I missed the self-publication revolution — Whew!

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Obviously I didn’t miss it entirely.  It’s going on in earnest even unto this very day.  But it’s a good thing for me that self-publishing was in its infancy when I started my writing career.  Why?

Well, when I look back on my writing, I see enormous growth in the quality and density of the prose (I’ve always been solid at characterization, pacing, and the like, but I’ve had to work at the prose).  Now, don’t get me wrong, I think even my earliest work has some evocative scenes and interesting turns of phrase, but it pales in comparison to the prose I write today.

So how did that growth occur?  In four words: Peer review and rejection.

Having my writing scrutinized by experienced editors whose reputations and livelihoods depended upon publishing quality work resulted in feedback that forced me to examine my prose harshly, refine it, and thereby grow as a writer.  Similarly, nothing sharpens the mind (and the prose) like a rejection letter from an editor I respect, containing constructive comments about how to improve the prose.

Had I self-published a story like Shadow’s Witness(which I regard as my weakest novel) in a world of my own, and had it sold even a tenth of what Shadow’s Witness has actually sold, I would have considered it a smashing commercial success.  At that point, I probably would have published follow up novels and given little thought to improving the craft.  I certainly wouldn’t have attacked my own writing with rigor, and I certainly wouldn’t have improved as a writer as much as I have between say, Shadow’s Witness and Shadowbred/Riptide, much less written something like the Egil and Nix stories.  I simply wouldn’t have had the tools to do so at that point in my writing career.  Worse, I wouldn’t have known that I didn’t have the tools.  I was, after all, mostly ignorant of the craft.  I’d have been selling books in a quantity that made real money and I’d have continued merrily along, none the wiser.  And maybe Paulternate in some Altverse is doing just that, but I’m glad I’m not him.  There’s more to this than just making money (though making money is nice :-)).

Note that this isn’t a condemnation of self-publishing.  Hell, I’ve dabbled in it myself (with Ephemera) and imagine I’ll do so again in the future.  But at this point I’ve got a dozen novels under my belt, a strong voice, and prose that’s been refined, refined, and refined again (and that will continue, though I don’t imagine it’ll improve by leaps and bounds the way it did at earlier points in my career).  And, of course, my experience isn’t necessarily indicative of other writers (I’m not, for example, saying that all self-pubbed writers will have unrefined prose and an amateurish voice).  I’m simply saying that even moderate success as a self-published writer may (for some) give rise to creative complacency and an inadequately refined inner critic.  It would have for me.

So I guess it’s a damned good thing that I had to do this the way I did it, since it made me the writer I am.

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9 thoughts on “I missed the self-publication revolution — Whew!

  1. It’s easy to think you wouldn’t have had that drive to improve, or the feedback…but trust me, it’s false. Readers are more than happy to, in emails and reviews, tell you eeeeverywhere you went wrong. And the realization that with every improvement you make, every better story you tell, there’s the chance that the next book just makes it even bigger, and bigger, and expands your audience? Addicting.

    Also bear in mind that just because you’re self-publishing doesn’t mean you suddenly don’t work with an editor (the vast bulk of the successful indies do). If you are the person that has that drive, to do better and better, why would you just instantly shut it off because you found, of all things, *success*?

    Not saying it still would have been better for you (I’m no idiot to say every writer grows the same way) but I’ve seen this assumption for awhile, this idea that once you can self-publish you grow stagnant, and it just isn’t true. If anything, it can light a fire under you far greater than the agent-merry-go-round can. Because you’re answerable only to readers. Not agents. Not publishers. Not the whims of a marketing department. Just readers, and if you don’t have that innate desire to please readers, to knock their socks off with every book…why are you a writer in the first place?

    • I think you may be an exception here, David, which probably explains your success.

      In any event, I know myself. My career would have went in a very different direction had I enjoyed some success in self-publishing early on.

