The Challenges of Being a Self-Published Author

Having a down day today–didn’t sleep well last night because my brain refused to shut off, “woke up” rather late to discover that with daylight all those great ideas had vanished into the fog of dealing with a disturbed sleep cycle. I get judgmental of myself when this happens. In some part of me, I don’t care how my personal schedule fits in with societal expectations or doesn’t. In the part that becomes more conscious at these times, the fact that I didn’t get out of bed until ten o’clock this morning, and that it is now one in the afternoon and I have just managed to get dressed and think about doing something productive really bothers me. Especially in winter. I think, “Shit, it’s going to be DARK in four hours! How can you WASTE DAYLIGHT this way?” Even though my work doesn’t depend on the presence of daylight, as long as we have functioning electricity.

Look at all that sun you're wasting and the beautiful woods you could be tramping through!
Look at all that sun you’re wasting and the beautiful woods you could be tramping through!

So what does this have to do with the challenges of being a self-published author? Well, I get judgmental about my work, too. Which is kind of funny, because just the other day one of my writer friends, who was having some doubts about the direction her work wanted to go, asked me, “Don’t you ever go through this?” And I answered, “Oh, no, not me! Of course not! I always trust my work!” or something like that. I see now, of course, that this is bullshit, because all morning I have been thinking things like, “This new book is so stupid, the premise is ludicrous, no one is going to buy it, and I can’t believe I ever thought it was a good idea.”

I should probably do this right now and get it over with.
I should probably do this right now and get it over with.

I have to remind myself I chose this. I didn’t choose to be a writer; that’s something I HAD to do. But I chose to go with self-publishing. I chose it for a lot of reasons, some good, some maybe not so good. I chose it because I believe in my work (most of the time), and I believe there’s an audience for it out there, somewhere. I also chose it because I’m impatient, and the traditional publishing path takes A LOT OF TIME, and requires jumping through hoops I don’t like jumping through. And yes, I chose it because I have trust and control issues–especially around my current series–and I had a hard time even imagining giving up control to an outsider who might not share my vision (although my traditionally published friends do, for the most part, seem to support the idea that part of the process is finding a “match,” i.e., an editor or agent who shares your vision and helps shape it, rather than turns it into something else altogether). I chose it because I have some real health issues that would inevitably pose a problem to my ability to meet imposed deadlines, and that is stress I just don’t want to deal with. I chose it because I write in a genre that’s a “tough sell” these days, and because by the time I figure out how to write an effective query letter I had already published three books in the series. Some day, when Caitlin Ross and Timber MacDuff give me a break, I intend to explore some of the other ideas I have on the back burner and shop them out in the traditional way. Some day.

As the man said.
As the man said.

I see my decision to go with self-publishing as a good one, for the most part. But every positive, as they say, has a negative. A lot of people may not notice this about me, because I tend to be more vocal when I’m in a negative mood, but I do try very hard to be positive. Unfortunately, on days like today, the positives about my life choices get swamped by an overwhelming gut sensation of bitter failure. I feel like Sisyphus rolling his rock uphill. (Side note: how awesome is it that my spell-check recognized “Sisyphus” just now?). Some days I believe I’ll get that damn boulder to the top and coast down the other side. But some days I lose my grip, and I spend all my energy running after it as it careens back down to the bottom. And I wonder if it’s really worth the struggle to get my shoulder under it again.

In self-publishing, I get to keep control and work at my own pace. But self-publishing is lonely. Several of my traditionally-published friends have released books recently, and I am so envious of the support systems their publishers provide. A good editor and/or agent can be a cheering section and a source of encouragement on those days when you wonder why the hell you ever thought you could write in the first place. A publisher can send out Advance Reader Copies of your book to reviewers, schedule Blog Tours, and get your work into the public eye in a way that it’s very difficult for a self-published author to match. They handle the interior formatting and cover design and all those details of production that a self-published author has to look after for herself. (Some self-published authors do have budgets for hiring those things out, but I don’t.) You have a basic guarantee of getting a professional product that people will take (mostly) seriously.

