The Subdivided Writer – A Different Look at Self-Publishing

by Janis Patterson

There is an old saw which says, Money should always flow to the writer, not away from the writer. This is largely true and was created long ago in an attempt to protect innocent and gullible little newbies from paying large sums of money to at best dicey companies who promise them fame and fortune by ‘publishing’ their books. (Unfortunately, even in this information-saturated day such ‘publishing companies’ still proliferate and flourish, which is an irrefutable indictment against starry-eyed suckers.) Sadly, this advice was coined long before the advent of self-publishing and has confused any number of people, newbies and seasoned authors alike.

One of the draws of self-publishing is the control it gives the writer, and to be honest, this is like pure catnip to a control-freak like me. What is not stressed enough is that with complete control comes complete responsibility, and that is not always easy.

The first thing is that the writer must become two opposing people – the author (WriterYou) who has created a thing of lasting beauty which is perfect in every way and should live because of its artistic merit, and the publisher (PublisherYou) who must see everything through a purely business-like lens of dollars and cents. If one isn’t very careful it could be a recipe for madness.

WriterYou is responsible for creating the best book possible – a work of fiction (I suppose, though the same criteria hold true for non-fiction, just in different forms) that is as good as he can possibly make it.

PublisherYou is responsible for everything business-oriented – and paying for it as needed, just as a true traditional publisher would be. This includes professional editor(s) as needed, formatters, covers, uploading, publicity (which sadly many traditional publishers now push off 99% of onto the author) and just about everything else.

Warning : the two of you will not always agree in spite of the fact they’re in the same body (yours), and sometimes your disagreements can become epic. This is where self-publishing has the risk of becoming a quagmire, especially when it concerns the content of the book itself. When a professional editor (and I stress the professional part, someone who does this for a living, not your mother or your Aunt Edna who think you are the cleverest thing for having written a book of any kind) says you need to do something, that is something you really need to consider doing, especially the newer you are as a writer. The older you are as a writer, the more credits you have under your belt, the more credibility you have in questioning an editor. A rank newbie should listen! Wasn’t it Maugham – some famous writer, anyway – who said about editing “Kill your darlings…”? No matter how experienced you are as a writer, somehow there is always some part of our story that we just fall in love with, even if it’s not very good, even if it doesn’t forward the story, even if… whatever. That part needs to go, no matter how much it makes you resonate. It’s hard, but if it will make the book stronger, better, more saleable, it has to be done. It is the unenviable job of PublisherYou to insure that WriterYou goes along and does the edits.

Even now, after all my years of self-publishing, when my talented and beloved professional editor says something I really don’t want to hear or do, I think back to a hard-nosed and even harder-hearted editor I had in my New York trad-pubbed days. When I protested something she would listen very politely, then tell me to go ahead and make the changes. And in every instance but I believe two (out of many books) she was exactly right. Make your PublisherYou that strong… and listen to him!

And make no mistake, I don’t care where you are in your writing career, YOU NEED A PROFESSIONAL EDITOR. Although WriterYou should edit the manuscript to the best of his ability before turning loose of it, only a fool will try to do the final edit himself. Also be ready to accept that even after you have several professional passes on a manuscript some – usually tiny – mistakes will slip through. The only perfection comes from God, and I’m quite willing to accept that He is too busy for me to expect Him to proofread a novel.

True self-publishing, with all the responsibility ultimately resting on the writer’s shoulders, is just one way of getting published. The traditional “New York” or “Big 5” (or “Big 4” or how many of them there are this week) is pretty familiar; it’s been around more or less for centuries and is notorious both for taking all of the control and most of the money. And I do mean most of the money! Even though PublisherYou has to pay for everything, contrast the 6-10% of cover price that the author receives in traditional publishing versus the 60-80% the self-publisher earns.

On the other hand there is most definitely a cachet about being published by a major publisher which some authors find so attractive they refuse to consider anything else. And that is their right. Some are very successful; some aren’t, but that’s true everywhere in the industry.

If you decide to go the traditional route and are offered a contract, you need to be very careful and examine everything – and I mean everything! – before accepting it. Nowadays it is not only common but almost necessary to have any proferred contract vetted by an entertainment law attorney before acceptance.

Always remember, publishing houses are not in business for your good; to them you are just a tool to increase their bottom line and most of them will get away with whatever they can get away with, which means everything they can get you to accept. Remember back when they tried to demean authors by relegating them to the category of ‘content providers’? Authors who are not part of the fabled few superstars pretty much earn the least of the publishing world’s hierarchy even though without them there would not be a publishing business at all. And no, that is not fair!

Then there’s also the fabled and sometimes justly reviled Vanity Press, and the newer and occasionally trustworthy hybrid ‘Assisted Publishing Organizations,’ both of which I’ll talk about next month.

Just remember that if you self-publish, you must split into WriterYou and PublisherYou and be diligent in both sides. Otherwise you have probably spent a lot of money and time without much hope of success.

5 thoughts on “The Subdivided Writer – A Different Look at Self-Publishing

  1. Self-publishing does have its pitfalls, but affords more freedom for an author. With the freedom comes lots of decisions and second guesses, like which cover to pick, where to advertise, etc. Of course, the main thing is producing a decent manuscript not only to engage the reader without grammatical errors, repetitions, or using different names for the same person, or using the same words over and over. When I’m through editing my manuscript zillions of times, I send it off to three trusted writing friends to find errors or just offer opinions. Amazing how each can find something different to mention!


  2. Good points, all. I will say that one of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard came from Mary Higgins Clark, about learning to trust your instincts as a writer. That comes with many years and many books. I’m happy with self-pubbing, definitely, because I have control.


  3. This is marvelous advice. As a self-publisher, I try to follow it myself. Thanks for putting this down in writing.


  4. Delightful post with lots of dandy insight. But it’s often hard to address both of those sides of ourselves LOL.


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