Learning to quit

How the changing landscape of publishing means abandoning dreams

It was the first time that jagged mountain let me down.

I was a more avid reader in my youth. My childhood librarian led me up and down the aisles and piled fantasy books meant for adult readers in my arms. I took them all home and devoured them; the library’s selection was limited, but I still found my way through Valdemar, traveled through all seven Gates with Haplo, and I still complain about Rhapsody every time fantasy fiction comes up. I grew up with Pern’s dragons and spent several weeks reading Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Avalon, which only took so long because the book was particularly difficult for my young arms to support. I enjoyed Eddings and took regular trips back to Narnia and Middle Earth, which began my love of books. But it had been a while since I read anything new, and I was curious to see the tight prose that today’s standards expected.

At first, I was angry. Then, after I returned the book to my library and picked up something else, I was just disappointed. I’d expected better. I’d expected something similar to the deep, quality stories I’d grown up with. Instead, I found myself sitting and wondering at all the plot holes and unforgivable grammatical errors. Traditional publishing was supposed to be a mark of quality, a sign your work was substantial enough to deserve it. What did it mean if that was no longer true?

I don’t know when the deterioration began. I read less after we moved farther into the country; we were too far away from good libraries and eBooks weren’t really a thing. The fantasy section at the local library was maybe ten books, and I’d already read them. Inter-library loans took months to arrive. Then I began working and started college and free time came at a premium. It seemed better–wiser, even–to spend it developing my own writing. It wasn’t until recently that I felt the call again. You have the time. You have the libraries. You need to read. Not only did I need to revitalize my love for reading, I needed to see what was out there in the genre today so I could determine how to pitch my own completed novels to agents.

I’d never considered any other path. When I was young, there wasn’t one. You submitted books to agents. You got signed. You found a publisher. That was it. The only other option was vanity press, which left you with a garage full of books and no way to market or distribute them. It wasn’t a real option at all. I’d known before I could read on my own that writing was my calling, and my vision was set in stone. Write a book. Query agents. For more than two decades, that traditional order drove my life.

Then came these books, problematic and poorly written. Frustrated and desperate for something else to read, I delved into Amazon instead and grabbed the first free eBook I found. It happened to be a boxed set–the first three books of Lindsay Buroker’s Dragon Blood series. Suddenly, the vision I’d held for my fantasy books since their inception was challenged. I’d spent years reading scathing reports on the low quality of self-published books. It was one thing to independently publish quirky vampire stories; they were niche fiction that traditional publishers wouldn’t touch after the extreme genre fatigue that followed Twilight. But a broad genre like fantasy? Independent publishing wasn’t a viable option. Writer friends whose opinions I valued still said the same thing whenever it came up. One statement in particular has haunted me for years. “Self-publishing is career suicide.”

Except, suddenly, it wasn’t.

I’d researched writing, publishing, agents, the whole shebang for years. But this time I dove back in with new, more focused points of study. What are the real benefits traditional publishing still offers? What benefits does it provide that independent publishing can’t? I made lists of research points and dove in. I listened to podcasts and agent interviews. I read words from publishers and statements from successful authors on every side of the issue. I asked questions. Lots of questions. And then I sat back, looking at my color-coded conclusion spreadsheet, and had to digest everything I’d learned over the course of a year of intensive research. I saw a lot of things that surprised me.

Worst of all, the answer of which was the better choice was clear in the number of red and green boxes that fell into relatively tidy columns. After more than twenty years of believing sending dozens of queries and waiting for an agent was the only way to do this, the marks in favor of traditional publishing were like a slap in the face.

There were only two that independent publishing couldn’t offer, and both of them were matters of vanity.

Will your book be readily available in bookstores?
Is it a prestigious form of publication?

And if I’m being honest with myself, neither should matter. The important factors fell farther down the list. How long are print runs? Will I, as a new author, be expected to surrender my rights? Can poor sales damage my long-term career? Literally every other line was a point in favor of pursuing independent publication of my work. For Pete’s sake, dozens of agents warned not to get attached to your working title, because the publisher would choose the final title for your book. Do I really want to sign a contract that means I may not even get to title my own book?

Yet even with the answer right there, color-coded and accompanied with pages of detailed notes, it’s not an easy pill to swallow. The clear, black-and-white vision I’ve held for more than eighty percent of my life has been challenged, and it’s not comfortable in the least.

Logically, I know it shouldn’t make a difference. If I have a good story and I produce quality writing, I will be successful either way. No matter how my books are published, getting them in front of readers is my responsibility. There are a lot of different paths to success, and it’s becoming overwhelmingly evident that it’s better to approach traditional publishing houses from a point of leverage. Most publishers want you to, in fact; they expect authors to have established readerships before pursuing publication, and how can you build that if you don’t already have work published?

I’ll be sharing my assembled list of pros and cons in the near future, but I still need time to stew. I know I need to change my viewpoint, but after this many years, it’s hard to do. I’ve found the path. I know where it should lead. I’ve been sending queries to agents for a while. I’ve gotten partial requests, so I know it has to be good enough. But if I want to seriously consider independent publishing, I have to learn to quit the dream I’ve carried since I was a child. I might send out a few more of the queries on my list of agents, but I don’t know. Until I sort out the cognitive dissonance between what I believed and what I’ve learned, I’m still just lost in the woods.

Overton old growth forest

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