I’ve been told, and not always by people who could be expected to be rather biased in my favour, that the novels I write are on a par with what’s available commercially – works that were actually picked by an editor from a publishing house as being something they want to offer.
At one point, I did try to get my two earlier novels published. It was a half-hearted attempt, I admit, so it isn’t much surprise that not much came of it. One editor of a small publishing house was very interested in one, but due to I believe the economy and a conflict between the partners, it collapsed before that got far. I was disappointed, I admit. I actually preferred the idea of a smaller publisher than a big one where I’d be just one more new writer of that season’s lineup.
However, I finally concluded, and not as a matter of “Fine, I didn’t want to anyway” sour grapes, that it was just as well.
I started trying to get my novels published mainly because, back in the late 90s, it was still the major way to get your work actually seen by anyone, short of scrounging up the substantial initial outlay for vanity publishing and doing all your own marketing and distribution. Remember, technology has taken enormous leaps since then. I wasn’t entirely happy about it, though. I write for the love of it, and because there are stories in my head that want to be told. Every time I have ever tried to adjust what I’m writing with an audience in mind, so I wouldn’t offend or shock or upset anyone… it has started to stumble, more and more, and finally just stops in its tracks and refuses to move. All I can do at that point is backtrack to where I messed it up, try to get myself back in balance, and turn it loose again. It might take a little coaxing at first, but once I’m not in my own way anymore, it comes back to life. I was deeply anxious that if I was writing, not for love but to pay the bills or to meet a contract, then the magic in it would die and it would become just a job to plod through, or that I wouldn’t be able to write at all. This fear has only gotten worse, since I’m unable to work at a “real” job anymore because of bouts of severe depression and anxiety that make it impossible to function even on a day-to-day level, let alone the high-level functioning it takes to weave a story together.
Yet, the drive to share what I write is an extremely powerful one that is never going to leave me alone. I write the first draft for myself, to see what happens. The final product, after the editing and reworking (and sweating and cursing) that take up two-thirds or more of the actual work time, is for others. The stories want out, but I also believe that they can bring other people pleasure in the way the books I’ve enjoyed over the years have given me pleasure.
Being formally published certainly has its advantages: there’s a certain validation that what you’ve written must have value, you get paid for it, they’ll put a pretty cover on it and do some marketing. On the other hand, the marketing they’ll do for a first-time author is limited, and you get no say in that pretty cover, the odds are heavily against making a living at it these days if you can even get your foot in the door with a single novel, and there’s an immense difference between writing something that has commercial potential and writing something that has value. They can overlap. They don’t always.
These days there are options that didn’t exist, or at least not prominently, fifteen years ago. I can make my novels available by myself on my own site (even if there’s that eternal question of “how do I get people to find my work at all among the countless others out there?”). I don’t have to charge anyone for them, even, although at moments I suspect that I’d get more attention if I did; I think many people assume that you get what you pay for. Plus, I can write whatever I want to write, however I want to write it, without having to worry about whether it’s going to be acceptable to an editor or not. I plan to eventually look into more formal self-publishing, which is now relatively easy and inexpensive thanks to tech like print-on-demand – possibly via Smashwords which my friend Kyra Halland uses, but there are many other possibilities. I may see about joining in on something like StoryBundle, the fiction version of the Humble Bundle concept. There are ways to get seen while still being independent – although you’re on your own as far as the cover and essentially all the marketing under most conditions – and you might even make a bit of money from it.
For me, most important of all, is that I can keep writing what I want to write when I want to write it. I’m never going to have to hand over a manuscript that I’m not happy with yet because I’ve run out of time (and I recently read a novel by one of my favourite authors that read like a first draft, drastically different from her normal work). I’m never going to have to change things in the story because they aren’t commercial. I may be broke all the time, but my writing won’t be broken in any sense.