      • I don’t think anyone would dispute that your career would have been different if you’d gone in a different direction and that your ability as a writer would’ve evolved differently, Paul. What David is getting at is that the hunger you describe to improve stems from a different source than rejection letters.

        The market and reader feedback drive our desire to improve our craft just as much as comments from editors we respect. It might also be beneficial to note that many authors are turning to self-publishing after years or decades of rigorous practice that allowed them to develop into professional writers.

        Though there are hacks and those happy to spin their wheels after a small measure of success, there are plenty of others putting the time and effort in to strive for excellence.

        • Oh, I know what David is getting at, and if that works for him (as it seems to) great. Likewise great if it works for you. It wouldn’t have worked for me.

          Reader feedback doesn’t move me at all. I’m pleased when readers enjoy my work, of course, but I also recognize that most readers aren’t in a position to offer meaningful feedback on the writing (they like or don’t like a story, but that’s not the same kind of feedback an experienced editor offers). And the connection between the market (in terms of sales) and artistic feedback is tenuous at best. Lots of great writing has few readers; lots of bad writing has many. And if mediocre writing gets an audience for one reason or another, then I suspect the incentive to harshly self-assess is reduced.

          Here’s the thing: At the end of the day, much of what I read that’s written by self-published authors who have only self-published strikes me as of a quality that’s right on the edge of publishable via traditional channels. And many of those writers have published many novels. They just aren’t showing much improvement. David is a notable exception in terms of quality. You may be, too, though I haven’t read anything of yours.

  2. I agree with David. Just because you self-publish and find success, doesn’t mean you don’t strive to excel. My first book hit the NYT’s best seller list, but I’m still trying to improve. I work with critique groups, editors, and I wouldn’t dream of just slapping up anything to get sales.

    Now, Paul, if you feel you wouldn’t have had the motivation to excel, that’s fine, I believe you. But I wouldn’t put that label on every self-published author.

    • First, I don’t think I put a label on all self-published authors. In fact, I went out of my way to not do that.

      Second, I must have been unclear with my point. I would have striven to excel. Hell, I would have thought I WAS excelling. After all, if I was selling, and if I were using sales and reader feedback as the metric by which I measured the development of my craft, I’d have been getting signals that I was doing things just right.

      But because I wouldn’t have had the tools to effectively self critique, I would have been wrong. Or at least I wouldn’t have been making much in the way of strides when it came to developing the craft. It took me more than sales and positive reader feedback to develop and refine my inner critic (I had sales and positive reader feedback for my first novel, after all, but it’s my worst, and I wince I bit when I think about it these days).

  3. I should be clear that I think self-publishing is a good thing. I’ve done it and plan to do more of it in the future.

    I should also be clear that I think some writers who are only self-published are fine writers. But I do, in fact, think that excellent writers are more uncommon among those who’ve only self-published than they are among those who’ve published via traditional channels, and I think part of the reason for that is related to the issues I raised in the post (i.e., like Paulternate, they don’t know what they don’t know).

  4. Paul, I am of course taking the advice you’re dishing out, hell I’ve been doing so since I first asked for it about my own writing career. The first book is done and I’ve already been rejected once. Sadly enough though the letter was extremely generic and offered me no help, but I definitely feel that fire. I want that day to come when you pick my book up off a shelf or download it as an e-book (a man can dream).

    My father is behind me 100% and has talked to me a few times about self-publishing and I now have two companies breathing down my neck every other day about it, but I’m determined to hold out. Until I get that phone call or a letter from a traditional company, I’m going to keep writing (I’m actually coming to a close on a story that was at one time supposed to be short but is now on the back end of 28,000 words).

    Just thought I’d drop my two cents in and not have them be about how your blog was incorrect in some way. Also, I’ve finally done it… finally gotten all of my brothers to read the Erevis Cale trilogy. My youngest just finished it several minutes ago actually.

    Anyway, good luck with the new endeavors Paul. Oh, and I’m definitely pre-ordering the Egil and Nix book in about… now.

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