Whither Self-Publishing (and Fan Fiction)

This post is dedicated to regular commentator James D who I believe may well be my only Republican reader. He’s a decent man, and a good debater, so I must admit that I think twice before really getting into the political posts — especially American political posts — as I sometimes have an imaginary argument with him and, having gone through the points up for debate, decide that my visceral reaction isn’t worth posting about.

But he responded to this post back in July which announced that I’d landed an American literary agent, and he asked me a good question, which was as follows:

I’m curious about something. Did you give any thought to self-publishing (on Kindle/Nook/etc)? I’ve read quite a bit on both sides of that argument, and I wonder what you think about it?

To my regret, I didn’t get a chance to answer him because competition for my time picked up with a number of work-for-hire commissions landing on my desk. Finally able to take another breath, and wanting to get back to some honest writing on this blog, I thought I’d weigh in on his question about self publishing.

My response is probably coloured by the fact that I got into this writing business by first being a fan fiction author and editor. What do fan fiction authors do if not self-publish? The TV tie-in marketplace is limited and there is so much creative energy out there that just has to get on paper (or in pixels) any way it can. I cut my teeth on fan fiction. The first stories I showed to complete strangers were Doctor Who stories. I learned how to produce a fan fiction magazine by hand. I became intimately acquainted with how photocopiers worked, how to get the best quality copies out of the machines, and how to transform that output into attractive looking — but still clearly amateur — publications.

The self-publishing market is a lot larger than the fan fiction market. It is larger now than it has ever been. There is real money involved, and that’s a blessing and a curse. If fan fiction has one thing going for it, it’s that it’s not about the money. The people who write fan fiction are writing it because they love what they’re writing about, the love the characters they’re writing for, they love spinning their own stories in someone else’s universe. They love what they do. For that reason, you can guarantee that a fan fiction story, no matter how poorly written or edited, was most likely written out of genuine love and affection for the product, and it can be respected as such.

The self-publishing market has undergone a transformation in the past few years, thanks to eBooks, new technologies, and Apple and Amazon making publication to a wider audience (for money!) that much easier. It still has to overcome a sodden reputation of vanity presses out to gouge gullible writers trying to short-circuit the publishing process, and shameless self-promoters who won’t take an editor’s ‘no’ for an answer. But within self-publishing there has always been writers with unique stories to tell, who just weren’t interested in big audiences, or the money. They wanted to write, and they loved what they wrote. And in that realm, a printer-publisher like Lulu (NOT the subsidy publishing competition; there’s a big difference, and all would-be self-publishers need to educate themselves at once) can provide an honest outlet to these individuals and give them a decently produced hard-cover book of their labours to hold in their hands.

I’ve held fan fiction magazines with similar reverence, and I see no reason why any individual should be denied this pleasure.

The realm of self-publishing has grown. There are genuine best-sellers by people who call themselves “indie authors” in the mix. Lulu, Amazon and Apple have thrown open the floodgates and have reduced the influence of the “Preditors”. Though some in the published realm may fret, especially as Fifty Shades of Grey rises to prominence, I think this is a good thing. I certainly don’t see how we can get the genie back in the bottle.

But you do need to enter self-publishing aware that your dreams of publishing your own best-seller and launching yourself to fame and fortune are just that: dreams, and not very realistic ones as well. Long-established authors with big fanbases can successfully publish themselves. A few of the new self-publishing successes have won the combined lottery of honest talent and sheer luck. Some have just been inexplicably lucky. Most self-published novels don’t sell more than 100 copies. Most self-published authors really do need to spend hundreds of dollars commissioning a decent editor to go over their manuscript with a fine-toothed comb and they need to listen to those editors. Even in the best self-published books, most royalties are in the tens of dollars, not the tens of thousands. And there are no such things as advances.

But you would have your book in your hand, and that’s no small thing.

So, to answer Jim’s question directly, did I give any thought to self publishing? Yes, I did. Not to Icarus Down, which I always expected (and still expect) to be professionally published by a publishing house, but to The Night Girl. Remember, I started writing that book in 2003. I spent four years unsuccessfully shopping it around to publishing companies before I wondered if I had a failure. What little feedback I received told me that the story wasn’t a young adult novel, and that it might be too tricky a book for a publisher to market. I prepared to set it aside.

But I did want to see what it would look like in hardcover.

So I went to Lulu and taught myself how to use their system. I laid out the manuscript in Microsoft Word, saved it as a PDF and exported it. I’d already created a cover with the considerable help of two fine photographers, so I expanded that into a bookjacket. Then I put everything together and paid Lulu to print me out a single copy and send it to me. Two weeks later, I held the copy in my hand.

The Night Girl in my Hands

And I have to say it’s a beautiful copy. I picked the font (Perpetua, of course) and laid things out using the experience gleaned as a fan fiction magazine producer, and also from my time spent helping such magazines as The New Quarterly and Alternatives Journal, so I had a bit of an advantage, but Lulu did a fantastic job all on its own. The stitching is professional, the bookjacket is everything I imagined it would be and more, and the whole thing looks, feels and smells like an honest-to-goodness hardcover book. I might have preferred a slightly shorter, stouter volume than the six-inch-by-nine-inch format I was limited to, but that’s a quibble.

And when I held that copy in my hand, I had a bit of a revelation. The Night Girl was a book. No, it wasn’t a professionally published book and it might never become one, but it was a complete story, and I could put it together into a book and I could get complete strangers to read it, if I so chose.

So, I’ve since gone to work improving The Night Girl with an eye to eventual self-publication. I paid an editor who gave me valuable feedback and suggestions. I swapped manuscripts with author JM Frey, reviewed her latest project while she reviewed my story, and I incorporated her very astute observations into the book, making significant changes to the structure of the story. I am currently engaged with a local writing group, swapping works in progress, testing the latest version of The Night Girl to see how it is being received, and making further changes based on the feedback. I talked with a fellow professional author about their own self-published project about their process.

I also have a pretty good idea on how I could market this novel to give it some attention, at least from Toronto readers. I think I could honestly spend a little money on a unique advertising campaign — not one that would make a profit, mind you, but one that would generate some interest. I’ve also created a website to support the project, and possibly serialize the story online. Yes, I would be willing to give the electronic version of this story away for free.

Because my goal is not to make money, but to get a story that has been nearly ten years in the making the attention I think it deserves. Because I love it, and I want to share that love with others.

Since July, when I landed my American agent, Emily has gently told me to put my plans here on hold, so as not to possibly jeopardize the interest of publishers in Icarus Down. Would they give a publishing contract to an author who is just giving a story away, even as a self-promotion technique? Possibly. Possibly not. Rather than risk it, I’ll defer to her expertise in the industry.

Besides, she’s promised to have a look at The Night Girl and see if it can still be published professionally. It might not be a YA novel, but there might be interest in a different market. JM Frey also thought that there might be publishers out there who would like to get their hands on something a little bit different.

I love the book and I want what’s best for all my books, so I can wait a little longer. But I remain open to the path of self-publishing if professional publishing can’t get my stories to the presses.

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