Okay, so the following post is super long and probably rambling. Proceed at your own risk...
I’ve been thinking about the indie versus traditional debate a lot lately. Everyone seems to have an opinion, and those opinions in many cases are completely different than they were six months, a year, five years ago. I know my opinion on the subject has changed.
Right off the bat, I’ll say that as a reader, I love both traditionally and self-published books. These days it’s getting harder and harder to even tell the difference. I read both, happily, and am really excited that one of the big results of the rise of self-publishing is MORE. More books in the hands of readers, more new authors to discover. In the case of literature, I’m of the opinion that more is never a bad thing. Especially with all the lovely bloggers, Amazon algorithms, and Goodreads reviews to help connect readers with the kinds of books they like.
As a writer, my relationship with self-publishing is a bit more complicated. I’ve always wanted to be an author and what that looked like – Tracy E. Banghart, THE AUTHOR – has changed over the years. My day job out of college was editorial – I worked as a proofreader on business manuals. I knew I wanted to be in the publishing biz, but I wasn’t convinced I could make a living as a writer. But I figured it didn’t matter. I loved the industry; I’d get a job working in publishing, and Tracy E. Banghart, THE AUTHOR, would surely follow. At the time, my definition of author was “published by Random House (or similar).” It was 2003 – that was most people’s definition.
I decided to move to Oxford, England to pursue a master’s degree in Publishing. I’d learn more about the business, and live in the UK for a year! It seemed like a great idea, and it was. I had a wonderful time, met some amazing people, and learned a LOT. This was 2005 and the world was still buzzing from J. K. Rowling’s incredible sales figures for the Harry Potter books. Many of our marketing classes revolved around what that breakout did for the industry, and “long-tail” marketing…the idea that a few books would be bought by EVERYBODY…and many, many, many books would be bought by a few. At the time, self-publishing was barely on the radar. Print-On-Demand was just coming onto the scene with a company called Lightning Source (I saw some of their early products – honestly, not that impressive in terms of production quality). Ereaders were a blip, and most people thought that “fad” wasn’t long for the publishing world.
Back then, I was still trying to figure out how to combine my interest “behind the desk” as an editor or marketer with my overwhelming desire to be an author. So for my master’s thesis, I decided to create my own publishing company, and publish my own book. I basically did it all. I wrote a novella, edited it, designed the interior pages, hired an illustrator, found a printer, picked out paper, created a website. It was an incredible experience. WHAT THE SEA WANTS, the book I ultimately created, even received a good review from Voya Magazine, necessitating a reprint. Essentially, I self-published. I sold nearly 900 hardcover copies of that book (it wasn't available as an ebook), received an incredibly positive review from Voya, a reputable source, and yet never once considered myself a REAL author. There was no Random House. There were no editors or agents breaking down my door. By my standard, I hadn’t found success.
Fast forward a few years. I was working as a technical writer, desperately trying to finish my first "real" book, and feeling completely discouraged by the process. My husband, bless him, convinced me to quit my job (QUIT MY JOB!!) and follow my dream. He was willing to support me financially while I wrote, despite the fact that I’d NEVER EVEN FINISHED a full-length novel, and had NO idea if I would find a publisher for one if I DID finish it. Talk about faith. My husband had it in me, before I even did. (Yeah. He’s definitely a keeper.) Even so, I made little progress. Until NaNoWriMo. I wrote my first full novel, start to finish, in three weeks during the month of November. It was the most exciting, fulfilling writerly experience I’d ever had. I proved to myself that I could really, REALLY do it. I could start and finish a novel. That story, a very early version of what became MOON CHILD, went on (after some revision, of course) to garner me three offers of representation from agents. I figured it was only a matter of time. Random House, Tracy E Banghart, THE AUTHOR...it was all about to happen.
Only…it didn’t. It turned out getting an agent didn’t mean a book deal was a forgone conclusion. I got really close a few times, and received some beautifully, heartbreakingly positive rejections, but, ultimately, there followed three years of NO. Three different books, many, many different editors…and nothing ever connected.
The experience was simultaneously demoralizing and energizing. Demoralizing because it was ALWAYS no…even after a second read, or a revision request, even after editors were pouring out their love for my writing or my characters or my story…it always ended in rejection. At first I thought it was just a question of writing a better book, doing a better job next time. And then I wrote a book that I KNEW was amazing. Seriously. AMAZING. I wrote it when my husband was deployed and it was full of war and longing and heartbreak, and most of all, a girl who finds her strength, who learns to believe in herself and who ends up kicking some serious ass. It was ABOUT something. I was saying something about our culture, about the war in Iraq, about “don’t ask, don’t tell”, about identity, all in this scifi book set in a completely different world. I KNEW it was going to sell, and sell big.
And…it didn’t. And that’s when I realized (here comes the energizing part)...Sometimes, when it comes to traditional publishing, it doesn’t matter if you write a good book. More importantly, why let someone ELSE define for you what constitutes a good book? I love editors, and I was desperate to work with one and let them help me make my books really shine. But I had to let go of this notion that I was NOT AN AUTHOR without their validation. By that point, I KNEW my writing was “good enough”. I knew I was creating interesting stories with interesting characters that deserved to be put in the hands of readers. I had an agent, I had editors who WANTED to buy my books, if only the red tape of their publishing houses wasn't quite so sticky. And I LOVED WHAT I WAS WRITING. At the time, some of my writer friends were living through these absolute horror stories – book contracts being cancelled, agents dumping them, etc. And we were all trying to hold on to our faith in ourselves and in our writing.
Up to that point, I thought I needed someone ELSE to tell me my work was good enough….just to be read. Self-publishing was starting to gain traction. I thought, you know what? Why don’t I decide what I think is good enough to be read…and let the READERS decide if I was right.
I started with BY BLOOD because it had gotten the closest to traditional publication. I’d worked with an editor on it, gone through a revise and resubmit…I felt confident that between her feedback and my faith, that book deserved to be published…and more importantly, was ready.
And here’s what it comes down to for me. Ever since I made that decision…I have felt like Tracy E. Banghart, THE AUTHOR. No Random House necessary. My career, my writing...it’s been on my own terms. I get to be in charge of my self-worth. I get to decide what I want to share with the world. I’m not one of those indie success stories with thousands of sales and a place on bestseller lists – yet – but I am happy. Happier than I ever was pursuing traditional publishing. I have readers – fans, even! Instead of dealing with the endless waiting and lack of control over my own career, instead of bracing myself before reading every email from my agent, instead of feeling completely POWERLESS…I’m doing a little happy dance for every good Goodreads review. I’m celebrating every single sale because that sale represents someone who thinks my book is worth spending money on. I’m EXCITED because I have more stories to share, and I don’t have to wait until someone agrees with me before I can put them out in the world. I can offer them directly to you, readers, and YOU can decide their worth.
I know not everyone will like my books. And I might never have “break out” success, whatever that is. But I do hope that someday my Army of Turtles (check out this article by Susan Kaye Quinn for the reference, though MAJOR HOTSAUCE insists I have an ARMY of turtles, not a herd) will find readers and make people happy. I hope the books will pay for themselves and maybe a little more. I love writing them, and I love putting my publishing education to use. I am excited to be writing at a time when YOU, the reader, have so much choice and influence. I hope you’ll give my books a chance, and if you do, I hope you enjoy them. To me, having even one reader who loves your work -- THAT'S success.
And that “amazing” book about war and heartbreak and strength and identity? Comes out February 2014. Just so you know. ;-)