My name is Tonia Brown and I am a self publishing failure.
Before you guys start sending me support emails and sympathy cards, please know that I am not writing this post to beg for your pity or announce the end of my career or anything so petty. I have just been reading a lot about the value of self publishing versus traditional publishing and I am here to share my story. It is just a saltwater teardrop in a sea of such sad tales, but I shall share it all the same, and maybe you guys can draw some perspective from it.
Ten years or so ago, I started this gig with the same objective as every other starry eyed new writer; I wanted to become a professional author. I wanted to support myself by putting my lies onto paper and having folks buy it from me for unspeakable amounts of money. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t under the delusion I would become a household name. I didn’t think I was as good as King or the likes. I just wanted to write, and get paid for it. Was that too much to ask?
I already had a novel. In fact, I had two! I just needed to find the right person who understood my literary genius, and the rest would take care of itself. But, where to start? Information was needed, so I sniffed it out like a fat kid finds sweets in the supermarket. I got the books. I read the advice. I subscribed to the ezines and mailing lists and I absorbed as my information about how it was supposed to work. I nervously crafted my queries and stuck them in the mailbox (years ago, folks!) and waited for what seemed like ever before they started coming back to me. And come back they did. Each one of my beautiful letters came back hanging their heads and dressed in the SASE I had sent with them, each one bearing the same message.
Thanks, but no thanks.
I couldn’t understand. I did what the books told me to do. Twenty rejections. Then thirty. When it neared forty I decided to try a different route. I started writing short stories, hoping that getting my name out there would provide some lift for my novels. I thought I knew all about how to handle rejection from my experience with agents.
I knew nothing.
At least the agents were a bit personal. Some even took the time to let me know that it sounded like a fine novel, but they weren’t taking new clients. The magazines and anthologies were cold and distant. I got form letter after form letter denying my entry into their alabaster halls of publishing. One letter was so photocopied I could barely make out the words. And one place even sent me an advertisement post card that said “Rejection Sucks” and gave me half off their magazine. Lesson learned.
Back to square one. Keep writing. Keep writing.
Fifty rejections. Sixty. I switch from hard copies to emails, and the rejections really start piling up now that it was faster to send them out as well as quicker for the other end to click the rejection button. I was just about ready to throw in the towel but a few acceptances lodged themselves in my heart and kept me going. Still, this publishing thing was way harder than anyone made out. Lots of folks think writing a book is hard. And while it is, the writing part was the easiest part of all of it. I never stopped writing. My love for writing was the only reason I kept going forward, kept sending out queries, kept filing my rejections, kept sharing the acceptances. Then it finally happened. An agent asked for a partial of my little novel. I was so excited! I bounced around for days on end. Until, of course, I got that letter explaining it wasn’t quite what they wanted, but thank you anyways.
Back to square one. Keep writing. Keep writing.
Around this time, someone tried to turn me onto vanity publishing through a place best left unmentioned. Even from my desperate point of view, I could tell a scam when I saw it. As I politely turned them down, another friend invited me to try her publisher. According to my friend, the company was new and small, but eager and ambitious. The hang up? They were only publishing erotica. Well, okay then. I figured I could do sex. I liked sex, why not write about it? I tried my hand at it, writing a comedy about a girl and her magic hooha, and the publisher loved my work! Huzzah! Next thing I knew, I was under a contract and everything. I was going to be a published author.
Life is a pretty tricky thing sometimes. You get exactly what you thought you wanted, and while neat, it turns out to be exactly the opposite of what you needed. In my naivety, I failed to understand that when a fellow writer sets up a ‘publishing house’, more often than not they do so just to showcase their own failed attempts at a career. Then desperate folks like me come along and get sucked into that whirlwind of promises and paychecks, neither of which materializes after the dust settles. (Please note I am not knocking all small publishers! Just those that dicked me around and never paid me.) This didn’t happen to me once, folks. Oh no. That would’ve been too easy. It happened to me several times. I suppose my trusting nature hoped one of them would work out, but eventually I learned that these small publishing places were small for a reason. I couldn’t run with the big dogs, because I wasn’t even in the damned race.
Back to square one. Keep writing. Keep writing.
