Why I Chose to Self-Publish My First Book
Telling my story matters more to me than the industry stamp of approval
In Writing the Journey, I write about writing. I share my travel and personal experiences through writing in a lot of contexts, but I also strive to achieve more as a writer. This is where I reflect on that process.
Nearly every creative dreams of “making it” someday. Making it has always traditionally meant more than just having your work out there. It means your work is deemed worthy of a big-name book publisher, film studio, music label, or art museum. It means selling a lot of copies of your art and being able to support yourself with your creative work. It means public praise and notoriety and possibly even someday recognition out in public.
But this isn’t a goal that is achievable for most people. As a writer, I can look at authors such as Stephen King and J.K. Rowling and find inspiration in their rags to riches stories, but I know that isn’t the reality for most writers. In fact, that’s not the reality for most of the writers that I read and follow on social media and Substack. I know that the small amount of money that I send their way purchasing their books is a drop in a bucket that takes a long time to get full.
For most writers, writing a book that gets picked up by big publishers and makes a huge splash is an unachievable dream. But that doesn’t mean we stop writing. We write because we need to write, and the more I looked at moving forward in 2023, the more I realized that I needed to just do the thing so that I could have a hard copy of my work in my hands and share it with my loved ones.
One of the first books I listened to in 2023 was Dave Grohl’s memoir The Storyteller. As I listened to his story (which is delightful, by the way, and I highly recommend), it drove home the reality that there are more creative people out there than any big-name company can handle. While he’s definitely not struggling for fame and finances now, he got his start in the indie-music industry in the late 80s and early 90s, at a time when many bands were making their own tape demos and selling them at small clubs all over the country. In the middle of my own self-publishing journey, it was encouraging to know that I wasn’t alone in my desire to create and share what I had created with others, regardless of the size of my audience. It also confirmed the direction I was moving in as I completed my project.
So why did I decide to go with self-publishing in the first place?
I Wanted to Tell My Story Now
It is a long process to get your book published with a traditional publishing house, and for good reason. Publishers have limited resources and staffing to print and promote the work that comes out of their warehouses. And even with known writers, signing on an author does not come without financial risk. As a result, there are a lot of gatekeepers that only let a few manuscripts through at a time. That can mean months, or even years, of having your work rejected until someone finally decides to take a chance on it.
Once your book gets selected, it can take a long time to get from final draft to bookstores. With any publishing firm, the wait can be up to 24 months. When I started the search process for my camping memoir (which is still unfinished and is likely my next project), I found several smaller publishing companies that caught my attention, but most of these companies are currently booked through 2024 and will soon start taking manuscripts for 2025.
Even as I was doing revisions for a book that I knew was going to market shortly after it was completed, I found myself making changes and updating things that had changed since the last time I had sat down with the draft. I was working to publish a book of essays and I wanted to capture that moment in my life in that moment. That made being able to publish on my own timeline quite desirable.
The Publishing Market Is Saturated
In the internet age, writers live in an uncomfortable paradox. I started blogging late in the game, starting a Blogger account in 2012. For well over a decade, professional and amateur writers have been able to easily publish our work for ourselves and through a variety of media outlets. Self-publishing options have grown with blogging and newsletter options, giving people without an “in” a much easier path to getting their writing into a book form.
All of this also means that the traditional publishing market has access to more material than it can actually produce in a given year.
Not long ago,shared the following Twitter thread in her chat and it only confirmed what I had already read over the past couple of years.
After reading through the thread and watching the video below from Mixtus Media, it became abundantly clear to me that choosing to self-publish wasn’t necessarily taking the easy way out. Instead, I was choosing the publishing avenue that was right for me right now for this particular book.
I Actually Enjoyed the Creative Control
Did you know that when writers work with a publishing company, they relinquish nearly all creative control regarding how their book is presented to the public? I didn’t realize this until one of my grad school professors invited a local Young Adult writer to come speak to our class. She discussed different covers to different editions of one of her books and admitted that she hadn’t had much say over the final product, even though there were some covers she liked significantly more than others.
While I hired out work that required skills I don’t have, I also realize that perfection in publishing is unachievable. My editor did excellent work with mechanical and grammatical skills that I do not have.But even with her work and the work I did after she gave me the edits, there will probably be mistakes that others will find along the way. In fact, I caught a few after I looked through my first proof copy. And I’ve read plenty of books published by major publishing houses that also have mistakes. In other words, paying for the big names does not equate perfection. Yes, the more money a company has, the more resources they have to make a product excellent, but excellence is not guaranteed.
To be honest, I loved doing the final polishing work for my book. The former yearbook instructor came out as I poured over formatting and font choices. I got to pick the typeface that I wanted, make the book the size that most appealed to me, and the cover was more than I had dreamed. Was it easy? Absolutely not! But I enjoyed the process so much that I’m ready to do it again, because there is something incredibly satisfying about the work being yours and yours (mostly) alone.
My Story Over a Platform
What mattered most to me was getting a small part of my story down on paper, reflecting and revising a polished draft of thoughts and experiences I had been processing for years. Do I want people to read it? Yes! Do I want people to be influenced by what I have to say? Yes! Do I want to be a household name? Not really.
I’ve seen what has happened to some of the writers and thinkers I have most admired over the last decade or so. They have made their mark on me and thousands to millions of readers. They have large platforms that allow them to reach many. And for some the cost has been great.
I don’t need to put a Twitter or Instagram target on my back. Would I love a bigger platform? Sure, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready for the pressures that come with a larger platform handed to me by a major publishing company. I mean, one of my colleagues talked me up in front of her students and I got embarrassed. I might like and thrive off of praise, but I hate the spotlight.
Do I want to make money off of this and future projects? Yes, because I put a lot of work into this and I want it to literally pay off. But having my story down on paper matters more to me than thousands of followers and television and podcast interviews (YIKES!!!).
And to be honest, the above reasons are also why I’m also considering sticking with self-publishing for my next two planned book projects. The stories (and my control over those stories) matter more to me than getting on the NYT Bestseller list. Ultimately, I’m just hoping that all of my work counts for something, and I believe that self-publishing has the potential to get me there.
Want to Pre-order?
You can pre-order the e-book for the Kindle on Amazon. It will also be available on Kindle Unlimited. The paperback copy of the book is not available for pre-order but will be available for purchase on February 14.
And if you do purchase, please give it a favorable review on Amazon and Goodreads, or any other reading app that you might use.
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I do recognize the irony of being an English teacher with a Master’s degree in Rhetoric and Composition who still struggles with some of the mechanics and grammatical structure of the English language. We all have our skills; that is not one of mine.
I just pre-ordered and am looking forward to reading your story!
I really respect this decision, Sarah, and appreciate the insights you give here. I think this newsletter is the most comprehensive “why I chose to self-publish” piece I’ve ever read- and it makes me believe that self-publishing is a real, viable option. Go you!!!!!