“Should I traditionally publish or self-publish?”
I’ve often heard this question posed as if it’s a real choice. It’s not. It’s like asking this:
“Should I get up and go to work today or should I hit the lottery?”
The choice of the traditional publishing path versus the self-publishing path is a false dilemma. You don’t get to choose to traditionally publish. You get to choose to pursue traditional publishing or to self-publish. Do the math. Work backward from the number of books the Big Five publish every year, then cut it down to the number of titles published in your chosen genre, then divide that by the number of books sold to publishers by agents. Then look at the odds of Joe or Jane Writer getting an agent to read a manuscript, then represent the writer, and then sell said manuscript to one of the big publishers. I don’t know the exact numbers, but it’s safe to say that going from unknown, unpublished author to having one of the Big Five shipping your book to a Barnes & Noble is the equivalent of hitting the lottery.
However, this reality is not meant to be discouraging. For some, pursuing publication by a traditional publisher may bring recognition, prestige, and an audience that the average self-published author cannot reach—such as airport bookstores. However, I don’t believe it’s possible for the majority of writers to make a living as a traditionally published author. Therefore, I believe that there has never been a better time to be an independent author. What follows is a summary of the path I chose, the path that others have chosen, and the path that you will choose if you want to control your own destiny.
“I can do this.”
Most independent author journeys begin with a thought like this: You’re reading a good book, maybe even a great book, and you’re thinking, “I can do this. I can tell a story that is just as good or better than this one.” At that moment, your rational mind goes for a cup of coffee, and you’re left with the voice of your inner child. You remember that one, don’t you? It’s the voice that told you jumping off the roof of the garage into the swimming pool was a great idea. Or the voice that insisted your father wouldn’t mind if you borrowed the car for a few hours without his permission. That spirit, that feeling, was the same one that lit you up as a child after cracking open a new coloring book and spending hours wearing your crayons down to nubs.
Now, though, you’re an adult and probably not jumping into pools from roofs or using crayons. But as you write or contemplate becoming a writer, it’s important to reconnect with that part of you that overflows with creativity and possibility. It’s that spark inside that incites the fire of your childhood energy, creating the beginning of your independent author journey.
Often, we don’t know why we think, “I can do this.” Andy Weir told me that The Martian began as a series of blog posts without a master plan or grand scheme. Innately, he had a story to tell, and the moment he posted the first chapter on his website, the adventure had begun, whether or not he had realized it at the time. That voice inside of Andy Weir said, “I can do this.”
In 2007, I was reading wheelbarrows full of epic fantasy. I tend to go through reading phases when I’m devouring books from a specific genre. Although my tastes run darker—horror and science fiction—I remember getting lost in the magical and fantastic worlds created by writers of epic fantasy. Tolkien, Martin, Pratchett, Lewis, Goodkind—I couldn’t stop. After a year or so of reading two to three novels a week, my internal voice spoke up.
“I can do this.”
It sounded ridiculous. Who was I to even think it? Sure, by that time, I’d been a journalist and an educator for almost 15 years. I’d been writing my entire life. I’d written tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of words as a professional academic, but I’d not written a single piece of fiction since 11th-grade literature class. And I’d barely squeaked by with a C.
And yet, once the inner voice had spoken those words, I knew there was no going back. I was going to write. I was going to tell a story, write a novel, become an author. I had no idea where to begin. Should I call my favorite chain bookstore and ask them what to do? Should I write a letter to the CEO of Barnes & Noble to ask permission to sell my as-of-yet unwritten books in their store? Maybe I needed to go and talk to the librarian at my local library? I was clueless.
But here’s the thing. Deep down, I knew that voice had emerged because I wasn’t being fulfilled professionally, spiritually, or creatively. I had a career as a successful and respected educator, but something was missing. I had a yearning I couldn’t articulate until the moment I heard, “I can do this,” in my head.
Something must change, or nothing will change. This is true whether you’re talking about a career change, a new relationship, or the laws of physics. Things in motion tend to stay in motion (I did a little better in 10th-grade physics class). If something is moving along a certain trajectory, it will continue in that fashion unless acted upon by an outside force.
