A Writer’s Dilemma

A Writer’s Dilemma

Self-publishing. What a loaded topic! Since establishing RavenSidhe Publishing, I’ve frequently been approached by new writers at public events where my books were on display. The main concern of these new writers tends to be something along the lines of “I’ve written a book, but I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t know what happens next. I might need your help later.” The decision of whether or not to self-publish one’s own work has become a major concern nowadays, and it’s no wonder.

While I’m flattered that people would think me knowledgeable enough on the subject of publishing that they’d want me to advise them, I’ve had to explain that I don’t personally mentor people on how to publish their books. I don’t have anywhere near enough time to do that–not if I hope to keep up with my own writing and other work as well. But what I can do is use this blog to give people an idea of what my writing journey has been like, and pull back the veil a little on the seemingly mysterious process of creating, producing and marketing a book. I can offer helpful links to resources and related information readily available online, with the hope that this will help people make up their own minds about what would be the best course of action available for them and their books.

Traditional wisdom advises a new author to find an agent if possible, and then seek publication from a larger New York publishing house, or if not that, then at least from a smaller press with some degree of respectability and recognition. For a long time, the stigma against self-published work scared off many a potentially independent author. Right out of the starting gate, let me just say that I was one of those writers. For the better part of three decades, I courted the New York publishing scene as ardently as could be. I played by all the “rules” and still lost the game as I had thought it was supposed to be played. Ultimately, I ended up not just self-publishing, but starting my own publishing company.

What combination of circumstances and events led me to do this? With the advent of easy self-publishing platforms such as CreateSpace, where any aspiring author could upload an e-book or even a print book with little to no start-up cost, why would anyone want to go to the extreme of registering an LLC and becoming a publisher in an official sense? To answer that, let me do what writers do. Let me tell you a story.

To begin, I’ll give you a little background about myself as an author, so you can see why I felt myself to be pushed kicking and screaming into the brave new world of modern-day publishing and self-publishing. Please bear in mind that the path I have taken is not for everyone. As in all things, it is always best to look at the information offered and then make your own informed and well-considered decision.

It seems strange to think about how long I’ve been in this game, but I have been a writer for well over 40 years. I wrote my first short stories in grade school and my first novel (longhand, in a spiral notebook) at the age of 16. Over the decades that followed, I went on to write several more novels. For some considerable time, I tried to no avail to secure a literary agent for my work. Always a stickler for grammar and editing, I went to a great deal of trouble to learn the craft of writing. I wanted not just to write, but to write well. Naturally, my first attempts at writing novels were terrible. My first million words of garbage went into the closet. Even now that I have become my own publisher and can produce whatever books I want, those first few novels will stay in the closet, because you all deserve better. Those first attempts might not have been up to par, but they were a good training ground nonetheless. I learned a lot from writing them and making all those rookie mistakes.

By the time I’d spent a few years taking master classes in technique at various writers’ conferences, entered a few contests and endured countless rejection letters, the miracle finally happened; I landed an agent for my novels. Of course, I was thrilled, and still am. My agent is a wonderful person whose opinion I deeply respect, and having formerly been an editor in New York, he helped further shape my writing into something I could be proud of. Unfortunately, shortly after he took me on as a client, the bottom dropped out of the market for big thick epic fantasy novels, which of course was exactly what I’d been writing.

Suddenly, editors seemed reluctant to consider taking on new authors in that genre, and while some still got into the club, I was not among them. I received positive feedback about the quality of my writing from various editors, including one who reportedly said she loved the book but could not find a spot for it. The length was quite likely one of the biggest issues, even though just a few years before, similar long novels were being sought after. After finishing the first one, I’d gone on to write an entire trilogy, which writing coaches and editors assured me was at a publishable level. Regardless, there was no spot for me and my books among the big publishers in the epic fantasy arena.

I then did what I thought to be the best thing at the time; I followed the market. Several well-known authors were having a great deal of success in the urban fantasy genre, and even though my first love had been epic fantasy, I was more than willing to try my hand on the urban side of the tracks. The next novel I wrote was urban fantasy, but not the standard vampire/werewolf fare. Instead, I went for the thing that more readily held my interest: the world of the fae. I was happy with the finished novel, peer opinions were favorable, and although I had departed from the typical by not using first person point of view, I was sure that this book would fit right into the UF trend and be published. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of my agent and myself, and despite the reports of writer peers and publishers who read it and really liked my writing style, this novel found no home either.

