To Traditionally Publish or Not to Traditionally Publish
Updated: Apr 12
I’ve seen a lot of talk recently—some quite vitriolic discussions, actually—about traditional publishing vs. self/indie publishing (I know the latter terms are not necessarily interchangeable). Being an indie author who’s self-published, the discussions I’ve seen got me thinking, stewing, and well, honestly, obsessing over why I decided to ditch the traditional publishing route and because I did so, does that mean I’m just “playing writer”?
When I was eight-years-old, I “played writer.” Sometimes I played journalist and lecturer to my stuffed animals. My favorite was playing writer, sitting at my very important desk with very important adult things haphazardly scattered on it. Little did I know back then, I was self-publishing. Yeah, at eight. I’d sit at my important desk and conjure up stories then make comic strips and tape the pages together like a booklet. I’d give them to my father and he’d sit in his recliner and read them.
Along the way, I left behind comic strips and moved on to short stories and novellas that only teachers and friends would see; self-published by hand, living in middle school notebooks. Between middle school and my only year in college (aside from interpreting in colleges), I simply journaled. When I was enrolled at a community college and taking writing classes, my poems and stories were published in the college’s literary journal, Fast Tracks.
All pretty typical for someone who loved writing but didn’t really see it going anywhere; although my college writing professor, Art Deleault, encouraged me to keep writing because of my “strong voice.”
Okay, then. I will.
Years after leaving college (I didn’t graduate and the reason why is spelled out in Train Gone), I visited Mr. Deleault again and left my very private and personal journal with him. He read it. I visited him again. He handed me the journal and said, “Keep writing. You don’t need my permission.”
He was right. I didn’t need permission. Or approval.
Enter Train Gone. I started writing that book in 2009 at a barstool in Laconia, New Hampshire, sitting next to a raspberry stohli and Sprite, near tears. Again, not thinking it would amount to any more than venting. Through friends I’d learn that there were online platforms where one could publish their work. Huh, that’d be nice, but I’ll probably never do it. Well, never say never.
Fast forward to the day I planned to hit PUBLISH YOUR BOOK on KDP. Something didn’t feel right and I couldn’t do it. Fear. After all, I wasn’t publishing comic strips anymore; I was releasing deep, dark secrets from my own life and I was afraid of retaliation, not to mention afraid that even the retail demon, Amazon, would have certain rights to my work and I wanted protection. After speaking to two friends with experience in self/indie publishing, it was clear I needed my own publishing company. I jumped through those hoops, purchased logos, licenses, domains, and registered an LLC.
I went from self-publishing to indie publishing, but not without the work of my own team. Yes, team. Proofreaders, copy editors, formatters, cover designers, coaches. What I do and what I want to do more than anything is write. I am a writer, and I want to write. I am also an author, and there is a difference. Writers write and authors publish. I’m both but at my core, a writer.
Back to the shit that’s got me stewing at 5 a.m., and maybe I’m telling myself all this because I got hit with that imposter syndrome crap that’s going around. I didn’t ditch the traditional publishing route because I feel/felt that my writing isn’t worth its salt. It is. Hell, if I don’t think it is no one else will. And actually, back in Austin when I thought I was ready to publish (boy, was I not ready then) I sent a lame ass email to, I think, Simon & Schuster—one of the Big 5—and thought I was querying. I’d said some ridiculous drivel about how I’d written a book (that had not yet been proofread, edited, formatted…you get the idea) and no one else’s story was like mine and I’d be eagerly waiting their reply. Are you laughing? Because I am.
That wasn’t querying, though it’s cute that I thought it was. Querying is looking for agents that you think might represent you and your stuff. It’s scouring the web for like-minded souls. When you think you’ve found them, you reach out with a book proposal. Then wait. Then get told no. Over and over and over. Then, if you do find interest, they ask for all or part of your manuscript to pitch to their boss and their boss’s boss. You get the idea. If you get signed, you relinquish control. They own you and your work.
That’s the part that gets me the most. Control.
Growing up in a patriarchal, religious environment, I had no control. I was just a woman, “a weaker vessel.” In my first memoir Train Gone (and also the second Mirrors Strike Back), I went into great detail about how one group of old, white men were telling me how to live, love, laugh. I’ll be goddamned if I have to query for more approval in order to tell the story of how I’d already experienced the anguish of approval-seeking. Not gonna do it again. You want me to relive trauma as I write, and afterward find some agent, some stranger, who thinks I/my writing is worthy enough to make them and their publishing company money? Fuck off with that shit.
I have one writer/author friend who did get a book deal. When he saw that he couldn’t reproduce more than twenty percent of his own work without consent, he tore up the contract and said, “No thank you.” Sure, with self/indie publishing there’s a price. Literally. You pay for your own everything and may not break even for years (I haven’t yet). But there’s also a price to pay when you give someone your heart and soul and they turn around and tell you what to do with it.
Writing and publishing your own work isn’t easy, nor do you rake in the dough, and if money or getting New York Times Bestseller status and riding off into the sunset with millions is your reason, good luck to you. Hey, it could happen, for your sake I hope that it does. But if you really love writing, can’t breathe without it, can’t go a day without writing something and if you do, you don’t feel like yourself and no one wants to be around you because you suffer from I-haven’t-written-yet-today-and-it’s-killing-me, then you, my friend, are a writer and you’re not in it for the money, status, or stamp-of-approval one of the Big 5 might give you.
Being who I am and all I’ve gone through, I can’t ask for approval again. I don’t think I need someone else telling me that I and my work are worthy. I don’t need a badge given to me by some traditional publishing company attached to all these stipulations. Not for me, at least not now, maybe not ever. What’s more, to have my own publishing company is kind of a little dig to the Governing Body—those infallible, elite few—of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I figure if they can publish their stuff, so can I.