Are You Self-Publishing or Being Your Own Vanity Press?

What happens when no one can tell you no? Is it possible that your cranium can swell up like a pufferfish, causing you to block out all critical self-analysis?

Yeah, possibly.

Long before the advent of digital self-publishing platforms, most authors of books rejected by the publishing industry had little recourse but to put the manuscript in a trunk somewhere and start the next book. It was a maddening and humbling experience that forced writers to return to the keyboard and dig a little deeper. Whether it's the first novel or the second or the fifth or fiftieth, a lot of us are still going through that process. Sometimes we hit, and sometimes we strike out. And we go through this process over and over because we're obsessed and at least a little crazy--all the things it takes to survive in this business. Other people aren't doing that at all. Instead they've become assembly lines, spitting out books and putting them up for sale without ever first questioning whether or not it's any good. This is the quintessential definition of a vanity press.

Vanity presses have been around forever, but it's different now. No upfront costs are necessary to start your own publishing empire. Within minutes, you can upload your book and be part of a massive horde of indie hopefuls scraping together enough money a month to maybe buy a box of the newly resurrected Twinkies.

Rejection doesn't carry the same sort of sting it used to. A lot of people have stopped the submissions process altogether in favor of exclusive self-publication. Any why not? It's faster and a hell of a lot less frustrating, and provided your stuff sells, you get a much bigger cut of the pie. And rather than having a book you wrote sit in limbo for two years as it goes through the long and often heartbreaking submissions process, you can have it out for purchase almost immediately after you wrote it. If dozens of agents and editors tell you your book isn't good enough, so what? It'll now be available on the internet to scads of readers for infinity, all because you made it so. This can be a great thing, because sometimes those publishers and agents are wrong and unfair and the engine of publishing can punish a lot of good writers for no reason. There are far more writers than there are slots on a publisher's roster, and editors pass on great stories every single day written by authors who then turn to famous rejection letters sent to people like Kurt Vonnegut and Sylvia Plath and scream "See, those assholes don't know everything!"

This is not always the case, though. In fact, MOST of the books that are forced into a trunk by a thick stack of rejection slips were forced there for a very good reason: they sucked. The problem is it's very hard to tell which camp you fit into, both because we have trouble being honest with ourselves and because a lot of people close to us are reluctant to tell the truth about something that might hurt our feelings. Also, sometimes secretly or not-so-secretly, we all fashion ourselves as undiscovered Stephen Kings, who reportedly received enough rejection slips to paper his office wall before hitting it big with Carrie. None of us wants to admit that maybe what we wrote just wasn't good enough. That maybe we are not undiscovered Kings. We like to think that the power of our simply crafting something warrants its publication. End of. Enter KDP or Smashwords, neither of whom will ever say no to you unless you write kiddie porn.

This is NOT enough to keep a writer honest. I know this now. I know this because if I hadn't had a team of editors going over the novels I have coming out soon, I might have self-published them nearly as they were (and that was after having a few people beta read each one BEFORE they went to the publisher), and I can't imagine what a pickle I'd be in right now. You can hire editors yes, but I dare say there is a difference between a single individual who accepts a one-time payment to deliver an opinion, and a group of people staking a huge financial risk in your writing. At any rate, this was the biggest wake-up call of my career. I took down two novels I published myself awhile back, because they just were so doughy in the middle, and I'm not sure they will ever see the light of day again. And that's okay. I'm currently employing extreme caution with my upcoming COLT COLTRANE AND THE LOTUS KILLER by having the same readers I've had on The Last Supper and Strings read it with their gimlet eyes (by the way, look at that gorgeous cover art by Justin Wasson, will ya)? No longer do I believe I am the only true arbiter of what's good enough, and I'm damn sure not going to put the readers in that kind of position either. It should be ready and thoroughly vetted LONG before it ever reaches someone's Kindle. My short stories also go through a great deal of evaluation now too, but that process is a lot simpler.

When publishing becomes a foregone conclusion, you're essentially saying that you get it right every single time. And NO ONE EVER gets it right every single time. Occasionally you will churn out a dud, and you have to be prepared not to release it. At least the the gatekeepers keep us honest and professional and force us to critically evaluate our work on a continuous basis. I know so many authors with published and well-received debut novels who struggled like hell to impress those same publishers with their sophomore efforts and failed. That's because no writer is going to ace it every time they come up to bat, and it's no different for you just because you're publisher.

So how can you tell if your book really good enough to self-publish?

The answer is you may never truly know for certain. It's all subjective. You just have to be honest with yourself and listen to your gut. And you have to listen extra hard to the people you trust most to tell you the truth. You have to ensure that every new thing you write is the best thing you've ever written up to that point. You have to ALWAYS be improving and challenging yourself, not getting lazy and treating your ability like something that has an end point. Ask yourself what it is about your book that will make people want to buy it. Ask it of your beta readers. You have to consider many of the same things an actual publisher considers, or at least find people who can think in that capacity.

There is a lot of luck in this business, with amazing books out there that have sold millions of copies after passing through dozens of agents and editors until it found the one lone soul who said yes. And there are books that broke through the gate after the first try that wound up being critical and commercial stinkers. Sometimes the gatekeepers get it wrong, but it's important not to extrapolate that thinking to every single story or book you write, otherwise we're talking pure vanity, and no one wants to read that shit. Self-publishing can be a really good thing, but sometimes you have to write your own rejection slip and move on to the next thing.