Too often, I hear writers discuss self-publishing as what they would do if they couldn’t get a traditional publisher to buy their books. This is true for some authors: they try to get published, and, after a series of rejections, decide that there’s nothing left to do but self-publish. However, there are many reasons why self-publishing might be the best first option.
My biggest wish is that self-published authors could stop apologizing directly or indirectly for the ways in which their books came to be in the world. As an author who has been self-published and traditionally published with multiple books, I believe that there are significant pros and cons of both paths. Contrary to popular belief, traditional publishing isn’t better for every author or for every book. The most important thing for the success of a book is that the author has confidence in whatever publishing decisions are being made—especially if the decision is to self-publish.
Although traditional publishing has made a lot of progress in prioritizing and uplifting #OwnVoices work, many marginalized writers, including LGBTQ writers and writers of color, are still locked out of lucrative book deals. Even if traditional publishers buy books, they may not pour resources into them, leaving the labor of promoting and marketing to the authors. At that point, are authors better off doing all the work themselves and receiving the full sales revenue instead of a small royalty? Sometimes!
Self-publishing can also mean not having to adjust a story or voice to fit with a publisher’s vision. If authors are writing stories for their communities, there are very valid reasons for taking publication into their own hands. Especially for marginalized writers, self-publishing can be the best way to reach readers who need them most, and to maintain artistic control over their projects.
Traditional publishing can open some doors, but it doesn’t mean that those doors are closed to those who decide to self-publish. If authors consider self-publishing to be a less legitimate publishing experience, then they’ve already set themselves up for their books to fail. A book’s success depends on its author’s confidence and commitment.
For me, the most important part of being an author is the joy in knowing that a book I wrote touched someone, made them laugh, made them think, made them cry, changed their life in some small way. That is what brings me to the keyboard day after day. My readers don’t care how my book got into their hands, whether a publisher signed off on it, or if I clicked the publish button on a print-on-demand website.
I urge fellow authors not to let people tell them that something isn’t possible for a self-published book. Instead, I want them to believe their goals are possible—and to work hard to make them happen. My self-published books have been just as successful as my traditionally published titles in terms of awards and recognition, getting shelved by libraries, and sales numbers. I have made more money from some of my self-published titles than I will likely make from some of my traditionally published books.
That said, there are some areas in which self-publishing can be a disadvantage. Getting an indie book onto bookstore or library shelves and into book awards is all going to fall on the author. Sure, there will be some places where a book will automatically be excluded by virtue of being self-published, but those are becoming fewer and farther between. The success of my self-published books comes down to the work I put in to promoting them; the networking I do with booksellers, librarians, and readers; and my commitment to bringing them to broader audiences. To get a book on the shelf, the writer has to build a literary community.
No matter how a book is published, its author should feel empowered. Authors must be the cheerleaders for their books, and this responsibility is even greater when self-publishing. In traditional publishing, authors can falter or let others trust the inherent value of their works. With self-publishing, authors must always be their book’s biggest advocates. Their role is to make people fall in love with their books enough that they will want to buy them. In order to do that, writers have to believe in their books more than anyone else does—and that includes believing in the chosen path to publication.
Sassafras Lowrey writes fiction and nonfiction and was the recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Award for emerging LGBTQ writers.