Months ago, a relative told me that his ambitious author friend was earnestly seeking a book deal.
“She wants to be a big writer,” he said. “Not like you. I mean, you’re just kinda sorta of content to self-publish. But she wants to make a living at it.”
I was dumbfounded. Even offended. Who wants to be called just kinda sorta anything?
But I believe he meant well. And after thinking about his remark for a while, I realized that he was right. I am content to self-publish. And I am happy that the technology exists to for me to do it so easily and economically.
I have self-published all of my books since iUniverse emerged around the turn of the millennium, and I have no regrets.
My memory of my brother telling me about the new technology is one of my favorites. He had heard about it on NPR. “Print on demand technology,” he explained, “means that you can self-publish without the risk of going broke.”
Just out of college and writing my first novel, I was nearly in despair over my publishing prospects. I had been reading how-to-write magazines that were less about writing well than pleasing publishers and agents. The gatekeepers seemed to want minimally modified duplicates of popular releases that had already made scads of money.
Such risk-averse publishers seemed unlikely to applaud my novel Thief of Hades. Not because my story was bad but because it was strange. It did not fit into a neat genre or age category.
My main character was the mythological boatman of the river Styx, an immortal man, cursed to age forever, who ferried dead souls to their afterlife destinations.
He was not a typical hero. He was not sexy or young. He did not fit the “chosen farm boy savior” fantasy trope. I had never even considered who my audience would be. I just wanted to tell a good story, the kind I would want to read.
The new technology opened doors to all kinds of bold weirdness and seemed too good to be true.
I had always imagined that the most I could hope for was to hire an elusive boss called a publisher who would extol my talent, then override my editorial decisions and take most of my profits. And even that was a long shot. Because apparently all writers wanted that, and there were only so many aloof, profit-grabbing publishers to go around.
But iUniverse shifted the vast power from the editorial gods to me. No need to query and wait months for a reply from a “busy agent.” No more jumping through arbitrary formatting hoops merely to submit the first few paragraphs of a manuscript. No need to prove that I could adeptly say popular things that had already been said before. I was allowed to write weirdly and originally and recklessly. And so I did.
Because of the new technology, a cosmos of creative voices that had been muted could finally be heard—potentially by wide audiences. For some reason, though, I never foresaw indie publishing becoming the robust movement that it is now, transforming the publishing industry in a seismic way.
For many years, the publishing model I had known my whole life still held its sheen for me, especially since companies like iUniverse were at first dubbed “vanity presses.” The belittling label always set my teeth on edge .
Why was publishing a book on my own “vain”? Did entrepreneurs who started their own restaurants endure accusations of building “vanity restaurants?”
Regardless, I wanted to escape the assumption that I had a character defect because of how I had published my novel. So, about six years ago, I did submit a manuscript to a traditional publisher.
Months later, I received a glowing acceptance letter. I went around in an ebullient daze, feeling like I had been inducted into some lofty pantheon.
The deal was a disaster from the start. For six months I was under the impression that my novel was being edited, and when I finally wrote to inquire about it, I discovered that the editor had not even begun. Plus, the company had lost my manuscript. I had to resend it.
When I finally did receive the edits, the parts that the editor wanted me to cut were the parts I loved the most: the scenes that had real emotion in them.
She thought that my novel had passages that were too depressing. She wanted me to delete them and make my characters more likeable—especially the parents.
Feelings of resentment lodged inside me. If I made all of the changes that my editor demanded, my novel would be unrecognizable, a thin forgettable adventure, a milquetoast amusement park ride. I ended my book deal.
Before self-publishing became economically viable, my decision to refuse the edits would have been far more gut-wrenching. If I had ended the deal in, say, 1990, I could not have counted on my novel getting published at all. The editor would have had vast power to reshape or dilute my vision.
But self-publishing does more than grant creative control to authors who have existing manuscripts. Sometimes, just knowing the indie option exists encourages aspiring authors to write stories that they never would have otherwise.
Shortly after I published my first novel, I received a phone call from my former next-door neighbor, a talented columnist for the local newspaper. His name was Steve Biondo.
He wanted to know whether I liked my experience with self-publishing. For many years, he had kept an incomplete manuscript of a novel in his desk drawer, a novel he yearned to finish but that had been gathering dust.
It fictionalized a local legend—a civil war hero named Manse Jolly. Because Manse Jolly was such a niche topic, the publishers Steve had queried expressed no interest in it.
Steve was frustrated. He dreamed of finishing his novel anyway, but his job drained him so much that by the time he got home from work, he was loath to write or do much of anything else.
But when he learned from my mom that I had self-published a novel, everything changed for him. He realized that he had a new power, which motivated him to finish his book The True Story of Manse Jolly. In fact, he ended up publishing an entire trilogy.
I was proud of him. And I was moved that self-publishing my novel had encouraged him to achieve a previously thwarted dream.
But a few years after writing his third book, I stumbled across a stunning item in my hometown newspaper: an obituary.
Steve had died. A breathing complication had taken his life after he was admitted into the local hospital.
My throat grew tight. Although I was just a neighbor, I had considered Steve to be the first “real writer” I had ever known. He had even had the perceptive squint that I thought all writers were supposed to have. Real writers with perceptive squints, I thought, were supposed to live forever.
Months later, I learned that—in a way—they could. When I attended his memorial service, I saw something unexpected. Someone had brought out a table to display his three Manse Jolly novels.
I could not stop staring at them. I kept thinking that, inside those covers, Steve was still alive. His wit and intelligence and imagination were preserved there. And every time someone read his words, his mind would flicker to life again.
Those books were repositories of his knowledge, quirks, personality, and passions— novels that would never have been born without a technology that eased the burdens of self-publishing.
My friend was not a “big” writer. He never got rich or earned enough from his fiction to quit his day job. But those novels were ends in themselves. They mattered.
Some aspiring writers view self-publishing as the option of last resort, a trashy gimmick for no-talent writers or a vanity press for impatient hacks who only want to see their name in print.
Not true. Self-publishing is not a cheap imitation of “respectable” publishing; it is its democratic gold standard that legions of writers throughout history would have killed for if they had known it were possible.
Self-publishing permits all writers to share their stories. It honors niche interests. It allows authors to take creative risks that mainstream publishers discourage.It lets authors focus on the writing rather than pleasing agents.
Despite the many benefits of self-publishing, some writers still consider it to be the plebian option of last resort. That is like saying that democracy is something you had to settle for because the right tyranny never came along.
My relative was right. I am content to self-publish. But not just kinda sorta. I am content without reservation or apology.
Self-publishing means that I never have to beg for permission to share my ideas. It empowers and inspires me. It censors no one. It shifts the focus from how to package my thoughts to the prize that matters most: the art itself.