and thought that, as a marketer, I should be able to market my own book just fine. I decided to publish the book myself.
Was this a mistake? I think it's still too early to tell. However, what I do feel were erroneous were some of my internal reasons for not more thoroughly pursuing a traditional publishing route prior to deciding to publish the book myself. In no particular order, my main reasons were:
Reason #1: Publishing your own book lets your circumvent "the gatekeepers" (and isn't that what we want in the age of the internet?)
This is true and not true. It's true in that you do circumvent the gatekeepers between you and the actual publication of your book. It's not true in that you don't circumvent the gatekeepers that sit between you and readership.
I've spent a fair amount of time thinking about the dynamics that allow different types of media to gain organic followings. The conclusion that I always come to is that books are probably one of the hardest and slowest forms of media to spread organically/ virally/ via word-of-mouth. The reason is that books require a lot of effort on the part of those who consume them. If someone tells me to casually check out a band, I can listen to a song and form a reasonable opinion in a matter of minutes, if not seconds. If I really like the band, I tell someone else and the cycle continues. If, on the other hand, someone tells me about a book, I have to really trust them in order to actually buy and read that book. If I commit to consuming a book, that's potentially ten, twenty, or more hours of my life. As a result, it's more important that books are thoroughly vetted before most of us will choose to pick one up. And thorough vetting equals gatekeepers.
All this is then to say that in order to gain a readership for a self-published book there are still gatekeepers. It's just that these gatekeepers change from agents and editors to reviewers and readers willing to take a flyer on an unknown book or author. Thus far I've had reasonable success getting favorable reviews from Kirkus as well as a number of other online pubs and reviewers, but what I've realized is the process ends up feeling not that different than that of querying agents.
The gatekeeper is dead. Long live the gatekeeper.
Reason #2: I want to avoid all of the work associated with querying agents
What I've realized is that though publishing a book yourself may feel like less work, in reality, it's probably far more work than going the traditional route. As mentioned with #1 above, I've probably spent just as much effort reaching out to reviewers since my book has been published as I would have querying agents had I gone the traditional route. On top of that has been all the pre-publication effort around hiring and working with a freelance editor, illustrator and designer. That part of the process was fun for me, but it was definitely a lot of hours.
Reason #3: Even if I get a traditional publishing deal, I don't want to wait another two years for my book to be released
This reason has some validity. I decided to self publish early in 2018 and had my book out before the end of the year. What was an eight or nine month timeframe probably would have been two years going the traditional route. However, it's worth noting that I probably rushed more than I should have. Due to the fact that I was in such a hurry to get my book out, I ran into a slew of issues, including an error in my initial cover design that caused me considerable grief and consternation to rectify, a too-short pre-sale window that ended up causing Amazon to not order sufficient inventory up front, and not getting the book in the hands of enough reviewers prior to publication.
It took me three to five years (depending on how you count things) to write the book. I should have taken a little more time with the publication process. Even though self publication does offer the option to publish quickly, I would strongly recommend authors (including myself) resist the temptation of taking that option.
So, it's fair to say I've learned a lot since deciding to publish my book. Maybe my reasoning for self-publishing hasn't all proven to be solid. Nonetheless, whether I ended up publishing via traditional means or going the route that I did, one thing that has been super gratifying about the whole process has been the reception I've largely gotten from those who have read the book--from reviewers to friends and family to the random people who heard about the book organically or through my marketing. To know that someone willingly gave you hours and hours of their time to interact with something that you made--and that they then had a positive emotional reaction to that thing--is truly a special feeling. In fact, I suppose it's a big part of why people decide to write in the first place.