By Amy Rivers
An author walks into a conference. She smiles, shakes hands, and introduces herself to fellow authors. Then someone asks the question, “are you published?” She immediately starts to sweat. Why you ask? Because this loaded question is frequently followed by some variation of the qualifying question, “Who did you publish with?”
The Path to Publication
As an aspiring author attending conferences, the admission that I had yet to publish was met with encouragement and advice. And I, like so many hopefuls, was counting the days till I could attach “Published Author” to my name. There were so many emotions: excitement, fear, confusion, joy. But I had a goal. We (capital WE) had a goal. To be among the ranks of our favorite authors and have our books grace the shelves of bookstores everywhere.
Of course, the path to publication is different for everyone. Some authors strike a traditional approach. Pitching to agents until they are offered representation and looking for a traditional publishing house (big or small) to make all their dreams come true.
Others choose an independent path, taking on the tasks and responsibilities of publishing in exchange for creative control and flexibility. Neither approach is right or wrong, and in recent times, many authors have chosen to do both.
A Question Laden with Judgment
And yet, there I was. Sweating at a conference over what has become one of the most loaded questions in the publishing industry. Yes, I am a published author. I have four books under my belt, two of which have won awards, and I’m working on book number five. I’ve worked with professional cover designers, editors, and publicists. I’ve taught classes and written articles on my process.
But as a self-published author, I sometimes dread discussing my career with traditionally published authors. It never seems to be enough to say that I’m published. There’s always a qualification.
“I self-publish under my own imprint,” I say.
“Oh,” they say with a wince or a cringe. They’re nice enough, but the conversation soon dies away, and before I know it, I’m looking for someone new to talk to.
A little while later, I’m relaxing between sessions, and I start talking to an agent sitting nearby.
“Well, it sounds like you’re doing everything right,” the agent says. And for a moment, I think, yes! Finally! And then the moment is gone when she continues, “You could still have a successful career. You’ve simply added another step you’ll have to overcome to be traditionally published.”
The implication: the only way to be a successful author is to be traditionally published. It’s a message I’ve heard ad nauseam. Still, every year, I meet self-published authors selling thousands of copies. Out-earning traditional authors left and right perfectly happy with their chosen course.
If Everyone Is Doing It, Why Shouldn’t I?
After this latest conference, I did some soul searching. I realized how badly we (big WE) need to reframe the narrative around paths to publication. Nearly 2 million titles are self-published each year, and the number of hybrid publishers continues to increase. The gatekeepers of the publishing industry seem determined to hold fast to the idea that traditional publication is more valid than other avenues. Especially when more and more traditionally published authors are also self-publishing.
Of course, self-publishing does have some blemishes in its history. Once synonymous with vanity publishing, no quality standards existed, and anyone could publish their story if they were willing to pay for it. It’s true that current self-publishing platforms still provide easy access to publication.
Some self-published authors are serious about building a career and a catalog of books with various resources. They ensure that their books are as polished as those produced through traditional means.
Does everyone use these tools? Of course not. But my main concern is in the way we talk about the process. As authors, we need to support one another, no matter our path. Likewise, as authors, we must educate ourselves about all the options for writing, publishing, and marketing our books. Doing that leg work means the path to publication we choose is the one best suited to our needs.
Credit Where Credit is Due
Publishing a book is a really huge accomplishment, full stop. We shouldn’t have to justify our choices. It’s one thing to have an open conversation about the writing process with our fellow authors. It’s another thing entirely to judge the quality of another author’s work based solely on the method they’re chosen to get their book to market. I don’t know about you, but I’ve read some terrible books by large publishers. I’ve also read some truly inspired books published by their authors. And everything in between.
Leveling the Playing Field in our Minds
And that’s precisely my point. One of the benefits of being traditionally published is having a team of professionals who ensure your book is the best it can be. It also sells because publishing is a business. But not all traditionally published authors get the same attention. It’s widely accepted that publishers will put more resources into books that they know will make money. The big names — those who probably don’t need the help — will get a more significant portion of the budget because they make the most money.
And this isn’t a slam on the publisher. They lose money on many of the books they release. The income generated by those big-name authors is often used to subsidize the resources put toward less known and debut authors.
There’s no salient reason to assume that a book produced by a traditionally published author will differ significantly in quality from one written by a self-published author. Notably, if that independently published author hired publishing professionals as part of their process. This is even more relevant when you consider many editors and designers who work with big publishers also freelance on the side.
But What About Distribution?
Traditional publishing companies have tremendous reach. True. But distribution is a whole different issue, and it does not speak to the quality of the story or the book itself.
Reframing the Narrative
Here’s the conversation I’d like to have.
“Are you a published author?”
“Yes, I am. I’m working on my fifth book now.”
“That’s great! What do you write about?” And then the conversation continues, and we (the small we) discuss our work, our experiences, and our goals as colleagues and as (dare I say it) equals.
At the end of the day, being an author is hard work. It takes persistence and perseverance. It requires creativity, love, and also thick skin. It is a journey of obstacles, milestones, rejections, and celebrations. And all of this is true no matter what type of publication path you choose. Today’s publishing industry requires that all authors are more materially involved in the marketing and promotion of their books anyway, so why quibble over the details?
Instead, let’s learn from each other and grow.