If you’ve started this journey, you probably remember the moment you exerted an outside force upon your current mindset. You can probably recall when you decided that writing a novel sounded like an incredibly good idea—like jumping off the garage roof and into the backyard pool (am I the only one who tried this?). If you haven’t begun walking the path of an independent author, then maybe this is your moment. Trust me when I say, “You can do this.”
Take a deep breath because acknowledging your intention is just the beginning.
I had to be honest with myself. If I was going to write the next great epic fantasy novel, I had a lot of work to do. And it would start with the most pleasurable kind of work I could possibly imagine—reading. I’m often saddened when I hear authors say that they’re too busy to read or that they don’t have time to crack open a book. Other than writing, there is no single better activity for improving your craft than reading. Reading fiction is a must if you’re planning on writing fiction. But even more important is reading within your genre. Getting familiar with the conventions, obligatory scenes, and reader expectations are critical to your success.
You must obey the rules until you break them. You must study the masterworks of the genre because they are masterworks for a reason. Read, take notes, think about the story as you shower, or walk the dog, or while lying in bed waiting for the sandman. Immerse yourself in Story and become intimately familiar with the giants whose shoulders you hope to soon stand upon. Once you know the rules, you’ll know which ones you can break and which ones you must honor.
Andy Weir knew the science of The Martian inside and out, and he read the science fiction classics. He was a fan of sci-fi long before he was an author of it. Weir understood what the hardcore science fiction reader (of hard sci-fi) wanted, and he understood which rules he could break and which conventions he couldn’t mess with. By making Mark Watney a wise-cracking scientist with a sense of humor, Andy innovated the hard sci-fi story in a way that made readers who were not a fan of science fiction read his book.
If I was going to write epic fantasy, I needed to level up my craft and become a student of the genre. Not only did I need to read the masters of epic fantasy, but I was going to have to be able to explain what they did, how they did it, and why they did it so I would be equipped to bring my unique take to the genre. No story is unique. They’ve all been told countless times. The art of writing is in how you tell a familiar story. Although this felt like a complication I could handle, the next one felt almost impossible.
How exactly was I going to write a novel? Reading a novel and writing a novel are clearly not the same thing. My naïve and somewhat foolish assumption—I read books, therefore, I can write books—would come back to bite me in several ways. But it was that naïve and foolish voice that set me off on this journey in the beginning, and there was no going back now.
“I can do this.”
Yeah, right. Maybe I can, but how? Back to the books.
I headed to the bookstore and purchased On Writing by Stephen King. Don’t immediately discount that author’s writing book just because you don’t plan on writing horror. This classic memoir/writing guide is about King’s process and less so about his chosen genre. In On Writing, the master of storytelling explains how he goes from idea to publication. I don’t necessarily agree with everything in the book and this was published long before becoming an independent author became accessible or viable, but I still believe this title is a must-read for any aspiring writer.
When I read King’s words, I could identify with the feelings he’d shared while on his journey. I could see those emotions and tendencies within me, therefore believing that if King could become an author, so could I. This was not some grandeur of illusion or childhood fantasy masquerading as a midlife crisis. Well, it was, but it was also validation that even Stephen King was human. On Writing made me believe that I could learn how to become an author.
As Carol Dweck would explain in 2006’s Mindset, embracing a growth mindset meant that limitations were merely complications or obstacles to overcome. The word impossible only existed in the vocabulary of those with a fixed mindset, those who sadly believe that their brain turned off the day they walked across the stage with a high school diploma—as if learning only happens in school and once you leave the classroom, you’ve got what you’ve got.
Not me. I don’t buy it, and I know you don’t either, or you wouldn’t be here on StoryGrid.com, reading this post.
But when the true gift of mentorship is available between pages of a book, why stop with just one? I went back to the bookstore and purchased books about writing by William Zinsser, James Scott Bell, Ray Bradbury, Christopher Vogler, Blake Snyder. I read, highlighted, underlined, notated. A little later in my journey, in 2011, I came across a small book with an intriguing title by a guy I’d never heard of: The War of Art. I didn’t know it at the time, but that powerful, emotionally resonant, and impactful paperback would change my life. And someday, I plan on shaking Steven Pressfield’s hand to thank him in person.