Like it or not, I had come to a turning point I could no longer avoid. I had multiple experts in the field telling me that my writing was good enough to be published, but I still had no publishing contracts forthcoming. I’d had only one success in the short story arena when my story “The Truth One Sees” was published in the Warrior Wisewoman 3 science fiction anthology from Norilana Books in 2010. Other than that, my work always seemed to be hitting the market just after the curve, and I was doing a very professional job of getting nowhere. I was eventually forced to make a very hard choice. I could continue as I was and keep chasing the ever-shrinking New York market until eventually someone gave me a shot, or I could strike out on my own and take my writing fate into my own hands.

That sparked off a host of new worries and questions. If I self-published, would I be struck down by the same stigma that had affected many self-published books in the past? Part of the problem with so many of those is the editing. Some authors fail to learn their craft well or do proper editing, and then release books rife with typos, clunky sentence structure, and glaring amateurish mistakes. While it is an injustice to assume all self-published books will be badly done, it is also true that there is a reason the stigma against self-publishing came about in the first place. I didn’t want my books to be categorically dismissed by readers just because I’d published them myself.

There was also a huge amount of work required to produce the books, none of which I knew how to do. I wanted a paperback version, and I had reluctantly come to admit that e-books, at least to some extent, were here to stay. I didn’t have the slightest idea of how to design and format either one. That being the case, I wondered whether I should hire a book packager to produce my book for me. If I did, would it be worth the money they’d charge? I didn’t know. I set out to do some research, and while I was still deliberating, I began to save money so that if I eventually did decide to use a packager, I’d be able to pay the huge fees to get the book produced–fees that could range from about $1000 upwards.

My family had been in very tight financial straits for several years. Consequently, it took me about a year and a half to save enough money from doing Tarot readings to potentially pay for a book packager. When I’d saved the minimum and was ready to make the final decision, I was inclined to use a packager because I felt so daunted by the prospect of producing a book on my own. There was just so much I didn’t know. However, general Internet opinion indicated that using a book packager was considered “vanity press,” and was therefore to be avoided. Many sites and sources made a strong distinction between the so-called “vanity press” and “self-publishing,” in which the author does all or most of the work. I was torn, and feeling a bit pressured to conform to a new set of publishing standards that hadn’t even finished sorting themselves out yet.

In the end, I decided not to fight the old stigma against self-published books and the stigma against vanity press both at the same time. It looked as though the most effective way to move forward was to learn how to publish my own book. Even with what I’d saved, I didn’t have a big budget, so I would have to do almost all the work myself. I resolved to do as good a job as possible and make the final product as professional as I could manage. Perception is key to any market.

The other big factor in my decision was money. I could spend about $1500 to have one book published by a packager, or I could spend the same amount and create a business that could eventually produce hundreds of books at my discretion and perhaps support me one day. I, who dislike math, did the math this time. My decision rapidly became clear, even if the oncoming learning curve terrified me.

At this point, you’re probably wondering why I considered it necessary to start a publishing company. I could have produced more than one book as an individual author without registering an LLC, of course. But in considering my options, I decided that as long as I was going to so much effort to learn all the things I’d need to know to publish the first book, I might as well create an entire business, of which I could be the CEO and sole management. I’ve discovered that I like being my own boss. I like setting my own standards and making my own stylistic decisions. It gave me a freedom and power I hadn’t even known I lacked.

Never in my wildest dreams did I envision having to publish my own books. Always, I assumed I’d be picked up by a New York publishing house and the rest would be history. I wanted only to wear the writer hat, not ten other hats as well, but fate–or perhaps my higher self–had other ideas. In August of 2013, the local government office stamped my application form, and RavenSidhe Publishing, LLC became official. I had a daunting but important learning curve ahead–Publishing 101, learned in the field. In upcoming posts, we’ll talk about the process of creating publishing companies and published books from scratch on a shoestring budget, pros and cons of various decisions that arise, and options available. By the time we run out of topics on the subject, you’ll either be certain you never want to try this at home, or you’ll be hooked.