Before 2011, I was a fledgling writer in chains. My success as a novelist depended on whichever benevolent literary agent buried in New York’s bowels might find my work amazing and sellable. By the time I started sending queries for my “gay agenda” satire The Breeders (and actually having success getting manuscript requests), I was well broken in to the traditional publishing system, complete with thick skin and a healthy dose of self-doubt.
Around the same time, a fellow Minnesotan named Amanda Hocking was making headlines for selling her way to literary success without the help of an agent or publisher. She had found an audience for her work—every writer’s dream—and I’d be lying if I claimed her achievement didn’t dangle the self-publishing possibility in front of me and tempt me to chase it, too. And I did.
Now, 14 months later, not only is The Breeders published, but it is also finding an audience. I’ve experienced the inexplicable thrill of having readers love it and hate it for the exact same reason, and my future is unrolling in ways I would never have foreseen: I now design e-books for a living, I have my own publishing company, and I’ve been invited to submit content to major publications—all because I decided to do it myself. But would I do it again? That is the million-dollar question.
Publishing The Breeders was the most enlightening experience of my life, but it was also the most draining—mentally, physically, and emotionally. In deciding to take the big leap, I knew two things for certain: I was putting future chances of being traditionally published on the line, and I would not be able to undo any career-related damage it might cause. I was determined to create a book that would look perfectly at home on a table in Barnes & Noble, and I knew I wouldn’t release it if it couldn’t hold its own on my bookshelf next to The Time Traveler’s Wife, Harry Potter, and Atlas Shrugged. I wanted it to be published, not self-published.
My background in photography, graphic design, and film production was both a blessing and a curse. While I owned all the equipment and software necessary to create my e-book, print book, Web site, and book trailer, I was by no means an expert. Naïvely thinking that eight months would be long enough for me to hone my design skills while also preparing my manuscript for editing, final rewrites, and line editing, I set (and stupidly announced to anyone who cared) a release date of November 16, 2011.
It proved to be too much. In August, I crashed. I worked myself into the ground, became a zombie from insomnia, and barely had time to learn the ropes of wholesale discounting, distribution, and returns.
Yet the most challenging part was finalizing the book’s content. My editors, both of whom did a terrific job, were employed by the hour on my dime, not by a publisher that could afford multiple passes. My insecurities skyrocketed when the revisions seemed to be endless—some due to missed typos, others due to lazy writing that I knew could be better. Even after an ex-journalist friend gave me a final edit for free, I found mistakes.
So I read through the manuscript again. And again. And again. I missed my deadline and pushed it back, first one month, then two. Each print book revision would cost me $40, so I released the e-book first, which was free to correct. In the end, being responsible for these final edits became the most fatiguing difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing—enough to make me question how I will approach publication for my next book, and I still don’t have an answer.
For all of the issues brought about by self-publishing, had I gone with a traditional publisher, I would have been tethered to more rigid deadlines. My book’s title, design, and content would have been subject to the collective taste of a sales and marketing team. I would also be earning a lower percentage in royalties. And, of course, I could be relying on the publishing power brokers in New York to make or break my future.
Self-publishing comes with sacrifices and tradeoffs. Do it poorly, and you might be perpetually afflicted with literary invisibility. Do it well, and you might find the road to your dreams. At the very least, it will give you the freedom to make your own luck. Sometimes, that’s all you need.
Matthew J. Beier is the author of The Breeders and owner of Epicality Books, an independent publishing and custom e-book design company.