So I did my homework. I read and studied the masters of my genre. I bowed at the altar of the literary visionaries. I primed myself for fortune and fame. And I searched online for the perfect wooded acreage on which to build my writing cabin, where I’d lock myself away to begin work on my New York Times bestselling, epic fantasy series.
And then, I looked out the window from the café where I’d been planning my Pulitzer Prize-winning career when I saw the snow falling upon the thin layer of frozen, gray skin stretching across Lake Erie.
I was living in Cleveland, Ohio.
The big publishers, the gatekeepers of the industry, had offices in New York. I was 470 miles from Manhattan. How would I possibly be able to meet the acquisitions editor of Random House at a hip restaurant on Fifth Avenue when it would take me 8 hours to drive there from Cleveland?
And then, more problems arose. Like the fact that I had a wife, young children, a full-time job. I know, I know. Quite a spoiled and entitled attitude, right? How dare the people and things that were the most important part of my life “get in the way” of my dream? That wasn’t how I felt, but I did recognize more complications arising from this paradoxical situation. I had a mortgage, car payments, bills. I wasn’t going to be able to sequester myself in the aforementioned fictional cabin and let my responsibilities slide. And I certainly couldn’t and wouldn’t stop being a caring and loving husband, father, friend, and son.
Getting me (and my manuscript) to New York wasn’t going to be easy. I knew that. But now, it began to feel downright impossible. But I heard the voice again.
“I can do this.”
So I kept going. I began to research and read everything I could find on the publishing process. Apparently, I couldn’t simply send my manuscript to Penguin and wait for the advance and royalties to hit my bank account. The big publishers didn’t accept unsolicited work, which meant I had to find an agent who would then attempt to sell my future bestseller to a publisher.
Another complication. Agents didn’t simply accept every author who asked for representation. In fact, most found their clients through word of mouth or from referrals. Unfortunately, I had not made any friends in New York City while living in Cleveland. I discovered that I could send queries to agents, but most of those ended up on what is called the “slush pile”—and if you think that doesn’t sound pleasant, you’re right. It’s basically the stack of unrequested submissions that sit on an agent’s desk, most of which are never touched. An agent discovering a writer from the slush pile, representing her, and then selling her manuscript to a big-time publisher is akin to hitting the lottery.
But I tried. I sent query letters to more than one hundred agents. I still have the spreadsheet to prove it. Over the coming months, I’d received about a dozen rejections. That was the good news. The bad news? Most agents never replied. Silence. Somehow, I’d found a place that was worse than rejection. In the eyes of the traditional publishing industry, I did not exist.
I was about to give up when I had a moment of insight, an idea that came from a place I’d least expected. I had been in rock bands for most of my life. When you’re in a band that isn’t signed to a major label (i.e., 99% of all bands), you must follow the old punk mantra of DIY: do it yourself. I had always been the guy in the band who coordinated rehearsal, scheduled studio time, booked the gigs. I’d always been a DIY guy and why should this publishing thing be any different? You may not have been in a band, but you’re probably a DIY guy or gal, too.
If you want something done right, do it yourself. DIY is empowerment. I didn’t have the resources or the knowledge to get my book published and on the shelves of Barnes & Noble. I didn’t have the network of published author friends. I didn’t have a brownstone on the Upper East Side. I’m guessing you don’t have any of those things either.
I was at a crossroads. I had a question to answer, one of the most important in my life. Do I keep trying to please the gatekeepers and seek their approval but continue to toil in obscurity, or do I try and do it myself with no experience or connections but without anyone or anything standing in my way?
In 2007, I purchased a first-generation Kindle, the e-reading device that would forever change the industry. Amazon’s Kindle was not the first e-reader, but it was the one that became ubiquitous, spawning the first wave of truly independent publishing. I’d been reading books on my Kindle for years, and so now, I pulled back the curtain, signing up for my free Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) account in 2010.