By this time I had come across some fascinating blogs that debunked the myths of self publishing and shattered the stigma attached. Hugely popular authors were tossing off the shackles of legacy publishing and taking Amazon by the horns and riding her all the way to the bank. Yeah, man! Yeah! That’s right! Stick it to ‘em. Agents are a waste of time. Gatekeepers, my ass. I am the only one who knows what my readers want. I am the only one who can give them what they need. Besides, self publishing isn’t as bad as all that. And it’s so easy. It would almost be criminal NOT to do it. I decided that was the route I would take.
I plugged away for a few years, hiring professional editors and artists to help me prep my books and make them worthy for my audience to pay for much less read. Each time I put out a new book, I crossed my fingers, hoping this would be my break away novel. That best seller that would put my name on the map. But no. As the rights of each title came back into my hands from those other small publishers, I repackaged them and sent them along. I struggled to advertise where I could afford. I also self published my webserial, Railroad!, in this same manner, with some success. But it wasn’t the earth shattering, record breaking success I was looking for. I kept going at it. I did interviews and blog hops and all of it, and still no. I didn’t understand. I played the game right. I got an editor, I got a cover artist, I did it the way I was supposed to do it, and it didn’t work. The self publishing gurus told me there was a big fat Amazonian pie out there with my name on it, and I wanted my share.
Trouble was, once again I got what I wanted, not what I needed. I got my slice of the self publishing pie, I just didn’t realize how small the slice would be. *holds it up and looks at you through it* One morning, I sat back and looked at the numbers, and an astonishing fact smacked me in the face. The single novel I had out with a reputable (finally!) small publisher outsold my work hundreds to one. Aside from the moderate accomplishment of the Railroad! series, I could count how many of my novels I sold through self publishing each month on one hand. Not each novel by itself on one hand. ALL OF THEM.
I had to face facts. I was a self publishing failure. I could not, and most likely never would support myself from self publishing my work on Amazon. You can measure success in any way you like, but the bottom line is the bottom line, and mine had been pretty damned thin.
Again, don’t pity me, because I know where I went wrong. I fell for a happy ending that never was meant for the likes of me. Those big names that went into self publishing brought their scads of fans with them. I had no scads of fans. I had, at best, maybe a fraction of a fraction of a scad, and that simply wasn’t enough to carry me through. Where those big writers swam into the open sea of Amazon as majestic white whales, I slipped in as a little bit of plankton. While those huge important whales swam around, singing their whaley songs of freedom and independence, I got swept into a cloud with all the other plankton, millions of us, all swirling about in a sea of bullshit and lunacy until no one could tell my novels from anyone else’s work. I was lost in the shuffle and there was only one thing I could do.
Go back to square one. Keep writing. Always writing.
I went crawling back to traditional publishers. I was more cautious this time because there were a lot more than before, and new ones cropping up every day. This time, the size wasn’t important, small or large, I didn’t care as long as they were reputable. I needed someone that could help me bear the cost of production and promotion. I tried the agent route again and had some success at securing one, but that was short lived thanks to cut backs and so on and so forth. After much searching and dozens of queries, and yes even a hand up from a writer friend of mine, I finally signed on with Permuted Press. I signed on a lot. I had quite a bit of backlog and like a horny housewife that seduced the pool boy, I let them go to town all over my self published works.
Well, not all of it.
I held back a few novels, under my own mark, because I still believe in the power of self publishing. I believe that Permuted will provide me with a larger audience. I think I can earn my own scad this time and with it I can build my brand into something recognizable. And with that recognition, maybe I will finally find some success in this crazy business we call writing.
I suppose my point in sharing this tale with you good folks is to send a warning to aspiring writers. Unless you are very, very, very lucky, you will not make it on self publishing alone, straight out of the word processor. You must build your platform and fan base first, and one of the best ways to do that is with the help of a reputable publisher. I am not saying it is the only way, just one of many. Sure you can self publish to your heart’s content, but consider the wisdom of keeping one foot in the legacy pool and one in the self publishing pool. I believe the buzz word for that is a hybrid author. Sounds like a mascot for a basketball team. Go hybrid!
Do I think I will ever support myself by writing down my lies and getting you good folks to buy them? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Right now I am able to pick up the tab at dinner occasionally, and pay a bill or two, which I must admit is nice. But quit my night job? I’m not sure that will ever happen. There is only one thing I am sure of. One thing that brought me comfort in my darkest of hours. One thing that kept me going when the rejections fell like snowflakes on the frozen landscape of my heart. Out of all of this, there has been one constant to my career, failed or otherwise.
I never stopped writing.
ps: Huge thanks to Rhiannon Mills for reading this over for me first. You rock, girl!