Why Do You Self-Publish? To Build a Creative Life

Why do I self-publish? I get this question often and the answer lies in the creative life. This essay is an attempt to explain the two big reasons why I created Mims House as my publishing company.

Building a Creative Life

About five years ago, I found myself very discouraged about my writing career. I had good stories written, but couldn't find a publishing home. I say that very carefully, "find a publishing home." I've been published traditionally and my books have been strong mid-listers. But one of my publishers has a reputation for searching for best-sellers; their goal is to have book on the NYTimes Best Seller list. Anything less than that, and you'll be overlooked the next time around.

Another house changed editors--a far more common thing than you think early in your career--and the new editor didn't pick up my next story. In fact, that editor told me, "You just haven't found your publishing home, yet." Ouch! Translation: WE are NOT your publishing home.

With another house, I was lucky enough to have a picture book that won some awards. The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman was a 2004 Irma Black-Bank Street College Honor Book, and went on to be featured in a Harcourt reader textbook. The sequel, Searching for Oliver K. Woodman (now OP), didn't do as well, and the editor rejected everything else I did. One particularly heart-wrenching rejection took 14 months.

I went through three agents: Number 1 sold nothing in six years. I fired her and sold two books, because no one cares as much about my books as myself. Number 2 failed to sell a novel, and we parted after nine months. Number 3 was lousy at communication. We submitted a manuscript in August to an editor I'd met at a conference. I gently reminded the agent to check on the status in December.

"Nothing," he said. In January. "No news," he said. In February. "No response yet," he said. And in March. "I'll check again, but it just takes time," he said.

Finally, in March, I nudged the editor who responded immediately, saying, "I rejected that in December and here the email that I sent to your agent." I said, "Good-bye, agent."

I found myself being less and less creative in my writing. I didn't want to take risks because, well, I knew what would follow: rejection. Things became worse creatively. Enthusiasm waned.

Now, look. For any other creative medium, an artist does the work. Basically, you craft something to suit yourself. Yes, of course, you worry about sales, but mostly, you're doing it for yourself. Then the process of selling the work begins. There are many outlets from local galleries to craft fairs to online sales. I know I'm over-simplifying the creative process for visual artists. But from the outside, it seems like a very different process than that of writers.

Writing is this strange thing where you have to please an editor. You're not working to please readers, at least not in the short term. First, you must please an editor or agent. I've seen crazy things happen. A writer I know went to a conference with the draft of a fantastic novel. An agent did a critique. Now this agent knew nothing about the writer; the agent only read 10 pages of the novel. And yet the agent had an opinion. The writer should totally (and I mean TOTALLY) rewrite the story and take it in a different direction.

I want to scream, "Read the story in front of you! Not the one you would have written if you'd had this idea."

The writer has now spent a year revising the novel. It's good--because she's a good writer. But is it better? I liked the old version better.

But that's typical of what writers endure in the race to publication. Strangers dictate a year's worth of work, and who knows if it's the right story even then. Can you picture that happening with an artist? Look at that 10" x 10" canvas. Could an art critic come in and make remarks such as these? You need more depth to the colors in the upper quadrant. And that oak is awful. Can you take it out and replace it with a pine? Your color palette is too pale. Deepen it.

No! Only writers allow strangers to mess around in their art. Stop it!

Yes, that's what I did. I stopped allowing it. Of course, that meant I didn't sell my manuscripts to a publisher. Self-publishing seemed to be the wisest course for me so that I could remain an artist. My creativity dried up under the current traditional publishing practices. But in the last three years as a self-publisher, I've published 20 books. My creativity is having great fun.

One reason I self-publish is so that I can feed my creative soul and give it the freedom it needs to thrive. My writing is getting better and better because I'm writing more and more.

The Only Fish in a Small Pond

I often see the press touting the control issue as the key reason people self-publish. I guess you could say it that way. But it's not how I see it.

Instead, I've chosen to be a Big Fish in a Small Pond. Let's say that I want to run a promotion on a book because there's a local event that ties into the story. With Big5Publisher, could I do that?

Decision making with big publishers is slow. It has to be because there are so many layers involved. Editor, publicity, tech--all of them need to be on board, and need to be timely in their response. But how can they be? An editor may have contact with 100 authors. Your story gets lost in the shuffle. They must consider how your story fits into the bigger ecosystem of their backlist. Can they afford to spend time and effort for you on a local event? No.

With a large publisher, you are a Small (VERY SMALL) Fish in a Big Pond. Do you want to be nimble and respond to some event with appropriate marketing? It won't happen.

If, however, you self-publish, you're the Biggest Fish in the Pond! You care only about your career and your books. If you want to turn on a dime and throw a big marketing push next week, then the only thing holding you back is your time and energy.

Does that mean I want control? No. I just want my books to be read. If I have to leap to a different pond so that my work is read, that's what I'll do. I don't ever again want to be a mid-lister. It's a deadly place to be for your creative life. Instead, as the ONLY Fish in my Pond, my books get the care they need.

Of course, I'm still inept or inefficient about many things as a marketer. It's OK. I'm learning. A team behind me would be fantastic. But they were never really behind me, so I'm better off on my own. I'm learning. Look out!

I self publish because of one main reason: In order to sustain my creative life, I need to be connecting regularly with readers. Self-publishing means I have creative and marketing freedom needed to find audiences for each and every book.

It's most definitely not because I'm a control freak. It's because I'm a creative writer. Period.