Weighing the Merits of Self Publishing

Photo by Agnieszka Boeske at Unsplash

I've been writing stories — both non-fiction and make-believe— since roughly third grade. From those first days in elementary school all the way through my master’s coursework, my reward for a well-crafted essay was immediate: a high mark in the grade book. It’s easy to know you’ve written something of value when your professor jots praise in the margin and grants an A+. Course credit is extended. Grade point averages soar.

Post-grad writing offers far less instant gratification. Today, I’m a freelance writer who often pens pieces because I’m self-driven to explore the topics, not because they’re assigned by an instructor or boss. It’s not a matter of want. I need to write. The results are essays, short stories, one novel which is almost ready for prime time, and the first draft of a second book.

Occasionally, finding a publisher willing to pay is easy. More frequently, when I find applicable magazines, newspapers, new media sites, and blogs willing to post my work, there’s little or no compensation. “We just don’t have a budget to pay writers,” the editors lament.

In “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!” Tim Kreider writes, “People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing.”

You’ve heard the most common retort by creatives, right? “If I wanted exposure, I’d show up naked.”

And, though I’m just beginning the search for a literary agent, I’m aware of the statistics. I have high hopes for my completed novel but know the chances of it being picked up by a traditional publisher are slim.

Given the choice between keeping a compelling story hidden on my laptop, letting another website have my work for zero compensation, or self-publishing, I’ll almost always opt for the latter.

Benefits to Self-Publishing

  1. I retain copyright ownership of my work and the ability to re-license it in the future.
  2. Medium’s stats allow me to see which articles resonate, and my website’s analytics help me learn about my audience and show me where my stories are linked.
  3. My portfolio stays current even when it’s been a minute since my last hired piece; editors can see the breadth and depth of my work in a single glance.
  4. There are no word limits.
  5. I’m able to write in my own voice since I’m not catering my content to niche publications.
  6. Any subject which interests me has a chance at being published; I can chase down whatever piques my curiosity.
  7. I’m able to get time-sensitive stories posted far more quickly than waiting to find an outlet.
  8. Since I post less frequently than most new media sites, stories on my own website have a longer half life.
  9. Self-publishing fiction allows me to retain a higher percentage of earnings than I would going through an agent.
  10. Creative control is entirely mine; I’m able to select my own cover art, photographs, and titles and decide exactly how and where to market my work.

Drawbacks to Self-Publishing

  1. On the editorial side, my brag list isn’t as robust as it would be if I’d held out for well-known publications for every article and essay.
  2. Because Medium and my own website aren’t considered accredited media, requests for press access can be difficult; gatekeepers often think I’m just trying to build my own portfolio, even when Medium offers more broad exposure than a niche news site with a very limited audience.
  3. With fiction, I have to spend money in advance for editing and marketing instead of being given an advance by a publisher.
  4. Should the gods be in my favor, I will have to field offers for film and foreign rights and secure a lawyer to help me proceed with negotiations.

Which is Ultimately Best?

Weighing these considerations, I handle each piece on a case-by-case basis. It usually comes down to format.

For articles and essays, Medium and my own blog are nearly always the best places to land.

With short stories, I prefer to submit to established literary journals and magazines.

And, my novel? Well, check back in a few months after I test the waters querying agents. I’m ready to self-publish if needed.

How do you decide when to pitch, when to self-publish, and when to hide your work away in draft form?

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