(Originally published on Indie Reader and The Huffington Post on 6/7/2012. I'm leaving the piece intact as I first wrote it, and it's pretty amazing how much of this remains true today!)
I am an author.
I still can’t get used to that title, but I suppose after having written seven books–five of them traditionally published–that’s what you’d call me. The funny thing is that I feel more like a real author now that I self-publish than when I had the (supposed) support of a publisher behind me.
How did I end up on my own? It began when I couldn’t get my first YA book, "Relatively Famous", published, despite getting stellar feedback from editors and nearly selling the film rights to a teen pop star. I was at a loss for what to do. I couldn’t keep writing books without selling them. What if the next thing I wrote flopped? I took a risk, in many ways, and wrote "Flat-Out Love". It was the first book that completely came from my heart, and it was a book that ignored all the industry rules. I knew in the back of my head that I could self-publish it, but at the time it seemed like that would have been an admission of defeat.
I spent months thinking that I needed a big publisher in order to be a writer, to legitimately carry that “author” title. To validate me, and to validate "Flat-Out Love". I needed a publisher to print my books and stick a silly publishing house emblem on the side of a hard copy. They were the only way to give my books mass distribution, and having them back me would mean that readers would know my book was good.
I also, apparently, thought that I needed to be taken advantage of, paid inexcusably poorly, and chained to idiotic pricing and covers that I had no control over.
I was, it seems, deluded.
It turns out that I was entirely wrong. I was missing what I really wanted. One of the major reasons that I write is to connect with readers, not publishers. The truth is that I couldn’t care less whether New York editors and publishers like me, I don’t want to write for them. I want to write for you. The other undeniable truth is that readers couldn't care less that my books aren’t put out by a big publisher. They read for the content, not the publishing house emblem.
I have a lovely, smart, powerhouse agent, who tried to sell my next book, "Flat-Out Love," to every major publishing house. She adored the story and thought it would sell. Fourteen editors turned it down, although each one said how strong the book was. But, editors seemingly didn’t give a crap about whether or not they liked the book. What they did pay attention to were their totally misguided ideas about what would and wouldn’t sell.
I heard two things over and over again about my book. The first was that my story starred an eighteen-year-old college freshman, and that age was “categorically” too old for YA books and too young for adult books. It seems that one is not allowed to write about characters between the ages of eighteen and…what? Twenty-five? Because… because… Well, I’m not sure. The second thing I heard was that because my simultaneously-too-young-and-too-old heroine was not involved with anything slightly paranormal, the book wouldn’t sell.
Did I cry over some of these rejections? Absolutely. Did I feel inadequate, untalented, hurt? Yes. Did I doubt my ability to craft a story that readers could fall in love with? You bet.
And then one day I got yet another rejection letter, and instead of blaming myself and my clear lack of creativity, I got angry. Really, really furious. It clicked for me that I was not the idiot here. Publishing houses were. The silly reasons that they gave me for why my book was useless made me see very clearly how completely out of touch these houses were with readers. I knew, I just knew, that I’d written a book with humor, heart, and meaning. I’d written something that had potential to connect with an audience. As much as I despise having to run around announcing how brilliant I supposedly am and whatnot, I also deeply believed in "Flat-Out Love." I knew that editors were wrong.
And I finally understood that I wanted nothing to do with these people.
I snatched the book back from my agent and self-published it. With great relief, I should note. I could finally admit to myself that the only thing I had really wanted was to be told, “You’re good enough.” You know who gives me that? My readers. My generous, loving, wild readers.
Publishers pay terribly and infrequently. They are shockingly dumb when it comes to pricing, and if I see one more friend’s NY-pubbed ebook priced at $12.99, I’m going to scream. They do minimal marketing and leave the vast majority of work up to the author. Unless, of course, you are already a big name author. Then they fly you around the country for signings and treat you like the precious moneymaking gem that you are. The rest of us get next to nothing in terms of promotion. If your book takes off, they get the credit. If it tanks, you get the blame.
No, thank you. I’m all set with that.
You know who I do like, though? Amazon. Well, all online ebook sites that let me self-publish, but Amazon is the true powerhouse right now. Say what you want about this company, but it’s because of them that I can continue writing. It’s unclear to me how a big publisher thinks that I could live on their typical payouts, and why they think I should drop to my knees in gratitude for their deigning to even publish my book in the first place when I’ll do all the work myself. I’m not going to be grateful for that nonsense, but I am going to be grateful as hell to Amazon.
Bestselling trad-to-indie-author Barry Eisler, famous for turning down a six figure deal from St. Martins Press to go out on his own, took a lot of heat for having compared an author’s relationship with a big publisher to Stockholm syndrome. The truth is that it’s not a bad comparison at all. Snarky, funny, and exaggerated, perhaps, but there is more than one grain of truth there, and I just know that authors across the country were nodding so violently that we had collective whiplash.
When writing for a publisher, you learn to be overly thankful for every pathetic little grain of positivity that comes your way. A disgustingly awful cover? Smile broadly and say how gorgeous it is. Contracts arrive months after arranged? Whip out your pen and sign with no complaints. You’re eating Ramen noodles while they are taking all of December and January off and while they essentially shutdown during the summer to vacation on the Cape? Slurp your soup and be happy.
Because of Amazon and other sites, I’m making enough money that I can continue writing. I’m averaging sales of 3,500 books a month, not including the month that Amazon featured "Flat-Out Love" in a list of books for $3.99 and under. That month I sold 45,000 Kindle copies, and sold over 10,000 the next month. Those numbers are insane to me. Absolutely insane. The fact that I continue to sell well a year after the book’s release is humbling. Yes, I wrote a book that has earned me excellent reviews, so I take credit for that, and I worked myself to death finding bloggers to review my book (God bless my loyal bloggers who took a chance on me!), but I have to credit Amazon with giving me such a strong platform with such overwhelming visibility. I can be a writer. I am a writer.