As I explored the platform, becoming familiar with the technical processes required to self-publish on Amazon.com, I also began reading articles, listening to podcasts, and following influencers. Amanda Hocking and John Locke became Internet-famous, each selling millions of ebooks and becoming the darlings of self-publishing. While Hocking and Locke were a few of the first, others soon followed. I watched as Joe Konrath, Scott Nicholson, J.R. Rain, CJ Lyons, Lindsay Buroker, Hugh Howey, and others began to amass a dedicated readership without going through the gatekeepers, by going around the existing systems and leveraging KDP to earn thousands and tens of thousands of dollars a month.
Podcasts for indies appeared, and I listened to every episode of The Self-Publishing Podcast, The Rocking Self Publishing Podcast, and The Creative Penn podcast. I became fans of the literary mavericks who produced these podcasts and over the years, would be proud to call them my friends. I even collaborated with some, co-writing Risen Gods with Joanna Penn in 2015 and publishing American Demon Hunters: Sacrifice with Joanna, Lindsay, and my business partner, Zach Bohannon, in 2017.
Writing, learning, writing more. Empowered by my DIY realization, I’d chosen myself. I gave up trying to please a system that didn’t care about me. I quit seeking validation from people who were too busy or indifferent. I stopped believing that I had to win the lottery in a rigged system. I’d seen firsthand that it didn’t have to be this way. Sure, the traditional publishing world tried to stigmatize self-published authors, denigrating the process as “vanity publishing” or labeling us as hacks. Some still do. But the times, they were a-changing, and once the independent author spirit had been established in my career track, there would be no going back. Ironically, it seems as though the traditional path is the new “vanity publishing” option as most authors realize that being traditionally published is more of an ego play than a viable way to make a living—except for a chosen few.
Once I’d made the decision, I hurtled headlong toward my dream. By the spring of 2012, I’d written (poorly) several manuscripts. This was the time of the “Kindle Gold Rush” when the Kindle was hitting its commercial apex and when authors with books available on the platform could make thousands by being in the right place at the right time.
I had put one of my books into a promotion in March of 2012, and the title had been downloaded about 34,000 times. I’ve told this story online and off many times, and I still bear the scars of uploading my manuscript without a professional edit. In spite of that massive mistake, I still had undeniable results. When the promotion ended, and my title went back to full price, the exposure I had on Amazon’s charts resulted in a few thousand dollars of royalties over the next several months. Not retiring-at-40 money. Not even a writing-shed-in-the-backyard wealthy. But validation that every author now had the power to control his fate. The new normal of the publishing world included an online dashboard that allowed authors to publish and sell directly to Amazon readers without getting the approval and support of the big publishers.
Does the story end here? Hardly. As students of Story Grid know, the Resolution simply sets up the next Inciting Incident. Things change. What worked for me in 2012 no longer does. In fact, some of the strategies I employed last year are no longer effective. But the playing field is more level than it’s ever been. Despite the gloom-and-doom articles you’ve recently read—most of those reports focused on and created by the traditional publishing industry and those covering it—there has never been a better time to be an independent author. While it’s getting more difficult to get discovered by readers, the tools to create stories and the ability to share them with the world is unprecedented.
In April of 2012, I started writing the next book. And I’ve done that ever since. Write a story. Publish it. Do it again.
It really is about the journey, not the destination. Each destination becomes a Resolution, setting you up for the next Inciting Incident. However, the cycle spirals up rather than simply repeating. Each of the Global Five Commandments of your current story occurs at a level above where the previous five took place. Each cycle provides insight, wisdom, and a self-confidence that pushes you onward and upward.
Your story only ends if you quit. As Seth Godin would say, you need to push through “The Dip.” DIY and reap the rewards. You don’t need anyone’s approval to be an author. You don’t need to ask for anyone’s permission to be creative and share your stories with the world.
There’s never been a better time to be an independent author. Listen to that voice inside you. It’s telling you that you can do this, so get back to writing and do it.
Not sure where to begin? Visit TheAuthorLife.com and receive a FREE course that will guide you from struggling writer to career author. This is your Inciting Incident—start right now.