The Complete Writer
Section VII: Publishers and Self-Publishers
This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears here each week, usually on Fridays. You can buy a copy of the entire book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. You also can find links to the chapters that have appeared so far at our special page for The Complete Writer. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.
Why Publish with a Mainstream Press?
One reason: Creds
Several of my friends and acquaintances have immersed themselves so deeply in the indie publishing/self-publishing phenomenon that they can’t see why anyone would want to publish through an old-fashioned brick-and-mortar mainstream publisher. After all, they cry, look at how much more money you can make on sales of your book through Amazon!
To that I have this to say:
- Fat chance and good luck with that.
- Even if you make more per retail transaction, you’re still very unlikely to make as much publishing a good, truly promising book through Amazon as you would on an advance against sales from a major publishing house. And . . .
- Let’s look at the whole picture.
Here’s the thing: even if you publish regularly on Amazon, you’re unlikely to earn a living at it. Sure, some people do. But most people don’t. And dreaming about being a Writer with a Capital W does not put food on the table or a roof over your head.
Unless you have a working spouse or independent wealth, what you need to be a Writer is a job that will support you while leaving you enough hours in the day, every day, to do the work of writing. And those hours cannot occur after eight or ten hours in the salt mine: writing is every bit as much a job as slinging hamburgers or preparing tax returns or painting houses or pushing some company’s papers. The Writing Hours need to occur when you’re fresh enough and energetic enough to devote your full attention to your job of preference.
There is a type of work that fills the bill: full-time (not adjunct!) teaching in higher education, preferably at a university. Preferably in a graduate-level writing program. Whereas in the olden days artists and writers were supported by aristocratic patrons—dukes and earls and kings and such—today’s patron is the university. Universities (and, to a lesser degree, two- and four-year colleges) support artists and writers by employing them in jobs that are light on labor and heavy on prestige. And the “prestige” part is the part they expect you to deliver.
To provide that—to get a tenure-track job at all—you have to be published through a recognizable press. And that does not include CreateSpace. As with any tenurable position, jobs in writing programs require more than just publishing. It’s not that you’re published. It’s where you’re published. You have to be published with a first-line trade or scholarly press that has gatekeepers—editors and marketers and reviewers who assess the quality of your manuscript before it’s accepted for publication.
A book or two published through a recognizable house will open the doors to jobs that ask only that you teach two or three sections of creative writing or literature in exchange for freedom and time to build your career as a writer. It doesn’t have to be a Big Five publisher. An academic press or a small (but real: not CreateSpace, not Nook, not iBooks, not Kindle) publisher will do the job.
I landed a full-time university teaching job complete with excellent benefits, very nice office space, a decent salary, and a future on the strength of two books published through university presses and one through a major commercial publishing house. If I were to apply for such a job today, my CV would contain no mention of the books published through Amazon’s Kindle platform. Amazon wonders notwithstanding, any whiff of a self-published book could be fatal.
Could I earn more by aggressively marketing a self-published book with broad appeal than I would by publishing the same book through a mainstream publisher? Maybe. Let’s suppose we even say “sure.”
But that income would be short-term. It would peter out in a few years, maybe even in a single year. To stave off the evil day, I would have to devote an inordinate amount of time to marketing and to hustling sales.
A salary from an academic job, on the other hand, will remain a salary as long as I hold the job, whether I publish more books or not. The academic employer will match contributions to a 403(b). It will offer a health insurance plan. It will offer disability insurance. It will give me an annual travel budget to cover junkets to various professional conferences. It will, in a word, support me.
Now, I’m not saying no one ever cobbles together a living wage by cranking out self-published books. No doubt some people do—maybe a lot of people. But it’s an iffy proposition.
If your books are good enough to sell to enough readers for the proceeds to support you, then they’re good enough to sell to a mainstream publisher. And the kind of job you can land with a few mainstream publications on the CV will support you steadily and usually better than a catch-as-catch-can income stream from Amazon will.
Mainstream publication gives you credentials—the credentials you need to persuade an academic patron (a university or community college) to support you while you keep on writing.