I had to learn how to do almost all this stuff. I don’t regret it. But I always have questions. Does the interior flow properly? Should I change the header font? Do my covers work? I started with still life photographs, a couple of which I liked and most of which I didn’t. I always knew they were a temporary measure, and earlier this year I contracted an artist to redo them. But the questions didn’t go away! I love my artist and I love her covers. All the same, I can’t help noticing that they don’t look like most covers in my genre. And I wonder if that matters. How can I tell? Since the cover redesign started, a couple of people have told me they prefer the original ones. One magazine editor with whom I investigated advertising looked at my IAN page (which at the time showed a couple of the new covers and four or five of the old ones) and told me point blank not to put money into a display ad because my covers wouldn’t sell. Do I believe her? Do I not? I’ve seen all kinds of covers, and all kinds of warnings about bad cover art. Am I wrong to like the ones I paid for? Should I be more concerned with my books “fitting in?” I don’t think the contents “fit in;” why should the covers?

I question my writing process. Without a publishing house handing out deadlines, I can keep a schedule that suits me and allow myself to function “at the level I’m at,” as my dance teachers used to say. Do what I can, but not force myself to push the energy where it doesn’t want to go. Except, a lot of the time I wonder if this is a good thing. There are many days I don’t write at all because I’m not in the headspace I need to be in to sit at the computer and put words on a page. Maybe, instead of practicing self-care, I’m just lazy and lack dedication. Maybe I don’t have what it takes to make this work. Maybe I’m a dilettante. Maybe I chose to self-publish because on a deep inner level I realize I’m not willing to do what’s necessary to succeed.

Maybe I’m not a real author at all.

This is the kind of thing that runs through my head day after day.

What my process feels like.

I wish I had a team. I wish I had “people” designated to look after some of these things, so I didn’t have to think about them. I wish some kind soul would take it upon themselves to send out my books and make sure they got reviews and attention. I sure don’t seem to be able to manage it with any success. I promote to the best of my ability, but most of the time I don’t see any result. I have my small knot of fans, and that’s nice. I have a few people I can count on for reviews, and that’s nice, too. But I can’t manage the kind of reach that gets books into the charts anywhere. I’m not talking about the New York Times Book Review, here. I’d just like to create a buzz on Goodreads or Riffle. How do self-published authors do that? I haven’t a clue.

Don’t get me wrong: My “Tribe” on Twitter is a huge support system and I’m grateful for them. But they have their own struggles with their own books. It’s not their job to promote me, nor should it be. It’s not their job to prop me up and give me pep talks. Many of them do anyway, and still, sometimes it’s not enough. I wish for a cheering section I could keep in in a bottle and summon on the days I’m feeling low. I wish for a genie to magically navigate all the book promotion sites on the Internet, sort the worthwhile ones from the less worthwhile, and pin a neat list of the ones I need to investigate on my cork board.

I am thankful for advances in POD and e book publishing that have made it possible for me to make my books available. I am thankful that these same advances give others the same opportunity and contribute to creating a publishing industry where small presses and flourish and we’re enabled to address some of the issues with the Big 6 publishing machine. I’m thankful that advances in technology make it possible to ignore the Big 6 publishing machine, if we so choose.

But sometimes, sometimes like today, I wish I had chosen the other way.

The life of a writer can be lonely, especially if, like me, you don’t “play well with others” in real life and find writing groups more irritating than helpful. The life of a self-published author can be doubly lonely (I’m sure this is why so many writers hang out on Twitter all hours of the day instead of getting down to work.). I encourage you, if you’re making the choice between the independent path and the traditional, to take all the time you can to examine your options. Remember, self-publishing is NOT a path to a traditional contract (not for most people, anyway). It’s a publishing method of its own. One that supplies its own benefits, true, but also one that requires dedication, knowledge, and strength in many disparate fields. One where, in many ways, you’re on your own and must continue through force of will when the going gets tough. You have no obligation to make your book available as soon as it’s finished. The words will still be there. In fact, you might pull them out in a couple years and see ways of making them better. Take all the time you need to examine your options.


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