And it’s not just me. Self-published authors, many of whom are writing about college-age characters, are finding viable careers. Abbi Glines, Tammara Webber, Jamie McGuire, Tina Reber, AK Alexander, Angie Stanton, Stephanie Campbell, Colleen Hoover, Liz Reinhardt, and plenty more. I’m seeing more and more traditionally published authors walking away from the headaches and turning to self-publishing. It can be tricky to leave because very often an author needs the advance money in order to survive, and then gets stuck contracted for books that quite likely won’t earn out that advance or won’t ever provide much in terms of royalty checks. When authors break the cycle, get the hell out, and flourish on their own, it’s a wonderful thing.
Indie writers owe Amazon big time for what they’ve given us. Are they perfect? No. Do they make mistakes? Yep. And they’ll continue to make mistakes. But I promise you that traditional publishers never call up their authors and ask what they can do better. I nearly wet my author pants when I got a call from someone in the Kindle publishing department who wanted to know what publishing and promotional features I’d like to see. He wanted to know all about my experience with them, what I liked, what I didn’t like, and on and on. I was floored. Amazon messed up their sales reporting page not that long ago, and you know what they did? They sent a goddamn email out to their authors explaining what had happened! And then they fixed it! Do you think a big publisher would do that? No, they certainly would not.
But you know what these silly NY publishers are doing? Running around trying to buy now-successful self-published books. I know more than one author who is making $50-150,000 a month (yes, a month) who are getting the most stupidly low offers from big publishers to take over that author’s book. Why would my friends take a $250,000 advance (if even offered that much), take a puny royalty rate, see their sales hurt by higher pricing, and completely give that book up for life? They can and will earn more themselves and continue to reap the benefits of a 70% royalty while maintaining all the rights to their work. If publishers want to play the game, they have to pay according to what authors can make without them. Offer something that we can’t do on our own. Help us, believe in us, support us, and play damn fair for once.
While I’m certainly not making $150,000 a month, "Flat-Out Love" has done very well for me, and I’m earning enough that I can keep writing. I’m in the middle of another book right now, and I realized that one of the many fabulous things about working for myself is that I have complete freedom to write whatever the hell I want. A publisher certainly could have bought "Flat-Out Love" and signed me for a two or three-book deal. One of the many whopping hitches with that would have been that I’d then have to write another book or two that were in a very similar vein to "Flat-Out Love". But I don’t want to do that. I want to write the book that I am now. The book that has swearing and sex. The book that is darker and edgier. The book that is definitely not for younger readers. A publisher would never have let me do that.
The New York Times recently ran an article about authors who are now writing two books a year instead of one. Why? Because they need the money. Of course they need the money! Their publishers are gouging them out of money that is rightfully theirs. When I read about one highly successful author who is now writing for fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, I thought, “What a lunatic. That’s not a life.” Look, I don’t think any author needs to release two or three books a year to earn a living. If that’s what you are comfortably able to do creatively speaking, go for it.
Being on a publisher’s deadline to deliver a book every four to six months can be pretty rough. Life gets in the way, and emotions and creativity ebb and flow. Yes, writing is work and requires dedication, but it also has the capacity to be amazingly fun. Publishers, if you ask me, take a dump on much of the good stuff. For now, I’m happy to do one really strong, solid novel once every twelve to eighteen months. If I tried to bang out a book every few months, they would be crummy books, and I would be broke.
What’s funny is that despite loathing publishing houses these days, I actually hope that they pull their act together. They have distribution power. They have dedicated, talented people in the industry. They have the capability to do wonderful things. But for now they are so messed up, so outdated in the way they structure their contracts, and so often very out of touch with what readers want. Smart editors are often ruled by archaic designs. Do I have plans to seek out a publisher? Um, no. I can’t imagine one would take me anyhow. And I wouldn’t consider working with a publisher unless (until?) they make drastic changes to their business model.
Indie authors are writing for our readers, not for publishers and what they think will sell. And now we can afford to write! And I can assure you that freedom fuels creativity, risk-taking, and passion. We get to bring you our stories in the way we want to tell them, without the dilution and sculpting from publishing houses. And the fans? Oh, the fans are simply unbelievable. We are so directly connected to them, and the ease of communication and feedback is unparalleled. I’m learning what readers want, and I can incorporate that into my work without worrying that an editor will nix all the good stuff. Their support and enthusiasm breathes life into days when I feel particularly challenged.
And there are some spectacularly moving experiences. I’m in a circle of authors who have been dubbed "The Cancer Warriors" because our books have become saving graces for people going through cancer treatment. Readers are escaping hell on earth through our books. We sell smartly priced books with sharp content, books that never would have reached these readers without the ability to self-publish. We get to do our small part to help them fight. Getting to be part of something like this is at the top of my list for why I write. It makes me want to face New York publishers head on and scream, “You see that? Do you see what we’re doing without you?” Indie writing brought me into readers’ lives in ways that I never could have imagined.
I wouldn’t trade that for all of New York.
Jessica Park is the author of the novel FLAT-OUT LOVE, the YA novel, RELATIVELY FAMOUS, and the Gourmet Girl mystery series. She also has a few eshorts out: WHAT THE KID SAYS (1 & 2) and FACEBOOKING RICK SPRINGFIELD. She lives in Manchester, NH where she spends an obscene amount time thinking about rocker boys and their guitars, complex caffeinated beverages, and tropical vacations. On the rare occasions that she is able to focus on other things, she writes.